Skip

We don't have cameras
January 3, 2014 10:05 AM   Subscribe

This past October, just before the leaves changed, I went on a six-day hike through the mountains of Wakayama, in central Japan, tracing the path of an ancient imperial pilgrimage called the Kumano Kodo. I took along a powerful camera, believing, as I always have, that it would be an indispensable creative tool. But I returned with the unshakeable feeling that I’m done with cameras, and that most of us are, if we weren’t already.

Author and designer Craig Mod asks if we're seeing the end of the non-networked, standalone camera.
posted by Horace Rumpole (69 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
oh the comments there are so funny. the old ways are the best!!!111
posted by joeblough at 10:19 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


In this era of cameras everywhere, it might be natural that he takes photos, like so many do, for the purpose of 'see where i've been!, see what i've done!'.
I take photos for a completely different reason, and still cherish my stand-alone because for me it creates art, creates memories (of a specific sort), and connects me to a lifetime of having my camera with me to document my experiences for myself.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:20 AM on January 3 [11 favorites]


Nope. Cameras have simply acquired additional dimensions of gear-fetishism, "can put rows into the proprietary database of your choice" being a checkbox next to "can get decent dynamic range indoors at night without a flash."

As for making images, "photography" is nearly as wide a field as "painting". Sometimes control is the difference between an image that works and an image that doesn't: an iPhone won't help you there. Sometimes spontaneity is: a DSLR won't help you there. Sometimes even milliseconds of latency between the lens and the viewing surface kills your timing: lack of a direct viewfinder makes your micro four-thirds an expensive fashion accessory in such situations. Different tools for different jobs. Same as it ever was.
posted by Vetinari at 10:21 AM on January 3 [14 favorites]


His experience is interesting, and I don't doubt that for certain segments of the population, smartphones will replace/are replacing standalone cameras (and I think are also giving people access to cameras when they previously had none). But my own experience with the iPhone 5 differs from his. I find my phone too small to even think about editing on it, and I find it's harder for me to compose a picture with the phone than it is with the viewfinder on my D60. But I also am predominantly interested in landscapes and macro photography, and I don't think the iPhone is as good at that.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 10:22 AM on January 3


I bought a non-networked, standalone camera a couple years ago and I'm already jonesing for a new and more expensive one. There's no pleasure greater than traveling disconnected (or at least leaving the iPhone in your suitcase for the day).

You know what I do with these photos? At the end of the trip I'll put together a heavily edited email of 5-10 photos and send it to the few people who really ask for it. Then maybe I'll print one out (!), and put it on my wall. Not all the time, but only if it's truly great. Rather than sending a stream of photos to a disinterested audience in the ether, I'd rather do the real work of self-editing and curating a small collection.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:23 AM on January 3 [10 favorites]


cameras suck, there's still such a lot of development required before they are even remotely useable.

Remotely being the key word: I want my camera to hover over my head, taking photos every couple of hours based on a complicated algorithm designed to identify what will eventually become my happiest or most important memories.
posted by rebent at 10:26 AM on January 3 [8 favorites]


My iPhone5 is a great photographic tool that has its place. But I can say the same for my Canon dSLR and my film cameras as well. It's just that the places are different.
posted by tommasz at 10:29 AM on January 3 [7 favorites]


Oh, the camera is dead, again?
posted by ckape at 10:30 AM on January 3 [9 favorites]


Even my mid-range point-and-shoot takes pictures in low light that are SOOO much better than my iPhone (admittedly a crappy iPhone4), that I can't imagine giving up that quality. Also, I just don't feel that I need to share my every living moment with my friends and acquaintances. I guess that just makes me old, but there it is.
posted by dellsolace at 10:31 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


I find myself agreeing with him. I bought a D7K when they came out, and I use it a shockingly small amount of time. Yeah it's narcissistic but I find most of my pictures are ending up on Instagram.

Hauling lens, the body, batteries, all that shit is a pain when your phone is in your pocket. And the degraded resolution is good enough, because no one is ever going to look at your photo on anything but their phone.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:31 AM on January 3


But I also am predominantly interested in landscapes and macro photography, and I don't think the iPhone is as good at that.

DIY high quality macro lens for smart phones, and the less high quality DIY macro lens.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:35 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


Here I was hoping this would be about putting away the goddamn camera/phone/whatever and mostly going through life without a lens between you and your experiences. So many people are too busy filming or instagramming or snapchatting crap that they forget to actually live it.
posted by Justinian at 10:36 AM on January 3 [16 favorites]


I can make, in limited circumstances, wonderful iPhone photos. But when the light is low, or the lens doesn't fit the scene, it just won't work.

I also use a nice point and shoot, (Lumix LX-5) that has it's uses, but again can fall apart in some situations.

For me it's about picking the tool that does what I need. Sometimes I'm having a life and shooting where I've been, other times I am making Photographs with a capital "P."

It's all good. Except your favorite camera sucks.
posted by cccorlew at 10:40 AM on January 3


Weight/bulk isn't the only disadvantage my Canon G12 has over my (similar-age) iPhone. It also lacks GPS, has a terrible UI and takes SD videos. Then there's the fact that I need to wait until I find a computer to put my photos online (the only place anyone will ever see them).

