Imagine you could have the camera you want, any camera, any resolution, any feature set, any lens compatibility, anything … what would it be? To answer this for myself, I turned to my local HiFi retailer 😉
Steve Jobs was notorious for ignoring such user input and one upping it with some far more visionary idea of his. And it’s true that users are notoriously bad at deciding what’s best for them given a total removal of feasibility boundaries. But I ain’t no Steve Jobs and what I would like to do in this brief article is seek inspiration from the (very similar) HiFi universe to fill some gaping voids in the amateur photography world.
Why HiFi ? Are the ideas in this post inflicted upon you simply because of a recent fit of HiFi obsession at casa Jappy? Well, yes 😉 😉 😉
But also because many photographers are keen music lovers (*) and will get my drift, coming from a common ground. (* we are privileged, at DS, to count amongst ourselves at least three contributors that are or have been deeply involved with HiFi, professionally. Leonard, Pascal, Philippe, you know who you are 😉 And many more are passionate amateurs.)
Finally, because of this paradox : the more you read about a subject, the lower the signal to noise ratio you are getting from your efforts. Lenghty abstinence from a topic, any topic, prepares you for a wave of important new ideas when you finally open the floodgates. Whereas the daily dip into it merely exposes you to new opinions, many of which are unfounded and delusional, while the important tectonic shifts are more difficult to detect beneath all the opinionated and manufacturer induced noise.
Blame my wife (again) for all the kerfuffle. A friend of hers gave her a vinyl LP as a present a couple of weeks ago. And she insisted that I unearth a turntable to listen to it, not realising what a seismic shift this could imply. I mean … a phono stage, for a start, where do I even find one of those? The only one available in the house is inside a mahussive Yamaha Home-Cinema 7.1 receiver that has been put into storage long ago. Hardly HiFi. Cables … ugh …
Anyhow, after a hasty repopulation of what had been made a clean and zen room through personal sacrifice of no little measure, the momentous time of listening came with me half expecting a bang and a puff of smoke.
Instead of which … I was floored.
We just stopped what we were doing, popped open a bottle, and started listening in awe. Less detail, far less detail, but effortless, gentle, subtle, warm, and so darn beautiful. When’s the last time tears clouded your eyes without watching Bambi or pulling up your trouser zip without proper precheck? I haven’t listened to vinyl in (literally) decades. That’s a mistake I’m not making again in a hurry. Some months ago, I received two virgin vinyl pressings from Japan in a box that never got opened. That changed that night and … wow. Wow. WOW.
Rediscovering that sound after such a long dry summer of digital was such a shock to my system that the rest of the evening was spent listening to all … 6 … of our albums (I’d given all of mine to my father with that smug certainty that bits had dethroned grooves for eternity) 4 of which belong to my daughter and are movie soundtracks, read on a 25 year old entry level Rega turntable that’s never been cared for ……………
But, what the new craving for audio gear has led to is an eye opening realisation that the HiFi world, since my last visit, has matured in ways that we togs could certainly learn a thing or two from.
Some of this is fueled by the harmonious coexistence of analog and digital in the audio world. Some of it is fueled by the old digitisation vs digitalisation debate that’s rattled my cage for too long.
This repeat obsession has been touched on previously in this blog, but let me just write a quick refresher for those not yet exposed to my personal brand of neurosis 😉
Digitization is the transformation of analog information into digital information. When you scan invoices to save them to the cloud, you are digitizing. When you use your mirrorless camera to immortalise a beautiful scene, you are digitizing.
Digitalization is the use of the digital file to some valuable effect. For instance, though character recognition, that scanned invoice could be saved to the cloud, not as a lifeless PDF but as a spreadsheet that can then start a new life in big data.
When your phone turns your selfie into this little homunculus, it’s digitalisation. But it doesn’t have to be that stupid. That is only what the photoworld has chosen to do with photographic files.
Let’s now compare this irritating abomination with what the music playing industry has chosen to do with its zeros and ones 😉 And, yes, I believe the two industries can make for a valid comparison, given that they are both hobbies that turn middle aged, well-off males into financially-deprived slaves, GAS and all 😉 😉 😉 Both take us to emotional extremes, at both end of the frustration-delight spectrum, sometimes simultaneouly. And both can let us tailor essentially technical gear to our subjective and emotional tastes.
