Why the industry needs to move to open-source cameras

Dec 19, 2023

Sagiv Gilburd

Sagiv Gilburd

Sagiv Gilburd

News Editor

Sagiv Gilburd is an Israel-based commercial photographer and videographer with extensive expertise in studio work, event photography, and managing large-scale photography projects.

Why the industry needs to move to open-source cameras

Dec 19, 2023

Sagiv Gilburd

Sagiv Gilburd

Sagiv Gilburd

News Editor

Sagiv Gilburd is an Israel-based commercial photographer and videographer with extensive expertise in studio work, event photography, and managing large-scale photography projects.

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Why the industry needs to move to open-source cameras

Over the years, we have covered our fair share of open-source cameras, including the cine-oriented Cinepi, the SITINA 1 full-frame mirrorless, and the Night vision pi-cam. Those (and a few others) are all open-source cameras you can make today. You probably never saw or even heard of them because they aren’t your average brand-known, consumer-friendly cameras. They are DIY projects you need to build yourself.

But what would happen if a big brand like Sony or Canon manufactured an open-source camera? One for the enthusiast consumer. What would it look like? How will it be different from their existing cameras? Will it eat into Sony’s existing business? Is going open-source even going to help anyone who is not a developer?

What is open source?

What counts as “open source” varies from project to project, but for the sake of explanation, think of it like this: when a company declares a project as an open-source project, you, the public, can access its code to some degree.

Depending on the project, you may have general permission to use the source code, design documents, and product contents for your projects and purposes. In some cases, you are even allowed to re-sell it. It’s a model that encourages open collaboration but is also great for personal optimization.

Raspberry Pi cameras

Raspberry Pi are single-board computers made by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. They are the most basic computers you can get, especially the Raspberry Pi Zero, which costs only $10. Due to their simple, cheap, and compact nature, they are common in DIY open-source projects.

Among these DIY open-source projects are the aforementioned Cinepi camera and the night vision pi-cam. Although both use Raspberry Pi at their core, they are very different cameras. The Cinepi uses a Sony sensor and is meant for more cinematic uses. Meanwhile, the Night Vision pi-cam uses the Rasberry Pi camera module instead and is meant (like its name suggests) for night vision shooting.

The advantages of open-source cameras

Better support cycle

Camera brands release software patches at their own pace. Sometimes, quickly after a bug was discovered, sometimes, once in a few months, sometimes they keep updating for a long time, or even adding features, and sometimes, they just stop. If there is a bug with the camera or maybe a missing feature the community desperately wants, they now depend on the brand. Instead of waiting until the camera company decides to address it (if ever), the community can start working on it immediately.

Maximizing the camera hardware

You may not realize this, but your camera is capable of more than you think. Shooting RAW video is the best example of that. You don’t need a very expensive camera to shoot RAW video internally, but modern camera brands don’t include this feature. And it’s not because of hardware limitations. Hardware-wise, most cameras from the last couple of years have this capacity. For example, RED has a patent down on some aspects of RAW recording, and any company that wants to include this feature might need to face RED in court. While companies may have other reasons for not including RAW recording, this serves as a good example of intentional hardware crippling.

If the camera specs are open, then it would be easy for a competent developer to maximize any untapped hardware capabilities.

More development power

These days, camera brands are doing a decent job of providing firmware updates. The updates can include general improvements like autofocus developments or new features like new recording modes, etc. But the updates can sometimes be rare and far between, not to mention each camera company only adds so much with each update. And even then, there are some features you will never get.

Now, imagine if anyone could add updates. This will multiply the development power from just one team to . Countless individuals around the world, each adding something. Not only will updates be more frequent, but the number of features an open-source camera can have dwarves most enthusiast cameras today.

Canon and Magic Lantern

Magic Lantern is the closest we ever got to an open-source camera system from a large company. If you have never delved into the world of DSLR hacking, Magic Lantern is an open-source firmware for Canon DSLRs. Even the Canon 5D mark IV, one of the best DSLRs ever made, has a firmware build in the works.

It’s one of the more robust camera hacks around, adding new features to old Canon cameras. Monitoring features, bracketing, custom grid controls, and more. Some of the features added aren’t available even in modern cameras. For example, with the Canon 5Diii and EOS M, Magic Lantern lets you record RAW video internally. It’s something not even the Sony FX3 can do.

As we mentioned, the reason why a camera like the Sony FX3 can’t record RAW internally is most likely due to legal reasons. Sony would need to battle RED in court to include such a feature. Meanwhile, if the ability to record RAW is an unofficial mod (like with Magic Lantern), no one can say anything about it. It’s not Sony’s fault someone made it.