I need a pocket-ish sized camera with a big sensor, zoom lens, GPS, Wifi and a decent UI not only for picture-taking, but apps for uploading to social media. I don't know if that exists, but anyway it feels too soon to buy a new camera.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:40 AM on January 3


dellsolace - the iPhone 4 was the last iPhone camera that was truly poor under low light conditions. The 4s was a big jump, and the later releases have been moderate improvements from there. Still doesn't hold a candle to what a really good camera can do under challenging circumstances. But for posting close up photos of my pets, friends, or silly happenstances to the web, it is well over the line to good enough.
posted by wotsac at 10:45 AM on January 3




I feel like pretty much 100% of people who take photos in the sense of everyday snapshots ABSOLUTELY could forgo a standalone camera.

Pro photographers, serious hobbyists, and artists will probably prefer to use a DSLR for their specific purposes (but it wouldn't surprise me if such people of course used the camera in their smartphone for everyday snapshot type stuff).

I don't think the end of the camera is nigh, but I do think the end of the point and shoot is at hand.
posted by Sara C. at 10:50 AM on January 3 [3 favorites]




Here I was hoping this would be about putting away the goddamn camera/phone/whatever and mostly going through life without a lens between you and your experiences. So many people are too busy filming or instagramming or snapchatting crap that they forget to actually live it.


That's what I was expecting, too. Although I think that constant documentation is a way of experience that has its value - not just a failure to have an experience. I don't enjoy it that much anymore because I found that it broke up some of the only uninterrupted thinking time I get - a walk or a ride or a day by myself that becomes about taking pictures to share shakes me out of a reflective state and I end up writing less and thinking in little snippets rather than in a more sustained way.

I also feel like the ability to photograph anything any time devalues photos for me and makes me less interested in taking them - I actually took a lot MORE photos when I had a film camera, precisely because I really liked the process. I hardly photograph anything anymore since it seems so pointless - there are already fifty million photos online of everything I might want to document, there's no real risk associated with fucking up a shot and it just feels like photos are always-already one more thing to hoard in the "curate the self" present. Also, I hate the omnipresence of cameras - I don't like being photographed, I don't like the idea that I might be some stranger's hilarious "look at this ugly fat dyke" instagram....and at least when it was film cameras it was easier to know if someone was photographing you and easier to prevent it.

Other people seem to enjoy all the instagramming, though, so I don't think this is a hill on which I'll die.
posted by Frowner at 10:50 AM on January 3


If they could get full-frame sensors with good low-light sensitivity and quality depth-of-field into a smartphone I'd consider not getting a DSLR, but I don't see that happening any time soon.
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:54 AM on January 3


Although I think that constant documentation is a way of experience that has its value - not just a failure to have an experience.

I think this depends highly on what the experience is. I've definitely had my own experience of concerts, performances, art events, etc. ruined by people who were more interested in documenting.

The worst part is that, mostly (to somewhat bring it back on topic), said people are doing things like brandishing their smartphone or point-and-shoot overhead to try to record a concert in its entirety, which isn't even going to result in a usable recording. So I feel like, great, thanks, not only are you choosing to record rather than experience, and not only are you taking away from my choice to experience (because I can't see over your outthrust camera), but the resulting document you're creating is something nobody will ever be able to enjoy, anyway."
posted by Sara C. at 10:57 AM on January 3 [4 favorites]


There are significant limitations stopping cell phone cameras from being as capable as medium-to-high-end single-purpose cameras, though we're chipping away at them. Mostly they have to do with optics and the need for cameras to gather a whole lot of light (compared to an eyeball) in order to provide high-quality images under a wide variety of circumstances. Currently, even our best sensors are nowhere near as light-sensitive as the human retina (nor have they ever been, even with the best of the old black-and-white film stocks) and so in order to have enough sensitivity in low light and enough dynamic range (the difference between the darkest blacks and the brightest whites) to produce really high quality pictures we need to use rather large sensors. That means we need to use rather large lenses as well, in order to gather the light and focus it over the large sensor.

There are some hard physical limits determining the minimum size of a lens that can do that sort of thing, and making those lenses requires some very high-end engineering and manufacturing that makes them inevitably quite expensive. There's a reason why a good telephoto lens costs more than an iPhone all by itself, and why good lenses hold their value – we pretty much perfected lens-making some time ago, and we've only managed small improvements since then so the best lenses of 20 years ago are generally just as good in most of the important ways as the best lenses of today. Note that they haven't really gotten much smaller over that time.

Also, if you're out taking photos in a serious way (meaning you're there to take pictures, not just there to do some other activity and might want to take a snapshot or two to remember it) it's really nice to have something that is comfortable in the hand and which has real, physical buttons rather than a fiddly touchscreen. Having physical controls on a camera is analogous to using a real keyboard to write a document. In the same way that a touchscreen is fine for text messages but rubbish for writing a book, it is also fine for a quick snapshot but rubbish for anything where you want to be able to carefully set up your photo. Automatic camera software is getting better and better, but it inevitably has to make a guess about what you want the final photo to look like and sometimes that guess is going to be wrong. It might be very clever, but it's not telepathic.

