The Cell Phone Rant

If you live in Canada as I do, you have the misfortune of having to put up with what must be the most expensive and poorest quality cellular service on Earth. If you live in a rural area, you have the choice of exactly three carriers, two of which share the same infrastructure. You want a deal? Forget it.

Let’s look at where this starts. I hardly ever use my cell phone. 99% of the time it is literally turned off. I only ever use it to check in with my wife when I’m in town. It doesn’t work at the cabin (zero cell signal there) nor even at home without a booster. That’s how good our coverage isn’t. Thus I have a prepaid account which rips me $10 a month and even then quite often just plain doesn’t work when I want it to. For example it doesn’t function out of town even if we’re two feet apart because that’s “roaming” and there’s no way to load such ‘long distance’ service on to a pre-paid number here.

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My venerable Samsung Rugby – note the dent

In order to achieve that technological miracle which in fact costs them nothing more at all, I have to ramp up to a monthly plan at a minimum $35 per. That’s an extra $25 a month to be able to do what I should be able to do anyway, and since I only need it maybe six times a year it’s not a very good bargain. You can do a lot with $300 a year. I could use a pay phone when I’m in the big city, but there aren’t any there anymore. Guess why.

Every cell plan now it seems is centered on text and data, rather than talking. Don’t you want unlimited gigabytes for $500 a month? Everyone does! Oh and you can get the latest smartphone too! Except smart phones are not smart, as anyone who is can tell you. Not only do they fumble under my large fingers, but everyone who uses them makes errors many times per day – and they think nothing of it because they have come to accept 40% accuracy of operation as “normal”. I’m an engineer, and I don’t. Smart phones are crap devices that fail as phones and as computers and yes as cameras. They’re actually better as cameras now than they are as phones!

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One of the half dozen or so Smartphones my wife has had in the past 6 years

You wondered when I was going to get to cameras, right? Well here it is: the entire smartphone industry is based on selling people who already have viable devices a new unit because it has some small improvement such as a “better camera” which is hyped until the consumer is under the impression that they will simply die if they don’t get the newest model. The promotions are enough fertilizer to cover 100,000 acres.

I have had and still have an alarmingly large number of tools, and I can tell you that any time anyone tries to make an all-in-one device it ends up being a not-really-good-at-anything device. It can’t be helped. Whether it’s a multi-screwdriver or a cell phone or a car that wants to be a part time boat. The flawed design theory behind the smartphone is: since it has to have a CPU anyway, why not have it do other things that need a CPU to do? You then get a mediocre phone, which you have to downplay by extolling the virtues it doesn’t really have in other operations.

Seriously, kids; you press a button on a keyboard and you get that keystroke every time, unless the damn thing is broken. Pay attention the next time you play with your touchscreen device and see if it really operates at 100% accuracy. I hear my wife sitting in her chair cursing under her breath at her Samsung for hours on end as it repeatedly doesn’t do what she wants it to and often does something entirely different instead. And that doesn’t include certain Internet functions that are not accessible to smartphones at all.

Android OS? Blue Tooth? Wifi? Chromebooks? All about as reliable as a government agency; they cost a lot of money and if they ever function right at all you’re supposed to say they’re wonderful and be eternally grateful – until the next model comes out to replace the one you’ve got.

I can have arguments with people about how analog is in many ways superior to digital, although most of the time the other person doesn’t know the definition of either. I still have an old analog cell phone which worked better than any phone I’ve had since, but has been forced into obsolescence by companies out for repeat sales at the cost of burgeoning landfills. This gets into socio-economic areas as well as environmental ones.

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My ‘ancient’ Audiovox cell phone

Our government oversight agency for telecommunications, the CRTC, has “come down hard” on the cell companies to force them to give us better options, clearer billing, and greater customer satisfaction. So far those companies have just been laughing all the way to the bank, and have done nothing. They’re proud of their top-end pricing limit (so you’ll never pay more than $1,000 a month for that data!), but they have no real options at the low end for occasional users like me or anyone on a budget who needs a phone for those instances when all you need is a phone. They don’t even make voice-only phones anymore.

Thus we have a world full of industries all operating on the flawed premise of selling people something they’ve already got, while cutting out any segment of the population that is not currently served.

As for me, there is no solution to my personal dilemma. I may as well go back to the pre-cell days and save an addition $10/month. I could buy a couple of walkie-talkies for what I’d save in one year, and operate for free from then on. If I could get the Mrs. to use one.

I’m wasting your and my time here of course; nothing is going to change for this rant. The majority of suckers with smartphones can’t even comprehend there’s a problem. After all, theirs does what they think they need to do with it – at least 40% of the time anyway – and at a cost that’s only ten or twenty times what the service is actually worth.

Ooh! Nope! There’s a Brand New model of their smartphone just out, so they all have to rush out and buy that now. Otherwise they’ll just die!

