#510. Of Smartphones and prints. Back to the future ?

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Sep 12

In his recent Article (Coffin Not Quite Shut, But Apple Working on It), Tom Hogan analyses the rumored killing of the DSLR by the iPhone 7 (hats off to Paul P for sending me this link)Β  and explains :

smartphones are winning the camera wars simply because of the workflow and ease of use difference. What smartphones can’t (currently) do is win based upon the physics of imaging. What all the Japanese cameras can’t (currently) do is win based upon getting your images conveniently where you want to share them, and without complicated user interaction.

and concludes:

So, no the iPhone 7 doesn’t eradicate the DSLR. Indeed, Phil Schiller even said that line to the audience during the iPhone 7 launch.

The first quote pretty much sums it up for me. To the second, I would simply append “yet”. No the iPhone 7 doesn’t eradicate the DSLR. Smartphones don’t eradicate DSLRs. Yet. However, I do think the writing is on the wall and the camera manufacturers have already lost.

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When Sony releases the next iteration of my A7xx (and Canikon, Pentax et al. ditto), it will probably feature more pixels, more bit depth and more speed. Who cares? I mean, who really cares ? Or, phrased another way, who wouldn’t trade pleasure of use in a contemporary workflow for those old-school metrics improvement ? I certainly would, any day.

Three categories of photographers will likely disagree with me: Beginners, who find the stats impressive. People who pleasure themselves with lab measurements rather than Playboy. Advanced photographers who have worked on themselves enough to know their style and understand how these improvements will serve their creative motives. I can think of no other.

The rest of us ? Certainly not. What I want is better colours. I don’t care how that’s achieved. I want a more pleasant shooting experience, not a shutter than can actuate a zillion times when the rest of the body will have died six times before 1% of that mileage. In fact, the very semantics used by camera manufacturers proves they have lost. Lost the attention of their potential public. Lost track of how photographs are made and shared today. And lost their grip of future market shares.

You probably don’t believe me. DearSusan has a low-volume high-expertise readership. So you’re probably wondering what the heck is wrong with me πŸ˜‰

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But the fact is the battle is already over because Apple, Samsung, Huawei, LG … (among which, hopefully, some brands really care about photography as a craft and not just as a marketing strategy) aren’t even fighting in the same battleground as the Sony / Canikon et al. dinosaurs.

While these traditional players are, at best, improving signal to noise ratios and optical formulas, at worst adding pixels to sensors that serve only the purposes of Western Digital and Intel, the new guard is finding new ways for software to make all of that meaningless and redundant. Simulating depth of field, extrapolating zoom settings, imagining new ways of sharing and, probably, a zillion fantastic things to come.

Compared to this, we old-school users have pitiful access to a handful of apps, the only one of which I bought, I never figured out how to install … The war is over before it even started. I’ve worked 20 years in the software industry. If I can’t be arsed to work out how to set up an app on my camera when a 3-year old can do it blindfolded on a Smartphone, ite missa est. This is the on-demand economy, the era of convenience. The market has shifted profoundly and the old boys in their DSLR corporate suites don’t seem interested.

So yes, many of these new features are doomed to fail, many might end up the losers of a formidable coming battle. What really matters is not that Betamax lost to VHS but that the video recording industry emerged at all. And, to me, the very fact that phone manufacturers are exploring so many experimental avenues is a promise of new photographic devices that really will matter, not far over the horizon.

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And, to these biased eyes, what makes the Zeiss Otuses, the Hasselblad X1Ds and the Alpa 12s of this world so important today is that they put the limits of what’s possible so far beyond what the young guns are currently capable of that they define a class of traditional product that (I hope) can endure the coming technological tide, and thrive alongside it, much like selenium toning has survived inkjet and is healthier today than in the old days. My guess is that any product in between these extremes probably has the word “extinct” slowly stamping itself on its forehead.

Phew.

As a way to ground myself after this bout of (not so) sci-fi guessing, let’s talk about an object that is disappearing fast and deserves to be salvaged from the old-school days: the print.

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We don’t print nearly enough. Well, polar bears might disagree, so let me rephrase that. We don’t look at prints nearly enough or consider the print as a potential endpoint for our photographic endeavours. A reason for this is that most of us don’t have a clue what makes a good print.

Watching an image on a screen makes it very easy for it to shine. Backlit, low resolution, it always feels like it’s never going to look as interesting on paper. Printing is hard. Even with the right gear and fancy papers, it’s easy to spend a small fortune before you’re really satisfied with your output.

