The relentless pursuit of making things easier for consumers. Manufacturer tyranny.

I wrote a piece yesterday concerning the loss of hands-on craft in our commercial business of photography and what I think we have lost as a result of pulling back from a real immersion in the pursuit of our art. After talking to an old friend yesterday, who works in the retail camera industry, I thought I would turn my ire toward one more pernicious aspect of "modern" photography, and that is the desire on the part of camera makers, and perhaps their target audiences, to make everything easier.

There are two things that camera makers like to add to their cameras to increase their appeal to the mass market: One is any gizmo or techie sounding feature that promises to do something that might otherwise require, taste, skill, time, discipline etc. Over the years these "improvements" have included all kinds of crap that most people use once or twice before going right back to the way they have been using cameras for many years. I include in this list: Scene modes (fireworks, baby's first vomit, sports, sunsets, autumn, kaleidoscope and countless others), the much despised auto HDR mode and the even more hated, Effects (miniature trains, grunge, super vivid, fractal-ated, ultra-grainy, old fashioned and, my favorite, the boring picture setting). I would also include the "features" that one percent or fewer of people use on their cameras such as wi-fi and GPS. (Yes, I know you can control your camera via wi-fi, save yourself a lot of aggravation and get a $25 remote...works every time).

The other stuff that cameras makers tout and camera buyers buy is anything that reduces the customer's need for any kind of skill or discipline, or learning of the actual craft. Fool proof auto focus modes, fool proof exposure modes and faster and faster frame rates. The idea being that if one just holds down that shutter button long enough.....

There are camera trends I can't really argue with. Those would include anything that gives the user the potential to exceed the image quality of previous generations of cameras with meaningful improvements like increased dynamic range, more bit depth and lower noise.

One trend I am ambivalent about is size and weight. And the orientation or flexibility of rear screens.

My friend's pet peeve, especially acute when he teaches photo classes, is that everyone is looking for the quickest and easiest way to do something. Along the lines of: "I saw this photo by Richard Avedon that was really cool. Is there a filter on my Canon Rebel that will get me the same look?"
The current state of the industry is such that almost every camera buyer believes that it is no longer necessary at all to have a learning curve beyond finding out where the button lies that will automatically do Scavllo, Penn, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, or even the Joel Grimes or Joey Lawrence looks. The customer belief is that the difference between what they've been able to achieve and what famous photographers have been able to achieve lies solely in a filter that can be enabled on demand.

I'm amazed at regression toward apathy but even more amazed at people's sense of automatic technology entitlement. A case in point, some moron was going on and on, in a photography forum, about the Sony RX10iii. He was complaining about the sorry state of that camera's image stabilization when shooting 4K video, handheld at 600mm PLUS the full digital zoom. He was blaming the camera for not being rock solid while hand held at 1200mm.  In video! Because, with the right button, no one should ever need to buy a tripod  again. Right? (The reality is that most competing cameras don't even offer real (non-electronic) image stabilization in 4k and, if image stabilization is critical, dropping into 1080p will allow RX10ii and iii users some of the very best video image stabilization on the market today). I was stunned at the writer's misguided assumptions.

The magic filter. The infallible camera. The automated settings for volcano eruptions or pub crawling. They all exist so camera makers can convince most consumers that ANY knowledge is absolutely unnecessary in the making of "great" photographs....and videos.

The end result of all this is very, very interesting. By eliminating the need, the want, or the chance to make meaningful use of good cameras' underlying strengths (bigger sensors, high speed shutters, low noise, fast apertures, etc.) the camera makers, by relentlessly pushing simplification and automation, are pushing potential buyers right into the waiting and gloriously uncluttered arms of the iPhones, Galaxy Phones, iPads and Surface tablets as the preferred imaging tools of choice. And why not? If you convince a consumer that simplicity and/or automation is the name of the game then what could be simpler than using the phone? It makes life easy. It eliminates the need to make choices. And you can apply all the filters you might ever want, after the fact, right there on the phone. (I guess that's another bonus...).

Is it any wonder that sales of traditional cameras have fallen from a high of nearly 10 million per year in 2010 to barely more than 2 million, per year, this year?

If our own writing (the photo blogger community) constantly emphasizes the ease with which a new camera can be used, and we emphasize as important the ability of a camera to fit into one's pockets, and we emphasize in our writing how "retro" a camera is, and we talk about how cool it is to have NFC, GPS and filter modes, then it's little wonder that the camera makers bend over backwards to make those features universally available. And little wonder the makers don't feel the need to make real strides in parameters that actually make pictures better.

The boys at DP Review aren't doing anyone favors by focusing on trivial crap like touch screens and in-camera raw processing instead of a camera's core performance. They are essentially signaling to a whole generation of buyers that gimmicks trump performance in the camera market. The analogy being the way minivans are sold: How many cup holders and how many DVD screens for the kids? Not gas mileage, safety, resale value, or even necessary performance to drive on the highway.

