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Monday, July 17, 2006

A Theory of Camera Gadgetry

I was surprised by some of the comments I got after deploring the, er, superfluity of Fuji's "face recognition" software. Apparently this is seen by some as technology coming to the rescue of the humble snapshooter, who doesn't want to make art—the virtuous, unpretentious user who innocently can't detect where the faces are in the viewfinder, or determine which face is the "primary" face and which merely secondary. Software to the rescue.

It seems to me that there are three sorts of technology built into cameras. The first makes operating the camera easier, faster, and more direct. The second makes it easier to operate the camera without needing to learn anything about it. The third makes it more appealing to buy the camera, because the technology sounds nifty and will give you bragging rights out at the barbecue—okay, maybe that's inflammatory; let's just say it will be a conversation starter while you're showing off your new toy. I call this last type "WYAFY" technology, for "wipes your ass for you." ('Kay, that's not inflammatory. :-)

The real dichotomy here is very simple. It's between people who want to master their cameras and people who don't want to. The former includes most hobbyists; the latter, most consumers. Is this a "moral" issue? That is, is there something virtuous about mastering your camera and being able to use it comfortably and quickly? I don't think there's any way it can be interpreted that way. Rather, what dedicated photographers know that maybe a lot of consumers don't is that being comfortably in control of the camera and aware of how it's working (and why) is more fun, more effective, less stressful, and more satisfying.

I don't know where the impulse comes from to defend WYAFY features. Dedicated photographers—that's us—are the ones who are supposed to know that if people are frustrated by the complexity, opacity, and recalcitrance of their equipment, the solution is more knowledge and fewer absurd technological fixes—not more.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON with thanks again to RICHARD SINTCHAK


Blogger MJFerron said...

My old Yashicamat and a Luna Pro around my neck. Who could ask for more?? My D50's pretty cool too. :0

7:36 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

Come on, Mike, if you view it that way, any automaticity in a camera at all is a bad thing.
I know I like my automatic exposure and autofocus. Sure, I gotta help them along occasionally, but it sure works a sight faster than focusing with a tape measure and walking around with a light meter.

Education is superior, granted, but the great public, it is hard enough teaching them something they *care* about. Who is gonna force feed five hundred million snapshooters unwanted knowledge about photography?

7:57 AM  
Blogger Photo-essayist said...

Mike, the camera I use day in and day out for pro work has the following manual controls: focus, ISO setting, shutter speed, aperture, DOF preview, film advance, film rewind, shutter button, and self-timer. There is TTL metering and aperture priority auto-exposure. That’s it. With an excellent viewfinder, my camera (usually available on eBay for about $50 these days) is an extension of my eye and hand. I’ve used much more automated cameras, but I’ve found that keeping things simple—at a 1980’s level of technology—produces the best results because I’m making the creative choices.

I’m not a luddite. I would love to have the advantage of instantly available digital files rather than the whole film hassle. But until the industry delivers a tool that allows for the almost instinctive camera handling I now have, I’m not buying in.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Bob Rose said...

Do you use autofocus?
I'm a professional music photographer... I'd find autofocus useful which searched for the eyes of the performer automatically. Really useful when the performer is moving about very quickly with very shallow depth of field. I would be able to focus more on the composition of the shot without having to constantly change focus points or recomposing. It's just a tool. Face recognition is also just a tool, it depends how it's used. I suppose you don't use metering or autofocus as this takes away some of the challenge for you?

8:33 AM  
Blogger Dierk Haasis said...

Hm, do many photographers (or humans in general) really have a problem recognising faces? Come on, we are actually evolved to do exactly that very, very well.

8:35 AM  
Blogger buzz said...


I had to sign up for blogger just to post one word.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Zen is really overquoted these days, but in this case it has a lot to say. In swordfighting or archery as zen disciplines (you can apply it to flyfishing or whatever you like), the general idea is to practice untill it comes out fluidly, unobtrusively at a conscious level, and effectively, and at that point it should also become a pleasant thing to be doing. If you can't get it right at first you don't stop doing it (as in non-photography day), you don't buy more gadgets to do it for you, you just learn to do it better. In the end, I think we all know there's beauty in the mastering of a simple tool, and that is conflictive with the arms race concept that photography is into these days.
I wouldn't say cameramakers don't know about this stuff, I noticed Canon makes a commitment to the control layout in his slr cameras as time goes by, and that's great. Buying a new toy which appeals by being completely different and original really sucks when you have to change all your reliable reflexes.
We could go further and say some snapshooters will never go past that stage only because the photographic industry will always tell them that the way to become a better photographer is buying a new one, not further learning to use the one you already have.
Hey, probably most of the learning wouldn't even require a camera, but that's not a thing you want to say if you sell cameras, I guess.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Come on, Mike, if you view it that way, any automaticity in a camera at all is a bad thing."