That's not to say that smartphones and such aren't going to continue to improve and to render standalone cameras redundant under more and more circumstances. Sensor technology is improving all the time, which means that we can get good results with smaller and smaller sensors and therefore smaller and smaller lenses. It also means that we can do more with the larger sensor and lens sizes, so the target keeps moving, but still we can get satisfactory results with smaller equipment under more circumstances, for more definitions of "satisfactory". The best smartphones are now almost as good as low-end point-and-shoots, and the best "bridge" cameras are now almost as good as low-end DSLRs. Give it enough time, and we might have a sensor and lens that's good enough for almost everybody almost all the time.

Of course, the controls thing may not be solvable. Human hands aren't really changing, and an iPhone is always going to be less comfortable to hold (as a camera) than a proper camera. You could put more control buttons on one, but most people aren't going to want that so I can't see it happening outside of the occasional niche device. And there are specialized lenses for taking particular kinds of pictures, which will probably mean that phone cameras will never really be able to do everything.

This is a question that's been asked ever since people started putting cameras on cell phones, and probably ever since people started making fixed-lens point-and-shoot film cameras. The question is "are small, cheap cameras good enough that we don't need big, expensive cameras anymore?". The answer is, and always has been, "it depends on your definition of 'good enough'". Small cameras are getting better and better, and they're doing it faster than big cameras are. However, there will probably always be things that you can do with a big, expensive camera that you can't do with a small, cheap one. If it's important enough to you to be able to do those things, you'll have a big, expensive camera. If it's not, you won't. More and more people are going to fall into the small, cheap camera camp as time passes and technology improves, but I can't see the big SLRs going away anytime soon.
posted by Scientist at 10:58 AM on January 3 [7 favorites]


Hmmm? The temptation is to get snarky, say something like, yup, the standalone camera is doomed, just like the drum machine doomed the drummer. Which is what very many were saying in all earnestness in the early 1980s. They were wrong. People also still write by hand, pen on paper.

But his final few lines make a stronger point, although not the one I think he intends:

Susan Sontag once said, “While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important.” Today, it turns out, it’s whatever can’t be networked that becomes less important.

I mean, I hope he realizes that Ms. Sontag wasn't saying that like it was a good thing, that she was speaking of a technology's power to impoverish actual experience. At least, that's how I read it.

Not that I'm that concerned. Like the aforementioned drum machine, the networked camera hasn't really eliminated anything, just enhanced possibilities.
posted by philip-random at 11:00 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Given the introduction, I thought this would be an essay on the importance of presence, of paying attention to what you're experiencing in the moment it's happening, rather than distract oneself with the urge to take a picture. But nope, he's advocating the superiority of smartphones, because they let you immediately share images with your social network.

That's .... totally wrongheaded, as far as I'm concerned. We already have an uneasy relationship with cameras (both analog and digital), because they take us out of the present moment and force us to spend at least a few seconds as an observer on the other end of a lens. But in return for that sacrifice the camera gives us pictures that preserve memories forever, and can reveal hidden details we didn't notice at the time. If anything, modern cameras are an even better deal than previous ones, because you can point and shoot quickly with a minimum of distraction.

I've no doubt that Mr. Mod is an expert photographer, and if he says that Iphones have excellent built-in cameras I believe him. But if you go on a trip to the mountains to recreate an ancient pilgrimage and spend most of that time wondering what your friends will think of the images you're capturing, I think you're missing the point of being there in the first place.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:01 AM on January 3 [4 favorites]


I'm a photographer who recently switched (and gladly so) from a full-frame DSLR to a micro 4/3rds system so I can't even begin to claim that the reason I use a standalone non-networked camera has something to do with pixel greed. I can't tolerate using my iPhone for photographs for many reasons, including but not limited to:

- shutter speed
- inability to control exposure adjustment before and during the shot
- no depth of field

It simply isn't the right tool for the job for me but I will never begrudge it being the right tool for someone else. They're apples and oranges as far as I'm concerned.

I do get a little annoyed, however, when someone implies my orange is becoming obsolete or that I'm old-fashioned for using it just because they're in love with their apple.
posted by komara at 11:02 AM on January 3 [12 favorites]


I have a top of the line Canon, and an iPhone 5. I do a wide range of shooting with the Canon, and generally that's stuff I would either sell or hang on my wall. One day a few months back I failed to check the battery level on the Canon and went out to shoot. The battery was good for about 10 frames and I was done. I didn't even think about continuing on with the iPhone, even for a minute.

For someone who's been shooting on SLRs for any length of time, who enjoys all the things an SLR allows you to do, and for whom that SLR is a tool in the service of images they make rather than take, the iPhone will never be a replacement.

That being said, I no longer carry an SLR with me everywhere I go. I now simply have my iPhone and occasionally a GoPro in my bag. I too found that the editing and offloading of the images from the SLR meant that many fun grabs of friends doing fun stuff wound up never again seeing the light of day. For that sort of stuff, the phone is perfect.

