The Ricoh GXR is the latest mirror-less camera to enter the small-camera/large sensor market. In a truly unique move, the GXR allows the user to swap out the lens and the sensor. This theoretically allows Ricoh to better match the lens to the sensor. The customer purchases the camera and then he or she can choose which lens/sensor combos to create the camera that best suits the task at hand. Thus, the same camera can have a large sensor and fast, fixed lens for shallow DOF shots and good low-light performance, or it can have a small sensor and slow zoom lens for a versatile, easily pocket-able package. Actually, those are the only two current options until enough people buy into the system for Ricoh to safely expand to more modules. Non-imaging modules could also be sold such as a miniature portable printer that could turn the camera into a modern Polaroid. The biggest drawback to this system is the high price of each module and the limited number of components. Kudos to Ricoh for trying something radically different.
But… how different is that idea? Minolta, who never seemed afraid to innovate, sold a similar camera 12 years ago called the Dimage EX 1500. The sensor and lens were detachable just like the GXR, except in the Minolta’s case, the sensor was a 1.5 megapixel CCD for both available modules. The modules available were a 28mm (equivalent) fixed lens or a 38-105mm zoom lens. Minolta planned on the camera being future proof, by allowing upgrades to future higher resolution modules. I think the Dimage 1500 body would have struggled processing the 12+ megapixel images that are common today. That seems like the biggest difference between releasing a replaceable sensor camera 12 years ago versus today. The megapixel race has slowed (and hopefully almost stopped), so processing requirements will not change as quickly as they were at the turn of the century.
The Dimage 1500 had another cool feature: an implementation of the Digita scripting language, which allowed the user to program their camera and customize its functionality. It sounds like it was too limited to do anything too mindblowing. Look at some of the things apps for the iPhone camera can accomplish for an idea of how useful it would be to be able to program your camera (or download things others have programmed). Brave Canon users can use the Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK) to do this, but it is unsupported by Canon. Any kind of programming language or scripting implemented on a camera could potentially kill the usability, but couldn’t manufacturers supply an optional download with customization options? Don’t hold your breath. Read here if you’re interested in the DPReview article about the Dimage 1500.
Between micro 4/3, the GXR, and several other mirrorless cameras being introduced within the year, we are at an exciting time for digital photography. In 1998, digital photography was still playing catch-up with film, but now digital has begun to reach a point of sufficiency in image quality. That means that camera manufacturers can focus on improving handling, size, low-light performance, etc. Exciting.