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.


physics*chick said...

So true about digital cameras these days. What I've said about the difference between my dSLR (a Canon Rebel) and my Olympus OM-1 is that to take a shot with the Rebel you have to know more, with the OM you have to understand more.

Point'n'Shoot digicams seem to take all the controls away from you, whereas those that try to give it back (eg dSLRs and some higher end point'n'shoot models) have so many options, auto features, etc it takes a long time to become familiar enough to get what you want.

Don't get me wrong, I love my Rebel, and it has allowed me to experiment and learn about SLR photography so much quicker than I could have done with film. And my little 2Mpix Elph still holds a special place in my heart (and often my purse). But now that I have a film, full manual (with light meter, thank goodness) SLR with the OM, I am dazzled by it's simplicity... after that, it's up to me to take a good photo.

Thanks for stopping by my blog Wee Dram! Keep up the good work introducing other photo kiddies like myself to great cameras!

WeeDram said...

Thanks for the comment. Also, thank you for comment on my suspected Quebec City shot on flickr.

I wish you many happy times with the OM!