#1359. The impossible conundrum of dopamine cameras

By pascaljappy | Opinion

May 15

Entertainment cameras are dying, but can dopamine cameras even be born?

 

Ted Gioia, a.k.a. Honest Broker, recently wrote the very interesting post The State of the Culture, 2024, in which he describes the serious trouble the entertainment industry – which always stole budgets from more artistic endeavours – is beginning to suffer itself, at the hands of the growing distraction industry.

TikTok exemplifies this trend. Constant stimulation in continuous short bursts, one after the other. And it’s proving so successful that all the other platforms, now one train late in terms of mind-grabbing nefariousness, are copying the (relatively) new kid on the block. Or is that blok?

The rush of dopamine produced by the distraction reinforces the need for more, creating an endless addiction loop. Legal crack for the teenage brain. Megayachts for those who best master the craft of zombifying our species.

 

This is nothing new. The research into braincracking that has been used by Silicon Folly over the past decade is documented. This latest trend merely represents the optimisation stage of a hitherto experimental process.

But the article doesn’t stop at this dark image. It goes on to explain anhedonia, the gradual loss of enjoyment that victims feel during the process as they become more and more addicted to it, soon leading to depression, or worse, while unable to stop.

Now, all this is very bleak, and we photographers are very fortunate that nothing remotely as evil or harmful has overcome our little corner of the creative world. But I do feel some parallels can be drawn. Notably in the sequence that begins at art, continues with entertainment, then distraction and finally addiction (along with its own form of anhedonia). And particularly when gear is concerned.

 

Let’s rewind to (fine) art cameras. Typically, though not always, large-format cameras. Smaller format was used essentially for efficiency and monetary reasons. But all forms were slow and deliberate. That is the very nature of art, deliberate craft that takes time, is difficult, often frustrating, something elating.

Then came entertainment cameras. Those for diletantes and tourists we have all used (and, in my case, loved) which proved both easier to use and produced immediate feedback. Some included wonderful adapted lens platforms such as the Sony a7R. Phones also. Then, it was the rise of the envelope camera, allowing us to shoot more or less anything in any situation, leading to potentially thousands of pictures a day, when early shooters might not have produced as many in a decade. This, to me, is clearly distracting from the purpose of the photographic process, for most people. It takes a very deliberate photographer to use gear like that and not spray and pray, and to focus on only a tiny few excellent opportunities and turn them into visual gold through the deliberate process as was a necessity decades earlier.

While the envelope camera was calculated positioning by Canisony, it was certainly not an evil exploitation of our minds to create any form of addiction. To me, that sad state of affairs has not reached the land of amateur photography yet. While Instagram and similar websites do contain the seeds of addiction, the are more (content) consumer-facing than a danger for the creator (who, however, gets more diluted in an ocean of content every passing day).

 

And I feel we are safe from addictive photography because we are all different. Jens, following his great post Gas and flow, told me of menus in his a7RV such as “range of focus for insect eyes”. As hilarious as that sounds to me, it does show Sony’s commitment to address and facilitate as many shooting scenarios as possible. That can only ever be a progressive expansion of the shooting envelope, however, and will not turn into a form of addiction, because each specialised features is only valuable to a tiny fraction of Sony’s consumer base. More of us can be addressed by one – or a handful – of such shooting modes, but no one will ever find so many valuable options available as to spend a lifetime greedily exploring them.

Nor do I think dopamine rushes can be triggered by conventional cameras, only by the artistic process itself. One day, maybe we’ll see AI turning every single one of our shots into a masterpiece, tuning composition, lighting, and colours on the fly to create the “optimal” shot that will give us that ‘hit’. But I don’t think that would prove interesting for most photographers, as it would likely be one step too far in the creativity-deprivation direction.

When some of us suffer from GAS, however, I can’t help seeing that as a mild symptom of anhedonia. Without reaching addictive levels, gear that turns slow creativity into fast distraction rapidly becomes boring, and the next generation is always better – and therefore worse. I believe that’s why the resurgence of film hit so hard a few years ago. As ever-more powerful cameras became ever-more uninvolving for a large chunk of the photographic population, the – highly involving – process of measuring exposure, choosing filmstock and lenses for a specific look rather than for performance, anticipating the processing of film, proved to be the ultimate antidote to anhedonia. We fluffed more, but the few we got right certainly sent the dopamine and fulfilment gauges flying.

 

But we need not resort to celluloid to maintain our joy of shooting and keep the brain-eating barbarians at the gate. All it takes is deliberate shooting and chill. Phew, we’re safe 😉

 

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  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Pascal,
    Lovely photos – those first three!

    #4 almost turns me inside out, those faces!
    ( And I just had to google and found more by Nhobi.)
    I wonder if he feels that way about us humans or if he just wants to confront us with human hell…

    #5 made me think that that’s a place to live – but is that also Marseille?
    – – * – –

    Thanks for linking to Gioia’s article!
    I’m afraid he’s most probably right.
    But perhaps this will pass just as (at least in Sweden) the first addiction (~ mid 1950s) to TV slowly wore off?
    What’s next…

    [ Tom Lehrer: Who’s next.
    😉 ]
    – – * – –

    I do hope you are right that we are safe.