Now, let me start by saying that the same affliction for measurement and neutrality runs deep in the two arenas. During my random walk through websites known and new, I stumbled up some that review musical components purely by testing electronically them and without listening (or, at least handing out any listening notes). Please read that sentence again while I gently weep … Even legacy brands known for their sound signature all seem to have migrated towards greater neutrality and political correctness. And some reviewers seem to routinely stack up to 6 machines long a digital stream starting at their phone/tablet/computer right down to their DAC. Some must find pleasure in that. Me? Ahem …
However, pernicious industrial disease aside, the ecosystems dedicated to the amusement respectively of our sight and audition could hadly have evolved more differently.
Let’s get this neutrality thing out of the way first. It’s fair to say that HiFi systems sound waaay more different from one another than camera systems look different or, rather, image differently. In, fact, the more you spend, the more you buy into a designer’s worldview (worldhear ?) Even accounting for the recent migration towards the center, standard deviation in the audio world is not only present but worshipped. How individual brands strive for their idea of perfect restitution is what draws the crowds to them.
Recognising that being ultimately neutral renders their gear ultimately boring, individual labs focus on timing or punch or gloss or transparency or airiness or harmonic truth or … or any combination thereof. And just like with frozen yogurt, the more toppings you want to combine (“I’ll have great timbres and superb high base control, please”) the more it will cost you. Compared to the 3 quantitative metrics the photography industry has managed to muster (resolution, speed, aperture) a touristy tour through audio neutrality feels like a stroll throught the natural history museum.
Prices. If you think an Otus or an X1D are expensive purchases, check with your physician before touring the audio world. For quite a few brands out there, 10 grand is entry level.
And why not, if you can? Unlike digital photography, upscale audio purchases will last you a loooooong time and retain their value far better. Ever tried selling that 3.5 grand camera 2 years after buying it? After ten years of that game, you’ve far spent more than “permanent medium format” or a reasonable audiophile upgrade path would have cost you. ‘coz yes, you can upgrade gear in audio, rather than chuck it in the bin 🙂 🙂 🙂
But, at the other end of the scale, others focus on providing as much sonic bang for your buck as possible and provide equipment in the tens of dollars that provide as much pleasure as stuff costing 3 orders of magnitude as much. Enjoyment is the main driver here and it comes in as many flavours as you care to imagine. Tactile pleasure, aesthetics, simplicity, steampunkitude (!), rhythm, elegance, resolution at very low level, utter clarity at sociopathic listening levels, dynamism, airiness, foot-tapping-sing-along-inescapability, relaxation, heck, the price itself …
What this hobbyist industry has understood that the photography world hasn’t is that it’s all about the customer and her/his preferences, personal likes and dislikes. Sure, the marketing equivalent of MTF curves exists, particularly for mass-market products. And it is probably every bit as unverified as in photographic circles. But brand loyalists gather around a sonic aesthetic, not around some irrelevant swervy lines they don’t even understand 10% of …
And this leads us straight to media. Which takes me down the steps of that Natural History museum and straight into the city zoo. Here again, one can only be staggered by the number of options at our disposal to form an opinion. Even in the extraordinary jungle of products available, the scores of reviewers provide excellent geolocation beacons that clearly state musical tastes and matching gear for any review, so that the reader can immediately relate to and read or move on to the next.
And the vocabulary …
Cross-sensorial analogies can be scary at first, but what options do we have to convey a sonic quality onto paper or pixel? What does fruity bass even mean? But tuning into this is part of the fun, right?
Over the months and years of listening to items and reading about them, you train your brain to the proper isomorphisms and form a very solid intuition of how some new item you can only read about will sound, in your room and system. That training in itself is a wonderful experience in that it forces words upon your impressions and, in turn, makes them more clear to you. Just like wine tasting across the planet makes use of a common terminology to convey a pallet of subjective tastes and aromas (you know what a mix of leather, current, and coffee means to you).
