The Golden Age of Cameras Part 1

Posted on October 29, 2014 by psu

I have always liked small cameras. All things being equal the smaller camera is always better. Over the years I have done my share of whining about how terrible the smaller digital cameras are. But now I am here to tell you that those times are over. We are in a golden age of small cameras.

There are now smaller cameras that will do almost anything you need. But the most impressive ones are also what ones that I least expected to get any good: the phone cameras.

I had my phone camera epiphany a few years back after realizing that the phone (I use an iPhone, but what I say applies to most smart phone cameras, I imagine) was doing a credible job of standing in for my “camera that I take when I don’t take the camera bag” camera of the time (a Panasonic LX-3). Since then the cameras have only gotten better. But let’s review the core strengths:

  1. The camera is good enough in terms of image quality, responsiveness and general feature set.

  2. The iPhone is always in your pocket. You never don’t have it.

  3. The iPhone is a camera with a built-in general purpose computer. This means that you can do various things “in the camera” that you would normally need to use a computer to do. Things like: HDR, panoramas, black and white processing, compositing, and so on. You can take some shots and then at any point you have some downtime you can have your own little Lightroom session if you want.

  4. The iPhone is close to the Internet at all times.

In the past, the main source of disagreement with my claims would be with the first one above. Talk to “photo enthusiasts” on the Intertubes and most will have the following sort of complaints about the phone as a camera:

  1. Ergonomics: some people don’t like controlling the photographic process with the on-screen controls. I personally don’t really mind.

  2. Base image quality: phone sensors are small and tend to make fuzzy noisy images.

  3. Other raw performance concerns: autofocus speed is dodgy at best, etc.

These concerns have some validity and they do limit the sorts of pictures you might take with the phone camera. The phone is best for pictures of things that are mostly standing still, and fit well into a moderately wide angle field of view. So: buildings, monuments, food pictures, selfies (ugh), and pictures of groups of people having fun. It turns out that this covers most of what people want to do with a small camera.

Will it follow focus that dog running down the street for the perfect street action shot? No. (But then, neither will most of the other pocket cameras in the world). Will it take noise-free and perfectly sharp pictures in the dark without a tripod? No.

Will it be there in your pocket waiting when you come across moments of nice light while you are walking around doing other things? Yes. Can you use it as a substitute for most wide angle pocket digital cameras when you don’t want to take your camera bag along? Yes. Is it about as responsive (AF, frame to frame speed, etc) as any pocket digital camera made between the years of 1999 and 2010? Yes.

That last question is the key thing. For the first ten years of the consumer digital camera we all would have given our eye teeth for a small digital camera that let you instantly shoot the next frame without waiting ages for the camera to reset. We all wanted this because we all believed that our beloved film cameras of yore could do it, even though this was only partially true. Still, it took a long time for pocket cameras to make it there, but just as they did, the phone did too. When I stop to think about this I always find it amazing.

Discussions like this on Internet forums will always start with the specific technical concerns and then lead someone writing a comment like “well, the phone camera is a fine toy, but I could never use one as a real camera for reasons x,y,z,w”. Usually two ideas are being passed along when people say something like this:

  1. The phone can’t do something I need for my work. This may or may not be true. You’d be surprised what the phone can do. Unless the thing you absolutely need is fast dynamic autofocus or a telephoto lens, you can probably get the shot with the phone.

  2. In a similar vein, people will often say “oh sure, the phone is fine for ephemeral nonsense, but no one could use it for serious work”.

This second objection is usually a combination of a false technical argument (“that tiny sensor just can’t be ‘good enough’ for what I do”) and a workflow argument (“I wish those young kids with their Intertubes and Instagram selfies would get off my lawn”). I think the technical argument is basically over. As I’ve said before, the phone cameras are easily as good as any compact camera made before (say) 2011 and anything that is that good is good enough for 95% of the pictures taken on the planet. You might worry that that small marginal dip in “image quality” (whatever that is) is just going to kill you some day when you see the perfect picture and then can’t print it 20x30 in your living room.

I am skeptical. If you happen to be the next Galen Rowell, or David Alan Harvey or Jim Richardson I’ll let you continue to think you need something better. On the other hand, those last two guys use iPhones for a lot of their work, so maybe not.

In conclusion, while you can quibble over ergonomics (I find them fine, although old eyes have a hard time seeing that screen sometimes) I don’t think there is any way you can quibble over the potential for good results. The phone cameras are good enough and they are with you all the time. There is no excuse to not use them.

I will take a short digression into the workflow question though. The most obvious aspect of the workflow associated with smart-phone cameras is their connectivity. Seconds after taking the picture you can ship it off to the ends of the Earth where millions can marvel at your photographic prowess. There was even a long breathless New Yorker article earlier this year that tried to claim that this connectivity marked the birth of an entirely new photography and thus the end of the camera as we know it.

Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think even in our hyperactive digital age there is time to take a more contemplative approach to post-processing. Cameras do not always capture the image that you see in your brain on the first try, and most good pictures need at least a bit of adjustment to be truly great. The iOS platform gives you some limited tools for doing this right on the device (Snapseed, Lightroom Mobile, etc), but they do not scale to larger or more complicated tasks. Maybe you want to tune things a bit better. Maybe you need a print (gasp!). Maybe you want a way to organize and archive the pictures more systematically. Maybe you just want to be able to store the pictures somewhere while you think about them, and be able to find them later in some way that is more systematic than brute force search. For these tasks, you need a more defined workflow. Thus, I don’t see shooting and instantly sharing as the right mode for all pictures.

Another aspect of the connectivity of modern cameras is how little we take advantage of it. This is where I get to complain. Consider:

  1. The only cameras with usable wi-fi and cellular networking are the phones (and tablets), but the user interface for image sharing is sort of inside out. Consider that it’s almost impossible to wirelessly transfer pictures from your phone to the computer that you probably have in your hotel room while on a trip with with your phone.

    Instead what you have to do is send it to the fog and then all the way back down to your laptop, which is a phenomenal waste of time and resources.

  2. None of the more serious cameras make more than a pathetic attempt at utilizing networking in an effective way. We should be able to control and configure every single aspect of the camera from the comfort of a laptop or iPhone remote control. But you can’t. You should be able to transfer pictures wireless for processing, but you can’t. You should be able to use your phone as a cable release, but you can’t. Flash setup and preview? Nope. It’s horrible.

This is just one aspect of a larger problem: the camera companies do not understand software. This is a huge reason why the iPhone ate their lunch. The iPhone is an OK camera that can run some great software, and it uses software to get better on a shorter time scale than camera companies understand. The camera companies are still in the business of cranking out hardware and lenses and then hiring a contractor to do the next iteration of their proprietary shitware for workflow.

Consider that we’ve had professional and consumer digital cameras for coming up on twenty years and the workflow we use for dealing with digital pictures that you want to catalog and edit is still basically the same. I mean, I love Lightroom, but everything upstream and downstream of it is the same old shit.

To get the pictures where I want them I need to undertake at least 15 different steps (import, edit, rename, adjust, export, copy, backup, backup, backup, sync to devices, upload to Internet albums, etc) and none of the existing final delivery systems (flickr, smugmug, Apple photostream, iPhoto on the iPad, whatever) are actually decent to use. They are all awful in their own ways, but mostly they are awful because they don’t connect to the tools you use to capture and process the image in the first place. Sound familiar? There is a ton of room for improvement in digital workflow, and most of it has to do with better integration of the various tools mostly on the local network, not the Internet. As long as card readers exist, we will have failed.

Maybe some day I’ll retire and make literally tens of dollars developing decent flow for me and other users who think like me. On the other hand maybe not.