Oskar Barnack’s Digital Heritage

Oskar Barnack was a pioneer in photographic history. Back in 1914 he had the courage to think differently and constructed a small camera which used cine film: the Leica. He doubled the image format from 18×24 to 24×36 mm, and accordingly the horizontally positioned film made images in landscape orientation – except when the camera was turned.

Reportedly, Barnack judged the 2.3 aspect ratio to be harmonic. I do not like it, but I do not mind if others do. However, I ask myself: why do I have to live with this format as soon as I pick a camera with a sensor larger than four thirds? For sure, I can also invest a lot of money and buy a medium format camera. But why do I have to spend a lot of money and carry heavy equipment as soon as I do not want to take 2:3 images? Very simple: because it was always that way since Oskar Barnack’s Leica.

But this is not the only point. I ask myself also: why do I have to turn my camera for 90 % of my images so that I can not hold it comfortably? Or buy a bulky vertical grip to make it halfway comfortable? Plus an L-grip in order to attach it reasonably easy on a tripod? The camera makers are well aware that it does not have to be that way. Already in the early days of photography plate cameras had backs which could be attached for landscape or portrait orientation, and manufacturers of medium format cameras had some thoughts about it. The cassettes of the Mamiya RB/RZ 67 and of the Fuji GX680 could be rotated. Both manufacturers forgot this when they made digital medium format cameras. Neither the Mamiya AFD not the Fuji GX645 (aka: Hasselblad H) or even the fairly new Fuji GFX-50 have rotateable backs. Strangely, even the digital back for the classical square Hasselblad 500C was arranged for horizontal rectangular pictures. If you tried to work with a focusing hood with a camera turned to vertical, you will know this is a good way for photographic adventures. All this would be easily solved if the rectangular sensors would be replaced by a round sensor.

My Dream
My Dream - a camera with a round sensor

This sensor with a diameter of 28 mm covers the image circle of APS-C lenses completely. For rectangular images, part of the sensor will not be used, but it has the benefit to use different aspect ratios and orientations in a variable manner.

(Deutsch) runder-sensor-bildformate
Round sensor with various image formats

I expect to hear: throwing away pixels? Never! But honestly, we have more than enough of those. And whenever I want to have a 4:3 image or a square from my full frame or APS-C camera, the recommendation is to cut the rest away or – if possible – to tell the camera to do that. Those pixels are also gone, and part of what the lens could do as well. Even Hasselblad recommends this for square images with the CSV-50. What remains is a cropped image which is hardly larger than a full frame sensor, and the famous Biogon 38 mm superwide will not even correspond to a standard wide angle.

Would it not be much preferrable to have a digital camera which can be set to 2:3, 3:4, 4:5, square or whatever by just pressing a button? If a press of a button or or even a decision during post processing defines landscape or portrait orientation? If the wide angle remains a wide angle even if your shoot square? If the camera adjusts the horizon itself rather then telling you to hold it upright?

(Deutsch) runder-sensor-hochformat
Aligned portrait orientation with slightly tilted horizontal camera

A rould sensor has the reserve to do all this, wheras conventional sensors have not. It costs a little more, but not much: you only have to consider the price differences between APS-C and full frame cameras with similar build quality. The additional cost is already today probably less than the cost of a hand grip. Other than in earlier years of digital photography it is the lenses which determine the cost of a system. It is sensible, therefore, to make best use of them.

Objektiv mit Ausschnittbegrenzung
Lens with baffles

When looking at the construction of current lenses you will see that the baffles of some lenses will not allow for larger sensors. Put in a different way: even though all this is quite obvious, it is not even in the thinking of camera makers. Surprised by this? Even  recognizing that a mirror and a prism are not necessary took years for the the established camera makers. It has also to do with the customers who still assume that a good camera must correspond to a 35 mm single lens reflex. I am quite sure: Oskar Barnak would have done it differently. As it is, it will remain a dream for the time to come.

Anna - Leica M
Anna - photograph with Leica M3 on Ilford HP-5

I forgive my M3 that I have to turn it for taking portraits. I usually hold it in a way that I press the shutter with my thumb.

This contribution was originally posted 2015 on the previous version of my homepage. At the Photokina 2018 the established manufacturers tried to recover lost ground by doing the same as their strongest competitor does. More pixels, faster AF, better stabilizer, and now even no mirror – that’s all they think about. Gaining ground is a matter of bold moves like that of Oskar Barnack back in 1914. But everybody sees only what he did, not what he would do today. My dream camera has the model name 2032 for good reason.