That being said, the Eye-Fi has vastly improved that for me. That thing really changed the way I shoot in studios.
posted by nevercalm at 11:04 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Also, standalone cameras are integrating more and more phone features just as phones are integrating more and more serious-camera features. GPS tagging is already common at the medium and high parts of the range, and I'm pretty sure there have been at least a few cameras with cellular modems in them to allow them to upload photos to "the cloud" on the fly. Cameras also often have some rudimentary built-in editing features, and touchscreen displays are showing up more and more too (mostly at the low end). So cameras are absorbing phones just as phones are absorbing cameras.
posted by Scientist at 11:06 AM on January 3


When a consumer electronics business segment stops growing at exponential rates or sales, gasp, slightly decline, the common thing to say that it's the end of it.

I'm willing to predict you will be able to buy the following in 10 years: A desktop computer, a laptop computer, a standalone digital camera, and a cell phone without "smarts".

Pagers, not so much.
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:12 AM on January 3 [5 favorites]


Kevin Street: "But if you go on a trip to the mountains to recreate an ancient pilgrimage and spend most of that time wondering what your friends will think of the images you're capturing, I think you're missing the point of being there in the first place."

Maybe so, but it has ever been thus, at least for longer than travel photography has existed. Young debutants and college grads would take The Grand Tour of Europe, and return home ready to regail their less-fortunate/adventurous friends with tales of the coffees in cafes and the art along the Seine - both pronounced with such conviction as to impress upon the audience (as over-saturation, instagram filters, and HDR settings do today) that this is different from anything you have experienced.

And to be included in that exclusive club of people who have seen it.

Is it banal? Of course. But it's not going anywhere.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:19 AM on January 3


A desktop computer, a laptop computer, a standalone digital camera, and a cell phone without "smarts".

You can get all four of these for about as much as an (unsubsidized) iPhone costs.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 11:20 AM on January 3


That's why film will never die.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 11:23 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


It may be worth noting that on pilgrimages like the one described, traditionally you would record your journey by making stamps in your notebook. For more serious pilgrims, you might keep records by having a temple seal imprinted on your pure white hakui (pilgrim coat) perhaps with a holy inscription by a priest.

So yeah fuck cameras.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:31 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


I did just buy a new DSLR from a nearly-defunct brand (Pentax) but I kind of think that people are as likely to get tired of the traditional social network as the traditional camera. Using an SLR is a joy; using Facebook is a chore.

I do think we need to get better at having agile niche hardware manufacturers. Having everything built by enormous companies with foundries somewhere in Asia means you get what they think will sell to at least 10 million people.
posted by selfnoise at 11:39 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


You can find stamps in any Japan Rail station, museums, some temples and so on, but serious temple visitors have a special notebook and you can usually get a big pretty stamp and a complicated calligraphy note written on it as a memento of your pilgrimage.

(I've carried passport-sized notebooks to Japan just to collect the regular stamps both times I've been there, it's a nice free souvenir for yourself)
posted by sukeban at 11:46 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


we need to get better at having agile niche hardware manufacturers

Hear, hear. A number of years back my dream camera would have been an SLR with a black and white sensor. Now I'd probably rather have it in a mirrorless body, but consider: no color filters on the sensor, so right there you gain a stop of sensitivity. Without a Bayer array, you can either make your individual sensors larger, so you get four times the sensitivity and produce equivalent sharpness, or keep them small, so you get equivalent sensitivity and twice the linear resolution. Wouldn't sell more than a few thousand, though, so even though Kodak actually made the sensors back in 2005 or so, nobody ever put them in anything but a scientific device.
posted by echo target at 11:52 AM on January 3


If they could get full-frame sensors with good low-light sensitivity and quality depth-of-field into a smartphone I'd consider not getting a DSLR

My understanding is that "full-frame" only makes sense in the SLR world, where film frames were 35 mm wide, but digital sensors come in a variety of sizes, yielding different results with standard-sized lenses.

On a smart phone you may well see larger sensors in the future, but even with a massive increase in lens size, probably never something as large as 35 mm.

(Sorry for the nitpick)
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:53 AM on January 3


Scientist: "That's not to say that smartphones and such aren't going to continue to improve and to render standalone cameras redundant under more and more circumstances. Sensor technology is improving all the time, which means that we can get good results with smaller and smaller sensors and therefore smaller and smaller lenses."

One of the problems with this is that everything else being equal a smaller sensor, however wonderful it maybe in all other aspects, has a larger depth of field than a larger sensor. By their nature a cell phone has a small sensor and accompanying small lense. Compactness and it's accompanying constant availability are after all a key feature behind the author's thesis. Physics enforce fantastic depths of field on those small sensors. Which is great and desirable for the casual snap shooter wanting everything from 1m to infinity to be in focus in every shot (IE: practically all smart phone camera users). It is a lot less awesome for someone wanting to isolate the focus plane from the fore/background.

Easy control of focus and shallow depth of field is the key feature that has moved me back to an SLR after a decade of assorted P&S digitals. I was constantly bumping up against the physically inherent limits of a small image circle when attempting to capture the image I was seeing.

As always the tools being used will influence art. It'll be interesting to see whether things like bokeh and shallow depth of field are still used to effect 20 years from now once young photographers have had limited exposure and experience with tools that allow you to control them.
posted by Mitheral at 11:57 AM on January 3 [3 favorites]


35 mm film is 35 mm wide, but you have to account for the sprocket holes. Taking the images with the long dimension parallel to the strip of holes, the exposed part of the film is 24 mm by 36 mm (for a standard 35 mm single-lens reflex).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:00 PM on January 3


It simply isn't the right tool for the job for me but I will never begrudge it being the right tool for someone else. They're apples and oranges as far as I'm concerned.

