I believe good photographs can be divided into two camps: the literal and the ambiguous. (There’s a third kind, which you cannot really classify into either because they are lacking something fundamental like a clear subject – these land up as being ambiguous by default, but not intentionally.) From an interpretative/ artistic standpoint, a photograph is perhaps the most literal of all art forms; assuming minimal postprocessing, the translation between reality and finished interpretation is predictable and consistent across all subjects and capture conditions. The resultant image has to obey the laws of physics, after all – and these are generally quite consistent. But then how can we use ambiguity to our advantage to make a stronger image?
Too large/expensive; too slow and unresponsive, power hungry; no finder or IS
Limited sensor resolution; overambitious image quality and fragile feel; too many steps to get shooting
Fixed lens; great UI with terrible ergonomics; classical controls don’t work for digital, sensor limits
Ergonomic and workflow challenges; IQ limitations from sensor size; needed two years to fix FW
And this is barely half of the mirrorless cameras I’ve used and reviewed on this site in the last couple of years. I still have not found a complete replacement for the DSLR, and I suspect there are many other photographers in the same situation. It isn’t for want of trying or stubbornness; it’s because the product simply does not exist. We’re not asking for the unicorn here, either: there are ergonomic/UI/UX/engineering solutions that have already been implemented and received well in other cameras – just not in the same one. And to clarify (since judging by email and comments, many are missing the point): this post is not to complain mirrorless isn’t a DSLR. It’s recognising that mirrorless is the future for so many reasons – but we are still suffering from stupid design that has already been solved. All of these problems beg the question: just how difficult is it to get it right?
Here’s a question I’ve been pondering for some time: how is it possible that these cameras (and others) are so similar in some ways, yet wildly different in terms of commercial success? And moreover, what can we deign from our crystal balls about the state of the camera industry? Read on for a little analysis from a photographer and a businessperson’s point of view.
Red drapes. This post is quite deliberately illustrated with images from times when a) I wasn’t actively shooting or looking for images, and b) have been rather thankful to have a camera of any sort on me.
I struggled a little with the title for this essay. In essence, how many times have you found yourself without the primary aim of photography, but still shooting anyway – or worse, wishing you could be? The kinds of situations I’m talking about are when your primary purpose isn’t photography. You’ve gone out to run some errands, or fulfil family obligations, or rush to some work-related meeting (assuming photography isn’t your primary occupation). But these are the times you inevitably come across that interesting patch of light, that unexpected scene, or just…something that makes you pause and wish you didn’t have to be somewhere in the next ten minutes. Then what?
A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with some friends. One of them was in a senior role at a traditionally well-paid and respectable firm. He was contemplating a move to a new firm and a new position, with more responsibility, a bigger title and presumably also more pay. But the hesitation was palpable. In an unsolicited attempt to be helpful, I asked a slightly pointy question: what is it you really want to do? What would you do with your time and life if you had no other responsibilities or financial commitments? There was a pause, and then: ‘be a jazz bassist’. Changing firms in a similar role is already difficult enough at the best of times; changing industries is harder; doing a 180 degree turn out of finance into music is something else entirely. As somebody who’d done something similar, I felt it my moral duty to offer my completely unsolicited advice.
The ideal [insert your obsession of choice here] doesn’t exist.
We all like to think ‘if only…’ and it might. Whether it’s cameras, clients, light or partners, there’s always something that could be better. Perhaps this is a reflection of the consumerist and entitled nature of modern society as a whole, or perhaps it merely shows that we as people are always changing. Ironically, it is this very ‘if only’ that keeps things interesting: if you were to make the ideal image (in your own mind, and subject to the constraints of personal bias) of whatever you framed whenever you pressed the shutter, you’d quickly run out of possible subjects. It is not a bad thing at all that a) everybody has different opinions and b) we ourselves are in a state of constant flux. I know for certain that I approach familiar subjects like family or watches very differently now than from when I did previously. But there is perhaps such a thing as ‘good enough’ – better than 80/20, certainly – and we should probably know when to appreciate it. Today’s post is going to be looking at the business side of photography.
Kuala Lumpur skyline after rain. An example image for which there is no perfect output medium at present: web sizes we don’t need to talk about. Full resolution screens lack the tonal resolution to render the clouds in a transparent manner; print comes closest, but ultimately is a reflective medium and so lacks the dynamic range to represent the difference between the foreground trees in deep shadow and the light in the buildings.
Let’s take stock of where we are at the moment in terms of viewing options for images: there’s basically still only digital and print. On the digital side, displays have been steadily increasing in resolution and information density – and to some extent also size; we have 4K monitors in some laptops at 14″ and under, 8K in some televisions with an enormous jump to 50″+, and the majority of devices sit in the 2-4MP range somewhere between 12″ and 30″. There are also mobile devices with HD, QHD or even 4K (the recently announced Sony Z5) resolutions in sub-6″ screens; that’s an absurdly huge range of pixel densities. Everything from about 100PPI to 800+PPI. Clearly, preparing content for this is not going to be easy; viewing distances don’t necessarily have anything to do with perceived information density (say pixels per degree of observed FOV), either. You can hold your mobile at such a distance that it subtends the same angle as your 27″ 5K iMac, but the problem is the iMac will actually have double or more of the information density – just look at the number of pixels along the long axis. Or the converse might be true. As image makers, how do we manage this?
1957, from the Havana series
A little while ago, I wrote an article on images for posterity and what we would want to be remembered for vs what we might actually be remembered for. I’ve been wondering about why certain images are remembered and tend to stick in the minds of the viewers, or better yet, in common culture. I’ve had a hypothesis or two on that since, and wanted to share those thoughts. Though it isn’t the objective or necessity of every person taking pictures to make a different image for every single shot, I’m sure we all want to make something memorable. And some of us have to because well, that’s our job – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
I was fortunate enough to spend the last three days at Zeiss with Lloyd Chambers (update: his blog entry is here) – with a level of access that I suspect that has never been granted before to independent external parties. They were gracious and first class hosts – I don’t think I’ve had that many types of non-alcohlic beer before. We asked every question we could think of and more, and received answers which we had never expected and at a level of depth that has left me deeply, deeply impressed with what the lens team is doing out in Oberkochen. This may seem like a strange way to talk about the new announcement, but bear with me for while; there is method to the madness. :)
Today’s article was inspired by a comment made by one of my readers a couple of months back: “It is interesting to look at your posts around 2 years back. I originally found the blog through reviews (surprise) but kept reading due to the good available light photography. Now a lot of the photos from back then look quite dated in comparison to your recent work, especially the processing.” I don’t know if it’s just the processing, or the fact that the processing is now entirely subservient to the idea, not locked into what is required for a certain look or style. I’ve always had an internal conflict between making images that are recognisably ‘Ming Thein’, not getting stuck in the same mould, and to a somewhat lesser extent, making images that are different from everything else. To anybody serious enough about photography that they seek to make a name for themselves – be it through commercial or gallery work* – I suspect this is not a unique conundrum. So what can we do?
*Arguably the same at times