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The camera construction thread

Discussion in 'General Equipment Chat & Advice' started by Benchista, Jul 5, 2013.

  1. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler


    I thought it might be a good idea to have a specific thread for discussion of camera construction and materials so as to avoid hijacking other threads with the topic... So here's a thread for facts, opinions, whatever.

    There are many misconceptions in and around photography, most of which have been spread since the dawn of the internet, but many of which are also spread by photographic journalists who aren't necessarily experts in particular fields that perhaps only touch photography tangentially. One of the main such misconceptions lies in the field of materials for camera construction, and the associated but separate area of build quality. The commonly-held view by those ignorant in the field of materials science and technology is that metal is somehow inherently better than "plastic" in every case, and that "plastic" is just cheap and nasty. As with most misconceptions, there's some truth in it, but it's far from a universal truth.


    We tend to use the word indiscriminately to describe any polymer-based alternative material, but the reality is that we're talking about a whole spectrum of materials from ones that are indeed cheap and nasty through to some of the most sophisticated and high-tech composite materials available. Many of these materials have been developed to have specific characteristics that make them stronger and more suitable than "metal" alternatives; applications include aircraft and car body parts, and some of the more familiar materials include carbon fibre and kevlar. Even tank armour is a composite material these days, albeit using ceramics: it's used because it's much stronger than steel. One of the big advantages of these materials is that they don't deform plastically, i.e. they don't dent; typically, they can absorb large stresses without failing.


    Actually, we tend to use this word pretty generically too to cover a multitude of materials and construction methods. Historically, the outer skin of cameras was often chromed or painted brass, which often looks lovely when worn. This is a material which deforms plastically, and many older cameras bear several dents as battle scars. In some cases, these dents can be the sign of the material having failed to do its job of protecting internal components, but in most cases, they're purely cosmetic. Many late 70s-early 80s SLRs used topplates of not much more than metal foil - these provided very little protection, but the reality is that very many of these cameras have survived regardless. Finally, we have modern magnesium alloy castings. These don't deform plastically, but can fracture - in fact their properties are very similar to several engineering polymers and composite materials. Their one theoretical advantage is that they will survive very high temperatures better, but these sort of temperatures will be outside the working temperature of the rest of the camera anyway.


    This is of course a highly subjective area, but it's probably fair to say that people don't like "plastic-looking" or "plasticky" cameras, and prefer the feel of metal. I can't much disagree with them. That said, it can actually be pretty hard to tell them apart either by look or touch in some cases.

    Popular opinion and marketing

    We tend to associate "plastics" with low-end products, and "metal" with high-end ones for cultural and historical reasons, and in part at least because it's often true that these are the materials used.
    At the low end of the market, it's undeniable that "plastics" are used because they're cheap and do an adequate job. At the top end, the reality is that engineering polymers and composite materials can do at least as good a job, sometimes better, but the best materials are not necessarily cheap, and the manufacturers have to battle the resistance of the market - the lack of knowledge in the area, and also the issue of tactility.

    Build Quality

    Many people appear to equate build quality with weight, or the use or otherwise of metal. This isn't a very good way of looking at it: build quality is really an issue of the selection of appropriate materials to protect the delicate innards of the camera, and the way it's put together and smoothness of operation.

    A few case studies

    A few thoughts based on several cameras I've owned or have knowledge of:

    Canon EOS 100 (and 1000) and Nikon FM2n - in the early 1990s, I finally had the funds available to buy a decent camera. I had been planning on an OM4 Ti, but prices doubled pretty much overnight. I would've loved a Contax, but they were similarly out of reach. My choice came down to an FM2n or an AF camera, either a Minolta, Nikon or Canon. I didn't like the Minolta and the F601's AF was frankly risible. The EOS 100 was fantastic in terms of AF, very quiet but didn't appear to be brilliantly well-made -the materials used and build were OK but not great. The FM2n was very solid, but it didn't really feel all that well made - more agricultural than a precision instrument, certainly not as nice as the OM I had had my eye on, and nothing like a Contax.
    20-odd years later I still have that camera, and it still works perfectly. It has been used in temperate and tropical rain forests, in deserts, and in snow and ice; it's been knocked and bashed on walks and scrambles all over the place. It's been dropped, soaked - you name it, it has been through it - and survived. A few months later, I was going to buy my wife a 1000, but when we looked at it, we thought the build quality was terrible - creaky panels and thinner plastic. So I got her a 100 instead. That has had a similar life to mine, and still works. It did have to have one repair - we were running full tilt over a stone bridge near Rosslyn Chapel when the neck strap failed (user error) and the camera went flying through the air before bouncing several times. Although the camera was scraped, the only issue was that the click stops on the mode dial failed, and had to be repaired. That camera too is still working now. These cameras are clearly a lot more robust than might be expected, and are as smooth in operation as the day they were born. Some years ago, I bought a s/h FM2n, and it reinforced my earlier feelings - I actually hated it, and sold it. (Incidentally, I loved my FE and really wish I hadn't sold that.)