    But one never knows what someone might invent…

    ( Consider the Instanatic “craze”.
    I think one may call it addictive.
    Kodak marketed a stylish simple box camera as a “real” camera and made money on the proprietary film cassettes!
    I guess *anything* is possible…)

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you very much Kristian.

      I fear that, just as with chemical drugs, one addiction wave only stops when a harder hitting one comes along (unless powers that be put their foot down and actually do something to protect the populations).

      Hopefully, things will get better soon 🙂

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Hi Pascal,

    “range of focus for insect eyes” may not be as gimmicky as it sounds.

    Fuji have a feature which sounds as if it might be the same or similar. They call it focus bracketing. As most cameras have say exposure bracketing for HDR , one of Fuji’s bracketing options is focus bracketing. The user sets the near and far focus points , the number of steps shots in between , and the interval between each shot. This being a function for those landscape photographers who focus stack images to get everything from a foot to infinity in focus. When the shutter is pressed the sequence of raw images from near to far focus is initiated with the lens focus motor making the necessary increments in focus.

    I guess with a macro lens it could also be used to create 50+ images of an insect or any macro subject , which can be focus stacked even if a wide aperture is used.

    Goes without saying some form of tripod is necessary.

    • Ian Varkevisser says:

      pretty useful naturally to avoid light changes between shots in a landscape.

    • jeanpierreguaron660@gmail.com says:

      Nikon has it too, now, Ian – on the Z8 and, I imagine, on the Z9. I prefer to use a stack shot rail-so I can control where the first and last frames in the bracket, and how far apart the shots in between are. And when I mention doing that, one of the other members of that group threw a fit. I got the impression she’d never heard of stack shot rails, but anyway, as far as she was concerned it was focus bracketing or nothing.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Ian, the fact that people would want a feature to focus on insects was what surprised me. But why not? And Sony is to be commended for accommodating all those niche passions. And Fuji and Nikon, judging by the comments. When it comes to tech, I appear to be living under a stone.

    • Jens says:

      Just to clarify – the feature I was referring to was related to the AF behaviour. In short – you can tell the AF how far outside of your focus area the camera should look for a desired feature such as the head of an insect. On top of that you can choose in a different setting how sticky the focus should be and which part to prioritise (head, body, eyes).
      For all the different subject types (insects, birds, cars) you can customise these options individually and how sure the camera needs to be that it is of that type (a lower level might help you focus on a subject that doesn’t fit the typical description / AI wasn’t trained on, but can get more easily confused). Add to that the general AF settings…

      In short if you have a specific situation this can be great, but it is rather complex. And in my case it led to some very unexpected AF behaviour since I forgot about meddling with these settings. One day I was walking around trying to capture some flowers and used the Small Spot AF. I didn’t realise that I was still in insect AF with a high level of ‘focus shift range’ – as such the AF constantly moved to other areas in the frame since the camera would spot a small spider or similar.

      These aids can actually help you get into the flow if you know in advance what you want to take pictures of, but most of the time I walk around with my camera just looking for anything that might spark my interest. And at that point the myriad of settings made for a horrible experience – the more basic the better.

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Hi Pascal,

    I am reminded of a comment I made to you a year or two back which may help as a cure for this dreaded infliction.

    Purchase a slow low capacity , say 1GB card, which can only save 25 images of RAW 40MB files and only go out with that in your camera and no spare card.

    Alternatively fill a card up with non images files until only a limited space of say 36 image max is left on the card.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, that is excellent.

      My own version of this is one slightly larger (64Go, or 128Go if I’m feeling lazy) card for a trip, however long. It makes me slow down, initially. And, towards the end, the card is full, so I have to delete shots to take new ones. That makes me think twice ….

  • Pascal O. says:

    Hi Pascal,

    Thank you for an enlightened article.

    As for Silcon Folly, I am always reminded, when the iPad was launched back in 2010, that Steve Jobs was asked by a journalist whether he would put one in the hand of his kids. His response, unsurprisingly with hindsight, was “Never!”.

    As to new toys, being a Sony shooter, I had a look at their latest menus, including the focus tracking feature initially limited to three categories now spans to five or six.

    Sony started with humans, birds and animals (I thus discovered that birds are no animals in Sonyspeak -ahem), and having the right setting at the right moment means you have to be Superman to remember which key to press to switch quickly to the right category, assuming one that you have pre programmed a switch key and two that you have an autofocus lens. Otherwise, the animal – or bird (!!)- is long gone with a smirk.

    For me, there are now so many parameters to choose from that it becomes an overkill.

    Bottom line is thus that I try and keep it simple. “Basic” photography concentrating on the subject and having the standard setting right so as to enjoy “normal” levels of dopamine…

    By the way, stunning pics as always, I love the last one in particular.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Pascal. You raise the most important problem in the whole situation. The fact that the creators of these platforms prevent their own kids from using them proves they understand how detrimental they are for other people’s children.

      What kind of human being does that???

