Compact lenses, great photos?

Sports and wildlife photographers in particular are famous (or notorious) for investing in and carrying around lenses that are often just huge: large, long, and heavy. Is it possible to take great photos with small, compact lenses, or is an expensive and large lens the only option for a hobbysist photographer who’d want to reach better results?

Winter details, captured with Canon EOS M50, and the kit lens: EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM.

I am by no means an authority in optics or lens design, but I think certain key principles are important to take into consideration.

Perhaps one of the first ones is the style of photography one is engaged with. Are you shooting portrait photos indoors, or even in a studio? Or, are you tripping outdoors, trying to get closeup photos of elusive birds and animals? Or, are you rather a landscape photographer? Or, a street photographer?

Sometimes the intended use of photos is also a factor to consider. Are these party photos, or something that you’ll aim to share mostly among your friends in social media? Or, is this that important photo art project that you aim output into large-format prints, and hang to your walls – or, in to a gallery even?

These days, digital camera sensors are “sharp” enough for pretty much any purpose – one of my smartphones, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, for example, has a 40 megapixel main photo sensor, with 7296 × 5472 native resolution. That is more than what you need for a large poster print (depending on viewing distances and PPI settings, a 4000 x 6000 pixels, or even 2000 x 3000 pixels might be enough for a poster print). There are many professional photographers who took their commercial photos for years with cameras that had only 6 or 8 megapixel sensors. And many of those photos were reproduced in large posters, or in covers of glossy magazines, and no-one complained.

Frozen grass, photographed using Huawei Mate 20 Pro smartphone.

The lens and quality of optics are more of a bottleneck: if the lens is “soft”, meaning that it is not capable of focusing all rays of light in consistent, sharp manner, there is no way of achieving very clear looking images with that. But truth be told, in perhaps 90 % of cases with blurry photos, I blame myself rather than my equipment these days. There are badly focused photos, I had a wrong aperture setting or too long exposure time (and was not using a tripod but shooting handheld) and all that contributes to getting a lot of blurry looking photos.

But it is also true, that if one is trying to achieve very high quality results in terms of optical quality, using a more expensive lens is usually something that many people will do. But actually there are “mainstream” photography situations where a cheap lens will produce results that are just – good enough. It is particularly the more extreme situations, where one is for example trying to get a really lot of light into the lens, to capture really detailed scenes in a very consistent manner, where large, heavy and expensive lenses come to play a role. This is also true of portraiture, where a high-quality lens is also used to deliver good separation of person from the background, and the glass elements, their positioning and the aperture blades are designed to produce particularly nice looking “bokeh” effect (the out-of-focus highlights are blurred in an aesthetically pleasing manner). And of course those bird and wildlife photographers value their well-designed, long telephoto range lenses that also capture a lot of light, thereby enabling the photographer to use short enough exposure times and get sharp images of even moving targets.

A cropped detail, photo taken with SIGMA 150-600 mm f/5-6,3 DG OS HSM Contemporary tele-zoom lens on a dim winter’s day.

In many cases it is actually other characteristics rather than the optical image quality that makes a particular lens expensive. It might be the mechanical build quality, weather-proofing, or the manner the focusing, zooming and aperture mechanisms, and how control rings are implemented that are something a professional photographer might be willing to pay for, in one of their main tools.

In street photography, for example, there are completely different kind of priorities as compared to wildlife photography, or studio portraiture, where using a solid tripod is common. In a street, one is constantly moving, and also trying not to be very conspicuous while taking photos. A compact camera with a compact lens is good for those kinds of reasons. Also, if the targets are people and views on city streets, a “normal range” lens is usually preferable. A long-range telephoto lens, or very wide-angle lens will produce very different kinds of effects as compared to the visual feel and visual experiences that people usually experience as “normal images”. In a 35 mm film camera, or “full-frame” digital camera, a 50 mm lens is usually considered a normal lens, whereas with a camera equipped with a (Canon) “crop” sensor (APS-C, 22.2 x 14.8 mm sensor size) would require c. 30 mm lens to produce similar field of view for the image as a 50 mm in a full-frame camera. Lenses with this kinds of short focal ranges can be designed to be physically smaller, and can deliver very good image quality for their intended purposes, even while being nicely budget-priced. There are these days many such excellent “prime” lenses (as contrasted to more complex “zoom” lenses) available from many manufacturers.

