In the previous part of this essay, we discussed how diversification of media and bringing control to the masses changed the face of photography; today we’re going to continue with some thoughts on the current standard-bearer for that camp, and some concluding thoughts on what it means for everybody else.
The iPhone 5S is probably more camera than 99% of the population need or know how to use.
I use the iPhone as an example solely because it’s the one I’m most familiar with, having had several generations and seeing the camera go from a joke, to usable in emergencies, to surprisingly good, to very competent, and finally past the point of sufficiency. From the photographer’s standpoint, it’s an interesting device solely because it passes the point where the camera is the limitation and puts things squarely back into the photographer’s hands. It’s more than fast enough, and the incremental improvements in maximum aperture and pixel pitch, combined with high speed bursts that increase dynamic range, lower noise and provide a form of electronic stabilisation have increased it’s capture envelope considerably. It responds very quickly, and has a greater range of adjustment latitude than before – the spot meter is now more like a spot meter than a focus-point weighted one.
But for most users, all they need to know is that it’s better. The few things that recurrently come up in discussion of good images or cameras with laypeople centre around ‘clarity’, ‘zoom’, ‘low light’ and ‘sharpness’ – aside from zoom, the iPhone 5S has three of those licked. Even if the majority of users cannot translate those properties into technical characteristics, they can see the differences; differences which cause images with those particular characteristics to stand out. They all revolve around subject definition and isolation – be it edge acuity, microcontrast, separation by color or depth of field isolation. ‘Zoom’ is either a holdover of some extremely compressed telephoto images that have stood out to the lay observer by virtue of being so different in perspective, or from the late 80s and early 90s marketing where something else quantitative was needed for products to win direct comparisons before the megapixel came along.
Assuming you are outputting to online/ web viewing and social media, with the rare small print – if any – the iPhone is more than capable enough for all of these purposes; under ideal conditions you could even make a decent 13×19″ print (though not an Ultraprint, of course). At a pixel level, I can’t help but feel there are more artefacts from smoothing/ noise reduction than the previous iPhone 5 – or possibly the auto HDR process and electronic image stabilisation – but it is still no worse than a small-sensor compact, and shockingly very comparable to the Ricoh GR Digital III’s files from not that long ago. The one place it falls short is in the color department – and I suspect that’s because the entire imaging pipeline is 8-bit and of a compressed color space from beginning to end in order to speed things up. As a consequence, colours are not quite right, clipping occurs, and the boundary tonal transitions aren’t as smooth as they could be. The files cannot take a lot of processing before starting to show artefacts and degradation. Too bad it can’t output a RAW file then, or at least a 16-bit TIFF. Frankly, I’d even settle for a lower default saturation – that might be less pleasing to the average consumer, but it would mean that color channels don’t clip as fast.
The device itself is no imposition to carry, and it serves multiple other functions for which the user is already going to be carry a device anyway. In short: given that it was never really designed as a primary capture device, what it can do as a camera is pretty astonishing. And what really puts a lot of compacts to shame is the smoothness and level of intuition with which it goes about its business – it’s fast at everything; the HDR function doesn’t look garish and genuinely does extend dynamic range; stitching is real-time and almost always gets it right; video quality is surprisingly impressive, too.
You might have guessed that the images in the first and second parts of this essay were all shot with an iPhone 5S; I’ve had several months with it and found myself using it far more than I’d initially expected. They have been processed through my usual PS workflow, but no more than I would have done with a conventional camera – probably less, in fact, because the files simply don’t have that much latitude.
Conventional camera makers are going to have to innovate to survive.
The other reason I’ve used the iPhone as an example is because of the sheer simplicity of its UI: you tap once to set and lock focus and exposure, and again to capture an image. All of the conventional controls for adjusting aperture, shutter speed, sensitivity, focus point, white balance etc. are completely absent – and unnecessary. In fact, shooting with the iPhone over the last few years has completely changed the way I set up my compacts – they’re all in Program, single-point AF mode and spot meter now. I just half press to lock exposure and focus, and shoot. Much faster, and no less control. Makes you wonder what on earth all the other buttons are for.
In my mind, the only camera that has taken this ball and run with it – so far – is the Leica T. Say what you want about pricing/ aesthetics etc – the technical sufficiency is there, and the UI can be a simple or as complex as you require; this deserves some credit (even if they were aping Apple from a design standpoint).
The trouble is that we are still using legacy camera controls derived from a period where there were fewer pre-capture variables to adjust. Instead of devoting some serious thought to a means of making the new parameters more easily and intuitively controllable, we have lazy manufacturers milking the ‘retro’ trend for everything it’s worth, and consumers giving them tacit approval by opening their wallets. This is not only poor design, but lazy arrogance. Even the transitional digital bodies – our current crop of DSLRs – don’t really feel that well integrated; we’re used to them because they haven’t changed drastically, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder every time I pick up my D800E: there are no more different parameters to control on this camera than say, the Ricoh GR, but why does it feel like there are buttons everywhere and I’ve got to carefully check precisely how the camera is set up to avoid any nasty surprises? Frankly, the last time there was innovation in digital camera ergonomics pre-iPhone was the standardisation of the D-pad-with-shortcuts-plus-a-few-other-buttons-paradigm for compact cameras. Frankly, I still can’t understand why the screens on most cameras are so poor compared to phones – the retina LCD on an iPhone is a $20-25 part; surely it can’t be too much to ask for on a $3,000 camera. Leica and Hasselblad are particularly notorious offenders here.
What should really have cued in the camera brands to the sea change about to happen is the fact that social media photography and the volume of images taken didn’t really increase drastically because of compacts or mirrorless or DSLRs; it was because of the camera phone. It’s also clearly not a size thing, because I seem to find increasing numbers of people shooting with tablets, which are possibly the most unergonomic cameras ever. But composing on a screen that large and fine is something else altogether, as anybody who’s used a view camera will agree.
Serious photographers need to be much clearer about their objectives.
This proliferation of new output media and lowering of the sufficiency barrier for equipment has opened up far more choices for photographers. In fact, I think it’s confused the issue significantly, to the point that the whole reason for getting into the game is sometimes obfuscated. As convenient as I find the iPhone, compacts and mirroless, I still carry the D800E and large lenses frequently because I know that I’ll regret it if I come across a scene that has the potential for an Ultraprint, but I lack the necessary capture device to make it work. Similarly, there’s the other conflict: why carry something of that inconvenience when less will probably be enough, too? And here we stand debating internally while our light fades.
I’ve long said that the limitations today are still ultimately down to the sack of meat behind the camera; that has not changed one iota. It’s just that now, more than ever, we photographers need to be very clear about how we want to display our images, and what we might possibly use them for in future; without this it becomes impossible to have any true creative clarity because one’s mind is preoccupied with matters other than composing and exposing the scene at hand. Even worse, the output will be compromised because we selected the wrong tool for the job, and the output medium might well punish us for it – it’s not just insufficient resolution that we need to be concerned about, but also display size: something that works only at very large sizes won’t necessarily work in a small, compressed online format. The enormous number of images captured and published every day means that they’ve turned into a disposable commodity by default, regardless of merit; it’s much more difficult to differentiate something truly special in the online space than it is amongst 6ft prints, for instance. In fact, I think it’s probably time for all of us to do a little soul-searching: why do we photograph? What do we want to do with the images afterwards? MT
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