Here's a vivid reinterpretation of the essence of cameras, the NEX-5 and NEX-3. Pick one up, and you're sure to agree—you'll feel feel it in the comfortable grip, sense of exceptional quality, and user-friendly usability. They're a crystallization of the designers' originality and passion in pursuit of ideal cameras.
Takahashi: For some time, we've sensed latent needs in the camera market, seeing how some people are unsatisfied with the creative power of compacts but put off by the bulkiness of digital SLRs. The perfect solution would be a smaller camera with superb image quality, and this is what mirrorless DSLRs offer. Early on, our a (alpha) designers were eager to develop mirrorless DSLRs. They invited our product managers to cultivate a new market, different from traditional DSLR and compact cameras.
Just how small can you make cameras, without the mirror structure inside? To find out, we created some mock-ups as the project we had been excited about finally got underway.
Niitsu: But Sony was a latecomer to this new category of interchangeable-lens DSLRs. No matter how we promoted innovation, we would quickly find ourselves in a flooded market where it would be difficult to make a splash. To avoid this, we needed to make a bold statement in design.
What exactly should our message be? I suggested that we focus on what's essential. Superficial approaches—shrinking a DSLR, or disguising the body with compact camera styling—might catch people's attention for a while, but they would get stale fast. Instead, we needed to reexamine what makes cameras feel like cameras. Keep these essential traits, and our new cameras would have enduring appeal. Traits that build a bond of affection that never fades, enticing you to take shots. That's the essence of cameras, in my opinion, and it's what I thought we must emphasize above all else.
The essence of cameras is what's left after you break down functions to a minimum. One basic element is the lens. The cylindrical shape has endured for decades and is unlikely to change. Another is the LCD panel. On digital cameras, this part is indispensable in viewing images and controlling the camera. Our task was to recombine the two elements of cylinder and panel in a way that retained the true essence of cameras while conveying an unmatched sense of Sony innovation.
Takagi: Under Takuya's direction, I contributed to NEX-5 design. The first thing you notice is how the lens dominates the body, but this is only because we reduced the body to a bare minimum. When you combine high-quality lenses with a compact body, this is the DSLR shape you inevitably end up with.
But in the process of settling on this shape, I'll admit I had mixed feelings. The universal, iconic camera image is a round lens centered on a larger rectangular body. Defying this image is like attempting to redefine what cameras are. Although I knew this was ultimately our goal, it wasn't easy to accept.
One day when I was feeling uninspired, I was paging through a camera magazine when I suddenly noticed how lenses seem to dominate the body in perspective drawings of cameras. I had been preoccupied with how small the LCD panel looks, compared to the E-mount for lenses. But my sudden observation reassured me it's only natural that lenses extend beyond the body height a little, and it's certainly an iconic image. That was my flash of inspiration for the basic shape of the NEX-5.
With a body this compact, though, we had to ensure a secure grip. Expecting the camera to be held in all fingers would be unrealistic. Before you press the shutter button, your little finger is inevitably off the grip. On the other hand, when you hold an umbrella or a pair of opera glasses, you find yourself wanting to support the shaft with your little finger. We know intuitively that this way of holding the object requires less effort and causes less fatigue. So why not design the grip to lead your little finger to support the camera? That's exactly why the NEX-5 grip extends lower than the body. With the body shape we chose, your little finger follows the curved grip and naturally curls under the body, satisfying a subconscious desire to support the camera. At the same time, it makes large lenses less unwieldy. Now you know why dominant lenses and a protruding grip are not simply a matter of aesthetics but an extension of usability and performance.
Takagi: The NEX-5 has a flange focal distance of 18 mm. Accounting for the image sensor and LCD panel, the body should be more than 20 mm thick. Although that would certainly be slim enough for a DSLR, I was unwilling to accept it, because I wanted the body to look like a single, slim panel.
After reviewing how internal components are organized, I found that the only issue to overcome was the optics. There's no need to make the entire body a uniform thickness to match the thickest part. Take a different perspective—by allowing the mount to extend from the body—and we could make the rest of the body slimmer. All we had to do was make the mount ring look like a part of the lenses you attach. It looks interesting when you switch lenses, because the lens seems to be divided in two, with some left on the mount.