I don't think I said that at all. I said good technology makes operating the camera "easier, faster, and more direct." If AF or AE do those things for you, then fine, they're the good sort of gadgetry.

I suppose where each of us comes down on this is a matter of individual taste. I'm surprised to find that I like AF more when using a zoom lens, because it means I only have to manually fiddle with the zoom ring, and not both zoom and focus; whereas with a prime I'd rather set the focus manually (in either case, the priority with me is having the camera go off when I push its button, rather than after some interval during which it decides whether it wants to).

Until further notice, I refuse to believe that "face recognition software" could POSSIBLY make the act of taking a picture "easier, faster, and more direct." Call me skeptical.


9:54 AM  
Blogger typingtalker said...

The automotive equivalent of autofocus is the automatic transmission. Think of face recognition as adding traction control. Neither is necessary but both are popular and useful. Few would criticize Mercedes, Lexus or Porsche for offering either.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Think of face recognition as adding traction control."

I think that's assuming facts not (yet) in evidence. Traction control works; whether face recognition works or not remains to be seen.

And don't most of the better cars allow you to turn off traction control when you're driving hard? In any event I've always driven a manual transmission and that's only half the story (the other half is that I always will...).


10:21 AM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

MJ:"The real dichotomy here is very simple. It's between people who want to master their cameras and people who don't want to."

Actually, that's only an artifact of the "real dichotomy" which is between people who use photography as a medium of expression versus people who use cameras for personal documentation and communication.

Those of us who appreciate the history of photography, who appreciate good photography, and who enjoy the constant struggle of becoming better craftspeople with our cameras understandably tend to eschew "automatic transmissions" (to borrow "typingtalker"'s good analogy). We want to take credit for everything...focus, exposure, tonality, composition, timing. We are photographers.

But, as I noted in an earlier topic, most people just want to take pictures as mementos. They don't want gallery shows. They don't want to be published or revered for their photographic craftsmanship. They just want to use a camera that will give them reasonably predictable (and viewable) results that they can print, post, or email for friends and family to enjoy. They'll take any assistance that the electronics engineers can provide, thank you very much, as long as it's not too complicated to apply. There's nothing wrong with that, nor should it be provocation for patronization. Many of these folks might cherish other forms of craftsmanship that we don't deem interesting.

Digital photography, and specifically p&s style cameras, have encouraged more people to take more pictures than ever in the history of photography. Yes, serious photographers might reel at the vision of a fellow rolling into a Wal-Mart and picking up a case of Old Style and a digital camera that embodies enough artificial intelligence technology to make his pictures look good even if taken during the 24th can. Personally I find it delightful.

No matter how sophisticated little cameras become they will never be able to automate the two most important photographic decisions: where to put the camera and when to open the shutter.

11:45 AM  
Blogger DonovanCO said...

I can remember the heated discussions when match needle metering was introduced in SLRs. We're getting some of the same emotions now, but maybe with a different generation of photographers. However, when it comes to P&S digitals it would be interesting to know what percent of sales are for the very simple ones vs those with all the features, options and menus. And the next question is, "what features do you actually use?"

12:34 PM  
Blogger typingtalker said...

Mike: "And don't most of the better cars allow you to turn off traction control when you're driving hard?"

The driver that can out-pedal automatic traction control is about as common as the casual photographer that can out-think auto focus and exposure. Even Michael Schumacher uses it (traction control) in his F1 car.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Albano Garcia said...

I couldn't agree more with Ken. People has the right to don't want to know absolutely nothing about photography but still be able to get a decent picture. If technology helps, good for them.
If face recognition helps some people who doesn't understand autofocus technology and selectable focus points, to get a focused portrait instead of a focused background, good for them.
And at least on this Fuji, I understand it can be turned on or off.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Sure, everyone must be able to take a decent picture. All this purism sounds snobbish, but let's say it this way: do you call yourself a writer because you can write?

3:50 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

Have you noticed that manufacturers are reluctant to market their more modestly-featured quality cameras in the US? That seemed to be the frustrating case when I was shopping for a film P&S, and again when I shopped for a digital P&S. Apparently the wisdom is that American consumers shop features and price over quality or ergonomics.

Ricoh GR's, the Pentax S30, the first high-ISO Fuji digicams... are just examples off the top of my head of cameras that I found were difficult or impossible to find in the US. In the case of the Pentax or Fuji, there were cheaper or more loaded models, which I thought had less value.

