From camera design to PWAs – using restrictions creatively

by Agata Urbaniak

It’s easy to shake one’s fist and say how kids nowadays have it too easy, that in our time we *insert ridiculously exaggerated statement here* or *make claim based on false memories*. I too tend to indulge in this kind of fist-shaking every once in a while, but it’s important to remember that it’s true for most generations. This is, of course, a gross generalisation from the point of view of someone growing up in Europe in time of peace. This progress will continue, unless “Hothouse Earth” becomes the reality. But then we’re all doomed and we’ll have a whole different set of concerns than people forgetting to Instagram their food before tucking into it.

The fact is, having it easy makes you less creative. Technology evolves to make our lives easier and more comfortable, but this in turn runs a risk of making us less creative. However, humans – being the lazy creatures that we are – will always find new and exciting ways of making it even easier. And there will always be factors that will boost that creativity. Apparently, living in a harsh climate makes one more likely to be creative. Also, counter-intuitively, early birds tend to be more creative in the evening, and night owls – in the morning. That right amount of discomfort or stress can make a difference. But to truly appreciate how easy we have it, we need to look back.

Enter George R. Lawrence

Cameras are the thing that excites me the most in life. And what annoys me the most in the discussion around cameras is the push for convenience in a time when photography has never been easier. Not just that, but also the unrealistic expectations of wanting to have everything but in a small convenient package. Ideally one that will fit in your pocket. And will come with Facebook and Pokemon Go. “The best camera is the one you have with you”, people love to repeat in online threads, which of course is a truism. However, the underlying sentiment is “It’s ridiculous to carry a standalone camera; the only option of a camera to always have with you is the one included in your smartphone”. I strongly object to this because that suggests one doesn’t have a choice in the matter. And I like to have choices.

George R. Lawrence was a camera designer, engineer, and inventor from the late 19th and early 20th century. In the year 1900 he was commissioned by the Chicago & Alton Railway to build a camera capable of taking a photo of a train. Easier said than done in those times. It resulted in what is now known as the Mammoth, the largest camera ever built at the time.

More info on Wikipedia

It was able to hold an 8×4.5′ photo plate. Yes, that’s dimensions in feet, not inches. The camera weighed 900 lbs and required 15 men to load it into the van and to later carry it a quarter of a mile to a location in a field where it was going to be used. It produced the following image.

Credit: George R. Lawrence

Those were some properly difficult times to be a photographer. Possibly even more remarkable is the image below, the aerial panorama of San Francisco, from the same author, produced 6 years later.

It was taken with a 40 pound panoramic camera that was hung from a series of kites. YES, KITES. The shutter was released by means of an electrical current sent up a piece of piano wire to the camera. It registered the image on a plate measuring 17×48”. This was an extraordinary achievement under the restrictions back then and even today drone cameras can’t approach this level of detail.

Obviously, not all cameras were this large at the time. Smaller cameras have been commercially available to the general public for a while back then, but they were still quite bulky, awkward, and difficult to use. Easy enough for photographers, but not that suitable for holiday snaps of the family.

Enter Oskar Barnack

Oskar Barnack was a German inventor and photographer who’s credited with building the first 35mm stills camera. This is not exactly true as there was a handful of stills cameras built that used the 135 film format (mostly used for motion pictures back then) before his Ur-Leica, however producing the first commercially-available 35mm camera can definitely be attributed to him. As well as revolutionising the camera industry for decades to come and inspiring future camera designers. Things got a whole lot easier.

His aim was to make cameras smaller and more compact while not compromising their functionality, and manufacture them to the highest build quality. The magnitude of his influence is such that, to this day, the best camera ever made is considered to be the Leica M3 released in 1954. Also, even today in the digital era, with all the advancements made in the field of electronics, optics, materials used, etc full-frame cameras are still larger than the M3. This is due to the fact that the M3 has everything that’s essential to taking an image, but not much else. Cameras nowadays pack a lot more than means of framing, controlling exposure, focusing on a subject, and storing the image. The public expects that and is very vocal when they feel something’s been left out. Just recently, they kicked up quite a fuss when it’s been revealed that the long-awaited Nikon full-frame mirrorless camera will only offer a single memory card slot. And to think that Leica has almost been brought down by the release of the M5, their first camera featuring in-body exposure meter, which was met with poor reception because it was made a bit larger and had a different look to the previous Ms. Although, one could argue the “we don’t need this” attitude to camera specs is just the other side of the “we must have this” coin.

