Frying Friday

I don’t even know if this will get published, but it’s a rant (a little tongue-in-cheek too) anyway so maybe it’s just as well.

Three blogs I read this week caused me to grumble. Let’s take the mildest one first.

It’s about film recipes. There’s this person that does them and does them well, except that they all kind of look alike when you get right down to it. Proudly promoted as “Kodacolor” or whatever, they’re all low-saturated, cool-toned, and bluish. I guess no one but me remembers Kodak’s standard of rich, warm colours meant to please the average consumer. Most of these digital recipes look like they should have the “Ekta-” prefix, not the “Koda-” one. If you don’t know the difference, that’s part of the problem. In later years Kodak literally toned down their colour experience because too many people couldn’t remember Uncle Bob spending so much time in the sun that he looked like he was part lobster. Whatever. Save it for post processing is my advice. The same with the cyan prints, which can easily be done that way. Oops! Did I just give something away?

Second complaint: someone said forget about getting a Pentax Spotmatic for a first film SLR. SERIOUSLY? Must be the STUPIDEST photographer on Earth! You want fantastic film photo results, get that Spotmatic with its incredible Takumar lenses – if you can. The idiot was recommending only newer, electronic film cameras. Yeah, right. Good luck finding one that still works or doesn’t break down two frames after you start snapping away. They weren’t dependable when new. You’ll learn more about photography with the manual camera, people. A lot more.

Complaint number three is rooted in someone once again declaring all cameras save pro DSLRs and smartphones are dead. Kind of misses the fact smartphones suck six ways to Sunday. Go ahead; change my mind. I’m waiting. I know lots of people who have and use them and think they’re fine. I should video their performances as they constantly swear at the things and repush touch-spots on the tiny screen trying to get the damn device to do what they want. Yeah I had that with the Lumix and it’s my #2 complaint about the camera. Frankly anyone managing to get a smartphone to do anything right is just plane lucky. The things are pure techno-trash. Undependable, unreliable, and unimpressive.

You can see I’m in a good mood. No, really I am. I’m actually having fun with my good cameras and have a few quite remarkable shots coming up to share. In the meantime here’s a “bleach-bypass” version of a picture taken with the cursed ZS60*:

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Better times ahead!

*Footnote: the Panasonic Lumix ZS60 actually seems to work better in 3:2 ratio rather than 4:3. I don’t know why, and it’s not a major improvement.

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.