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  1. #1
    David Lyga's Avatar
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    A Component of Build-Quality: Efficient Engineering vs Over-Engineering

    Shoot this thread down if it turns out to bear little legitimacy, but I want to test the waters by stating something that I have felt to have considerable merit for discussion in terms of practicality. I would love to hear viewpoints on this, pro or con.

    I have always felt that the Canon mechanicals (FTb, TX, etc.) are over-engineered when compared with other equally worthy examples such as Pentax Spotmatic, H1a, K1000, Minolta SR-T, etc. Taking Spotmatic as idealistically normative, when one looks inside a Spotmatic body one can see a mechanical logic that is pruned down to its basic essentials. When one opens up a Canon mechanical body, one feels that another act is to follow, or perhaps the denouement, after the photography business is finished.

    Why so? Let me ask this in another way: How is the pared down Spotmatic deficient to the complex Canon? The difference is rather striking. The number of gears and shafts and other moving parts in the Canons causes one to think that that proliferation must be the result of some obscure necessity. Is it? The Spotmatic people took a full four years of R&D before they would allow their ‘simple’ body to be sold to the public. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that such simplicity was not borne of ostensible engineering ‘downgrading’ but, instead, was allowed because of a complex and formidable thought process which, finally, allowed the semblance of simplicity to manifest (much like a concert pianist will demonstrate how easy it is to play well, but ONLY after years of torturous study.) Spotmatic’s success story is legendary. Its original cost compared well with Canon’s and hindsight has shown this camera to have achieved all that Asahi wanted in terms of profitability. As a person who does minor repairs to most mechanicals, I will say, without equivocation, that the Spotmatic is far less prone to jamming than are the Canon mechanicals.

    Changing the curtain tension becomes a microcosm of the whole. On the Canons, each curtain’s tension is modified by first loosening a screw holding a pawl which engages the inclined teeth of the wheel on top of each curtain roller. Removing the pawl’s reach into these teeth allows one, finally, to turn that wheel so that you can tighten or loosen the tension. One must be certain to make sure that, upon re-tightening the pawl’s screw, the pawl’s arm is securely meshed with the both wheels’ teeth. All this must be done with both care and agility, as access to those wheels is cumbersome and requires deft action on the part of the repair technician. On the Spotmatic there is a simple worm screw which directly governs the wheel for each curtain: sweet and simple. Again, why?

    And it does not stop with the bodies. Take the normal lenses for each mount: say the 1.8/50 FD compared with the 1.8/55 Takumar in M42. Look at the mounts for a start. The Canon mount is prone towards internal collection of dust, debris, and general grime while the M42 mount remains clean. Now, I ask, has anyone ever disassembled each one? The Canon lens is a nightmare to put back together and the M42 is almost entirely straightforward and even fun to do. Again, why? If your deviant response is that mounting the Canon lens is quicker than mounting the Takumar, you are technically correct, but missing the point. All I had said about the simplicity and cleanliness of the M42 mount transfers readily to the PK mount, the Minolta MD mount, and almost all other mounts whose ability to mount quickly equals or surpasses Canon’s.

    Why did Canon have to be so darn complex and what was their theory justifying such machinations? - David Lyga
    Last edited by David Lyga; 04-04-2014 at 08:54 AM. Click to view previous post history.

  2. #2
    benjiboy's Avatar
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    Modern cameras are not designed to be repaired by the man in the street on his kitchen table in mind any more than other hi-tech electro-mechanical devices are, where a guy with some mechanical skills and experience and the right tools may be able to repair a Nikon F, he won't be able to repair an F6, and would be a fool to try.
    Ben

  3. #3
    David Lyga's Avatar
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    Well, Ben, I have been effective with whatever I have needed to do, like cleaning the prism areas, replacing that prism if needed, fixing X-sync, calibrating curtain tensions, general cleaning of the insides and permitting slow shutter speeds to have an escape mechanism that now runs smoothly. Little by little I have managed these. The electronically governed SLRs I will not touch except for really minor things. - David Lyga

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    "Changing the curtain tension becomes a microcosm of the whole. On the Canons, each curtain’s tension is modified by first loosening a screw holding a pawl which engages the inclined teeth of the wheel on top of each curtain roller. Removing the pawl’s reach into these teeth allows one, finally, to turn that wheel so that you can tighten or loosen the tension. One must be certain to make sure that, upon re-tightening the pawl’s screw, the pawl’s arm is securely meshed with the both wheels’ teeth. All this must be done with both care and agility, as access to those wheels is cumbersome and requires deft action on the part of the repair technician".

    Thanks David for reminding me of why I shoot a Nikon N8008s that cost $20 and has an electronically timed shutter (up to 1/8000!), which gives me perfect exposures every time. Same w/ the Canons. I gave up on getting consistent exposures on the FD cameras, save for the F1 and F1ns, and went to a T90. Instant perfect exposures, works right every time, or at least until the fatal ER problem crops up, in which case I replace it for $75. Both of these cameras are surely complicated, what w/ all the electronics and all, but in the long run that's what makes them so reliable too. No more $150 - $250 CLA's for me, and no more days of fiddling w/ old cameras on the kitchen table. The stress reduction is priceless, and that sort of money buys a lot of film. Or beer. I still fiddle w/ simpler cameras like Olde Folders and Retinas (agggr). Managed to fix two Retinas the other day, and am on my way to getting the last one fixed this morning. They're simple, but incredibly fragile, and nearly every tear down requires making some sort of special tool to get the *&$!#! things apart, but once you have the tool you're set. Outstanding lenses on these little guys. The early model cameras have viewfinders that make the peep holes on Leica screw mounts look panoramic.