It takes a very determined, strong-minded designer with a very clear vision to dictate what a camera should be as opposed to giving into what the public demand. The famous quote from Henry Ford, the father of the automotive industry, goes: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” – the public can only really comment on what they already know, but it’s up to the designer to push the design beyond what’s already established norm.

Enter Yoshihisa Maitani

In the 1950s, Yoshihisa Maitani was studying automotive engineering in Tokyo, but in his spare time his passion was photography and his camera of choice was the Leica IIIf. He even designed and patented his own camera at one point. When Eiichi Sakurai, the designer of the first Olympus camera, came across his patent, he immediately offered him a job at Olympus. In those days, if a graduate turned down the first job offer he received, he’d basically be regarded as a disgrace to his university. The thing was, he was already offered a position with an automotive company, which he pretended he didn’t receive because he preferred to work at Olympus.

After 2 years of being rotated to different departments of an Olympus factory, he was returned to the design department and given the assignment of “designing something”. He set out with two criteria in mind – to create a camera that was smaller than the Leica IIIf, as well as cost a quarter of the price of the then cheapest Olympus camera in production. The result – a half-frame fixed-lens Olympus Pen, which proved to be a massive success for the company and its legacy continues to this day in the form of the m4/3 digital Olympus Pen cameras.

His next big project was a full-frame 35mm SLR camera, Olympus OM-1. And again very strict criterium to be achieved – the body needed to be 20% smaller in both length and height, as well as a whopping 50% lighter, than the then current Nikon SLR body. 4 years were spent basically shaving millimetres off the design and in the end the body was a mere 1mm wider than what was originally intended. The footprint of this camera can also be seen in today’s Olympus OM-D line.

While still doing his rotation at the factory, Maitani once witnessed a curious incident: a naked man ran out of a spa bath house because his truck, that was parked outside, caught on fire. Definitely a picture-worthy moment. Nobody took a photo of this because “who brings a camera to a spa”. When Maitani was already in charge of his own department, he instructed his team of 10 to come up with a camera design that would further push the envelope in terms of size and operation. A camera that would always be with you regardless of circumstances. A year and 100 proposals later, he decided to do it himself.

The resulting Olympus XA released in 1979 is still, to this day, the smallest rangefinder camera ever made, as well as one of the most compact full-frame cameras. But, unlike most other rangefinders, it was very affordable and nowadays can be had for less than £50 in working order. While German engineers focused on build quality, creating mechanical wonders at luxury goods prices, such as the already mentioned Leica M3, Rollei 35 (designed by Heinz Waaske, smallest 35mm camera featuring a mechanically controlled shutter), Minox B (subminiature camera used by spies in the Cold War era created by Walter Zapp), among others, Maitani focussed on affordability as much as the compactness and quality of design and optics. Concessions had to be made, but trading image quality for price was never something that he was willing to do.

And Now for Something Completely Different

It might be a bit of a stretch to now tie all of this into the problems facing modern web designers, but bear with me. Many view it as pointless to have a standalone camera if you have a perfectly adequate one built into your phone, and the same fate will fall upon computers, including the more portable laptops and netbooks. There will be more and more people who don’t see a point of buying a computer but who will, nonetheless, demand that their smartphones allow them everything that they’d normally do on a more powerful machine. And web designers and developers need to accommodate those demands, despite being the sort of people who can’t imagine ever living without a computer.

Responsive web is the norm nowadays, but those who want to push the envelope further turn to PWAs – progressive web apps. It’s all about providing a better, more intuitive web experience on a small screen. Utilising the advantages that mobile devices have over computers while avoiding the pitfalls of making the experience cluttered and error-prone. If you think there are none, just think of the last time you bought something on Ebay while having a lie-in on a Sunday morning. One must approach the task of adapting their web experience to the mobile screen with a clear vision of what the scope needs to be, in order to not deprive the user of certain functions, but also to strip off the non-essentials. This is particularly important considering Google is already indexing a lot of the web in mobile mode, meaning it will only see what is available to a mobile user, and assume everything else isn’t important. There are restrictions and you can’t have everything, but you can let the restrictions play to your advantage.

Cover image credit: Alexander Andrews

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