Some of my favourite lingo opposes legato to staccato. One reviewer uses the latter to denote an amps ability to deliver leading edge punch and great timing, using the former to qualify subtlety of tone, airiness and decay. Another brilliant acronym I can no longer find the author of (though I do believe credit goes to the ever readable 6moons.com) humorously opposes the “industry minted” PRaT (pace, rhythm and timing, Naim-style) to B.A.L.L.S to qualify the same set of (largely incompatible at affordable prices) rhythmic vs tonal qualities.
Photography needs better media than blokes happy to capture ten sharp images of some ugly pooch in 3 seconds, preferably in the dark, or capture charts in a basement, as if either was, in any universe, a relatable experience for everyday creative photography …
And photography needs better vocabulary to convey, with near certainty and at a distance, a sense of what to expect with respect to the subjective characteristics of some piece of gear in our temporary reviewer possession, if only for ourselves. This is one of the topics I would like to explore in our incubator sessions of the near future. Of course, we have photographs to support our impressions, but this in no way dispenses us of the fun of tasty vocabulary to describe them in ways we can all relate to.
But back to digitalization and how it could/should bathe our photo-electronic hobby as well.
Take streaming all-in-one devices such as the Naim Unity Atom or the NAD M10, for instance. Yes, so they play your digital files, just like your laptop displays your digital files. That’s 100% digitisation.
But how about integrating your file libraries with subscription-based online libraries from Amazon, Apple, Idagion, Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, YouTube and more. How about retrieving album art and presenting everything seamlessly ? Integration? That’s already one huge step up from our siloed market. Yes, yes, Sony’s short flange distance did allow the use of legacy lenses as an early proxy for a proper lens range, but their filter stack thickness is all you need to understand that was a temporary tactic. And just watch brave, brilliant Olympus being torn apart in the coming weeks. Today, it’s back to every man for himself.
And how about room measurement for best integration? Those mid range streamers will play music, listen to themselves and automatically adapt their output to remove resonances and bumps from the frequency curve you are perceiving. Compare that environmental awareness to the photo world’s inability to even produce accurate colours after two decades of digital products, and the gap between the industries is turning into a chasm.
Now, I’m not implying a total absence of digitalization benefits in the photo universe. There are little bonuses like 100% automatic backup / multiple shoot modes that simulate long exposures, HDR, … / instant sharing to friends and websites, on-device post-processing, and more. But the implementation of what is available is so often a ludicrous afterthought.
And I believe the mainstream manufacturer’s reluctance to address digitalisation and stay at the digitisation stage is one major reason for their losing so much ground to phones.
Take image stitching for example. I travel light, with just one lens, and it is often very useful to simulate a wider angle of view through stitching. When I do that with my phone, an automatic message from Google always awaits on my return, telling me “oy, mate, your pano is ready”. Which is always a pleasant surprise, since the whole idea has systematically slipped my mind, by that stage.
Compared to this, the whole traditional post-processing industry’s collective effort towards stitching is pathetic. Lightroom does a passable job of it, Photoshop is better, Affinity has its moments. And, if you really want to waste precious hours of your life on scripts and such, there are options for that as well. Provided you have downloaded your cards, imported and located the individual photographs, delved into the menus …
All of this applies equally to focus stacking. We could very conceivably let the camera make its exposures, blend low res versions in camera, allowing us to tune the depth of field (or lack thereof) to our taste via a slider, and send the adequate metadata to the PP software to replicate the exact thing in high-res.
And how about in-camera correction of third-party lenses? Even if soft corners can be beyond repair, correcting colour casts, vignetting and distortion really isn’t rocket science. How nice would it be to put that old Mandler Leica lens on the camera and be able to get the look without the drawbacks?
That’s almost inconceivable in a siloed industry in which every player wants to shelter sales from the neighbour. An industry that could be and should be thriving, if not for the shortsightedness of its corporate strategies. When market share trumps customer satisfaction, bottom lines get ugly fast.
Another – closely related and tell-tale – sign of the profound differences between the two sectors is the number of players still in reasonable health. Consolidation has been the master key in the photo world. “One sensor to rule them all” sums up Sony’s strategy. Today, how many thriving manufacturers can you name? All those that are not billion dollar companies are on their way out and even the big boys are crumbling faster than shortbread in rooibos.