One should note here that in case of smartphone photography, everything is of course even much more compact. A typical modern smartphone camera might have a sensor of only few millimeters in size (e.g. in popular 1/3″ type, the sensor is 4.8 x 3.6 mm), so actual focal length of the (fixed) lens may be perhaps 4.25 mm, but that translates into a 26 mm equivalent lens field-of-view, in a full-frame camera. This is thus effectively a wide-angle lens that is good for many indoor photography situations. Many smartphones feature a “2x” (or even “5x”) sensor-lens combinations, that can deliver a normal range (50 mm equivalent in full-frame) or even telephoto ranges, with their small mechanical and optical constructions. This is an impressive achievement – it is much more comfortable to put a camera capable of high-quality photography into your back pocket, rather than lug it around in a dedicate backbag, for example.

Icy view was taken with Canon EOS M50, and the kit lens: EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM.

Perhaps the main limitation of smartphone cameras for artistic purposes is that they do not have adjustable apertures. There is always the same, rather small hole where rays of light will enter the lens and finally focus on the image sensor. It is difficult to control the “zone of acceptable sharpness” (or, “depth of field”) with a lens where you cannot adjust aperture size. In fact, it is easy to achieve “hyperfocal” images with very small-sensor cameras: everything in image will be sharp, from very close to infinity. But the more recent smartphones have already slighly larger sensors, and there have already even been experiments to implement adjustable aperture system inside these tiny lenses (Nokia N86 and Samsung Galaxy S9 at least have advertised adjustable apertures). Some manufacturers resort to using algorithmic background blurring to create full-frame camera looking, soft background while still using optically small lenses that naturally have much wider depth of field. When you take a look at the results of such “computational photography” in a large and sharp monitor, the results are usually not as good as with a real, optical system. But, if the main use scenario for such photos is to look at them from small-screen, mobile devices, then – again – the lens and augmentation system together may be “good enough”.

All the photos attached into this blog post are taken with either a compact kit lens, or with a smartphone camera (apart from that single bird photo above). Looking at them from a very high resolution computer monitor, I can find blurriness and all kinds of other optical issues. But personally, I can live with those. My use case in this case did not involve printing these out in poster sizes, and I just enjoyed having a winter-day walk, and taking photos while not carrying too heavy setup. I will also be posting the photos online, so the typical viewing size and situation for them pretty much obfuscates maybe 80 % of the optical issues. So: compact cameras, compact lenses – great photos? I am not sure. But: good enough.

More frozen grass, Canon EOS M50, and the kit lens: EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM.

“Soft” and “sharp” photos

Christmas decorations, photo taken with f/1.2, 50mm lens.

As holidays are traditionally time to be lazy and just rest, I have not undertaken any major photography projects either. One thing that I have been wondering though, has been the distinction between “soft” and “sharp” photos. There are actually many things intermingling here. In old times, the lenses I used were not capable of delivering optically sharp images, and due to long exposure times, unsensitive film (later: sensors), the images were also often blurry: I had not got the subject in focus and/or there was blur caused by movement (of target and/or the camera shaking). Sometimes the blurry outcomes were visually or artistically interesting, but this was mostly due to pure luck, rather than any skill and planning.

Later, it became feasible to get images that were technically controlled and good-looking according to the standard measurements of image quality. Particularly the smartphone photos have changed the situation in major ways. It should be noted that the small sensor and small lenses in early mobile phone cameras did not even need to have any sort of focus mechanisms – they were called ‘hyperfocal lenses’, meaning that everything from very close distance to infinity would always be “in focus” (at least theoretically). As long as you’d have enough light and not too much movement in the image, you would get “sharp” photos.