Yeah, that's my feeling too. I'm by no means a pro, but there's just something about the sense of pride one gets for taking a really nice picture, for capturing a moment perfectly, that I've never really gotten with a camera phone. Sure, camera phones are fine for documenting outfits and meals but it's just . . . different. I first had that feeling with a little bitty Olympus XA I got when I was into Holgas and Lomos and stuff and it's the reason I continue to carry around a dSLR (as imperfect as it is, and it is) even though I sometimes feel silly doing so.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:03 PM on January 3


My favorite photography blogger responded to this.
posted by chrchr at 12:13 PM on January 3


Every tool has its place. Every user has a set of tools that meet their needs. For a lot of people, the camera on their smartphone is an acceptable tool to meet their needs. It may, even, be the "best" tool for their needs.

But, not every user has the same needs. I shoot with one of two cameras. For casual, throw-away, post-to-Facebook and never look at once it disappears from my timestream, I often use my iPhone 5's camera. It's shockingly good for what it is. It is not, however, capable of stopping time in the same fashion as my Fuji X100S.

It's not a matter of pixels. It's a matter of light. Fujinon glass that's orders of magnitudes better than anything any smartphone will have anytime soon. A sensor that seems to be able to do magical things with available light and capture things that before would have been lost. And finally, a physical interaction model that engages me with the experience.

So, yeah, cameraphones will probably destroy a lot of the low-end point-and-shoot market; that's just stating the obvious. Will it eat into the prosumer/professional side? Unlikely. You just can't break the laws of physics. Then again, you don't need an APS-C sized sensor and f/2 glass to capture your dinner.
posted by petrilli at 12:25 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


I went for the article hoping to see more than two underwhelming photos of his Kumano Kodo trip.
posted by sneebler at 12:30 PM on January 3


Yes, the rolling shutter and tiny sensor and simple glass is going to replace all photography.

You can tell this person is not a photographer.

I mean, Wacom tablets have replaced all paper and ink and pencils. Right?

More tools at our disposal does not mean all other tools immediately become junk.
posted by clvrmnky at 12:34 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


I have taken the insufferable and obnoxious step of carrying an old Leica with me all the time and shooting 35mm black and white film that I develop in my kitchen. I'm not even sure I have a good reason for doing this. Perhaps it's just nostalgia for my middle school photography class. Whatever it is, it's challenging and interesting making good images with film. There's a process to it and the medium is opinionated in a way that seems to kind of guide how you work. That and I'm really not interested in learning how to tweak images in Photoshop.

However, I was recently in Oaxaca. I shot 12 rolls of film, and I haven't even developed all of them yet. I also took some random photos with my cell phone, and I'm really pleased with some of them. Whatever (definitely limited) skills I've developed from spending a lot of time shooting with more advanced cameras made me able to find interesting images on my cell phone too. Meanwhile, none of the film photos are online because i haven't found the time to spend the hours I'm going to need to make contact sheets, identify the winners, and print them.
posted by chrchr at 12:38 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


More tools at our disposal does not mean all other tools immediately become junk.

Of course the article doesn't actually say that. In fact, he is pretty explicit about how good the tools he's used have been. This article is about the expectations around viewing and sharing images and the temporal space that procedure inhabits these days, not about how your favorite camera sucks.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:48 PM on January 3


I agree on some points, but he seems to succumb to fatalism as he compromises more and more. The image means less and less to him, while the convenience of the process means more. People for whom the image itself is paramount will not compromise nearly as much as he is willing to, and some are not willing to compromise at all — meaning every image, however exquisite, is a composite of many failures as well as successes. He's happy with an iPhone camera, but I don't think that "destiny" was involved. He is simply embracing a new technology that is augmenting the old.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:08 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


> black and white sensor [...] in a mirrorless body

You can have exactly that. Price is less than infinity ducats.

> Kodak actually made the sensors back in 2005 or so, nobody ever put them in anything but a scientific device.

Introducing (in 2002) the Kodak DCS 760m. Also less than infinity credits.

Niche shit exists, but when you amortize development over < 10k units, well, it's gonna cost.

For mortals, a camera with the biggest sensor you can afford and an image stabilized lens so you can shoot at lower ISO + slower shutter speeds is pretty cool. Live preview in a B&W mode with a live histogram will give you something your Plus-X and F2 never could. For less than that Leica body alone, you could have a Sony A7 and a (reborn) Noct-Nikkor and get this [I cheated- that's a real f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor which goes used for more than the reborn 58mm f/1.4G]
posted by morganw at 1:24 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Ha! That's the same article that introduced me to the concept of a B&W sensor.
posted by echo target at 2:20 PM on January 3


> everyday snapshots... could forgo a standalone camera

In the future those snapshots might have incredible value for you. I curse my chronically underexposing 25-years-ago self. I bet many will curse their sub-megapixel fuzzy photos in the future.

