I don’t mind the performances, controls suck

New DSLR, new mirrorless, new high end compact, new point and shoot, new smartphone. Every week will start with some good news with photographer. Sensors’ capabilities are now outstanding in low light, in high contrasts for landscapes, and for depth of colours for portraits. Other cameras’ performances are also always improving in terms of Autofocus, how fast the camera will shoot, and much more.

This does not matter so much to me

Cameras’ manufacturers are following the herd, that’s a marketing law. We, users, are supposed to be mostly early adopters and geeks. But we are not that much, we may even be deceit by this character. We are just photographer. Performances are right now really impressive, I will always need better ones, but that’s not the point. Manufacturers have forgotten the basics.

Three dials or nothing

It looks so trivial to me, I just don’t know why I am writing this: photography is first and foremost about f/, speed and ISO. That’s it. Shoot RAW if you don’t want to bother with anything less, and shoot JPG and take care of WB (White balance), DR (Dynamic range) and so on. But photography is mostly about these three parameters. Why can’t we change them so easily? Why these damned menus? (I know the answer…). When you are using programs, Av or Tv (Aperture / Speed priority), you still need the 3rd dial for correcting exposure. When you have shot a few times, let’s say a few dozens of thousands, more or less, sometimes much much less, you know the bias of your exposure, you also still need the ISO choice and the variable parameter. 3 dials or nothing. Period. How many cameras comply with this basics? Not so many.

Much more complex ?

But it is not that simple. There is also the AF mode, the WB, and much more. You will find hardly photographers shooting the same way. However, most of the cameras are still mostly products, not what I am calling photo platform with heavy customization capabilities. That’s a real pain because we are not the same, and we need to customize our control. We need customized display on buttons to remember what they are used for, we need much more “custom modes” (u1, u2 modes or C or whatever the name), we need to get control. Some manufactures are masquerading the past years, like Fuji, in a rather sensible way, what has been done before, which was not that stupid but which is already just obsolete. It was indeed stupid to remove the f/ control from directly the lens. Some are saying it was a way to build cheaper lens, but photography is not a cheap hobby, so that’s a wrong answer. However, I am very rarely impressed by controls efficiency of new cameras.

Few innovations, at the end of the day or too much to forget the basics?

There is obviously some common belief. New high end cameras are a plebiscite, mostly because of old fashioned controls and incredible performances. But it does not matter. I want a bigger view finder, I want my three dials back, I want great lenses, I want my customised controls. Nothing else really matter – at least that would not be missed.

Which camera manufacturer will not listen to the usual suspects, and will focus at what photographers really need? This blog might sound arrogant, fair enough, give me my three dials back (like in the Sony NEX-7 but for DSLR please), give me my great lenses back (not like the NEX-7!). Don’t forget my AF controls, my custom modes, my customized buttons, not just one or two, but all of them somewhere, don’t charge me 40% more for getting a bigger sensor I don’t need or a new lens line which bring nothing but a higher price and I will again accept that I am just an arrogant blogger.

Light field camera, a bright future or a dead-end?

Light field camera has moved from a technical concept to a mass consumer product recently. Basically, the concept is allowing you to focus after shooting, and theoretically to manage your depth of field (DOF) as you wish, so pretty much one can consider as a real innovation. DOF’s management has always been a real challenge for many photographer.

I don’t have much more to say about the product itself, DP Review published as usual a very exhaustive test and critic. No, my main question is more about the potential of the technology.

Don’t underestimate the existing sensors

Despite all the existing limits, I am still convinced it can really bring something unique. However, it has to overcome two main constraints: size and resolution. Compact cameras are so tiny that they are now embedded into smartphone, the clear future of casual shooters, and a must have for any photographer. On the other end, the performances of high end DSLR is more and more amazing, sensors are doing more than pushing the limits, they are just incredible if you think about what was possible only a few years ago. For both size and performances, I see no reason to stop the improvements. The  light field cameras look to me very chunky and their performances are yet pathetic, without saying using them is not as easy despite some real attempts to create an easy to use camera.

Don’t misunderstand people real motivation as casual shooters

Huge DOF with a small sensor camera at f/8

Casual shooters want to have everything focused, they don’t care and don’t understand DOF. Tiny sensors are very much capable doing that, and will be more and more capable into the future. When they performances will improve, they will operate more and more at bigger f/ numbers, with a greater DOF. I know they are limited by diffraction though, but the potential looks real to me. Indeed, even with resolution getting worse with high f/, it is still so far ahead compare with light field camera, at least for the time being. I know it may change, or not as both technologies are moving forward.

Creativity has nothing to do with managing DOF

Again, if you want an almost infinite DOF, you should use tiny sensors, they are still much better and smaller and cheaper. If you want to refocus after the shooting, and are an experienced photographer, where is the point? I am asking myself the question, so I am taking usually a couple of shots focused at different subjects. Shooting one more picture cost nothing nowadays, thanks to the digital photography. And for the photojournalism / action shooters: again, tiny sensors look to me much more capable to deliver what they are looking for.

