If I were a camera company I’d be nervous

I’d be nervous because phone makers and especially Apple are iterating so fast on hardware and software that nearly everyone is going to end up using phone cameras, with the exception of some dedicated pros and the most obsessive amateurs. Right now the media is saturated with articles like, “How Apple Built An iPhone Camera That Makes Everyone A Professional Photographer.” Many of those articles overstate the case—but not by much.

To be sure, phone camera sensors remain small, but Apple and Google are making up for size via software; in cameras, as in so many domains, software is eating the world. And the response so far from camera makers has been anemic.

If I were a camera maker, I’d be laser focused on making Android the default camera OS and exposing APIs to software developers. Yet none seem to care.* It’s like none have learned Nokia’s lesson; Nokia was a famously huge cell phone maker that got killed by the transition smartphones and never recovered. I wrote this about cameras in 2014 and it’s still true today. In the last three years camera makers have done almost nothing to improve their basic position, especially regarding software.

“Not learning Nokia’s lesson” is a very dangerous place. And I like the Panasonic G85 I have! It’s a nice camera. But it’s very large. I don’t always have it with me. Looking at phones like the iPhone X I find myself thinking, “Maybe my next camera won’t be a camera.”

Within a year or two most phone cameras are likely to have two lenses and image sensors, along with clever software to weave them together effectively. Already Apple is ahead of the camera makers in other ways; some of those remain beneath the notice of many reviewers. Apple, for example, is offering more advanced codecs, which probably doesn’t mean much to most users, but implementing H.265 video means that Apple can in effect halve the size of most videos. In a storage- and bandwidth-constrained environment, that’s a huge win (just try to shoot 4K video and see what I mean). Camera makers should be at the forefront of such transitions, but they’re not. Again, Samsung’s cameras were out front (they used H.265 in 2015), but no one else followed.

Camera makers are going to be business-school case studies one day, if they aren’t already. They have one job—making the best cameras possible—and already Apple is doing things in a $1,000 smartphone (next year it will likely be $800) that camera makers aren’t doing in $2,000+ cameras.

That’s incredibly bad for camera makers but great for photographers. I may never buy another standalone camera because if phones do pictures and videos better, why bother?

* With the exception of Samsung, which had a brief foray into the camera world but then quit—probably due to a declining market and low margins. And Thom Hogan has been beating the Android drum for years, for good reason, and it appears that no decision makers are listening.

Cameras are above all else about sharing

In “Sony’s latest camera and some disappointing sensor sales results,” Phillip Greenspun writes that the reward for Sony’s technically innovative sensors has been flat or declining sales. That’s because Sony misses the point: The number one thing camera companies need to do is integrate with Facebook. Camera companies have no one but themselves to blame for their decline. Way back in 2011 Flip Video had a plan for Wi-Fi enabled video cameras that had a Vine- or YouTube-like social system and interface. Every Flip camera was going to have Wi-Fi as a first-class feature. Cisco unfortunately killed Flip right before the launch, but Flip was at least a company that understood what was happening. In the intervening year zero camera companies have attempted to do what Flip was ready to launch.

Olympus_OMD-1351Which is an amazing story in the annals of corporate stupidity. For the vast majority of people images are ways of signaling: signaling their character, their sense of fun, their sexuality, their lives. Image quality is not terribly important for that purpose, and image quality became “good enough” for most people with the iPhone 4 (which, not coincidentally, Instagram was founded). In 2010. Six years ago. Normal people don’t do detailed technical comparisons of their phone cameras. At most they ask, “Is yours good?” and the reply is usually “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”

The camera companies are technical geniuses and social morons. They ignore the absolute most important use case for 95 – 98% of their market. By now it may be too late to attract users accustomed to high-quality smartphone interfaces. But the camera companies are still barely even fine. The interface for getting photos from the modern cameras I have to my phone is horrific.

Apart from a relative handful of nerds like me, no one gives a shit about image quality once it reaches some acceptable level that it reached long ago. No one wants to recharge batteries or stick the SD card in the computer. For the last five or so years every camera iteration has gotten better autofocus and better low-light performance and a host of other handy but marginal features that no one cares about except professionals and Internet gear wankers.

I wrote about this dynamic in “Photography and Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over.” Others have written about it elsewhere. In that post I also observed that photography companies are also marketing morons. They still are. Greenspun is excited by the release of the Sony A6300. That camera is technically incredible. It also has a terrible name that likely means nothing to 99% of readers of this blog. Except for people who follow cameras with the passion normal people reserve for sports or celebrities, “A6300” means nothing. Sony is missing the main point with its sensors and its cameras. They need more anthropologists / sociologists and fewer outright engineers.

