In the early years of digital cameras, manufacturers were experimenting in a number of areas. Some cameras used PC Cards to store images, while others tried floppies and CDs. On other cameras, an LCD - something we all take for granted now - was an optional feature. Form definitely followed function, as you can see when you look at the designs of early cameras.

In the early 21st century, digital camera technology grew at an incredible pace. Whether it was resolution, zoom power, or LCD size, it was up, up, and away. Camera designs started to become a bit more conventional, as manufacturers learned to stuff everything into a more traditionally styled body. 

That doesn't mean that there weren't some out-of-the-ordinary cameras over the last thirteen years. Camera makers tried different features and designs, and some stuck, while others didn't last long.

In this article I'll be taking a look at ten of the most unusual cameras from the year 2000 to the present.

Olympus Camedia C-211 Zoom (2000)

Olympus and Polaroid announced the Camedia C-211 Zoom in July 2000. This pairing led to exactly what one would expect: a digital camera that could produce prints on Polaroid film.

The Olympus C-211Z was a large, vertically oriented camera that printed onto Polaroid film

The C-211 Zoom was a giant camera, which isn't surprising when you consider that it also had to make those prints. At 178mm (7 in.) tall and weighing 680 g (1.5 lbs), the C-211Z wasn't something you'd carry around in your pocket. 

On the camera side, the C-211Z was standard issue. It had a 2.1 megapixel CCD, 3X optical zoom lens (35-105mm equiv.), and used SmartMedia cards. Its 1.5-inch LCD used a new technology at the time, known as Hybrid Collector Backlight, which used ambient light to illuminate the screen outdoors. To turn this on, you'd just flip a switch on the back of the camera.

The most interesting thing to point out here - besides the dedicated print button - is that slot above the LCD. When you were outside. you'd flip a switch, which let you use ambient light to brighten the LCD.

By now you probably want to hear about the C-211Z's printing capabilities. It used Polaroid 500 instant film cartridges, each of which held 10 prints. It took around 10-15 seconds to produce each 73 x 57mm (2.9 x 2.3 in.) print. Your print would come to life in 30-90 seconds, just like regular Polaroids.

The C-211Z was the only printing camera that Olympus ever made. Polaroid, on the other hand, is still at it.

Olympus E-10 (2000)

I should disclose up front that I owned the Olympus E-10 - and loved it. The E-10 was a DSLR, but with a non-removable lens. It had a 4 megapixel, 2/3" CCD, fast F2.0-2.4 35-140mm lens, manual zoom and focus rings, a hot shoe and flash sync port, and support for a wired remote control.

A cutaway of the lens and viewfinder design on the E-10 from Phil Askey's original review.

But wait, there's more! The E-10 had a large TTL optical viewfinder that could be used alongside the live view on its 1.5-inch articulating LCD, courtesy of the 'beam splitter' shown above. Unfortunately, the quality of the live view was choppy and low resolution. The E-10 used an infrared focusing system, though its performance was nothing to write home about. 

The E-10 had more buttons and dials than you could shake a stick at. The E-10 had a large TTL optical viewfinder and an articulating 1.8-inch LCD.

Other features on the E-10 included support for shooting both Raw and TIFF images, twin-dial operation, dual memory card slots (for SmartMedia and CompactFlash), and an optional battery grip. And then there's this:

The E-10 with the TCON-300S telephoto lens adapter. [Photo credit: David Weikel]

The TCON-300S was a 3X teleconverter that boosted the top end of the E-10's zoom range to 420mm. Attaching this monster essentially doubled the weight of the camera, and it was unwieldy, to the say the least.

All was not perfect in E-10 land. The camera was very expensive at the time ($2000), and it had a problem with 'stuck pixels' and chromatic aberrations. Even so, the E-10 was the camera of choice for people who didn't need to change lenses, and had many fans (myself included).

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F707 (2001)

On most digital camera designs, the lens usually places second fiddle to the body.  On the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-707 - along with the F505 and F505V that came before it - it looked like the body was bolted onto its giant lens.

The F707 had a hinge that allowed the body to rotate, while the lens was held steady.

