Tradeoffs and opportunitites

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My interest in photography started in the 1980s with a small disc camera. At some point, my brother, a professional photographer, looked at my pictures and commented: “You shoot in color, but you think in black-and-white. Here’s some TMAX film.”

I started with “digital” photography by scanning my paying for high-quality scans of black and white negatives of that TMAX that I shot with my Canon Elan II. The results were mostly good, but the process took a couple of weeks and cost more than I care to remember. At some point, I started using a Canon 20D digital camera, with the same lenses. Now all I had to do was copy the files from the flash card to the PC, and tinker with them in Photoshop. While this produced much better digital pictures, I had to give up my black and white photography because no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get these images to rival the scanned negatives. The tradeoff between convenience and quality swayed toward convenience.

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Next came the iPhone, and the pendulum swung even further: the convenience of a camera that was always in my pocket combined with its ability to distribute the images quickly to waiting grandparents around the country made it much more likely that I would use it rather than the camera. Of course the latency sucks, the resolution is poor, the light sensitivity isn’t what I’d like, and there is no optical zoom, but it’s always at hand.

Copy of iPhone pictures 588Of course what I’d really like (short of a Sherpa for my camera gear) is a lightweight SLR with a network connection, a large display (the 2oD isn’t large enough), and an auxiliary display in my glasses so that I don’t have to look through the lens when I don’t want to (such as when trying to be unobtrusive while doing candid photography).

It’s not clear what restrictions physics places on such a device, but then again a few years ago, the iPhone-style camera was the realm of science fiction. But there are some interesting trends, both in terms of usability and capability. The current generation of point and shoot cameras is producing good images (although with latency that makes them unsuitable for action photography), augmented with clever computation such as face — and now even smile — detection. These features while not perfect, will continue to improve, and to make it easier to do the routine, just as anti-lock brakes and traction control have made driving more routine in a  range of situations.

In parallel to these products, there is an interesting development in camera-related research. A group at Stanford has combined Canon optics and sensors with a Linux box to produce what they call the Frankencamera. The idea is that computation can be applied at the device before, during, and after imaging, to help improve the quality of the image and to create images that might not be possible without such tools. This is an interesting development not only because it makes experimentation with computational photography more widely available, but also because it pushes the notion of what digital art photography can become.

Just as anti-lock brakes don’t make people better drivers, neither will face-, smile-, or strike-out detection make people better photographers. While technology can improve the mechanics of human expression, it cannot (and should not) improve artistic expression. But that is not mean that art and automation cannot be combined. In fact, it will be interesting to observe these “Camera 2.0″ tools in the hands not only of researchers in image and signal processing, but also in the hands of artists who will find ways to use this dynamic medium in new and exciting ways.

Now if only the Frankencamera would fit in my pocket.

5 Comments

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  2. This tradeoff is one I’ve mused about as of late more frequently. I own a digital SLR and a high-end compact digital camera. More and more, I’m grabbing the compact when heading out the door for a variety of reasons. Convenience is the predominating driver. Yet there are times when I long for the SLR, primarily in low light and high contrast scenes. Thankfully the technology is evolving rapidly such that the regret factor continues to diminish.

  3. I don’t like to use flash because I find that it disrupts the scene I am trying to capture, so more sensitive ccds and better optics of an SLR are really key in those situations. I just don’t like carrying the damn thing when I am not using it.

  4. It’s certainly possible to produce good monochrome with a digital camera. It won’t give you the tone of an Ansel Adams-like 8″x10″ contact print, but the high end digitals (like Canon EOS 5D and L lenses) will get close enough for most professionals.

    Are you using something like Photoshop that lets you control contrast and color conversion and properly “burn” and “dodge”? Are you shooting a stop or so “overexposed” to give you more latitude in the “darkroom”? Are you using the same kind of lenses in digital as you had with film?

    I went from Mamiya RZ67 medium format which was about 50 pounds all in, to a Ricoh GR-1 point-and-shoot (awesome film point and shoot wide angle lens) to Canon EOS 5D (some awesome glass for this, like my fave lens ever, the 24/1.4L), to borrowing my wife’s Lumix LX3 (best glass we could find for point-and-shoot, 24mm/f2 to 60mm/f2.8 zoom, and not too bulky).

    PS: Did you see that breathtaking 26 gigapixel shot of Dresden pieced together out of 1600 plus 400mm shots using an EOS 5D? It was referenced on Slashdot a few days ago. Can’t do that with a film camera and regular darkroom!

  5. The panorama is great! I opened it fullscreen on my two monitors & it looks wonderful. My current desktop image is a panoramic shot I took of the Parisian roofscape, but without the wide-angle distortion. Obviously not the same pixel density, but for a desktop it gives a nice overview.

    I am not a photoshop expert — I’ve never had the patience to learn how to use it to its capabilities. My interest in photography lies primarily in composition; I wish I could automate the rest of it away. Film, processed professionally by someone else, gave me that to some extent, although I did wind up playing with contrast on some shots. I use the same lenses on the 20D as I did on my film Canon. Typically, I use either an 85-135 image-stabilized zoom, or a 100mm fixed focus lens.

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