The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Monday, July 17, 2006

What's the Purpose of Advanced Technology in P&S Cameras?

by Oren Grad

I think Mike's classification of the purposes of camera technology didn't get it quite right, especially his first two points. The problems of ease, speed and simplicity of use were largely solved long ago, with the original Kodak camera of 1888: "you push the button, we do the rest". My 127-format Brownie Fiesta R4 camera, 80 years later, was every bit as simple. With fixed focus, fixed aperture and fixed shutter speed, there was nothing to do but point the camera and push the button. (OK, you had to decide whether to use a flashcube. But not really: the rigid rule was, indoor=flashcube, outdoor=no flashcube.)

What added technology has really accomplished is to vastly expand the range of conditions under which a camera aimed at the casual user will produce pictures of reasonable quality, while keeping down the cost of manufacture. There are only so many situations you can handle if all you have at your disposal is 1/50, f/11 and focus fixed at 6 feet; by comparison, today's autoexposure, autofocus cameras can do a passable job under an amazingly wide range of picture-taking conditions. There have been a few improvements in convenience—for example, the LCD in digital cameras allows the reassurance of seeing immediately whether the picture "came out". But in general, the principles of cost containment and of improving the camera's effective operating range rather than its handling at the point of exposure remain the primary drivers.

Of course, "reasonable quality" is a subjective judgment that, in the end, is up to the user. I'll be very surprised if the face detection feature in the new Fuji gains much traction in the marketplace, because I doubt that it will make a difference that most P&S users will be able to see, let alone be willing to pay for.

But here's something I wonder about. "Scene modes" are now standard in virtually every camera aimed at the non-hobbyist user. The amount of microprocessor power and memory needed to include these is now small relative to the capability of even inexpensive chips, so from a vendor's point of view there's nothing to lose. That's clearly intended as a quality-optimizing technology: in return for making one extra decision—are you shooting Junior's soccer game or his birthday party?—you get a bundle of situation-specific camera settings that should increase the odds of getting a consumer-pleasing snap. But you do have to be willing to study the instruction manual for long enough to figure out what the little icons mean. And you have to remember it three months later, when you dust off the camera again for the next special occasion. Is that one decision too many, and more hassle than it's worth? Does anybody actually use scene modes?

Posted by: OREN GRAD


Blogger MikeWebkist said...

But you do have to be willing to study the instruction manual for long enough to figure out what the little icons mean.

If only there were some mode that could detect features of the scene and determine the appropriate "scene mode" automatically. For example, it could scan the scene for something recognizable, like, maybe, faces. If it sees them it could switch to a mode that tries to get them all in focus.

I'd still shoot in full-manual mode myself though. :)

10:56 AM  
Blogger paul@blogger said...

I posted this

in case the tags get strained out, here's the link:

11:57 AM  
Blogger Max said...

The (may be too philosophical) problem with all these "creative modes" is that they thoretically give you freedom because they show you how to produce a very pleasant image under some preset circumstance, allowing you to jump over a big bunch of "technicalities", aperture and DOF relations, that kind of mumbo jumbo (oh, sorry, I forgot that with small sensors there's no such a concept!).
But I believe that when you have a yellow brick road in front of you to follow, other paths, less lit but may be a lot more interesting, surely more original, but above all, more related to your inner persona, are promptly discarded.
Too much help kills creativity. How many creative modes to freedom? 2? 5? 27?
I still believe the open combination of two variables (speed and aperture) is more exciting to the open mind, and I think it should be.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

I know people who leave their cameras in "auto-everything" mode all the time. They know that they'll get some kind of picture most of the time. They also know that they're less likely to get a good picture if they start playing with stuff.

Now, this leads to some classic situations that we all smirk over....photographing sunsets and full moons with flash, not to mention using the same flash from Row 200 at the SuperBowl.

So I also wonder who the target market is for "scene mode". It isn't the folks referenced above, and it sure ain't me. Surely someone must use it?

1:39 PM  
Blogger Ade said...

I used the "Child" mode on my D50 recently while my daughter was running about; felt quite proud that I actually spotted it at the time, as I'd previously been ignoring all the scene modes. It saved me having to think too hard on a hot day, and I had no complaints about the resulting snapshots. (It was even smart enough to pop the flash up when fill was needed.)

Uh wait, sorry, I mean "scene modes are the work of Satan and that's why I only ever use a Leica".

2:20 PM  
Blogger Dave New said...

I immediately discarded the scene modes on my Canon DSLR bodies -- they force JPEG (non-RAW), and I refuse to take JPEG only when I have a camera that is capable of taking RAWs (or RAWs+JPEGs).

Also, the scene modes on Canon DSLRs generally don't let you override *anything*. A great example is the sports mode -- it turns off the flash, period, as if you have no business using flash on any sports shots.

Finally, I outgrew the Digital Rebel pretty fast (my first DSLR), after I discovered that the only way (without resorting to trickery) to get servo AF was to use sports scene mode. There were other issues, too, like the lack of mirror lockup, flash exposure compensation (solved by getting a flash that implemented that, instead of the body), etc. All of these were simply firmware decisions made by the Canon marketing team, and ultimately, I found them annoying enough to move away from that camera.

And don't get me started about not being to independently chose metering modes, or the lack of spot metering.