On the other side of the chasm, although I haven’t the faintest idea how well they are doing, the number of active companies in the audio world is simply staggering. Dozens, if not hundreds, of names come up in any in-depth search. Most of them quite small. And yes, setting up a sensor factory comes with a multi-billion entry ticket. But we’re long past peak sensor and in desperate need of more interesting ancilliaries and software.
What is very obvious is that the main drivers in those two universes could not be more different. One caters for individuality while the others standardizes and forces us into a stereotype (you know, those 20 fps sharp shots of black cats on coal sacs at night that no one in the history of consciousness – outside those sports pros that make up all of 0.01% of the customer base – has ever really cared about) through the use of do-it-all cameras and lenses. Surely, at somepoint, someone on the Titanic will look out the window at the big pointy thing ahead and will start to think differently. Surely. Or are sunk cost too much of an irony?
Let’s take another look at digitalization before I conclude and explain to my clients why I have not yet finished their work. Specifically at AI and Smartphone integration.
Deep learning has put advanced features such as style mapping in the hands of developers. Instead of generic presets, wouldn’t you like your photographs to look like they were made by Michael Kenna or Steve McCurry? For one of the major software companies, that’s easy. And isn’t that far more fun than another blend mode or layer mask option? Or, without plagiarising a famous artist, why not work on user-tuned monochrome conversions that don’t require hours of patient work? How difficult would it be to detect dust in photographs and clean up the frame with content-aware filling? Not very, is the answer, conditional upon a will to serve, though it is.
Another neat trick up AI’s sleeve consists of manipulating depth. Other algorithms let you alter the proportions of objects in the frame. How about we open the lab doors for those fun features to taste the fresh air and add creative arrows in our depleted quiver rather than constantly spin a meaningless quantitative hamster wheel?
How about automatic labelling? Some datasets have allowed algorithms to automatically detect 22 000 types of objects automatically in photographs. All of which is open-source because the AI community understands how much faster it can grow and make money by sharing resources, rather than lose at being protective, like the photo industry. How much fun would it be to see your photographs automatically labelled as they get imported? And how about star ratings? Train your software by rating a few of your photographs yourself and let it decide which of the next are 1 star, 2 star or 3 star, saving you 90% of the work associated with asset management?
Some HiFi gear comes with remotes. Some has nice large, high-res screens to operate. Some does away with both and relies on apps instead. Yes, that rules out the 0.01% of the customer base that can afford 4 to 6 figure HiFi gear and doesn’t use a smartphone or a tablet. On the flip side, it simplifies the user’s life tremendously.
Why is the photo industry so adverse to simplification and smartphone integration? I have repeatedly advocated against the pitiful glass things their manufacturers call rear screens and in favour of smartphone tethering. And while fractional implementations do exist, why has no one simply abandoned haptics and ergonomics that both seem to originate from and able to induce brain damage – in favour of a good app. How much do 1 million rear screens cost? More than the 200k a really good app would cost?
Sony’s mind-boggling early forays into apps probably point us towards the answer. But, instead of abandonning them altogether, why not make them better and transition smoothly? This is not to pick on Sony specifically, I have simply not been exposed to the apps of other manufacturers. Besides, Sony engineering is staggeringly good. I seriously doubt that there’s anything the company wouldn’t be number one at if it wasn’t high on their list. Consequently, we can only conclude a lack of interest. And they are not the only ones. Zeiss, probably the only company to really innovate since the introduction of the mirroless camera, went the exact opposite way to what seemed like the best option: instead of a body with great ergonomics, compatibility with the huge range of world-class glass in their current and past catalogue, and control-by-phone, they chose a slippery shape with a rear screen and a fixed lens. I don’t get it.
Then there’s worldview. My speaker cables were made by an elderly gentleman in Japan. He noticed that by covering quality copper or silver with a special type of oil, you could dramatically reduce edge current nasties that wreak havoc with signal smoothness. His website is a single pdf page in Japanese and I can imagine him working alone or with an apprentice on wooden tables with ancient, pedal-activated, machinery, day in day out.
