Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Internal Audience

I get a kick out of pulling out cameras that are older than the person to whom I am showing them. The reactions are entertaining, but surprisingly (at least it might be surprising to a lot of people,) the reaction is often "Wow, that's so cool!" Given my age, it's at least possible that they are humouring me, and it's also possible that since I am a support resource for many of them they want to insure I give them good service, so they feign their delight. But I don't think so much ... the designs and craftsmanship are classic and solid. Today's tiny pocket digicams don't have heft and solidity, and the larger DSLRs are so plastic and cold.

But there is another factor. Over on RFF, we have noticed a real influx of younger photographers and new photo enthusiasts who have moved over not only to film shooting, but in amazing numbers to mechanical or "simple" electronically controlled cameras. These are people who have at best a vague notion of film, and certainly have grown up with digital cameras as the only photo capture device they knew, or at the very least they desired a "good" digital camera because of the marketing and word-of-mouth hype.

So why are they turning to film cameras, and to rangefinders, of all things? I think one answer is in how current products are designed and implemented. The New York Times has a great article on "feature creep" and the "internal audience syndrome", which plagues marketing and engineering departments.

A still camera is a pretty simple device. It is intended to capture a moment and a composition to a sensitive material or subsystem so that the resulting image can be reproduced for any number of purposes. The physics dictate a lens opening, an exposure duration and some means of transferring the captured image to other media.

Figuring out the exposure duration and lens opening size (aperture) takes some knowledge, so a light meter is used to help. In truth, exposures can be calculated in one's head if the sensitivity of the capture medium is known. Interior and night lighting is more difficult, since our eyes are so adaptable to lower light levels and there is little or no reference point to the sun's intensity.

Most cameras with even moderately sophisticated internal metering systems do a very good job of evaluating the required exposure, and when a scene has "tricky" lighting, a minimally knowledgeable photographer can compensate for the meter which has been fooled.

But in an effort to relieve snap-shooters of having to know anything about exposure rules, manufacturers have tried to design logic via electronics and more sophisticated light measurement techniques to do the work of the human brain. Some efforts have been very successful, but funnily enough it's not simply the newest systems that are the best. The Yashica rangefinder models such as the GSN had metering systems that were, by all accounts, hardly ever fooled, yet those cameras were produced in the 1960s and 1970s.

So when my friend DOF posted about his plan to purchase an Olympus SW-710 because of its rugged, waterproof construction, the quality of the images and such, one commenter advised he reconsider because of a published "bad review". Ooops! If you know DOF, you know he does his homework. I'm sure he'll make that camera dance.

My needs are a bit different. If I am forced to go digital, or choose to do so, I want:

  • A smallish yet rugged, metal-bodied camera
  • Rangefinder focusing; if I must have a dSLR, then manual focusing must be straighforward, positive and precise.
  • A viewfinder that is the equal of a Leica or the Olympus 35SP, or an Olympus OM-1
  • Small, compact prime lenses with fast prime choices
  • As little automation as possible
  • An interface that presents a minimal number of controls that are analog in presentation and operation. Multiple, nested menus are NOT acceptable
Guess I'll be waiting a long, long time. Suits don't understand real utility.

Friday, June 01, 2007

"Just the facts, ma'am"

Facts can be slippery things. Well, actually "real" facts are not slippery at all, but getting to the facts can be difficult, not least when the "facts" are statistical in nature.

Canada's Public Safety Minister, Stockwell Day (aka "Doris") has responded to Ontario's request for a federal ban on handguns by arguing, as quoted in The Toronto Star, that availability of handguns aren't the real problem. Part of his argument:

'"In jurisdictions that have eliminated or tried to eliminate, to ban handguns – the United Kingdom, Ireland, other jurisdictions – in fact crime with guns has unfortunately gone up," Day said.'

Whenever public officials or pundits make these kinds of statements, I am suspicious. Actually, given the track record of other conservative government officials (read: Cheney, Bush, Rummy, Rice, etc.,), I now automatically assume the true is probably exact opposite or at least wildly different.

There was a 16 per cent drop in the number of firearms offences in the United Kingdom in 2006 compared with the previous year, according to figures from Britain's Home Office. Injuries related to gun crimes also fell while fatalities rose slightly."

Apparently the UK handgun ban was introduced in 1997, and there was some variation in gun crime incidents ... steady some years, up for a couple of years, now down. Well duh, such a ban would not change things overnight; we are talking about a policy that will take years to evaluate for its effect. And no one argues that availability of handguns (or not) is the sole "answer" to the problem. All sane, rational people will admit that gun violence is complex, with multiple causes and influences. Day is correct in that addressing the issue of smuggling of illegal weapons into Canada is certainly of major importance.

In addition, Stock refers to more than one jurisdiction where crime increased, yet cites only one reference. Wanna bet if he were asked to cite a few more countries he would be stammering?

But outlawing handguns, which have no purpose other than to shoot another person or for target practice, is obviously a logical action. It will give more power to law enforcement, gradually change public attitude and eventually reduce the number of handguns in circulation. To argue that fewer handguns will increase handgun crime and shootings is laughably ridiculous.

Personally I am sick to death of the "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" mantra. Give it a rest ... that isn't even imaginative.

Hey Stock, is that a handgun in your wetsuit, or are you just happy to see me?

What we need are ministers and other officials who really know things and are not talking puppets.