I buy cameras in spite of the gimmicks and not because of them. I think most of my readers do the same. But eventually, if the camera makers follow Apple down the rabbit hole of design and features we'll all be left with nothing to shoot with but our phones ---- or weak imitations of the phones. And that would be sad.

Finally, can we just stop using the phrase: "It's a deal killer for me." As in the nearly universal: Well, it had the highest resolution sensor, the best high ISO noise numbers, the best optics, the best AF system, and the best dynamic range, but....the screen on the back of the camera only rotates through 180 degrees; not 360 degrees, and that's just a deal killer for me.

Another variation: "I needed a camera with perfect 4K video, super high resolutions, Zeiss lenses, microphone input, headphone jack, phase detection on the sensor, great still image performance, lightweight, great handling and an EVF. I looked at the XXXXX, and the YYYYY but they both had only one SD card slot and that was a deal killer for me..."  Must have been that guy who learned how to load two rolls of film in the same camera at the same time to shoot back up film in the film days. Critical. Right? (Slow film goes first in the film gate and then the faster film fits in behind it....).

In my mind there are only two "deal killers." One is that you just can't afford the tool you want to buy. The second is that the camera lacks a integral imaging feature you desperately need to do your work. Everything else is just a dilettante's way of saying, "Since I don't really use my camera for anything meaningful I can wait forever for all the stars to line up and the camera makers to exhaust every possible combination of good and bad crap until I see just what I want."

I don't think people who are immersed in their art have the luxury of waiting around for "the perfect list of features." They need a camera that is close enough right now...

Spinning rims, cupholders, voice activated tray tables, etc. Yawn. Panorama mode, auto HDR, Smile detection, etc. Yuck.


JustinPhotoArtist said...

Hi Kirk, what you describe isn't a new phenomenon though. I remember back in the 80's film cameras were being described as recognising scenes and selecting the 'correct' settings - you didn't even have to choose the mode manually on a dial! I think these developments are a result of manufacturers having to deal with wide, and often opposing, needs from consumers. So everything needs to be packed in so a product appeals to everybody. As long as 'features' that I don't need or use keep out of the way of me using the camera in the way I want then I'm OK with feature bloat. (I for one do need wifi but don't need video.)

George Beinhorn said...

A thoughtful post. It evoked thoughts of my experience as a writer and editor (who makes his living from it). In the beginning of personal computers we had a real writer's tool - it was called WordStar, and it worked the way writers like their tools - it gave us real word-churning power. But of course, the secretaries complained, and Microsoft saw a vast market, and that was that - no more WordStar, or evolutionary improvements thereto.

The analogy isn't perfect - they never are. But I agree with Kirk up to a point, that the obsessive refinement of features is, partly, a marketing ploy - "People who take snapshots will fall for this; we'll tap the market." At the same time, the camera I remember most fondly had a large set of features for its time - the Nikon F4. You know, the big Sherman tank of a camera. What I loved about it was that it did just what I wanted, exceedingly well - it absolutely nailed focus and exposure. I could count on it. So it kind of did what good running shoes or swimming goggles or well-balanced hammers do - it disappeared.

And what happened then is that I was free to forget about the camera and focus on - not "the image" yuck pah bleh! - but my own consciousness. Because, honestly, when my consciousness is in the right place, my best images take themselves, pretty much. And don't misunderstand, it's NOT easy. The qualities for greatness are the same in every art form, whether it's high-level sports, business, science, or the arts. They are exceptional energy, mental concentration, enthusiasm, willingness - all of these things to such an extent that you find you're able to set the squealing little ego aside.

I think it's why we do photography fundamentally - to find ways to have those experiences. There's a certain liberating sense of inner expansion that happens when we get all our tools in line so that we can do a great job; give everything to the work. Stephen Gaskin, the 1970s hippie community founder (of The Farm in Tennessee) had a habit of asking, at the start of a project, "What's trying to happen here?" I think it's a good start. Then we can go find the right tools. I know that those experiences can happen in the arts. Or why are we doing it?

typingtalker said...


Feel better now?

Why do you bother reading photography forums (fora?) populated with morons?

Kirk Tuck said...

I guess I'm like the optimist who when confronted with a room full of manure starts digging to find the pony...

Dave Jenkins said...

It all started when George Eastman introduced the first Kodak with the slogan "You push the button, we do the rest."

If photographs can be made with neither thought, knowledge, nor effort, where is the art? What is there to be proud of?

David said...

I partially feel sorry for you Kirk. I come here to read interesting photography things, and gave up on DP forum a long time ago. But you just can't come here as you are the content provided. I hope you too have sane blogs that you take enjoyment in.

Jim said...

I remember when Canon came out with "eye controlled" autofocus on the EOS Elan 7. The camera supposedly tracked what part of the subject you were looking at and focused on that. I bought the non-eye controlled version. I'm still hoping someone (manufacturer) creates a square sensor basic digital camera (square so I don't have to turn the camera to switch from horizontal to portrait and enough pixels that I still end up with at least 12MP). I can even live without autofocus if it has focus peaking and I only need that because of 70+ YO eyes.