      As for Sony, I think they are targeting multiple niches, assuming that very few users will want to partake in more than one of them. The idea of diving into those menus once makes me tremble. Multiple times would accelerate my ageing. And switching constantly? I can’t bear to think about that 😉

  • jeanpierreguaron660@gmail.com says:

    I don’t feel sufficiently introspective to add much to this discussion, Pascal. I take photos because it’s in my DNA – two of my great-great-uncles (or should that be “great-great-great ? – dunno) were crazy mad photographers, and filled boxes and boxes and boxes with all their photos – glass plates – and the rest of it. My father was a keen photographer. Someone in between must have been, because there were heaps and heaps of photos of everyone from 1870 till my generation and beyond. My one remaining brother thinks he is – good luck on that one, his hit rate when I was observing him was about one a day, if anyone was prepared to sit still that long!
    But my tally runs to about a hundred thousand.
    Paul Perton would have loved about 10,000 of them – they’re now safe in the custody of a friend of mine in London, whose collection has already passed 250,000, partly due to the assistance of people like me – all centred on trams, trains and the like.
    And I’m still doing it – though not as many as in the past, not as many as I’d like to – the shadows are growing longer, and I’m finding it physically harder – I’ve never been one to quit, so I am planning another phase, in which I can sit at the controls and send the camera flying. In short, a drone – and she-who-believes-she-must-be-obeyed has already indicated that it’s OK. A good quality DJI perhaps – still to be decided (there’s a new one due to be introduced in about three months, just in time for my next birthday, so it might be better to wait for that one before making a decision).
    Unfortunately for some, philosophising over it is beyond me.
    Some – my critics, mostly – would tell me this is why my photos are not worth entering in a competition. Of course that would just end up in the waste paper basket, where I shove ALL the “opinions” that people fling in my direction. Over-thinking doesn’t do it for me – if there’s any kind of theme to my photography at all, it’s pursuit of things I “see”, that make me want to capture an image of them.
    I must admit, though, that on odd occasions when one of the cognoscenti has spared the time to critique some of my photos, I’ve been left with the impression they suffered from some kind of mental road block that was preventing them from “thinking outside the square”. And having devoured practically everything I could find, on the subject of “thinking outside the square” or “inverting reality” in order to solve problems, that sort of response simply choked me.
    Where it really seemed to lead photography was things like those “rules of composition”. I was fascinated by them, when I first came across a book about “Composition” in photography – of course I knew all about it in music, I’d been learning the piano for more than 10 years before that. And at first I thought it was wonderful. But within a few months it was just gathering dust on my bookshelf. Because I was a bratty child – maybe, I certainly had a distaste for “rules”! But actually because it was a book that pretended something completely alien to the way I think. It pretended to hand you a recipe, that you just simpy applied, and out popped a prize winning photo. Nothing to it! Simple – dead easy!
    No matter how horrible the idea is to other people, I’ve never wanted to be “someone else”. I’ve only ever what to be “me”, regardless of what anyone else might think of that. And the notion of “here, press the button” and “out will pop a glorious image” couldn’t have been much more alien.
    Someone asked me the other day “what sort of photos DO you take?” Meaning what do I take photos of? Either way, the answer is “practically everything”. Well except scuba diving or cave exploring I guess. But much along the same lines as “the person who has stopped learning has ceased to live”, I try to dream up new things to photograph, pretty much all the time. I can’t always do it of course, but that’s the general drift. So – there’s no simple answer to “what do you photograph”, in my case.
    Now that I’ve said too much (as usual) and widened the scope of the discussion, I’m going to sit back and enjoy what comes next! You and I can re-group, later!

    • pascaljappy says:

      The problem with all those books, experts, courses, is that they teach rules, not principles.

      Rules micro-manage the photographer. “This is how you do things”, they say. Principles explain how the brain works and how viewers interpret an image, letting the photographer come up with their own decisions.

      Principles are a lot more difficult to monetise … 😉

  • Jens says:

    The article on Honest Broker led to some intense discussions with friends this weekend – thank you for pointing that one out!

    Regarding the parallels to cameras – I believe the “envelope” camera is going into a very different direction at least for now – even if they have all sorts of aids that help you deal with almost every situation, they add a tremendous amount of complexity. Quite the difference to the fast paced short videos that Ted Gioia references in his article.

    Maybe the false expectations are among the reasons why I had such a hard time initially with my first camera of that type – it was distracting for all the wrong reasons and I was nowhere near a dopamine loop. The experience using it with a manual lens is much closer to that loop or once I figured out how to use specific aids for a very specific scene – at that point we coin it more positively as ‘flow’.

    Regarding GAS – there is a certain loop here and anhedonia plays a role too. The way much content for photography is made (gear reviews / tutorials) feeds into it. The products themselves however are increasingly more complex and/or specialised. Maybe this is what ultimately leads to anhedonia with the next gear purchase, very few are made for easy consumption. Unfortunately it took me a few too many cycles in that loop, but in a bizarre way it helped me get back on my feet – the stimulus (gear) is way too chunky to work for that fast paced dopamine loop and eventually breaks it. At least I hope that I’m now way more resilient to fall victim to it.

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