Just What We Needed: Another Wheel

In the 1990s, Kodak decided, as they had many times before, to create a new film format, one that would “revolutionize” photography for the common man. This new format, like disc film, 35mm half-frame and 126 before it, would do away with the annoyances of 35mm film and make loading a camera easy and foolproof. It was called the “Advanced Photos System” and the only thing it revolutionized was the way big companies thought they could bully their customers into buying something they neither needed nor wanted.

My grandfather's Kodak Bantam camera; throughout his life, this was the only camera he owned, and with it he made literally thousands of beautiful photographs.
My grandfather's Kodak Bantam camera; throughout his life, this was the only camera he owned, and with it he made literally thousands of beautiful photographs.

Essentially, they were reinventing the wheel. Again. All we ever really needed from a wheel was that it was round.

Now the photographic industry is re-reinventing the wheel. The newest iteration of this reinvention in digital photography is called “mirrorless,” and it is supposed to be a fusion of small point-and-shoot cameras with the advantage of interchangable lenses like digital SLRs. It isn’t what we need, and in many cases, it isn’t what we want.

I can tell you that what I am witnessing in the field adjudicates my opinion on this matter: more and more people are using their mobile devices instead of separate cameras to gather photographs of their lives. The future of cameras for people who aren’t photographers isn’t in yet another format or yet another design, but in something that is convienient for them. Image quality for the common man takes a back seat, and not just a back seat but a seat at the back of the bus. People show me photos all the time of their kids or friends or even of news events with the admonition, “I know the quality isn’t very good, but…” They just don’t care. They care about their kids and their own lives and their memories, which are all easiest to record with, very simply, whatever is most convenient. The sidelines of games on high school senior night are crowded with parents, and easily 80% of them are holding up their smart phones to make pictures or video. Even if the average Joe has a digital SLR and a digital point-and-shoot and a new mirrorless digital, he doesn’t want to lug all that stuff around. (I also know this because all of the digital SLRs my students bring to class are in pristine condition.) He just wants to pull his smart phone out of his pocket and shoot. Then he just wants to pull it out later at work and show all his friends what he shot on his phone, or push a button the instant he shoots it to upload it to Twitter or Facebook. Those 2×3-inch photos on his phone are what he wants.

It must be infuriating and annoying to the average person now, in 2011, to be told yet again that his camera isn’t good enough, and that some engineer in Japan has come up with something better for 700 of their hard-earned dollars. Add to that the fact that the language of the advertising is increasingly ingenuine. We’ve come to expect that from ads for perfume and sports drinks. But in the past, camera makers more or less stuck with, “Our camera is better.” But now we have ads that practically tell us we will become sexually aroused if we buy their equipment. Here are a few examples of the paradigm:

  • “Experience It” ~theme for Nikon 1 system
  • On a photo forum, a reader writes, “Thanks for the suggestion to look into the mirrorless cameras. I am attracted to them.”
  • “Nikon 1 J1 for the freedom to capture, communicate and connect to life. Your zest for life is fueled by a desire to communicate all that you experience. Share the very incredible world that is yours with Nikon 1.” ~on the Nikon 1 page.
  • The Pentax Q promises, “a sensor that carves out an entirely new camera category.” (I am not sure about the name “Q”. Is it aimed at the Star Trek market, or the LGBT scene?)
  • “A whole new image.” ~Sony NEX mirroless page. (The page also says these new cameras feature a “huge” new sensor, which is about 13x9mm. Remind me to mail a dictionary to Sony.)
I suppose you could argue that more choices in the photography world give us more chances to make an informed decision. The only smart informed decision is to shoot with what you have. The only people who need more or better cameras are those who shoot literally thousands of images a week. Everyone else has, quite honestly, enough cameras, because, quite honestly, they aren’t photographers. Thus this is a mandate to you to get that 2005 digital camera out of its dusty bag and go take some pictures, and leave the engine of commerce to the MBAs.

Beautiful images like this 1949 picture of my aunt and mother aren't made by Samsung or Nikon or Sony, but by people with hearts and spirits.
Beautiful images like this 1949 picture of my aunt and mother aren't made by Samsung or Nikon or Sony, but by people with hearts and spirits.
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1 Comment

  1. I’ll admit I don’t understand economics at all, not on the global scale. I only understand it from the ‘poor guy’ perspective (even if I married up and am no longer technically poor).

    But from my ‘poor guy’ view, it makes sense for companies to make as many products as they think will sell, at the highest markup that won’t stop the selling, and at the shortest possible lifespan of said product (before introducing the next one).

    As a consumer, it makes no sense at all, and it’s our fault that companies can keep doing this. They’re banking on our ability to justify new and useless purchases, and they’ll be right. Again.

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