Photography and Tyler Cowen’s “Average is Over”

Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over should be read for many reasons, and one of them is a prediction that marketing and similar activities are going to grow in importance over time. At first I thought the claim was bullshit: shouldn’t the Internet make substance win over style? In many ways it does, but I keep seeing evidence that supports Cowen’s point. The latest example: a few years ago I became interested in photography. A few days ago Thom Hogan wrote an essay called “What’s Your Biggest Problem?“, in which he says:

I’d say that the biggest problem I find that most photographers have is a really fundamental one: what is it they’re taking a photo of? And why?

Ironically, pros didn’t use to have this problem. If you were working for a client, generally they were directing you towards what you were taking a photograph of and why. Back in the film days just mastering the technique of getting proper exposure and focus and all the rest was generally enough to set you apart. These days of ubiquitous and cheap stock photography and digital cameras with instant feedback on the basics, for a pro to stand out they need something more than the basics: generally a recognizable and unique style.

Indeed, that is one of the two primary problems pros have these days. Problem 1: standing out amongst all the good imagery that exists, much of it near “free”. Problem 2: marketing yourself so that people know your work. Unfortunately, solving #2 means that you have to be highly visible, which makes more people attempt to copy you, which eventually increases problem #1. Pros have to keep moving, keep reinventing themselves, and above all be great marketers and salespeople.

average_is_overMachines (cameras, in this case) are getting so good that even relatively unskilled photographers like me can take pretty good shots most of the time, and marketing distinguishes a lot of the pros from uncompensated amateurs who share their work online.

A lot of high-skill / low-income photographers disdain Terry Richardson for “boring” shots, blown-out highlights, and other technical flaws, and those photographers say that they could do what Richardson does. (More than a little jealousy also probably animates those attacks, since Richardson appears to lead an active, varied sex life—let’s ignore that for now.) But Richardson has something important almost no one else does: people know his name and to a lesser extent his work. Not many photographers have strangers who know their name—let alone have strong opinions about their work. Whatever his flaws may be, Richardson has what people commenting on the Internet don’t: a brand.

More very good photos are probably being taken today than ever before, and, as I wrote here, I’m a small but real contributor. Writing is still the main focus of my life but I still get some decent shots. Like anything touched by computers and Moore’s Law cameras are getting better all the time, and that makes the shooting envelope more forgiving. I shoot with an Olympus E-M5 that originally retailed for about $1,200 and now goes for half that used.* The E-M5 is better in many respects than most of the professional cameras that cost many thousands of dollars in 2006, and in a year or two it’ll be cheaper still.**

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoftware tools like Adobe Lightroom are also making pictures easier to enhance (or “save”) through simple parameter adjustments. Most semi-serious photographers learn to shoot in their camera’s raw file format, which yields greater latitude in post-processing. It’s often possible to get a very professional look by changing a few parameters. Messed-up shots can often be saved in post-processing. That’s always been somewhat true but it’s becoming more true over time.

So what’s going to separate the pros? Marketing. Money in what’s called “stock” photography has already basically disappeared, and journalistic photographers have seen their ranks dwindle along with newspaper subscriptions. Photography is becoming a secondary, not primary, skill for many people. For example, this guy took professional-caliber shots for his friend’s website.

What’s left is finding a way to make people think you’re better than the race-to-the-bottom, even if some people still think some heavily marketed / known photographers are the bottom.

* The people in charge of camera naming and marketing are idiots. Cameras are named with a baffling array of impossible-to-remember letters and numbers, and only obsessive nerds like me take the time to figure out what they mean. The only camera with some mainstream name recognition is the Canon Rebel line; while the name is nonsensical—what exactly is one rebelling from?—it is at least memorable. If I were put in charge of a camera company I’d start by firing everyone in marketing and PR.

** Update from 2015: Olympus just released the OM-D E-M5 II (the successor to my camera), and it’s retailing for $1,100—yet the the updates are, charitably speaking, minor. The new camera will put price pressure on the model I use, which is now under $400 for a still-incredible camera. Camera companies can’t get people to upgrade because existing cameras are so good.

The modern art (and photography) problem

In “Modern art: I could have done that… so I did: After years of going to photography exhibitions and thinking he could do better, Julian Baggini gave it a go. But could he convince The Royal West of England Academy with his work?“, Baggini writes:

there are times when we come across something so simple, so unimpressive, and so devoid of technical merit that we just can’t help believing we could have done as well or better ourselves.

He’s right—except that this happens entirely too often and helps explain much of modern art’s bogosity. I’m not the only person to have noticed—in Glittering Images, Camille Paglia writes:

the big draws [for museums] remain Old Master or Impressionist painting, not contemporary art. No galvanizing new style has emerged since Pop Art, which killed the avant-garde by embracing commercial culture. Art makes news today only when a painting is stolen or auctioned at a record price.