    Canon EOS 3

    There was quite a fuss when this camera appeared - why wasn't it made of metal, people were asking on nascent photographic forums? Well one reason was that it replaced the EOS 5, which was also plastic - but the 3 is very much better made than the 5, which is frankly a bit ropey. Again, this camera has well and truly stood the test of time - in fact mine is in a much better condition than my magnesium alloy bodied EOS 1v despite having had a lot more use.

    EOS 60D

    By the time this camera was launched, the anti-plastic lobby was quite rabid, and couldn't understand why Canon would choose to make it plastic rather than metal. None of them had ever picked one up, of course, and thus had failed on the realisation that it's actually a very well-made camera that's a touch lighter and better waterproofed as a result of the choice of material.

    EOS 6D

    Another camera criticed primarily by those who have never used one, the 6D eschews a metal top-plate to allow GPS reception and WiFi transmission. It also shaves a few grammes off the weight. However, the camera feels no less substantial as a result - it's a very well-made machine.

    So which is best?

    For cheap cameras, costs are clearly kept down by using cheaper materials. The reality is that these are almost certainly tough enough for the vast majority of people.

    For mid to high range cameras, better materials are appropriate. There's very little in it in terms of material performance between magnesium alloy and the better polymers and composites - in fact high-end composites are probably the best materials in terms of properties, but the reality is that any of these materials will take pretty much whatever you throw at them - or indeed pretty much anything you throw them at. The reason why metal predominates is down to the tactile properties, and the fact that people's perception is that metal is better. It doesn't really matter that it's not true, and the gains in changing material type aren't really significant enough to try to re-educate people. At the end of the day, preference outweighs any marginal gain in strength, weight or cost reduction.
    steveandthedogs likes this.
  2. RogerMac

    RogerMac Well-Known Member

    Interesting thread - perhaps it should be made a sticky

  3. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler

    Done, thanks, Roger.
  4. Zou

    Zou Well-Known Member

    Good summary there Nick. Another material is of course wood, which is used in most large format cameras. Whilst I would love the aesthetic properties of a walnut camera, I'd take one of Mike Walker's ABS plastic Titans for use in the field. Much less fear of something going amiss regardless of moisture level/humidity etc. For studio/indoor usage that becomes less of an issue. My Zero 45 is a beautiful handmade wooden camera, but I sometimes worry about damaging it so it doesn't get as much use as it deserves. On the other hand my plastic Holgas can be used in almost any conditions without fear of what might happen - nothing a roll of tape can't fix!

    Once again it comes down to being able to make informed choices and not a basic assumption that more expensive in somehow inherently 'better' - and of course a recognition that each of us has our own needs and preferences.
  5. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler

    I had intended to include wood, sorry - albeit to say that true traditionalists would thumb their noses at metal and insist on cherrywood or mahogany. ;)

    I'll knock up something more appropriate and edit it into the original thread at some point over the weekend.
  6. Craig20264

    Craig20264 Well-Known Member

    A well put together piece.
    The crux of the issue, the fact that plastics and metals both have a place in camera and lens construction. They both have their own set of advantages and disadvantages, and its very much a personal preference, rather than a this is better than that decision.
  7. velocette

    velocette Well-Known Member

    I do think that it's about time we shed our presumption that metal, in some form or other is the superior material for camera bodies. The biggest failing, so far, of my G1X is it's weight it's just too heavy for a relatively small camera in todays world. Many years ago I had a Minox 35 one of the first higher end compacts with 'plastic' bodies. It was nearly a good camera but suffered from light ingress through the body material which caused it to be replaced with a 35RD Olympus. Modern materials have no such problems and I'm all in favour with the replacement of metal by superior alternatives. I think much of the resistance to this is with ourselves in still equating metal as the 'expensive' option.
  8. GeoffR

    GeoffR Well-Known Member

    Metals have their place, the MacBook Air just wouldn't be possible with composites, yet! On the other hand, I suggest that the average passenger will not be able to tell that the 787 is largely composite structure. I have said before that I would be happy to buy a high-end DSLR with a composite body, the reduction in weight would be significant but the price might go up.

    What is unfortunate is that many products were manufactured from unsuitable thermoplastics that weren't up to the job giving plastics the bad name that some of our number seem unable to forget. I think 1970s and 80s car interiors are a good example of that. Substitution of more appropriate materials in recent years should have demonstrated that alternative materials can be just as good as, if not better than, metals in many applications.
  9. alanS

    alanS Well-Known Member

    I think I've said this here before...