The F707's design was daring, and unfortunately, didn't last as long as some would've liked. A hinge located at the back of the lens allowed the photographer to tilt the body upward by 77 degrees, or down by 36 degrees. This gave you the much same advantages as the fully articulating LCDs found on other cameras, with that large lens serving as a sturdy grip.

The body can tilt up 77 degrees... ... or down 36 degrees.

The lens on the F707 was pretty spectacular, as well. Despite the misleading labeling on the side (which included digital zoom in the calculation), this is a 5X zoom, with an equivalent focal length of 38-190mm. This lens was also a fast one, with a maximum aperture of F2.0-2.4. The lens had a manual focus ring, though it was 'fly-by-wire' rather than mechanical.

Photos were composed on a 1.8" LCD with 123,000 dots, or via an electronic viewfinder with 180,000 dots, which was pretty good for those days.

The laser pattern from the Hologram AF system. Composing a photo in complete darkness using  the NightFraming feature. 
[Photo credit: Digital Camera Resource Page]

The DSC-F707 had a number of 'party tricks', as Phil Askey said in his review of the camera. The first one was actually very useful, and it was called Hologram AF. The camera had a Class 1 laser on the left side of the lens that shot a cross-hatch pattern on your subject, which the camera then used as a focusing aid. This feature was truly amazing, allowing for focusing in complete darkness (up to a certain distance, of course). It's a shame that Hologram AF only lasted for a few more models before Sony got rid of it.

The other neat feature, which, again, didn't last as long as some would've liked, is Nightshot. When turned on, the F707 moved its IR filter (a common feature on digital cameras) out of the light path. It then turned on a pair of IR emitters located above the lens. You were then able to compose and shoot photos in complete darkness, with a greenish tint similar to that of night-vision goggles.

A feature that took advantage of both Hologram AF and Nightshot was NightFraming. At the press of the shutter release button, the camera would switch into Nightshot mode, use Hologram AF to focus, and then switch back to 'normal' mode to take a flash photo. It worked very well.

Some clever photographers learned how to take advantage of the F707's Nightshot feature. By permanently locking the IR filter out of the light path (which was not an easy task), the F707 became a true infrared camera.

The F707 was followed up by the DSC-F717 and DSC-F828, and then this unique design faded into the darkness (no pun intended). 

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 (2005)

Jumping five years ahead we find another interesting Sony camera: the Cyber-shot DSC-R1. Unlike some of the cameras in this article and my previous one, the R1 wasn't particularly weird. Rather, it was groundbreaking.

The DSC-R1 had a design not unlike that of the Cyber-shot DSC-D700 from 1999.

The R1 was the first fixed-lens camera to utilize an APS-C-size sensor (of the 10-megapixel variety) - something that has only been repeated a handful of times. It was also the first camera of its type to use a CMOS sensor, which is what you'll find in most compact cameras these days. The DSC-R1 also did something that even DSLRs couldn't pull off in that era: full-time live view.

The R1's large sensor was paired with an F2.8-4.8 Carl Zeiss T* lens, with a focal length equivalent to 24-120mm. The lens had a mechanical zoom and electronic (fly-by-wire) focus rings.

You might expect a camera with these specs to cost a ton, but Sony priced it at just $999.

The R1's articulating LCD flipped up, rather than down or to the side. Phil Askey was not impressed. The hot shoe was awkwardly placed on the hand grip.

Okay, it turns out I wasn't entirely honest about the DSC-R1's relative weirdness. Its 2-inch, 134k-dot LCD flipped up from the top of the camera, and could rotate 270 degrees. Because of the placement of the LCD, the camera's hot shoe ended up on the top of the right-hand grip. DPReview founder Phil Askey didn't care for the placement of the LCD, and found himself using the electronic viewfinder nearly all the time. 

The R1 had a ton of manual controls, and was the first compact camera to support AdobeRGB in addition to sRGB. It could record Raw images, though Mr. Askey noted their large file size and slow write times. Despite a lengthy list of cons, the R1 was still impressive enough to earn DPReview's coveted 'Highly Recommended' award.


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