The future is not what you expect

That said, they are much more potential application for this technology, and entrepreneur may be able to transform their new toy into an useful tool. So yes, there is hope! But it is still quite fuzzy to say the less.

The final word

I am an engineer myself, so I know the two constraints (size and resolution, if not a third one: low light capability) can be much improved, but frankly, the gap is immense and whereas it would be interesting to follow the technology’s improvements, it is unlikely this technology may overcome the classic sensors before long. Like many innovations, it may be just too soon or may never really solve any issue. I am just believing the innovation will come from another angle, the existing motto looks to me unable to solve the problems they are listing. Time will say whether I am wrong or not…

Further reading: apart from the excellent DP Review, this article is just a jewel about light field cameras.

An off-beat apology of small sensors

Every month, a new camera is released and their is a real inflation of bigger and bigger sensors: mirrorless sensors at APS-C’s size are now more or less the norm whereas it used to be the micro 4/3 a few years ago. The rumour says a new Nikon D600 low cost full frame will be released in 2012. Sony released a competitor of the Canon S100 (expert compact camera very small) with of course a bigger sensor. Canon refused to release like the others a mirrorless, just to release a bigger new G compact camera, the G1-X.

It is a well known fact, the bigger the sensor, the better the quality. A better quality for either portrait photography (Colour depth), landscapes or actions shots (read DxO Mark for more information). So it seems to be a no brainer: take the bigger sensor available and shoot. That’s cannot be more simple no? Actually, that’s not so black and white. Let me be more specific:

Don’t follow the herd

First, one should notice that when the sensors’ sizes are inflating, so are prices too (Canon G1-X and Sony new camera DSC-RX100 are much more expensive than Canon G12, the precedent G camera and Canon S100, the most obvious Sony competitor).

Even more important, small body does not go so well with bigger sensor even if some manufacturers did miracles (Sony and the NEX cameras, Sony again with the DSC-RX100, and Canon with the G1-X). Conversely, some mirrorless with small sensor (Nikon 1) can be chunky compare with other cameras with bigger sensors. But I mean, if you want to make it small and light, small sensors have more potential.

More important, the depth of field (DOF) is always much significant with small sensors, it is actually quite dramatic. For many photographers, that’s a pain because many, like me, like to play with the shallow DOF. But in many occasions, a great DOF can make some of your pictures really better. Some photographers can make excellent pictures with small sensors, taking advantage of their huge DOF.

I have already explained why small sensors can suffice in many occasions. Nowadays, small sensors are so good in normal light conditions, you many not need a bigger one. AF speed, controls ergonomics, view finder are still often a pain, but that’s not a sensor’s size issue.

The final word: controls and ergonomics suck, not sensors

Don’t be a pigeon, don’t pay too much for something you don’t need. More important, take advantage of small sensors specificities. Learn the limits of your camera, and you will know which one you really need. It may be one expensive with a bigger sensor, or not, but as usual, don’t believe the marketing guy.

I may recommend manufacturers to rather focus at controls ergonomics which most of the time really suck. We don’t need bigger sensors with more pixels, we need cameras easy to use with direct access to the main controls we need so that we may focus on taking picture rather that “where is the damned option” or “How do I change this”. The issue is not trivial, and manufacturers are very conservative when it comes to ergonomics. I am no Apple fan boy, but who will be the Steve Jobs of cameras?

What Google Drive now means to photography and Picasa’s users

Yes I know, it is no more “Picasa”, nowadays man must write “Google+ photos”.Yes, but it is still “Picasa” as you need to download it first. Thank you Google, I love you, but your engineering inconsistency is typical of the geeks I know so well! So I will try to clarify the mess due to a somewhat clumsy if not incomplete integration of the 3 services

Basically, Picasa used to be:
– A way to store pictures on line,
– A way to share pictures on line,
– A catalog software with some easy to use features for improving your pictures.

Google implemented Google+ but created a confusion as some services of Picasa are still available. More important, Google Drive has been released later than Google+, which added to the confusion as some services of the former Picasa (like storing on the cloud your pictures) was not feasible but thanks to the older Picasa services. Even more confusing, you can still do the same thing thanks to both services, but you don’t get the same result! (tip: you can still use Picasa the old way) and you don’t do it the same way!

Drive is much better than the former storing services of Picasa, as your files structure looks like the same way than on your desktop/laptop (at last!) and not the stupid flat way of Picasa’s storing services. For some people, sharing with Google+ is not exactly better than with Picasa as long as your contacts don’t belong too to Google+, and frankly can be confusing. But at the end of the day, that’s the future and I think people can share much more easily thanks to social network compare with the old fashioned way (emails!). So yes, you need to learn how to do it and your contact should join Google+. I believe that’s a great photosharing service for private pictures, much better than Facebook thanks to Google privacy options and policy.