The stupidity of smart phones

Note: this posting is only vaguely related to photography, in that you can use smart phones to take pictures. Mostly it is about using them as phones, so if you’re looking for another photography article … well this isn’t it.

Consider the following scenario: I’m in the big city, going to the airport to pick up my returning wife after an absence of nearly three months. I’m waiting in a parking lot for her to ring my cell phone and say she’s arrived so I can nip to the pick-up zone and whisk her away. Romantic, eh?

My phone doesn’t ring. It’s way past time for the plane to arrive. I try calling in the other direction, and am told that my “plan” doesn’t have the ability or credit to do that. What? I’m sure I’ve called her before, even from the city to our little town. Now it doesn’t work when we’re both out of town but still in the same city? The one day in three months I need the phone to work, and it doesn’t!

Herein the background: I don’t use my phone much. About once a week when I’m in town doing shopping I check in at home to see if there’s anything that’s been forgotten. This possibly makes me unique in all the world. Certainly it is within my family, as they (like so many others) all seem to have had their phones surgically grafted to their hands. Oh and my phone is an old Samsung Rugby; rugged and dependable but not ‘smart’. I hardly use the thing, and when I do it is only as a phone. As such, my “plan” is pay-as-you-go with automatic monthly top-up. Frankly for the amount I use it I’m getting ripped off anyway, and I’m sure they count the minutes faster than any clock does.

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What I have is more than I need and costs more than it’s worth. Especially when it doesn’t work.

Suspecting the problem was the “plan”, I went looking for an alternative plan. One that specifically mentions ‘long distance’ usage, for example. I looked at different carriers, different plans, and different phones. It came down to the basic Canadian problem of “up yours, consumer!” which we experience in so many things. All the carriers offer the same poor choices of bloated, expensive plans fluffed up with “services” that in reality cost them nothing more to provide. Services I don’t need and don’t want, such as text and data. Like E.T., I just need to be able to phone home when I’m away. Even the so-called “emergency” phone plans were crap – no different than what I’ve got and no cheaper either. Quite the racket they’ve got going, eh?

When you see the phones offered, you understand why. The only non-smart phone is an awful quality Alcatel thing that has nothing but bad reviews everywhere. The companies all but demand you buy a smart phone, because that’s what they make the most profit on.

Well I won’t, because I’ve seen too many of them and the results of their use. They are poor quality, cumbersome to use, and fragile as a thin-shelled egg. Almost everyone I know has one, and they all have tales of broken screens, dead batteries, and failed functions. In the meantime, as they go through phone after phone with repeated expensive upgrades to the ‘latest and greatest’ model, my Samsung keeps working (except when the service provider decides to not allow it). It’s got dents in it, people. Dents that would be instant death for a smartphone. That’s the kind of conditions it has to endure if it’s going to be my phone. (Related: the contractor I worked with last year had a cracked screen on his; said he has to get it replace three or four times every year when it finally gets to the point of not working.)

As with the plans where they minimally hike service and maximally hike prices, so are smart phones and endless road of meaningless “upgrades” dedicated to emptying your bank account faster than you can refill it. They have made the technology addictive to the simple human mind, convincing people that smart phones are a necessity to life. So much so that people forgo food and rent rather than do without the latest improvement. It’s the electronic equivalent of crack cocaine, and when you challenge the phone addicts they become defensive and angry in just the same way. Try it and see. They’ll trot out all the good aspects of having a cell phone, insisting those justify their expense, and ignore how over-blown the contribution to society really is.

That slab of silicon silliness you laid out hundreds of dollars for (or got ‘for free’ when you signed the deal with the digital devil – think about that) is worth a fraction of the price in terms of both what it actually contains in equipment value and what good it does. There’s nothing to it like as insidious in some sci-fi story about purposefully programming the way into the human mind; there doesn’t have to be. The marketing heroes of technology have just pushed the usual brain buttons and got the results the shareholders want: millions of addicts willing to spend any amount of money to be “up-to-date” by the artificial social standards set by the companies selling the drug.

And they don’t take good pictures either. 😉

Addendum: got a message saying they’d whipped more money from me and ‘refilled’ my minutes. Number of minutes used last two months: ZERO. I’m so glad I’m paying for that.

The Future of Fotography

This entry was inspired by the Zen coincidence of a comment made by a friend of a friend and another blog written by a fellow photographer regarding digital cameras and what may be coming. The comment was on the desire for smartphones’ cameras to be at right-angle to the screen so it wasn’t obvious when a picture is being taken (something self-conscious folk have to come to terms with). This would make the phone camera work like an old TLR for framing purposes, or an SLR with waste-level finder if you prefer. The inspiring blog was also about the future: The Future of Photography is not Mirrorless It caused me to think about all the changes I personally have seen in half a century of photography (and looking back on its history, even more).