This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. How can consumers vote with their dollars if the choice just isn't there? How does the casual consumer ever find out that there are pleasant and rewarding alternatives to feature bloat and automation if those alternatives are not offered?

4:40 PM  
Blogger Martin B. said...

Have you seen the manuals for those things ! The simplest P&S are so complex that they have past the point of diminishing returns...

It's become simpler to learn the basic principles of photography (aperture, shuter speed, ISO etc...) than to read the user manuals and learn all the functions on the cameras. With the added bonus that the knowledge is transferable.

Most people just stick it on Auto and shoot away.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Intensecure said...

A feature is a feature that lasts the test of time (such as AE/AF). A gimmick is just a gimmick, some just so obviously so. They come, they go, why should we exercise ourselves even wondering about them?
I tend to agree about scene modes as well. Why my FZ30 has 15 scene modes is beyond me ;)

10:49 PM  
Blogger pbizarro said...

What is a gadget for some, is very useful for others. To each its own. Probably 99% of P&S digicam buyers shoot in "auto-everything" mode. They are not after art, they are after recording a memory, or a special event.

This is how photography started, as a medium to record events in a different and more "realistic" way. Today, millions of people take millions of photographs every day, or every minute, without any pretensions to being artists. I think this is excellent.

Many people find it hard to understand the basics of photography, they find it hard to understand how to select the auto-focus point, how to focus. Should they not be allowed to use a camera? If technology comes to the rescue, that is good news.

5:59 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

The assumption that "technology comes to the rescue" is exactly what I'm disputing. Who says it's easier or more straightforward to make a picture with a camera that's busy looking for faces? The fact of my experience is that most of these "millions" are frustrated and defeated by their overly gadgety cameras--not, as you seem to assume, energized and enabled by them.


6:36 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I remember once a friend of mine bought a Canon Rebel, which came with the three point auto focus, it was the first time for such a budget oriented camera.
I tried it and noticed the af wandered all over like crazy, and it made mad. So I chnaged some functions and gave it back to him. After that he was incredibly happy, the af was a lot faster and more precise than before. So he asked me what I did and I said "I deactivated the two lateral af sensors".
I have never felt in need for more than a center af sensor coupled with light metering, may be spotmeter or ae lock with a button. Just point to your subject, hold, reframe, that's it. A camera making a decision about focus still doesn't help me at all.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Albano Garcia said...

As hard as it may sound, having to half-press the shutter and recompose is an obscure concept for the vast majority of consumers and it will remain this way since they simply put the camera in auto-everithing, never read the user manual and simply shoot away. So, if they were just with a central AF point, they'll end up a lot of times with a nice sharp background and a blurry smily couple in front.
Again, don't asume some things as "nature", vast majority doesn't care at all about photography and they have their right to do it.
"Recompose... what's to compose in first place?"
They're not stupid, they simply don't care about it, as hard to understand as it may be.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, Albano, you said it. Things these days are designed for those who want to invest the least possible effort in anything they do, even if that implies (and promotes) only mediocre levels of achievement for the vast majority. And I don't like that. It's just an opinion.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Once-Ler said...

Just point to your subject, hold, reframe, that's it.

Sure, try chasing around a 4-year old doing that. Haven't you ever gotten a photo of a blurry child standing in front of a sharp tree? I know perfectly well how my camera works, but I'm not too proud to admit that it's happened to me. If face recognition helps, I'm all for it. I'm certainly willing to try it before I decide it's worthless.

Of course, I'm assuming that it works as advertised. If it turns out that it doesn't, then sure, anything that doesn't work is worthless.

12:26 AM  
Blogger Steve K. said...

Mike, your bio says you've been writing about photography for some 21 years. That means, in terms of the development of the 35mm slr, you've been around for at least the autofocus debate.
I suspect you were around for some time before that as well so you should also remember the great auto exposure debate.
I remember that as well. As with autofocus, there was a "real photographers don't use that" camp and a "greatest thing since sliced bread" group (including some infighting over aperture vs. shutter priority).
Autoexposure was locked in solidly within a decade and autofocus took even less time to be adopted.
Point is, neither of these technologies was needed by serious photographers, pro or amateur. They were developed because the mass consumer market wanted them. We adopted them once the technology became mature enough to be useful.
I don't like the way cameras have evolved--too many buttons, menus, etc.--but it isn't the small "serious user" market that is in the driver's seat.
I don't believe this will catch on. It will likely just fade away like so many other "innovations."
But if it catches on and has a chance to evolve, in a decade we'll all be using it and bitching about the next innovation.

1:54 AM  

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