On the other hand, the best camera is the one you have with you.
posted by morganw at 3:13 PM on January 3


> I need a pocket-ish sized camera with a big sensor, zoom lens, GPS, Wifi and a decent UI not only for picture-taking, but apps for uploading to social media. I don't know if that exists, but anyway it feels too soon to buy a new camera

I'm trying out a Canon PowerShot SX280 HS and so far I like it. It has a 20x optical zoom, GPS, and a decent interface for picture-taking. I haven't tried the social media aspects yet. The sensor might not be as big as you'd like.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:45 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


we need to get better at having agile niche hardware manufacturers

Yes !! So I can finally have a shutter button on the LEFT side of the camera, yesss. Come to think of it, make the entire camera left-handed. Why isn't there a camera for the many of us?
posted by seawallrunner at 3:48 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Why isn't there a camera for the many of us?

Tooling is still very expensive. A lot of manufacturing has gotten more flexible, but a lot of it still isn't, at least if you want a low unit cost. You would need new molds for the plastic parts and new circuit boards, at least, plus a second assembly line, plus development and testing costs, etc. for around 12% of your sales, at best.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:03 PM on January 3


I just got done printing a bunch of big prints from my old Pentax k10 that I got from DaShiv a couple years back, and that's the big disconnect I get from this story — Craig Mod doesn't seem like he has photos up in his house.

Because, yeah, point and shoots are getting more networked, and cell cameras are better than ever, but they don't give the resolution you need in order to print them out at any size at all, and I like having prints up on my walls.

I shoot with my cell phone too, though sharing off of that is more of a pain in that ass than the DSLR, honestly. It's harder to get a shot worth sharing, and even that little bit of slowness in the phone in uploading makes it more of a hassle than it's worth.

Folks above already did a good job with the "Different tools for different jobs" explanations. I shoot film, I shoot digital, I shoot toy cameras, I shoot whatever I have handy, honestly. This trip I left the DSLR at home (yeah, because it's heavy) and shot a Holga and a Fuji 645 that I got through a weird trickle-down inheritance. I think I got some pretty great shots of a hundred-year ice storm with them, and also with the cell phone, and there were a couple times I wished I had the k10 because of the light, but I just took different pictures than I would have with a different camera. (And besides, the k10's inability to really sharply manually focus bugs me — the screen is just too small, and camera autofocus doesn't give as much DOF control as I'd like.)

All in all, it's kind of a shame that more people don't get that digital printing technology has kept apace with camera technology, so that for color stuff really is pretty much as good as film, especially since so much color film print work ends up going through digital processing anyway. Maybe that's a good illustration of the idea that if it's not networked, it's less important, but I tend to enjoy looking at the pictures I take big, with high resolution. And since I take pictures for me to look at, I can always get the roll scanned (same price, pretty much) and post 'em a couple days after they happen.
posted by klangklangston at 5:53 PM on January 3


I'm trying out a Canon PowerShot SX280 HS and so far I like it.

I was thinking more like the Sony DSC-RX100 II, but with GPS and for $500. I can dream.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 6:19 PM on January 3


they don't give the resolution you need in order to print them out at any size at all, and I like having prints up on my walls.

How big are we talking, here?

A decent point and shoot manufactured in the last decade should absolutely be able to print up to 8x10 and potentially a little bigger depending on your settings. A smart phone is fine for anything from 3x5 up to around 5x7, which are the sizes most people used to get photos developed at back in the day.

Again, I think you can't really compare a smartphone to an SLR in terms of pro-level stuff, like wanting to make a poster-sized image. But if you compare apples to apples by looking at how the average person actually uses a camera, a smartphone is seriously 100% fine for most casual uses. Including printing out and displaying at home.
posted by Sara C. at 6:24 PM on January 3


"A decent point and shoot manufactured in the last decade should absolutely be able to print up to 8x10 and potentially a little bigger depending on your settings."

8x10 and 16x20 on the latest ones, and no, a point and shoot won't get anywhere near film at that size. Having printed several point and shoots not too long ago from decent point and shoots purchased about five years ago, they're not even that great at 5x7. 4x5 at best, and even then you're often having to do quite a bit of fiddling or post-process to get a print that's properly color balanced and maintains detail.

Most of that is, as explained above, that point and shoots have kinda crappy, limited lenses (because physics) and sensors (also physics). At 72dpi, that doesn't matter at all. At 300dpi it does. And point and shoots right now can't collect enough light to compete with film or DSLRs. I'm totally willing to believe that as image processing gets better, so that P&S can do things like composite multiple overlaying images to get more effective resolution while keeping shutter speeds reasonable, they could get there. But they're not there now, and networking won't get them there.
posted by klangklangston at 6:49 PM on January 3


Again, I think we're quibbling about pro-level or artistic use vs. typical use.

I've used a point and shoot to take photos which I later printed at 8x10 and larger (16x20 is stretching it, though), and used the resulting photos as props and set dressing for a major network TV series. I would have been happy to display any of those photos in my home.

Last week I went to Rite Aid and bought a couple prints of a nice family photo shot on my brother's iPhone 4. We printed them at 5x7. They were comparable to any of the old family snapshots from the days of shooting on a $50 35mm point and shoot or one of those disposable things that were popular in the 90s. Old family photos that were originally printed on that 4x5 stock with the wavy edges, but which have been scanned and blown up to 5x7 are very similar in quality.