In the good old days of film photography there were two categories of camera: amateur and professional. That is not the same as two categories of photographer, as a lot of amateurs had professional equipment – and still got amateur results. The inverse is also true, as I’ve known pros to get the results they wanted using a Diana F. It might not be the result you or I want, but it worked for them. Amateur cameras began with the Kodak Brownie for sure:

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(Yes that is the very first model; one of seven left in the world.)

They progressed through basic folders, then plastic cheapies (the famous Brownie “Star” camera series for example), into Instamatics and on to the point-and-shoot digitals. Professional cameras started with the very first cameras, as you really had to know what you were doing before Mr. Eastman made it easy. Post World War II we’d think of pro cameras as Leica, Contax, and Exacta – before Nikon, Canon, and Pentax took over with their SLRs. If you were really serious about your photography, sooner or later you laid down the big money and bought one of the dauntingly complex cameras that could do so much more than point and click.

The early days of digital photography were much the same. I wonder how many remember that the first professional digital units were actually backs that fitted to your SLR (like Nikon F) to give you digital imaging? I remember because at the time a pro friend of mine was trying to get his work to pony up the money for it – something like $10,000 then. They didn’t go for it. But still we had honest amateur digital cameras:

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Curiously if you wanted to go from digital amateur to digital pro the marketplace provided a new kind of camera for you: the “bridge” camera. This was no point-and-shoot, but also not a DSLR with interchangeable lenses. Just the right tool to metaphorically get your feet wet without shelling out next month’s mortgage payment (and car payment and probably the utility bill as well).

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The amateur digitals got better and better and better … and then started to vanish. In fact you will find it difficult to locate a good quality, basic digital camera these days. Why? Because at the same time digital was developing (pun intended) someone thought of using the memory and processor in a cell phone for additional tasking. And cell phones became smartphones with so much more memory and processing power. How easy it became for everyone to carry around one unit that could do everything they wanted to do! Apparently the lessons of the past about putting all your technological eggs in one metaphorical basket were forgotten.

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That’s when smartphones began to afflict professional photography too. Take weddings as an example. It used to be a pro would be hired to make some set shots and candid images and woe unto the amateur who dared bring along his Instamatic! But professionals are expensive and now everyone has a smartphone so … hey all you guests; shoot like crazy and share it all with everyone! Smartphones had brought the ancient despised practice of “film burning” (where if you shoot enough film one of the frames is bound to be good – a take off on the “infinite number of monkeys” principal) to the digital age.

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Oh my. What of professional photography now? Well they’ve introduced the mirror-less cameras for pros. Will that save them? I rather doubt it. For one thing a mirror-less camera, and forgive me if I’ve got this wrong, costs more than a DSLR yet has few parts and is therefor cheaper to produce. Hmm. Sounds just like when they used to charge extra for “pro-black finish” on SLRs even though it cost less than satin chrome. If you weigh the advantages of mirror-less against the disadvantages and factor in the price, is there really any point? Perhaps for some, but it’s unlikely to be the major market share. A mirror-less camera is a point-and-shoot gone posh, as the lens-to-sensor-to-screen principal is the same as used in the now all-but-vanished low-end digital. They’ve just added a lot of features, especially the ability to change lenses.

Time to take a side trip. One of the mirror-less camera flaws is exposing the sensor when the lens is off. In the days of film photography there were a few editions which had interchangeable front elements to give you wide or telephoto views; the rear element remained safely locked behind the leaf shutter. Most of these cameras (such as the infamous Kowa SLR) were quality nightmares which ultimately failed, and the lens arrangement limited the focal lengths possible. Besides now the fragile shutter leafs were exposed when the lens was off. Yet could there not be potential here for making smartphones even more capable? Well some companies are already on that, and you can find clip-on and magnetic lens accessories for your phone already. After all, a digital filter isn’t as good as a real one.

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So where do we go from here? Will smartphones continue to invade the photography world? Having already displaced amateur cameras, do they pose a real threat to professional grade equipment? Will they force pros out of the scene entirely, save a few diehard artistic types? Interesting questions. Let’s see what a smartphone might evolve into.

The original comment this piece started with about having right-angle camera phone ability is an intriguing one. We already have front and back lenses. How much tech can we fit in? Right now zooming is digital, but it was years ago that the concept of flexible lenses was brought up. And now they’re talking about whole phones that flex. Hmm. Is it possible to get a lens that will move to any angle while the screen stays in front of you? This would be the inverse of cameras with displays that fold out and pivot. Will there be mechanical zooming ability on this lens? The possibilities are there for certain. Perhaps they might even smarten up enough to give the lens some real protection from the brutal world, instead of leaving it to take everything life throws at it like the rest of us poor sods have to.