Non-optimal “soft” photo: a mobile phone (iPhone) photo, taken with 10x “digital zoom”, which is actually just a cropped detail from the image optically created in the small sensor.

However, sharpness in this sense is not always what a photographer wants. Yes, you might want to have your main subject to be sharp (have a lot of details, and be in perfect focus), but if everything in the image background shows such detail and focus as well, that might be distracting, and aesthetically displeasing.

Thus, the expensive professional cameras and lenses (full frame bodies, and “fast”, wide-aperture lenses) are actually particularly good in producing “soft” rather than “sharp” images. Or, to put it slightly better, they will provide the photographer larger creative space: those systems can be used to produce both sharp and soft looking effects, and the photographer has better control on where both will appear in the image. The smartphone manufacturers have also added algorithmic techniques that are used to make the uniformly-sharp mobile photos softer, or blurry, in selected areas (typically e.g. in the background areas of portrait photos).

Sharpness in photos is both a question of information, and how it is visually expressed. For example, a camera with very low resolution sensor cannot be used to produce large, sharp images, as there is not enough information to start with. A small-size version of the same photo might look acceptably sharp, though. On the other hand, a camera with massively high-resolution sensor does not automatically procude sharp looking images. There are multiple other factors in play, and the visual acuity and contrast are perhaps the most crucial ones. The ray of light that comes through the lens and falls on the sensor produces what is called a “circle of confusion”, and a single spot of the subject should ideally be focused on so small spot in the sensor that it would look like a nice, sharp spot also in the finished image (note that this is also dependent on the visual acuity, the eyes of the person looking at it – meaning that discussions of “sharpness” are also in certain ways always subjective). Good quality optics have little diffraction effects that would optically produce visual blur to the photo.

Daytime photo of naakka (jackdaw) in winter, taken with a 600mm telephoto lens (SIGMA), f/7.1, exposure 1/400 seconds, ISO value at 6400 – with some EOS 550D body/sensor’s visual noise removed in postproduction at Lightroom. Note how the sharp subject is isolated with the blurry bacground even with the f/7+ aperture value, courtesy of long focal-range optics.

Similarly, the sharp and soft images may be affected by “visual noise”, which generally is created in the image sensor. In film days, the “grain” of photography was due to the actual small grains of the photosensitive particles that were used to capture the light and dark areas in the image. There were “low ISO” (less light-sensitive) film materials that had very fine-grained particles, and “high ISO” (highly light-sensitive) films that had larger and coarser particles. Thus, it was possible to take photos in low-light conditions (or e.g. with fast shutter speeds) with the sensitive film, but the downside was that there was more grain (i.e. less sharp details, and more visual noise) in the final developed and enlarged photographs. The same physical principles apply also today, in the case of photosensitive, semiconductive camera sensors: when the amplification of light signal is boosted, the ISO values go up, faster shots or images in darker conditions can be captured, but there will be more visual noise in the finished photos. Thus, the perfectly sharp, noise-free image cannot always be achieved.

But like many photographers seek for the soft “bokeh” effect into the backgrounds (or foregrounds) of their carefully composed photos, some photographers do not shy away from the grainy effects of visual noise, or high ISO values. Similar to the control of sharpness and softness in focus, the use of grain is also a question of control and planning: if all and everything one can produce has noise and grain, there is no real creative choice. Understanding the limitations of photographic equipment (with a lot of training and experimentation) will eventually allow one to utilize also visual “imperfections” to achieve desired atmospheres and artistic effects.

Chocolates were shot with f/1.4 value (50mm lens) – the ‘dreamy’ look was desired here, but note how even the second piece of chocolate is already blurred, as the “zone of acceptable sharpness” (also known as the “depth of field”) is very narrow here.

There is no perfect camera

One of the frustrating parts of upgrading one’s photography tools is the realisation that there indeed is no such thing as “perfect camera”. Truly, there are many good, very good and excellent cameras, lenses and other tools for photography (some also very expensive, some more moderately priced). But none of them is perfect for everything, and will found lacking, if evaluated with criteria that they were not designed to fulfil.