But yeah I dunno is it as nice as the resolution you'll get from an analog medium-format camera? No. However the people taking party snapshots and pictures of their kids are probably doing just fine.
posted by Sara C. at 7:08 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


They were comparable to any of the old family snapshots from the days of shooting on a $50 35mm point and shoot or one of those disposable things that were popular in the 90s.

I'm not sure how you can truly judge this with your own eyes, since your vision is almost certainly not as good as it was back in the 90s. Mine sure isn't. If I want to judge the quality of old prints like family snapshots, I scan them at very high rez, way beyond what a typical digital photo would be. And they look like crap compared to digital. The only scans I have that come close to digital quality are from old Hasselblad color slides, they are medium format and were scanned on a high end drum scanner. That stuff is pro medium format quality.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:22 PM on January 3


I was in high school in the 90's and am 32 now. My vision is certainly still good enough to judge whether a photo is clear or not.

Also, we still have the photos, so I can look at a print from digital and a print from film and judge whether they are similar or not.

Again, I know that when you're talking about things like artistic quality, or archival longevity, or value for professional uses, a smartphone absolutely does not compare to a DSLR. But for casual snapshots, a smartphone is about on par with all the cheap shitty shit we used to take photos with before the digital era.
posted by Sara C. at 10:49 PM on January 3


Having all pictures use the same (phone) lens is not that swell. I'm not sure the addon lenses are terrific. I appreciate what skilled photographers do. I seldom take pictures of things I know I can find easily online - no one needs my picture of Sainte Chapelle and neither do I - many skilled people have done it well. I take pictures of details, things that make me laugh, or things that capture some moment. Or, honestly, to remind myself of the license # of the car parked badly next to me, or of the type of hardware I need to match. And I don't take many pictures. I like experiencing things without a camera in front of my face most of the time. I appreciate my friends who take pictures, keep them organized, and send them to me later as a pleasant reminder; I'm just not good at that.
posted by theora55 at 10:56 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


morganw: " a (reborn) Noct-Nikkor"

OMG I didn't know such a glorious thing existed and now i want one so bad.
posted by Mitheral at 11:10 PM on January 3


I'm not entirely sure why, but I've stopped enjoying photography for any other purpose than art.

I think it might be something to do with the photographs being produced being, firstly, too realistic; secondly, stored digitally. With old photos and photos stored on film, they're imperfect enough that your brain does the filling-in, and that engages your imagination and memory more. Plus, they're physical objects, and they're easier to damage than digitally stored ones, so you cherish them more.

That's just my theory, anyway.
posted by Quilford at 11:58 PM on January 3


Frankly, it sounds like this guy went through a serious photography phase and now he's over it. During that era, camera phones got a little better. So, now he still appreciates photography but only enough to take the occasional snap with his phone. It does not really form much of a basis for some vague arguments about technological shifts in industry or image culture. Dude just has different hobbies now.
posted by mr.ersatz at 6:30 PM on January 4


On a smart phone you may well see larger sensors in the future, but even with a massive increase in lens size, probably never something as large as 35 mm.

Pretty sure we'll see arrays of small cameras. The problem with large sensors is actually the lensing required to support them, which is physically larger than the sensor itself. But an 8x8 grid of small cameras, with individual lensing, and a chip to integrate all the incoming imagery?

Guaranteed to happen.
posted by effugas at 7:08 AM on January 5 [2 favorites]


The author's assumption seems to be that we take photographs not merely to make images but to share with others, and moreover not so much to share the image as itself but to share the experience. Not every photograph is made for that purpose. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes an image is just an image, a bit of art made by the photographer for the pure joy of making a beautiful image.
posted by caddis at 7:25 AM on January 5


I mean, Wacom tablets have replaced all paper and ink and pencils. Right?

For all practical purposes, yes.
posted by device55 at 9:46 AM on January 5


effugas: "Pretty sure we'll see arrays of small cameras. The problem with large sensors is actually the lensing required to support them, which is physically larger than the sensor itself. But an 8x8 grid of small cameras, with individual lensing, and a chip to integrate all the incoming imagery?

Guaranteed to happen.
"

I dunno about that. If it made sense to do something like that I imagine that we'd already have seen it done on existing digital cameras. I don't know, but I suspect that integrating the images from the different lenses and sensors in a way that made a really high-quality image would be a big pain in the butt. I can see several problems:

Each lens would have its own imperfections (some common across lenses, some individual to that lens due to manufacturing tolerances) and I think they would be additive. Also, grinding and assembling 64 small high-quality lenses is probably more expensive than grinding and assembling one big one. Finally, there's the issue of parallax; at short-to-medium distances, each sensor is going to be taking a slightly different picture because it will be viewing the scene from a slightly different angle. The distance between sensors doesn't have to be very great at all for this to be noticeable even at typical snapshot distances of a few meters. Removing parallax in software is possible, but it's tricky and the results are generally imperfect.

Much more likely, I think, is that we'll continue to see improvements in sensor technology such that very small sensors will eventually be able to provide excellent sensitivity and low noise even in dark conditions. Then we'll be able to use a single small sensor and small lens in order to provide results similar to what we can currently get with a large sensor and large lens.