    As for the FD mounts, I can only think it was a terrible mistake, and totally understand why they killed it off on the EOS cameras.
    Last edited by momus; 04-04-2014 at 08:52 AM. Click to view previous post history.

  5. #5

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    David, I can't find the reference but vividly recall a comment of Geoffrey Crawley to the effect that Canon and Leica took quite a long time to get SLRs right.

    I remember comparing 200/4 Canon and Nikkor teles in 1970. Both were good lenses as 200 mm teles went back then but the Canon appeared to be made to collect dust. All of its internal linkages were exposed. So I agree with you about at least that one old Canon lens.

    I have shop manuals for a number of Canon S8 cine cameras. The original 814 AutoZoom was basically a die cast backbone with gazillions of fiddly little bits held together with gazillions of little screws. The subassemblies are held to the backbone by more little screws. Nearly all subassemblies were at least a little adjustable. The later 814 XL was similar but much cleaner. Its die cast backbone was more complex and its fiddly little bits were replaced by castings or stampings. It had many fewer parts than the 814AZ, many fewer subassemblies that could be adjusted until right.

    From this I concluded, perhaps incorrectly, that the 814AZ and, since you brought them up, early Canon SLRs were designed at a time when labor was cheap and precision machining and casting were expensive. I also have the impression Canon and Leica were very slow to adopt what the Japanese call Deming thought. I know at more-or-less first hand that in the early '50s Mitsubishi had adopted Deming thought. Remember that Nikon was a Mitsubishi affiliate. Deming would, I think, have seem the 814 AZ as an abomination.

  6. #6

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    I haven't taken apart any camera but as you described I would think the Canon is poorly engineered as compared to the Pentax. If you design something that is easy to build, easy to fix and reliable then it's good engineering. It usually takes more work to come up with the simpler design.

  7. #7
    MDR
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    Regarding the mount Canon's breech lock mount has a huge advantage over classic bayonet mounts it works like a wise because it ads pressure to the front and the back of the mount. So it should be more stable and have much less room for movement/wiggle than a standard Minolta or Nikon F mount.
    Regarding the complexity of the mechanism the Canon mechanism is probably made to much tighter tolerances than the Spotmatic ones. It's the same for Contax vs Leica the Contax shutter was even quieter and much better than the Leica shutter when it was proberly maintained but it was also much more complicated and expensive to make than the Leica shutter. Today most manual Canon cameras are not maintained to the high standard they were supposed to be and will fail more often than the simplier design. Proberly maintained the Canon probably wipes the floor with the simplier Spotmatic shutter in terms of precision.
    If you want a camera to use and use without ever giving it a good repair than a simple design is better on the other hand if you want precision above all are willing to proberly maintain the camera the more complex one is probably the better choice.

    Neither is better they were just made with different goals in mind.

  8. #8

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    You really need to talk to the designers to get answers to your questions so I can only speculate. Perhaps the Canon engineers had some goal of higher precision in mind when they designed the workings of their cameras. Perhaps they were so geeky in their design that they didn't think of the needs of the repair people.

    You see this same sort of thinking all the time -- Auto designers who put parts that will obviously need regular changing -- oil filters, for example -- in a location that only an orangutan could love. Computer programmers who write long series of commands to do simple tasks because the need to do so is obvious to them, but nobody else which is why we all long for the "just do it" button.

    And sometimes engineers just build on the past, adding features/complexity without thinking that maybe it's time to toss out the old and start new from scratch. The chief designer for Olympus, whose name escapes me, was famous for doing that, and his cameras showed it.

    That's why so many cameras, for so long, used a shutter design similar to the Leica M/barnack cameras -- simple, precise, easy to fix.

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    "Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that such simplicity was not borne of ostensible engineering ‘downgrading’ but, instead, was allowed because of a complex and formidable thought process which, finally, allowed the semblance of simplicity to manifest"

    I think this is a big part of your answer. While studying mechanical engineering, I noticed how easy it was to get "clever" and come up with complex solutions to problems. This is not really where cleverness comes in, just finding a solution is usually the easy part. The hard part was really to reduce complexity without affecting functionality (and all the other factors that make up a good product/component). The best engineers I know are brilliant at coming up with simple and robust solutions to heavily complex problems.

  10. #10
    winger's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chan Tran View Post
    I haven't taken apart any camera but as you described I would think the Canon is poorly engineered as compared to the Pentax. If you design something that is easy to build, easy to fix and reliable then it's good engineering. It usually takes more work to come up with the simpler design.
    This is how I feel. I don't see the Canon in your original example as over-engineered, but as under-engineered. And having a mechanical engineer as a dad, I was raised with the idea that there's no such thing as "over-engineered." And he bought a Pentax H1a (pre-Spotmatic). Since I'm still using that camera 50 years later, I think it was engineered well. My electronic cameras have given me more issues than that one.

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