Build quality

WHAT a photographer wants in a camera is a very personal affair, but the marketing executives of the big camera companies pick out their ‘unique selling propositions’ from amongst those attributes that they think will have a broad appeal to the photographic community For a camera, megapixels, as a proxy for detail and resolution is one such attribute. Noise, as a proxy for ‘image quality’ is another Speed, both related to frame rate and focus performance gives another hook on which marketing people can hang their hat. More recently, more esoteric concerns such as dynamic range and colour gamut have become more prominent However, since I have been interested in cameras, which is longer than I care now to admit to, there has been one ‘USP’ which seems to count for more than any other, one which can justify the doubling or more of the price of a camera but which is elusive in terms of any hard definition. That unique selling proposition is ‘build quality’. In this article, I’ll try to pin down what ‘build quality’ means and what the practical consequences are of owning equipment with different levels of this attribute. THE COMPONENTS OF BUILD QUALITY

There is no hard and fast definition of build quality. It is a term that features frequently in equipment reviews and in discussions on online forums. Studying those sources, I would pick out a number of matters that seem to be involved in the discussions, and are therefore presumably components of ‘build quality’. They are, in no particular order, design, fit and finish, choice of materials, environmental protection and mechanical robustness. The remainder of this article will examine each of these components individually.

DESIGN

Many (maybe most) assessments of build quality are largely subjective, and it is such subjective factors that industrial designers manipulate when they produce a concept. There seems to be an assumption that engineers are responsible for the way a camera looks, but more usually it will be an industrial designer, who will very probably have trained in an Art and Design school, as opposed to an Engineering one. So, for instance, Nikon DSLR’s are designed las in ‘styled’) by the Italian design house Giugiaro.

To those familiar with industrial design values (I am a little, having spent six years working in a school of Art and Design), the care taken in defining and using subtle design themes from generation to generation is obvious. A D4 clearly resembles a D3, but many of the design details are very different — for instance, the flat lower edge to the prism, the bevel around the top of the body — details carried through the whole D4 generation.

More subtle are the intentional differences between the top-end ‘professional’ models and the lower-end ‘consumer’ models. In Figure 1, comparing the top-of-the-line D4 and entry-level D5200, the use of less busy detailing and more subtle forms on the D4, along with the additional controls and connectors on the D4, lend it a higher-class, more ‘professional’ look. The D5200 is more obviously ‘styled’ (though in reality, both are equally ‘styled’) as might befit a consumer camera. Along with detail differences in the choice of the switches and buttons (for instance, the choice of ‘press and set’ to control the mode on the D4, as opposed to an arguably superior and easy-to-use mode dial on the D5200) and ‘delight factors’, such as illuminated controls on the D4, all add to the impression of a higher-quality product.

FIT AND FINISH

I’ve borrowed the term ‘fit and finish’ from the auto industry. ‘Fit’ refers to how closely the components fit together — finish refers to the perceived quality of the surface finish of the visible components. Before computer-aided design and precision moulding and casting, this was a real issue. To make pressed metal parts fit precisely together required iterative refinement of the tooling, which was expensive. Plating and painting processes weren’t precisely controlled, relying more on nous and know-how, so fit and finish was a real indicator of the investment in tooling and craftsmanship.

Today, volume manufactured products are produced using moulding and casting plant precisely controlled by computer. Computer-aided design allows the production of moulds and dies such that the differential thermal shrinkage that happens as the part cools is pre-compensated, and the part finishes with the net shape intended by the designer As a result, poor fit is a sign of incompetence, rather than a good fit being a sign of quality. The fit and finish of all modern branded photographic equipment is superb by the standards of earlier times.

MATERIAL CHOICE

The choice of material is seen by some as the primary determinant of ‘quality’. Top-end products are made in ‘metal’, lower-end ones in ‘plastic’. But things aren’t that simple: all cameras are made of a combination of metallic materials and polymers.

The most important structural component in a camera is the part that locates the lens with respect to the sensor — in a SLR, the mirror box. In the vast majority of cameras this part is made of plastic — actually a composite — carbon or glass fibres in a thermoplastic matrix. The reason for this is simple, the part has to be very accurately constructed, and plastic moulding allows great precision to be achieved in mass production. Making the part in metal, such as it is in the Canon EOS-1D series and the Nikon D4 and D800, provides less precision of the part from the mculd (or die) requiring precise and expensive manual adjustment using shims in production. Thus the material is more appropriate to low volume, largely manually assembled cameras.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

Top-of-the-range cameras tend to be sold as ‘splashproof or ‘weather-sealed’, but these terms are essentially meaningless. A look at the warranties for the cameras show them to be subject to just the same wavers as the lower-rarge cameras, and in any case the claim includes no definition of what constitutes a ‘splash’ or ‘weather’. Is the camera proof against a tornado, a spot of drizzle, or somewhere in between?

Most cameras can be used in heavy rainfall, usually without ill effects. Although lower-end cameras are not explicitly ‘sealed’, their moulded polymer bodies fit together with very narrow gaps that are generally impermeable to water droplets due to surface tension. Metal-bodied cameras, on the other hand, do not fit together so well because the metal requires a layer of paint for appearance and protection. Thus to render a metal body more resistant to water, compliant seals are needed at the joins, which are unnecessary for the plastic camera..

ROBUSTNESS

Robustness is another interesting case. No one ever accuses the old Russian Zenit cameras of having high build quality, but they were certainly robust, and felt so due to the significant heft of their clunky bodies. However, heft is not always the friend of robustness — more mass means more momentum, which means more energy to dissipate if the camera does hit something Ultimately, robustness is not all to do with whether the camera is ‘built like a tank’; a lighter-weight camera may survive shocks better. Nor is it easily linked to materials. For instance, crash helmets (and, for that matter, military ones) are made of plastic material rather than metal simply because these materials offer more shock resistance for the weight than does metal.

SUMMING UP

On reading what I have written, it appears that there really is no reliable indicator of ‘build quality’, and indeed, I believe that to be the case. That isn’t to say that buyers of expensive cameras have wasted their money, these come as a package precisely tailored to a particular user constituency, and the resultant low production number will inevitably lead to higher costs. However, the buyer of a low-end consumer camera might have as much confidence that the camera will withstand similar treatment to the higher-end one.

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