    Over thirty years ago I was fixing industrial equipment made of "plastic" and you could sit and hit it with a hammer all day long and not hurt it, not that I tried but I did see this kit survive being run over by a truck more than once, try that with your lovely magnesium chassis.

    Just as with many products what some people and even reviewers have is a perception of quality based on rather bizarre notions. I suppose a good analogy would be to think of lovely Italian leather brake pads. The leather may be top notch and the hand stitching may be to die for and you probably will when you try to brake from 70mph and the leather shreds.

    There are many different types of "plastic" and metal and IMVHO rather than propagating prejudices based on nothing what we should be thinking about is what is the best material for the job.
  10. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath


    One of Jeff Griffin's favourite tricks on the Leica reflex course was to take a bare top plate for a R4 off the table, chuck it on the floor and then stand on it, balancing with his other foot off the ground. :)
  11. Learning

    Learning Ethelred the Ill-Named

    Let's not forget wear characteristics. A polished hard material can move against a much softer material without lubricant and without much wear to either. An extreme example of this is when a diamond stylus traverses a clean groove in an LP.
  12. RogerMac

    RogerMac Well-Known Member

    As this thread has been reopened I will throw in my 2 predictions.

    1. There will never be another serious camera with a metal top plate again. Why? to allow geo-tagging in camera

    2. Within a very short time-scale ALL wildlife competitions and news agencies will demand that all submitted images be geo-tagged

  13. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath

    Leica R10s ...

    Probably there are a lot of folk with a bag of lenses that would like one that wasn't as big and as ugly as the R8 & R9! ;)

    Actually, GPS/geo-tagging is a facility that I would value in a camera.
  14. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath

    One material not yet considered on this Thread is glass. Once upon a time ;) it was essential for several components in cameras, especially SLRs, and in lenses.

    This is no longer the case and all-'plastic' cameras have been available for many years. Some of them have been incredible performers - for what they were - at very low cost but with some downsides.
  15. stormbringer

    stormbringer Active Member

    I think the press who review these cameras have a lot to answer for, as most seem to say not metal can't be a s good /tough ,what do they think we do with our cameras?
    I'm not fussed if my D600 has a top and rear made of metal ,I'd rarther have the focus points spread out more .
  16. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Well-Known Member

    Leicas aren't serious?


    William Parker and CollieSlave like this.
  17. RogerMac

    RogerMac Well-Known Member

    Of course Leicas are serious cameras but are you suggesting that they will not want to add geo-tagging to future models? I would have thought that it was just the sort of feature that would appeal to their specialist customers, as it is particularly useful for street photography. I only suggested that the top plate would be replaced by a composite material

  18. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Well-Known Member

    Dear Roger,

    Hmmmm... Not sure. First, Leica users tend to be a bit traditionalist; second, I'm considerably less than convinced that geo-tagging is any use for street photography; third, the only way Leica could add it and keep their customers is if it added nothing to the bulk of the cameras; fourth, although CNC milling from billet (the current approach) is expensive, it's probably cheaper than making the tools for small, complex composite mouldings for limited-production cameras. It's also a lot easier to make variations e.g. bringing back the viewfinder illumination window in the next M.


  19. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Well-Known Member

    Another thought here is that some years ago I was talking to a manufacturer of high-end cameras -- I forget which one -- and they said that something they'd been thinking about was making cameras that aged gracefully, like old black-paint-and-brass Leicas and Nikons, rather than just looking shabby.


  20. Footloose

    Footloose Well-Known Member

    Having owned a Minolta Dynax 9 which has a stainless steel body, whilst it's built like the proverbial 'brick latrine', there are couple of things about it relating to another part of the construction of cameras, which is their ergonomics. In this particular instance, I would cite the design of the camera's on-off switch and that of it's DOF button, (which like many other cameras) does not protrude enough above the surface of the body and is not a 'push on, push off' type button.

    Regarding plastics, sometimes they can look exceedingly 'flimsy' when in fact they are far from that. I cite the hinge on Kodak and most other cheap cameras, which looks as if it could be torn off, or eventually break from fatigue, when I suspect very few people ever had a problem with it. As for the reference to glass being 'hard', some optical glass certainly isn't, elements made of Flourite glass, being a prime example.

    I would say that the ergonomics of a camera, probably play a much bigger part in what cameras people prefer/enjoy using, and it's possible to cite a small number of cameras, which set the mould for those which followed them, very much like the somewhat dismissed Austin 7, set out the de-facto position for controls on cars, and without it's manufacture under licence in other countries, we now have the BMW, Jaguar, Holden, Jensen and Datsun.

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