But you don’t have to print to look at prints. I own a large Canon printer but never, ever, print at home, relying instead on the services of quality online shops. And you can buy prints, a lasting joy compared to which buying gear is merely fleeting micro-satisfaction. In Investing in Art Photography: What to Keep in Mind, Sotherby’s Institute of Art provide a good starting point to learn about this, describing 5 objective criteria for deciding what a print is worth to you. These criteria a useful for buying prints, but they also make sense for any other form of collecting or even personal evaluation of your own work. Collecting prints doesn’t have to be expensive. On my walls are prints bought during a lifetime alongside calendar cutouts, personal prints, prints made by friends. Unless you are doing this purely for investment, you should look at your collection through the eyes of a curator, finding stuff that feels meaningful to you, irrespective of financial worth.

And maybe you can tie up the two parts of this post for me and print photographs made with your smartphone ? πŸ˜‰

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As a post-scriptum: why all the fuss about Smartphone photography ?

Yep, so I’ve been writing about them write a bit recently. You deserve better. Or, at least, an explanation πŸ˜‰

The very thing that prevents people from blogging, writing, creating and showing photographs, knitting for someone [insert creative activity here …] is the simple fear: “am I good enough ?”. And, of course, the answer to this is initially “No!” The reality is that you / I / everyone starts off being crappy, gets feedback, gets better. The talent is in you, the only difficulty is putting yourself out there for feedback. We just keep at it until we don’t suck anymore πŸ˜‰

Well, I look at Smartphones and see two things: one is the terrific creative potential these things offer us (a potential some have begun exploiting with panache !). The second is how very lousy my smartphone photographs are πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ It baffles me and scares me at the same time. Poor compositions, derivative, uninspiring, poorly lit … often a combination of these.

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So I try again, and again, until the results are both different enough and acceptable enough to be shown here. I’m pretty sure that by this time next year, my Smartphone photographs will be much better than today and, hopefully, a creative complement to what my traditional camera allows me to do. For those wondering, the top photo is Sony A7rII & Distagon 1.4/35 ZM (doesn’t get much better, technically), the rest is all Samsung Galaxy S6.

So, who’ll join me on my Smartphoto attempts, and who’ll poo-poo me ? πŸ˜‰

 


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  • Paul Perton says:

    Disruption in photography? Yup. Most of us have come to realise that 16mp-24mp is now pretty much optimal unless you want to print the size of Table Mountain.

    Phones are at 12mp already and some smart software is making their images able to compete in many roles. It won’t be long before the phone in your pocket is more than calculator, satnav, e-mailer, web browser… a high class/quality camera as well.

    The sooner the better. Maybe just a slightly easier to hold form factor on the way with it?

    Oh yes, nice pics too Pascal. I especially love the wavy contrail.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Paul. Yes, something easier to hold would be nice. And why not have some sort of EVF in Google glasses or something like that. I just love that there are so many experiments going on. With so much feedback, something really nice is bound to come of it all πŸ™‚

      Thanks for sending me the first link, BTW !

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Can I settle for a world where “they” have their opinions and I am allowed to keep mine?

    Cellphones don’t do what I want to do in photography. They can’t now, and I can’t see it happening in the future. I do see what they can do, but it isn’t where I want to take my passion.

    And I see no possibility of any change in their optics or electrics making any difference to those remarks.

    Starting with the fact that today’s adventure was tracking down some paper for one of my current projects. This week’s require’s a ‘pod, some degree of tele lens and superb optics – something I get from Linhof and Carl Zeiss, but I don’t see in the telephone shop. Yesterday’s was faithfully reproducing some old photos from film scanned long ago, which hadn’t faded as much as the original prints – again, prints are involved. The weekend was largely taken helping a friend who has an archive of a quarter of a million photos, of historic images, and cannot afford the risks inherent in digital storage – ask Hollywood what it feels like, to be responsible for maintaining THEIR archive of old film.

    All power to those who are content with something else. But there’s no “one size fits all” in this discussion.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Unfortunately, Pete, there is. And the market decides what shape it takes. Not that anything’s going to happen overnight, but it’s hard not to imagine significant change in the landscape in the next decade. All I hope is that the evolution is interesting, even to “traditionalists” such as you and me, and that some of our existing gear lives on. Just for the sake of choice. I believe the top of toaday’s quality curve stands a better chance of survival. But time will tell πŸ˜‰

  • Steve says:

    Pascal, so much to comment on. And so little time…

    In no particular order:

    Canikon – dead, lost the plot. It all looks great, more pixels, faster this, bigger that but the worm has been eating away inside for years and eventually the edifice will crumble and probably in spectacular fashion. Steaming for the rocks and impossible to turn at this late stage. Remember DEC, Compaq, Nokia, Kodak, Xerox – all thought they were immune. Gone, seemingly overnight but actually a case of the Emperors New Clothes and all happening in plain sight for those willing to see.

