I’ve long been threatening to post a photograph of a toilet as an example of a minimalist everyday object made interesting – its basic form has been decomposed down to the bare minimums; ornamentation isn’t necessary, nor does it sell more toilets: less is more. Appropriately, this was also shot with a minimalist camera: an iPhone.
Here’s an interesting question: how many of you have given some thought to the bare minimum of what a photographic device needs to be used as an effective camera? The problem today is we’ve become far to accustomed to camera makers stuffing in additional software features in order to sell devices; none of which are useful, most of which don’t even work properly. Think back to when you last used one of the headline ‘new features’ of your last purchase – pano stitching, for instance; or 10fps tracking; or the ‘supergreen national park-like foliage mode’. Probably only once – shortly after unboxing it – and then never again. I’m willing to bet you can’t even remember which combination of button presses is required to activate it. But judging from current product offerings and advertising, the concept of selling a camera with less features in it is one that simply makes no sense…or does it?
Within this site’s reader pool at least, I’ve noticed an increasing appreciation for shooting film – part of that is undoubtedly due to the tonal map and overall image aesthetics; however, I suspect there’s also a part which is due to the refreshing simplicity of most film cameras that predates 1001 scene modes. The upshot is that as a photographer, you can concentrate on the scene and the resultant image, rather than being worried about what mode your camera happens to be in, and whether a certain setting is engaged or what happens when you press button X, A and the down arrow twice.
I digress. To know what we need, we first need to have an idea of the end goal; here I’m going to revisit the “four things” I keep going on about. We need good light, which means some way of controlling our exposure – shutter and sensitivity of the recording medium. I’ll leave aperture to the second thing, which is subject isolation. In fact, aperture is the sole physical photographic control that we have to control subject isolation. The only physical parameter built into the camera that affects composition is the focal length of the lens, which translates into angle of view and perspective; none of the technical controls affect the idea at all. That’s all down to the photographer.
Exposure control can actually be simplified greatly: you could make the camera aperture priority by default, then have a spot meter with AE lock and AUTO-ISO at say 1/1-1.5x the focal length – this gives you the ability to set exposure very precisely, and removes the need for an exposure compensation dial. Of course, you could go one step further and design your shutter speed dial with an A position, which would default to spot meter-exposure-lock-on-half-pressed-shutter behaviour, or set it entirely manually – this is the one overlooked stroke of genius in the controls of the Leica and Fuji X cameras, for instance. You can set manual, shutter priority or aperture priority all according to which combination of the dials are in A mode, and which are overridden with manual values. Hell, if the iPhone had a spot meter and exposure lock on one volume button, and AF/shutter on the other, we’d be pretty much there.
That’s actually not a lot of things, if you think about it. For a digital body, we have shutter speed and ISO on the body, aperture on the lens, and perhaps three focal lengths – one wide, one normal and one tele. A viewfinder is a must; preferably something that shows the actual view through the lens, be it an SLR, LCD or EVF. The more accurate its representation of reality – in terms of both color fidelity and detail reproduction – the better. Notice I haven’t said anything about autofocus at this point; I honestly don’t consider it to be all that important. For critical applications, you’re going to be using manual focus most of the time anyway; I prefer to be in control of what I’m focusing on, especially when I might want to bias my distance forwards a little to take into account the depth of field required for a given composition. Add some basic playback features, responsive operation, and decent ergonomics, and I think you’d have a winner on your hands: something simple enough that people who want to learn photography would be able to experiment and see the impact of changes without feeling intimidated, and yet controllable enough and light enough that it serves the needs of serious photographers, too.
The trouble is, for most companies such a dual-market product isn’t seen as a good thing: there should be the ability to sell two versions at different price points even if only the badge and some of the cosmetics are different. I disagree: the halo product used by the pros is the only product you make, and the same one that everybody buys. The only excuse for mediocrity is the user. It’s democratising in the same way shooting with an iPhone or GoPro is.
The worst thing from a commercial standpoint is that you can’t suddenly start charging more for a product that has fewer features (no ‘pet smile beauty retouch mode’, for instance) – especially not to a market that has been force fed feature overload for as long as they can remember. It’s why niche cameras with large sensors and fixed focal lengths haven’t been very popular outside enthusiast circles; people get confused when you tell them one year you need a 30x optical zoom, and then turn around and say 35mm can be used for everything. Both are true for different reasons, but consumer education has never been high on manufacturers’ priorities – in the long term, this is a very stupid move as it will take an educated buying market to be able to both differentiate between increasingly niche products, as well as to appreciate the value of those niches in the first place.
In theory, this minimalism was long the preserve of the Leica M cameras – even the digital ones – but I can’t help but feel that with the introduction of the M 240, Leica has lost its way somewhat – there’s now a scary amount of feature creep entering the bodies, rendering it neither fully fish nor fowl and entirely a compromise. Take for instance the EVF and the strange new focus on video: sure, live view is a good thing, especially through an eye level finder; however, why put the microphone next to the place where you’d be breathing out, and even worse, not include a MIC IN port to take the signal from an external one? Or the inability to reassign the video button to another shortcut for people who don’t use their M cameras for video? And making an adaptor – essentially a tube with two mounts at a very high price – together with the EVF, as a ‘solution’ for use of legacy SLR (R) lenses – without taking into consideration the poor ergonomics and weight of the whole thing is sheer lunacy. I’ve talked about this before: you can put legacy glass on your newer cameras, but just be prepared for compromises everywhere – in ergonomics, image quality and functionality.
From a purely engineering point of view, I’d rather have less: the simpler something is, the fewer things there are to go wrong, break, or require servicing to be kept in tolerance over time; our toilet from above is a great example of this. If you don’t have a 20-element zoom with four helicoids, there’s less chance of one of those elements drifting out of alignment and affecting your image quality later; if your shutter runs at 2fps instead of 12fps, you can simplify the engineering considerably. I like to think of this as the mechanical equivalent to Mark Twain’s policy on brevity: it takes longer, but the end impact is greater. From a design standpoint, there is an elegant simplicity to the form of those objects which have been distilled down to their bare minima. If you can’t price a product premium on the promise of good design and robustness of engineering, then I think something is very wrong. (Of course, this assumes that the promises are duly made good.) I don’t know about you, but if Nikon shoehorned the D800’s sensor into an F2, I’d pay a considerable premium for one.
In the end, I still come back to the most fundamental reason for us photographers to be looking at simple shutter-aperture-ISO-focus cameras – they remove the distractions from our photography, enabling us to make better images. And if you can make better images, subconsciously you’re going to be predisposed towards buying one, or another one, or convincing your friend to buy one: result, sales. In the end, it’s a win-win: but somebody – either the photographer or the manufacturer – has to break the endless cycle of feature creep and start voting with their wallets. MT
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
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