They'll only be similar, though. One fundamental issue which can't really be gotten around is the depth-of-field issue. For reasons which I don't understand well enough to explain but which someone else hopefully can do, smaller sensors with smaller lenses have greater depth of field (the range of distances in the photo that are basically in focus) than larger sensors with larger lenses. I don't think there's really a way around this, because even quite good small-sensor cameras exhibit this effect when compared to full-frame SLRs. It's not exactly a problem per se, just a difference. Sometimes you want a wide depth of field, sometimes you want a shallow one.

If you want a wide depth of field then a smaller sensor (all else being equal) might actually be better than a big sensor. If you want a shallow depth of field (a common technique in professional photography, when the photographer wants to draw attention to a particular part of the scene by defocusing everything else) then a large sensor and large lens will be better. Generally, though, it's easier to get a wide depth of field (assuming you have enough light to compensate for the small aperture) out of a large lens/sensor than it is to get a shallow one out of a small lens/sensor. Narrow apertures (which give wide depth of field) are easier to come by than wide ones.

Anyway, I still think there's going to be a place for big, traditional-format, interchangeable-lens cameras for the foreseeable future. They'll probably get rarer, but there will always be things they can do that small cameras can't.
posted by Scientist at 11:02 AM on January 5 [1 favorite]


>> a (reborn) Noct-Nikkor

> OMG I didn't know such a glorious thing existed and now i want one so bad.


Sigma's announced a similar beast, too. 9 bladed aperture, coma correction, etc. Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Sony mounts.

There's also the drool-worthy Zeiss Otus for $4k and the Voigtlander Nokton for < $500

> Oh, the camera is dead, again?

The camera is dead. Long live the camera!

What a crazy variety there is. There's also outfits like borrowlenses for mere mortals to rent amazing gear. I rented the Canon 1-5X macro to shoot individual grains of teff, amaranth &c. just for fun!
posted by morganw at 12:34 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


Craig's followup to his New Yorker piece is on his website now:

Photography, hello
Technical notes on our shift to ever increasingly networked lenses

posted by gen at 12:17 AM on January 9


Scientist: I dunno about that. If it made sense to do something like that I imagine that we'd already have seen it done on existing digital cameras. I don't know, but I suspect that integrating the images from the different lenses and sensors in a way that made a really high-quality image would be a big pain in the butt. I can see several problems:

Each lens would have its own imperfections (some common across lenses, some individual to that lens due to manufacturing tolerances) and I think they would be additive. Also, grinding and assembling 64 small high-quality lenses is probably more expensive than grinding and assembling one big one. Finally, there's the issue of parallax; at short-to-medium distances, each sensor is going to be taking a slightly different picture because it will be viewing the scene from a slightly different angle. The distance between sensors doesn't have to be very great at all for this to be noticeable even at typical snapshot distances of a few meters. Removing parallax in software is possible, but it's tricky and the results are generally imperfect.

Much more likely, I think, is that we'll continue to see improvements in sensor technology such that very small sensors will eventually be able to provide excellent sensitivity and low noise even in dark conditions. Then we'll be able to use a single small sensor and small lens in order to provide results similar to what we can currently get with a large sensor and large lens.
Several problems here. The biggest is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: small lenses and small detectors are physically incapable of providing the same amount of detail, due to wavelength-based resolution limits (and quantum noise as well).

The reason we don't have lens arrays on cellphones is because there's no driving market demand to pay for them. 99% of the users are happy with their cellphone picture quality, and wouldn't pay an extra $$$ for better.

However, most of those lenses are mold-injected, not ground, so grinding and assembling actually becomes "molding a multi-lens plastic wafer", which is ironically much easier to assemble.Their defects are not additive; on the contrary, they tend towards the mean as a square root, reducing individual (non-biased) errors by a factor of 2.8 for a 64-lens grid!

The image processing problems you cite will be handled by more intense processing; since this is post-capture, it's fairly invisible to the user (cellphones don't typically display the photo right after taking it; you have to go look it up in your gallery). The screen the user sees won't be as good as the eventual photo, though - although since those screens are about QVGA in resolution, the user may not see the differences.

Increased light sensitivity is plagued by shot noise from the background temperature of the detectors - literally, at room temp every detector is potentially emitting an electron that wasn't triggered by any light at all - and while there are ways to shave a bit more performance off of this issue, we aren't likely to ever see thumbnail-sized detectors at room temperature more than about 3 f-stops better than what we have today (unlessl we learn to manipulate Planck's Constant for the Universe ;) ).

Your parallax problem remains. It can be solved, but it's going to be a lot of Gcycles of work (and there will always be glitches).

And, of course, all these problems are easily solvable with BIGGER LENSES AND DETECTORS on single-purpose cameras, so the technology remains undeveloped. Hypothetically, a high-quality camera could be made of thousands of microlenses on one side of a credit-card-sized wafer-like camera (especially if it transmits the raw data to a processor nearby), but that's 100s of millions of $ of R&D for something that has no market currently.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:29 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]


« Older Mad Science Museum: you'll be living on a diet of...   |   Finance as a novelistic plot engine Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post