What I don't understand about something like the Rebel, was if it was meant as a starter DSLR, why wasn't there a truly manual mode (at least) where you could select *everything*, including shutter, aperture, ISO, flash, metering, mirror lock-up, continuous/single shot, AF mode (single/continuous)?

I fear that we are bringing up a generation of serious hobby photographers that can't take control of their cameras, even if they wanted to. Where's the digital equivalent of the Pentax body that everyone learned on a few decades ago?

3:16 PM  
Blogger Howard Cornelsen said...

Speaking both of Leica and of figuring out what the little icons mean: I think we've come full circle when cameras like the Leica D-Lux 2 (also available as Panasonic DMC-LX1) have help screens attached to the icons. Now you dial up an icon, check its help screen to see if it's the one you want, then move on to the next icon to check it. Seems to me it takes longer to find the right icon than just to set the camera for the scene. I thought the icons were supposed to help???

Although the Nikon D200 doesn't boast scene modes, it does have a help screen for almost every menu function. In this case, the help screens are probably necessary if only for the function that you rarely use but need now.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

The one thing to consider is that these technology "features" are possibly the precursor to more interesting features later on.

For example, if facial recognition software can work reliably, it can aid in the exposure of the scene. But not only that, the software itself might find other uses down the road that we are not aware of.

Being able to turn a scene into discrete elements could open up many avenues. For example, like exposure bracketing, what about "DOF bracketing", where you can set the camera to sequentially focus, from shot to shot, on elements in the scene? The camera should easily be able to compute the proper DOF for each of the elements so that each shot gives enough leeway in the DOF to make the compositing simpler.

And if the technology aids in the development of technology for creating the "depth map" of a scene, where distances between elements can be determined, that could open up an even broader range of post-processing capabilities. A depth map could be saved as alpha channel accompaniment to the image, for example. This could allow for much easier selections of areas of an image, or even individual elements, without altering the image itself.

Fortunately, facial recognition software is not nuclear weapons technology, and not as Big Brother as some are fearing. I think the benefits from it could be significant, even if at first blush the idea seems to have limited use.

4:36 PM  
Blogger carpeicthus said...

I admit to being a snob that hated every time I'd look down to my old D70s and see a little scene mode head smiling at me, but to each their own. On some P&S cameras without aperture or shutter controls, I've seen people use the scene modes not to make things easier, but to try and wring out whatever control they could. On the other hand, there are many photographers who sneer at me for using the Auto-ISO feature, whereas I think it's a brilliant way to increase the control that matters more to me -- shutter speed and DoF -- in rapidly changing light.

8:36 PM  
Blogger John Sarsgard said...

These scene mode things don't help me. I ignore them. My photography brain has been conditioned over many years to understand shutter speed, f stop, and ISO rating ("film"speed). My intuition and memory have built in all kinds of tradeoffs associated with these things. Grain/noise, stopping action, what I can hand hold, depth of field, all these things are part of my world. I hope I'm not a real Luddite, but these things affect how I approach photographs in general. I don't need substitutes that assume "usual" values of these things. It's easier for me to stay with the basics than to rely on what someone else thinks is important for a certain kind of photograph.

8:37 PM  
Blogger nol said...

On my old Nikon Coolpix 885, which is pretty much the camera that is on my person at ALL times, I use scene modes. This is mainly because if I were to actually to try and dial in the already limited manual options I would completely miss the shot and my hand would fall off after cramping uncontrollably. Those little point and shoots are just too much trouble when it comes to going manual.

However, the Coolpix is very old and I'm not keeping up to date on new technology. Maybe it's different now. But to note, I don't use "cloudly" just on cloudy days - I also use it for indoors and any time there's red in the photo.

12:08 AM  
Blogger Rafa Barbera said...

"scene modes" is a necesity with the current P&S cameras. In general this cameras didn't have all the control for aperture, exposure time and ISO. Instead you have a set of preprogramed ranges for this values on each scene mode. I found them very useful with the FinePix F30. On P&S change parameters is not always direct. For example on the F30 changing the flash mode, the ISO and aperture (if you are working on A mode) is a multikey operation. Going from maximum aperture, flash to minimum aperture, without flash is a one key operation using "scene mode" (f-menu, portrait to landscape)

On the other hand, with a camera that let's me take the control really, as with my beloved Canon 10D, the scene modes are completly out of way.

But TOP article was about scene mode and P&S, and I see this as an intermediate step between all auto and direct manual control. You are begining to thik about the inners working of a camera and you liked the extended control. From here, the natural evolution is a all-manual able P&S or better a DSRL, but as intermediate steep is a good one, that maximize your chances to get out a good photograph from this little cameras.

2:20 AM  
Blogger Ron Hockman said...

My P&S is made by Casio. It's about 4 years old. It has some excellent scene modes, at least 15, along with the ability to create your own. The best part is that there are no icons to memorize. The LCD shows a nice, big picture and clear description for each mode.

I sound like a shill, I know.

My wife is starting to enjoy taking pictures. I'm upgrading my P&S sometime this summer, and I'm probably going to stick with Casio. I like the user interface; it's easy to quickly change the things you need to.

8:36 AM  
Blogger wirehead said...

I wrote some commentary on this. I think there's a better way to do digital cameras.... just not what people will instantly gravitate towards. :P

9:48 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home