Compared to this, there’s a Toshiba SSD factory without a single human being inside. The whole factory is one big robot. While that sounds very reassuring for preserving my social security number and bank account, it most certainly isn’t the worldview I want to support with my hobby spending. The stories we surround ourselves with are vastly more important to our happiness than the objects we surround oursleves with.
My bedtime stories tell the tale of smaller companies each in search of their sonic Grail and taking great care of their customers. Other think differently, but I have a hard time accepting a mass market treatment when purchasing a 4 000 €/£/$ camera when people selling me audio kit at 10% this price have given me special attention. Incredibly, not one of the last 4 “photo” companies I have written to ever replied to me. Two days ago, the Naim marketing department answered my questions within hours. Something is most certainly rotten in the state of consolidated hobby markets, Horatio.
That vast difference between the two industries is all the more baffling when you consider audiophiles as content consumers and photographers as producers. To my untrained intuition, this should have naturally pushed photography towards the more creativity-friendly side of the modes-of-consumptions spectrum.
Which brings me to one of my main gripes with the digital era of photography. The easy propagation of images (and music) has made the emergence of platforms easier, and their huge scale of monetisation has hinged on the commoditisation of all forms of content, not just photography. This has led to a global desire to experience what Warhol would have termed 15 microseconds of fame, mostly by following standardised recipes.
It is extremely ironic that, in freeing us of a technical barrier to entry, digital’s contribution has led to a massive herding of creative potential (yes, there are exceptions …) rather than a fostering of diversity.
Why is that? And what can we take away from it to dream our cameras of the future?
First of all, the creative act in both industries is very different.
Hand a true audiophile the perfect amp and the satisfaction won’t last very long. Deep inside the DNA of audiophiles is the desire to build something personal and great, not buy and forget. While I’ve not read anything to support that claim, my guess is that assembling an art collection and assembling an audio system are much closer in spirit than audio and photography.
The creative act is building the system, and audiophile shops are basically curators of good gear, just like galleries are with photographs.
In both cases, the process is complex, expensive and deeply personal. A lot of thought, love and anxiety goes into both. Compared to this, clicking is instant and basically free. And camera manufacturers are trying their hardest to make it thoughtless as well. I would love to see photo shops acting like curators rather than selling everything they can get their hands on. But there just isn’t anything to curate. The differences between offerings are so wee, it would be largely meaningless.
A second idea that springs to mind is that we essentially listen to the work of masters and view the work of amateurs. No offence, of course, I include myself in this majority. There’s no comparing my dandelions with Snake River and the Grand Tetons.
Here again, the time and effort we are willing to devote to either is of a different order of magnitude. The dandelion photograph above or the pipe below probably won’t even make it to paper, but an Ansel Adams print would inevitably end up in a high quality frame costing far more than entry level cameras.
So, framing the debate around consumption vs creation might be putting the carriage before the horse. Maybe we are willing to assemble the best audio systems to hear the artists we value the most in the conditions we personally find the best. And, maybe if we valued our own work as much as Radiohead’s latest, our image-making kit would be far more personal, rather than dictated by media that mostly regurgitate glorified press releases.
And, obviously, we have been processed over decades to think about photo gear in easily mass-marketable terms.
The combination of all these factors into feedback loops that took the audio world and the photo industry further and further apart is my best explanation for the Jekyll and Hyde differences between two activities meant to engage creativity and sensory inputs. And the faster product cycles have only accelerated the process in recent years.
And this same process could swing the evolution of products and the ecosystem in another direction just as easily. It won’t. The incumbents would probably sink before they were willing to change their siloed strategies. Even smaller players such as PP software editors seem more eager to reinvent the wheel at every launch than to work on a common file format and complement one another.
Does that mean we can’t dream our ideal cameras? Heck no 😉
Here’s my feature list :
In a nutshell, the exact opposite of what we’re offered today : analog ergonomics and full on digitalization capabilities. That would undoubtedly make me …
Can you imagine yourself as a photophile in the same way as audiophiles consider their hobby? If so, what would you dream of? What specific niche would you love to occupy? What sort of hobbyist would you be? Mainstream? Obsessed with tiny artisans? More in tune with larger shops? Would you crave neutrality or a certain flavour? Would you keep your photography kosher or dive head-on into crossmedia?
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