She’s right too; many people have noticed this but few apparently have in the art world itself, which seems to have become more interested in marketing than making (a problem afflicting the humanities in academia too). But there are enough people invested in and profiting from propagating bogosity that they can remain indifferent to countervailing indifference.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYears ago I was at the Seattle Art Museum and looking various pieces of modern supposed “art” that consisted mostly of a couple lines or splotches and what not, and they made me think: “there’s a hilarious novel in here about a director who surreptitiously hangs her own work—and no one notices.” Unfortunately, now I’ve realized that people have already done this, or things like it, in the real world—and no one cared. It’s barely possible to generate scandal in the art world anymore; conservatives have mostly learned about the Streisand effect and thus don’t react to the latest faux provocation. The artists themselves often lack both anything to say and any coherent way of saying it.

To the extent people respond to art, they respond to the art that people made when it took skill be an artist.

Photography has a somewhat similar problem, except that it’s been created by technology. Up until relatively recent it took a lot of time, money, and patience to become a reasonably skilled photographer. Now it doesn’t take nearly as much of any of those things: last year’s cameras and lenses still work incredibly well; improvements in autofocus, auto-exposure, and related technologies make photos look much better; and it’s possible to take, review, and edit hundreds or thousands of photos at a time, reducing the time necessary to go from “I took a picture” to expert.

The results are obvious for anyone who pays attention. Look through Flickr, or 500px, or any number of other sites and you’ll see thousands of brilliant, beautiful photos. I won’t say “anyone can do it,” but many people can. It’s also possible to take great photos by accident, with the machine doing almost all the work apart from the pointing and clicking. Adding a little bit of knowledge to the process is only likely to increase the keeper rate. Marketing seems to be one of the primary differentiators among professional photographers; tools like Lightroom expand the range of possibility for recovering from error.

One of the all-time top posts on Reddit’s photography section is “I am a professional photographer. I’d like to share some uncomfortable truths about photography,” where the author writes that “It’s more about equipment than we’d like to admit” and “Photography is easier than we’d like to admit.”

The profession is dying, for reasons not identical to painting but adjacent to it. In photography, we’re drowning in quality. In fine art, we’re drowning in bogosity, and few people appear to be interested in rescuing the victim.

Eight years of writing and the first busted Moleskine

Most of my writing happens on a computer, which means it’s pretty hard to depict the final product in a visually satisfying way.* But I also carry around a pretentious Moleskine™ notebook for the random ideas that strike in grocery stories or at parties. The latest notebook, however, developed a split binding:

I’ve been using Moleskines for about eight years, which means I go through about two of them per publishable novel:

Notice how none of the others have the binding split that afflicted the latest one. I haven’t consciously treated this one differently from its predecessors or used it any longer. Maybe the quality control at Moleskine central has declined, although people have made claims in that direction for a very long time.

Regardless of the reason, the latest notebook has about twelve usable pages left; I tend to write nonfiction, blog post ideas, things I need to remember, reminders about e-mails, entries from an unkept diary, and stuff like that in the back. Ideas, quotes, things people say, and other material related to fiction goes in front. When back and front meet in the middle, it’s time to get a new one.

When I start working on a new novel, I usually go back through all the old notebooks at the beginning to see what material might be usable and when I started taking ideas for that specific project. Some ideas for novels have been burbling in the back of my mind for a very long time, waiting for me to have the time and skill to move them from a couple of scrawled lines to 80,000 words of story. The oldest Moleskines I have were bought in the 2002 neighborhood. They’ve held up pretty well; the ones I started buying in the 2005 neighborhood are showing their age. Tough to say if this is an indication of falling quality control or something else altogether.

While Googling around for the complaint about Moleskine quality I linked to above, I also found a site that recommends The Guildhall Notebook. I’ve already ordered one, although apparently Guildhall doesn’t have a U.S. distributor, so I have to wait for mine to ship from the UK. I hope the improved binding is worth the wait. EDIT 1: They weren’t worth the wait, or the hassle; if that weren’t enough, Christine Nusse of Exaclair Inc. /Quo Vadis Planners, which distributes or distributed Guildhall notebooks, said in an e-mail that her understanding is that the notebooks are being discontinued. She recommends the Quo Vadis Habana instead (although I think it too big) or a Rhodia notebook (which I think just right, as I said below.

So even if you want a Guildhall pocket notebook, you probably won’t be able to find one for long; fortunately, the Rhodia Webbie is a better alternative.

EDIT 2: Someone found me by asking, “are moleskines pretentious”? Answer, in post form: “Are Moleskines pretentious? Yup. Guildhall Notebooks are worse.”

EDIT 3: I’ve settled on the Rhodia Webbie as a full-time notebook: it’s expensive but much more durable than other notebooks I’ve found. I’ll write a full review at some point.

EDIT 4: I posted an updated photo of the stack. Or you can see it here:

* Even describing it using conventional prepositions is tough: do I write “on” or “in” or “with” a computer? Good arguments exist for any of the three.

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