    Printing. This has been the final piece in my photographic puzzle that I put off for years. I recently bought a second-hand Epson 7880, large format printer from a reprographic company via e-bay. The spare ink cartridges were worth as much as I paid for the whole shebang and getting it up the stairs to my cave nearly killed us. But well worth the effort. After six weeks of constant reading, watching educational videos, profiling and endless dreadful results I can now pretty much guarantee that the output will meet my expectations. What a pleasure! It’s made me revaluate many images, re-process them and generally look at them anew. I suspect it’s also improved my skills at point of capture as I more or less subconsciously think of a finished article i.e a print. Now I need more wall space! Oh yes, and my 16mp micro 4/3 sensor has plenty of pixels to spare for anything I want to do.

    Smartphones. I’ve got an old one, iPhone 4S, on which I take the odd pic that then languishes somewhere out there until eventually I stumble over it and maybe do something with it. I know you can do all kinds of stuff but I just don’t like the experience of taking pictures with a phone. It’s just not it. I don’t want to go out at 4:00am with a phone! However I have no doubt that in time I will. The software will see to that. As you say there is so much experimentation going on out there that eventually there will be a killer device/software combination.

    Steve

    I like the scratchy window wing shot!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Steve, that’s great news about your printer setup. I gave up on finding a suitable workflow long ago. There’s a Canon Pro something sitting in my room and a spare set of cartridges that never go installed after the last one ran out. The results are OK, but nowhere near as lovely as prints you can have ordered. So I need to work harder on this. One area of experimentation I’d really love to pick up on is negatives made from digital files. The large negatives can lead to great contact prints, made in the traditional way. I experimented with that a few years ago and loved it. Must try again. See you soon.

  • Luca says:

    Always an interesting reading, as usual. πŸ™‚

    I just wanted to add that at least in terms of colors one phone manufacturer is (was? I’m not sure it’s still alive) already ahead of camera makers.

    My Nokia Lumia 1020 (with its Zeiss made lens) produces hands down THE best colors I’ve ever got from ANY other digital camera.

    Sure, it is ultra slow and the dynamic range is that of a compact camera (it has a sensor way larger than the tiny stamps used in phones, but still…); but color-wise it beats even my Fuji X-T10, and that’s something!, and literally destroys my A7r.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Really? Wow! My S6 has great clarity and lovely colours as long as the sun is nowhere near the lens. Flaring is pretty bad and the low DR compresses in quite ugly ways. So there’s obviously still room for improvement there but, more importantly, I see it as an exercise in finding only the situations in which it shines.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Hands up, anyone who’s used a Nikon D4. Not so long back, pros used to tell pixel-chasing amateurs they were all nuts, because unless they were producing prints the size of a bed cover, the D4 had it all. 16 MP, dripping with information – superb detail & colour saturation, unachievable if you went for more pixels!

      Never having seen – let alone tried – one of them, I decided to find out if there’s any truth in that description of the D4, when I realised my compact wasn’t “me” and I wanted a bigger sensor. So in a fit of madness I bought a Canon PowerShot G7X Mark II – nice (bigger) sensor and 20.1 MP. Not as sharp as my full frame (never thought it would be), but it does produce shots loaded with colour. “Vibrant” springs to mind. If this is what the pros had in mind, when pushing the virtues of the D4, I can quite see what they meant.

      [I did draft a couple more paras on this – anticipating a rush of comment on pixel numbers. I changed my mind and deleted them – that discussion is a work in progress anyway, and besides, it’s insoluble.]

      • pascaljappy says:

        It’s true that a larger sensor lets in more light (if the lenses aren’t slower) and give you more information to play with. I suppose that when the new standard is 80Mpix, we can down-res to 20Mpix of very high quality !

  • Bumpy says:

    Display improvement has been a bit slow these last couple decades, but we are creeping up on 8K screens with color gamut and dynamic range that will put prints to shame. 8K is about 24″ x13″ at 300ppi, fine enough to put your nose up to the glass and not be able to resolve pixels, but “only” 36MP. If you are going to stand several feet away 75ppi is probably enough, and that 8K display is now 8 feet wide. In another 10 years or so 8K displays will be commonplace. 36 MP on a FF sensor is close to a sweet spot for sensor pixel size (which is why the A7rii is 42 MP and marketed as having both high resolution and high sensitivity). Further noticeable improvement of capture or display will be very costly. The end is in view for cost effective 2D imaging quality gains, quality at the limits of physics and human perception will be a commodity in a decade or so. Competing for even enthusiast dollars on a quality basis will be a low margin commodity play. The cell phone ‘workflow’ and ease of creating and sharing will be the vital competitive differentiator within about 10 years.

    After that, the visual imaging company to watch is Lytro. Not their consumer offerings that mostly flopped, but their new Hollywood quality video light field capture. A zillion dollars and a room full of gear today, just like cell phones were back when people called them mainframe computers. Give them a decade or two and they (or someone else with similar tech, maybe acquired by Apple or Google) will come back to the consumer market and obliterate traditional 2D imaging. 2D will be subsumed as a special case of 3D light field capture. The end will come quickly for any company still clinging to 2D imaging when light field matures and re-enters the consumer market.