As a photos catalog software (Edit/Organize/Publish), Picasa is still Picasa and compare with others, I like it even if far from being perfect. I think the main advantage is the speed display of the (big) thumbnails which is, as far as I know, so far unchallenged by, for instance Lightroom. However, this software looks of course much better in many ways, but as a pure catalog software, I just prefer Picasa. The trade off with Lightroom is not easy, for many users, as improving pictures is much better with Lightroom. But that’s something else. Let’s come back to Google+ and Picasa!

Google has let some Picasa’s feature alive which are actually very disturbing and should not be used: you can still “Sync” your albums, so you might use this feature for storing. Bad idea, as explained before, do it with Drive. “Sync” is only useful when you want to share an album. So that’s how you should work with Google+ Photos/Picasa:

– Use Picasa as a catalog software to delete, classify, and organize your pictures, enhancing them (the crop feature is a must, others are not as good, but can do the job very often) simultaneously,
– Store then online thanks to Drive (or competitors like Dropbox),
– Create files for albums of the best photos you want to share,
– Sync them online, and share them thanks to Google+

And my final word: enhance the pictures thanks to Lightroom, after having deleted and organize them thanks to Picasa. Share them with Google+ for private picture, or with the other photosharing services (Facebook, Flickr) for those you want to make public. Yes that’s a lot of software but in software, there is often no holly grail. So you need several of them to do the job efficiently.

Some thoughts about the future of DSLR and cameras market

Two critical shifts

The two main shifts of this industry look to me so clear I have no doubt the DSLR market will evolve significantly soon, and actually may have already started to: smartphones & mobile device are making many point & shoot cameras obsolete, if not many entry level DSLR. Not because they can challenge them in terms of image quality or performances & controls, but because they are proposing something unique: having always with oneself a camera, and sharing the pictures so easily, two things the other cameras can’t do.

Simultaneously, the mirrorless products are invading the markets and are a fast growing market. Not only they are smaller and as good as DSLR, but they are so innovative that many will continue adopting them. They are not only refreshing the market, they actually fit better with many photographers specification. DSLR was not for many want they really wanted, but only a way to take better pictures, or hoping taking better pictures. Both the reality and the dream now belong to mirrorless. DSLR just mean “being a Pro” or “living his passion whatever the price and the weigh”.

Why DSLR (and Point and Shoot) will continue to exist

However, writing articles about “why smartphones have killed the other cameras” or “DSLR is dead” look irrelevant but to attract readers to the journalist’s stuff.¬† High end Point and Shoot are very promising, but need to adapt their publishing services and DSLR are certainly not dead. They indeed propose something unique too, unchallenged so far by both smartphones and mirrorless: an optical view finder. As it exists so far only one full frame mirrorless (awfully expensive and quite specialized, the Leica M9), the full frame DSLR also propose bigger sensor, a must for shallow depth of field. DSLR have other advantages but I am not sure they will last (performances are now similar most of the time, if not overcome for some features by mirrorless, and low light advantages of big sensors are becoming less important as the other sensors are becoming so good).

Shallow depth of field and optical sensor can make your photo experience unique. So as long as the other cameras won’t challenge them for these two things, DSLR will resist for the long term. For the short term, Pro and wealthy amateurs will continue buying DSLR for many other reasons.

Long term future

However, the two main advantages of DSLR may not last forever. Nothing prevent manufacturers to release full frame mirrorless. And it would be dangerous to believe EVF (Electronic view finder) won’t be able to challenge if not becoming better than OVF (optical viewfinder) eventually. Or rangerfinder-like camera (dominated so far by Fuji) combining altogether OVF and EVF features are just proposing the best of two worlds. It looks however unlikely to convince many demanding photographers as the rangerfinder ergonomics certainly not fit everyone requirements.

What does it means for us

Unless you are investing for the long term in photography – either as a Pro or a serious amateur, I don’t really see the point for newbies to invest in DSLR. For those who must for their job or want for their passion, DX DSLR look uninteresting but for a pricing motivation, which unfortunately, overcomes everything else as usual. Therefore, concept like the rumoured new Nikon D600 looks great, as it will allow to make a kind of bridge between the “entry-level” DSLR world, and the real one (Full frame bodies), by working easily with both systems. That’s why I believe DSLR DX is dead but for entry-level, or rather should die as I find it not very attractive nowadays. OMHO, it would make more sense “learning” photography with mirrorless or high end Point and Shoot and invest in full frame bodies later, but whenever possible. By the way, the price of some excellent full frame cameras is rather going down, so this is not an option now impossible to consider for many people.

The final words

My bet:

Smartphones will become better and better cameras, introducing zooming, low light enable sensors, and better autofocus to replace definitively most of the point and shoot. This market will not disappear, but will get specialized (megazoom, waterproof, fully customizable& RAW capabilities, …).

Mirrorless will continue to destroy the entry level DSLR market, too bad for Nikon and Canon who have preferred milking the cow rather than surfing the wave, and some mirrorless will become excellent second body for those who will continue to love the full frame DSLR, or other medium format cameras.

And you, what do you think?