However this might be a good time to stop and ask ourselves collectively: just because we can do it, does that mean we should?

I’ve no doubt someone will.

But that someone will not be me.

P.S.: If they’re going to do anything good with cell phone cameras, give me a lens that mounts on my glasses and sees what I see so I can press a button or give a voice command and snap a good shot of what I spot while I’m driving along the road! I have missed too many things to the impossibility of getting a camera fired up and aimed while driving – especially at 110 KPH.

The Not Smart Phone Series II

I can’t say I’m happy with the results of this experiment. I’m not surprised by it either. It’s somewhat unrealistic to expect an extremely simple 2 megapixel digital camera with zero settings variations to produce anything other than … well, what it did in fact. Simple, slightly blurry photos. The first failing is the utter impossibility of seeing the screen in broad daylight; I was basically shooting blind with every frame. The second failing is the lens obviously isn’t that sharp. Third, there’s nothing to adjust. But here are the examples. Proof positive that cell phone cameras have improved immensely.

Actually they don’t look that bad reduced to 640 x 480 resolution. But you sure wouldn’t want to make a 16″ x 20″ print from one!

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This is the image that triggered the experiment. It has tone, but you can see it’s fuzzy. The colours are fairly close to what reality was that day. A bit on the blue side perhaps.

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Here’s Marley doing her part for science. Notice how washed-out her coat is, despite the fact it was cloudy when this was taken. Generally good colour otherwise, but again not sharp.

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Sharpness fails miserably here. You can’t get close to the flower. Green is okay, but the wild rose is washed out.

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How many times can you polish a lens before you realize it isn’t going to get better? Okay for those snapshots that say “look what I saw” but not for much else.

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Again the colour is pretty close (its failing seems to be in the red spectrum) and again the sharpness is not to be found. Is there any hope?

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Well, yes. If you pick a subject that doesn’t have the ‘wrong’ colour to it and don’t mind the soft-focus effect that can’t be avoided. Dreamy clouds and lake; a picture almost worth looking at.

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Last shot, with perhaps a more interesting composition. Perhaps not. Anyway I won’t be using the ol’ Samsung for serious photography. Even if I do want lower resolution, I can actual ‘dial down’ the Nikon to 8, 4, or 2 MP – or even set it at 640×480 to begin with.

The Not Smart Phone Series

I have been encouraged in photographic efforts by various others’ blogs. This is where one such adventure has led me. Not from all those who use their cell phones as cameras, but from discussions about using simple cameras vs. complex ones. Well the simplest camera I’ve got is the 2 MP unit in my Samsung Rugby flip phone. It has only the ability to point and click. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. It’s like using an old box Brownie.

Pause for a rant: I do not have a ‘smart phone’ and never will. For oh-so-many reasons, most based on being an engineer and having large hands. They’re fine for them that wants ’em, but not for me. I prefer my technology in separate entities with physically defined barriers between them. Do you know one of the biggest problems with hacked equipment is due to having things connected to the Internet that do not need to be connected to it? I don’t want wifi and blue tooth and GPS in my camera either. Rant over.

Now about cell phone cameras in general. Some of them are quite high-quality, with abilities no doubt beyond the ken of the average user. That’s true of many cameras too, of course; most of us never use all the functions built-in to our DSLRs or whatever except perhaps to try them out.

But there is another quality to phone cameras you may not have considered: they are stealth units. If you wander around a populated area pointing a lens in this and that direction it inevitably draws attention to you. It has ever been thus. Back in the early days of photography they even had cameras that took pictures 90° from what you were seemingly aiming at. And the realm of ‘spy’ cameras is long and famous. I had a couple of real ones (Minox and Tynar) and the cheap back-of-magazine toys as well.

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(Hit “real camera” sold from the back of magazines, often as a “spy camera”.)

Now consider the cell phone. It is ubiquitous these days, and as such no one thinks anything of a person pointing it in any direction and taking a snap. ‘Selfies’ not withstanding, the things are practically a license to spy on everyone else. I’m sure the modern burglar uses his smartphone to case prospective targets without raising the slightest bit of alarm: “oh it’s just some guy sitting in his car talking on his phone” (can’t drive and talk legally in many places now). Scared yet?

Anyway, all that off to one side …

The plan here is to us my cell phone as a camera on purpose and see how good the results might be despite the severe limitations of the instrument. Ordinarily the only use it gets in this field is for taking shots of things I’ve seen when I don’t have a ‘real’ camera with me:

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(That’s a last year Studebaker, still driving around up here.)

I possibly wouldn’t have gone ahead with this were it not for the reception this phone shot received (so you’ve only yourselves to blame):

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So on Monday I will polish up the lens before heading into town and doing something I almost never do; take pictures with my phone, in a city, with the idea of making good, if not artistic, shots.

Talk about a challenge!