These days, cameras come in more sizes than ever, down to utterly tiny. Some people regard this as progress. Your Humble Filmosaur is not one of those people. Miniaturizing cameras – or anything else, for that matter – to the point that it impairs usability is ridiculous. Of course, things can go too far in the other direction as well. Before the Kodak- and Leica-led 35mm film revolution, cameras only came in movie-popcorn sizes: medium, large, and jumbo; there was no small. That wasn’t very good either.
When it comes to film photography, the success of 35mm as the standard format for decades through the heyday of film photography tends to suggest that it was the happy medium, the just-right size that offered the best compromise of usability and quality of results. But even within the 35mm category there was considerable variation in the size of the cameras, from tiny point-and-shoots to big, heavy SLRs. This is not to suggest that there aren’t features available in larger models that are absent from the smaller ones, but on the other hand, increasing size does not necessarily equate to increasing capability.
So what’s the ideal size for general use, if there is one? It’s always going to be a fairly personal choice to an extent, but a few basic guidelines should apply to most situations. Any camera that’s too big to carry around comfortably is fairly pointless as a daily-use choice; a camera sitting on your shelf at home tends to take pretty lousy photos. Any camera that’s too small to use instinctively, leaving you hunting for the controls while you’re missing the shot you wanted, is similarly bad; a lot of digital point-and-shoot cameras fall into this category, made worse by awful control layouts.
Beyond these fairly obvious factors, size choice comes down to what fits in your hand easily, what ergonomics work best for you, and how you tend to carry your camera. For anyone who uses older manual 35mm film cameras, the range of available sizes is not that wide. On the small end you have the Rollei 35, about as small a manual camera as you’ll find. The big end of the scale incorporates a fairly wide range of SLRs, especially those early models with integrated meters, which can be not only dimensionally large, but heavy and somewhat ungainly as well.
The photo above shows three similarly-capable cameras (excuse the rather obnoxious flash): from left to right, the Rollei 35, the FED-2 (similar in size and shape to the Barnack Leicas), and the Canon P. The latter two are interchangeable lens rangefinders, while the Rollei is a fixed-lens scale-focus viewfinder. Beyond that, however, their capabilities are pretty similar. So which one is the best size? Well, the Rollei is by far the easiest to carry (though the FED would gain additional portability with a collapsible lens), but some find the ergonomic compromises necessitated by its small size problematic (I don’t). The FED is an easy enough camera to carry, though the large knob winder slows down operation and can catch on pockets. The P is the largest of the three, mostly due to length, but also has the simplest, most modern ergonomics.
So which one is the best size? It depends. The Canon fits best in my relatively large hands; here the additional size works in its favor, making it more natural to shoot with. If I’m grabbing a camera for a photo walk or to shoot a specific place or event, the P will likely get the first call. The FED isn’t a bad choice either; it fits my hand well, but the slightly smaller size doesn’t offset the better ergonomics of the Canon. I certainly won’t hesitate to use the FED when the mood strikes, but size is not a major factor in that decision one way or the other; if it was my only camera I’d have no problem with its size, especially if I mounted a collapsible lens. But the Rollei is without question the first choice when I want a film camera with me but don’t want to be burdened by holding it in my hand or carrying a bag all the time. At those times, size definitely matters.
But what about when you go beyond the classic rangefinder design to include other types of cameras: SLRs and even (gasp!) digitals? Compared to the moderately-sized FED-2, the Pentax SFX is a veritable monster, even with the modest kit zoom. Sure, you could mount a smaller lens, but that doesn’t really get you anything; it would still be a big camera. There’s no way to carry it that you’re not going to notice it. It’s plenty capable, and the lens options available on an SLR make it a better choice than any of the other cameras if you want lots of lenses, especially long ones (or any zooms). But the size is always something to be compensated for; it’s just too big to be readily portable on a regular basis. The G12 is a bit smaller than the FED, actually approaching the Rollei in size, though considerably larger than most compact digitals. It’s hugely capable, like most modern digital cameras, but more importantly it has exposure controls that are actually usable. Shooting it in full manual mode is not the exercise in frustration it is with most non-DSLR digitals. Some complain the G12 is too big to be easily carried, but clearly everything is relative: it’s about the same size as the Rollei 35, a camera considered almost unbelievably tiny in its time.
So what does all this mean? Well, there is no perfect size for a camera, but size still matters. Some cameras are clearly too big for some situations; carrying a full-size SLR when you’re going out to a formal dinner is just not a good fit. Some cameras are too small to be easily used, but this afflicts digital compacts moreso than film cameras. The size of the 35mm film cartridge and the 24 x 36mm frame mandates a certain size, and even the smallest manual 35mm cameras are still pretty usable, at least from a size standpoint (bad design decisions are another matter).
Clearly, everything is a compromise. In the end, the camera that offers at least the minimum desired capability to the user for a given situation without being obtrusive is the right size. With that many variables, it should be obvious that no one camera is going to be perfect. You can see where this is going: if no one camera is the perfect size for every situation, the only answer is more cameras. Uh oh….