    The clock ticks loudly for all purveyors of dslr and even mirror less cameras….

    • pascaljappy says:

      What you describe is even more sci-fi πŸ˜‰ But it’s hard to imagine why 3D wouldn’t catch on as a mass-market imaging feature. And still there will be some, young and old, who appreciate the good old paper print. So, as each tech wave sweeps the current markets clean of all middle-of-the-road offerings, only the new gear and the most interesting of past generations will be left.

  • NMc says:

    Pascall
    “DearSusan has a low-volume high-expertise readership.” Not all readers, I can assure you that my expertise is quite low actually. So I guess I should not comment but I will.

    Whilst I generally agree with your the arguments you presented, there is a big elephant in the room you have not mentioned. The avalanche of annoying and generally poor quality photos (image, not technical) that are now produced on phones; this is an association with crap and/or thoughtlessness. Any improvement in sensors and software will not help, as per with ‘real cameras’, in addition if they make it easier, then you get even more technically impressive crap. And if the argument that phone cameras are now good enough, then where is the demand and potential greater profits for further technical developments?

    If/when cameras, regardless of type, help us think and curate with a bit of respect and consideration to our audience, rather than just high frequency shoot-‘n-post, then there will be something to discuss other than market share for manufactures. Printing typically means that you have at least made some effort to present less but do it better. This is always appreciated because you made a real effort, not just a flick or poke on a screen, regardless of the paper, printer or camera.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Noel,

      let me assure you that there is an equally large avalanche of crappy photographs made with more advanced gear πŸ˜‰ Focusing on the technicalities rarely makes us creative. Worse still, even among the “very good” photographers that get the oohs and the aahs on social media, the level of creativity is extremely mediocre. Recipes are followed. Pre-dawn, filters, long exposure … bla bla bla.

      I don’t think phone cameras are “good enough” to content with traditional cameras. However, some photographers using them prove that it’s possible to use their limitations to creative effect, which is what interests me. Let’s just hope future phones don’t simply try to mimic bigger cameras but bring something very fresh to the table.

      And I agree entirely with you that printing adds a strict selection layer to our process that all of us, calling ourselves photographers, should go through.

  • James M says:

    So, my Contax 139 and Ziess lenses together with my E6 wet processing are being replaced by a phone? The cord on mine isn’t long enough to go outside, let alone travel the world with me. And what is this “scanner” that you speak of? πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Oh James, that was funny πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰

      Nope, they won’t be replaced. That’s the point. Emerging technologies will probably bring something very new to the table, but the great oldies will never die.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I think I should emulate my ancestors and go back to collodion wet plates. I had a great uncle on both sides of the family (dad’s side and mum’s, as well) who devoted decades of their lives to that style of “real” photography.
        Wait on – I was once commissioned to reproduce a Daguerreotype from around 1842, so that half a dozen members of the family could each have a copy. Maybe I could kick-start the reincarnation of that form of photography! And no selfies! – phones didn’t exist, way back then!

  • Gianfranco says:

    Hello Pascal.

    It’s always a great pleasure reading your scripts (also Philippe (Hi!) and Paul).

    On the IPhone β€œrevolution” it reminds me of the old days of the Kodak Instamatics, every tourist had one: simple to use, easy to carry, always in their pockets and very cheap processing. While we were taking photos with our Hasselblads and a couple ($$$$$) of lenses.

    Strange, the IPhone is exactly the same. It is a picture taking engine that is always there in our shirt pocket. Who carries every day their great pixel camera with a couple lenses: 0.0001% of the population, maybe less. So grabbing that fleeing moment will be done more often with the IPhone, than that great Milvus lens sleeping on our desk.

    Will it replace the super duper cameras, never! We still drive Ferraris and buy extra carats diamonds and dress in fancy clothes. Don’t worry the youngs will follow as soon as they get some money out of their diplomas.

    As for the prints! Who looks at them? Those that print huge sizes (20X24) hang them in their homes and hope some friends see them, I’m one of them. They are more like a kind of self-gratification!

    When you want to share a picture you send it by one of the electronic ways we all know. Everywhere in the world there is Internet or a satellite that I may link to and send them to friends or business partners “anywhere”. Still done more easily with a IPhone. That is why the cameras nowadays have Wi-Fi and can upload to your phone. Oh! Phone and camera hand in hand!!!! No divorce in view, trust me.

    So Pascal, we should not worry the β€œElite” will keep on with manual focus lenses, DSLR, stick-shifts, sending flowers and offering diamonds to the ladies and flying to Marseille and enjoying an expresso with a friend.

    Let us record life through a viewfinder.

    Ciao,
    Gianfranco.

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