The best part? Magic Lantern’s code is open to all, so anyone with a Canon camera and enough skills can go out there and add a feature of their choosing to the project. If you don’t own a camera supported by Magic Lantern, there are still similar projects like CHDK for Canon point-and-shoot cameras and OpenMemories for old Sony cameras. In the past, Nikon cameras had a similar project as well.

Open source camera Canon

What would an open-source camera look like?

Visually, modern open-source cameras can look like anything. You build them; you decide how to customize them. If a large camera brand like Sony makes an enthusiast-level open-source camera, it may follow a similar idea. You will buy the main camera or the camera parts made by Sony, and the camera will end up with a look similar to Sony’s current alpha lineup. But because it’s open source, you may also buy third-party parts to make it fit your preferences.

In such a scenario, you can choose a retro or a modern body, the size of the thumb grip, button layouts, color trims, and so forth. If the camera is open-source, changing its physical build likely won’t be frowned upon, unlike the case of modern cameras. Today, doing so will void the camera’s warranty, but in an open-source modular project, you can have a warranty on the separate parts that make your camera.

There are industries where Open Source is common

Computers are the best example of this practice. You can buy a pre-built computer or purchase computer parts and build a PC yourself. Either way, you can upgrade or change separate parts depending on your needs. And this trend isn’t limited to desktop PCs anymore. You can get mobile devices like the Framework Laptop 16 and personalize or upgrade them just as well as desktop computers.

And just like you can change and choose software on your computer, you can do so on an open-source camera. Do you want an extra feature? Go and look if someone made the code for it. From there, it’s just a matter of installing it. Do you want the menus to look different? Someone can make custom themes or layout options if it’s open source. Depending on how “open” the open-source project is, the more you can change about your theoretical open-source camera.

Technically, Sony already makes open-source cameras. It’s just that they aren’t what you typically think of when hearing the phrase “Sony cameras”. Instead, they are the camera parts and software meant for research and monitoring projects. Even if you’re an enthusiast, as a consumer, you won’t be able to make a professional mirrorless camera out of them.

Open source camera Sony

Why is open-source helpful for photographers?

While developers are probably the only ones who can make full use of the code, an open-source camera is still helpful for everyone else. You will still be able to use features made by the community, even if you don’t know how they work. Just like how it is with the “closed” camera code today.

It’s not like every programmer in the world will start working on your camera. But having even a couple of extra people working on updates is more than no extra people working on updates.

Another clear advantage for Open Source cameras is pushing the entire industry upwards. Once more people put their energies into developing camera gear, the entire industry will get a boost. See how Linux evolved from a terminal to a full-fledged operating system.

Working on Open source camera

Will we see an open-source camera in the near future?

As things stand right now? No. Sorry. These days, camera companies are cautious about giving out updates and upgrades. Even a simple update like custom gird-lines can cost money. Sometimes, companies don’t include features just so you’ll have more reasons to buy the next version, the more expansive model, or another product specifically for that feature. This practice might be annoying and wasteful; however, it’s far from limited to just the camera industry.

But what if a company releases an open-source camera as a side product? It won’t replace the flagship cameras; rather, the open-source camera will be its own product line. Doing so won’t affect the main camera lineup, as it will be self-contained. It is a more realistic approach, but it’s still a bit improbable to happen right now. A company doesn’t release a product unless it’s profitable, at least in some regard. Currently, camera companies don’t have much to gain by releasing a separate open-source professional camera. At least, that’s how it seems to them.

What camera companies don’t understand about going open-source?

People like to modify. People like having the freedom to change and upgrade their devices, even if they won’t necessarily do so. This is why modular products like the Zipble got successfully backed on Kickstarter. Who says there is no market for it in the camera business?

Eventually, a large camera company will realize there is money to be made with an open-source camera. (More likely, a “semi-open” one). There is no telling when it will happen or what needs to happen in the industry to convince executives of this idea, but it will happen eventually.

In conclusion

While the concept isn’t completely absent from the market, it would be better if it wasn’t such a rare sight. Today, only small companies develop true open-source cameras, and they are far from being friendly to the average consumer. Not only that, but they are not at the level of cameras from large manufacturers.

Companies like Sony, Canon, and Nikon need to start developing their pro-grade open-source cameras. Such projects will give you, the consumer, more features and customization options. This concept may be scary to some business executives out there, but I’m willing to bet that if it’s done right, an open-source camera will also be a financial success for the camera company. In short, a win-win scenario.

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Sagiv Gilburd

Sagiv Gilburd

Sagiv Gilburd is an Israel-based commercial photographer and videographer with extensive expertise in studio work, event photography, and managing large-scale photography projects.

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