This is particularly important realisation at a point when one is both considering of changing one’s style or approach to photography, at the same time while upgrading one’s equipment. While a certain combination of camera and lens does not force you to photograph certain subject matter, or only in a certain style, there are important limitations in all alternatives, which make them less suitable for some approaches and uses, than others.

For example, if the light weight and ease of combining photo taking with a hurried everyday professional and busy family life is the primary criteria, then investing heavily into serious, professional or semi-professional/enthusiast level photography gear is perhaps not so smart move. The “full frame” (i.e. classic film frame sensor size: 36 x 24 mm) cameras that most professionals use are indeed excellent in capturing a lot of light and details – but these high-resolution camera bodies need to be combined with larger lenses that tend to be much more heavy (and expensive) than some alternatives.

On the other hand, a good smartphone camera might be the optimal solution for many people whose life context only allows taking photos in the middle of everything else – multitasking, or while moving from point A to point B. (E.g. the excellent Huawei P30 Pro is built around a small but high definition 1/1.7″ sized “SuperSensing”, 40 Mp main sensor.)

Another “generalist option” used to be so-called compact cameras, or point-and-shoot cameras, which are in pocket camera category by size. However, these cameras have pretty much lost the competition to smartphones, and there are rather minor advances that can be gained by upgrading from a really good modern smartphone camera to a upscale, 1-inch sensor compact camera, for example. While the lens and sensor of the best of such cameras are indeed better than those in smartphones, the led screens of pocket cameras cannot compete with the 6-inch OLED multitouch displays and UIs of top-of-the-line smartphones. It is much easier to compose interesting photos with these smartphones, and they also come with endless supply of interesting editing tools (apps) that can be installed and used for any need. The capabilities of pocket cameras are much more limited in such areas.

There is an interesting exception among the fixed lens cameras, however, that are still alive and kicking, and that is the “bridge camera” category. These are typically larger cameras that look and behave much like an interchangeable-lens system cameras, but have their single lens permanently attached into the camera. The sensor size in these cameras has traditionally been small, 1/1.7″ or even 1/2.3″ size. The small sensor size, however, allows manufacturers to build exceptionally versatile zoom lenses, that still translate into manageable sized cameras. A good example is the Nikon Coolpix P1000, which has 1/2.3″ sensor coupled with 125x optical zoom – that is, it provides similar field of view as a 24–3000 mm zoom lens would have in a full frame camera (physically P1000’s lenses have a 4.3–539 mm focal length). As a 300 mm is already considered a solid telephoto range, a 3000 mm field of view is insane – it is a telescope, rather than a regular camera lens. You need a tripod for shooting with that lens, and even with image stabilisation it must be difficult to keep any object that far in the shaking frame and compose decent shots. A small sensor and extreme lens system means that the image quality is not very high: according to reviews, particularly in low light conditions the small sensor size and “slow” (small aperture) lens of P1000 translates into noisy images that lack detail. But, to be fair, it is impossible to find a full frame equivalent system that would have a similar focal range (unless one combines a full frame camera body with a real telescope, I guess). This is something that you can use to shoot the craters in the Moon.

A compromise that many hobbyists are using, is getting a system camera body with an “APS-C” (in Canon: 22.2 x 14.8 mm) or “Four-Thirds” (17.3 × 13 mm) sized sensors. These also cannot gather as much light as a full frame cameras do, and thus also will have more noise at low-light conditions, plus their lenses cannot operate as well in large apertures, which translate to relative inability to achieve shallow “depth of field” – which is something that is desirable e.g. in some portrait photography situations. Also, sports and animal photographers need camera-lens combinations that are “fast”, meaning that even in low-light conditions one can take photos that show the fast-moving subject matter in focus and as sharp. The APS-C and Four-Thirds cameras are “good enough” compromises for many hobbyists, since particularly with the impressive progress that has been made in e.g. noise reduction and in automatic focus technologies, it is possible to produce photos with these camera-lens systems that are “good enough” for most purposes. And this can be achieved by equipment that is still relatively compact in size, light-weight, and (importantly), the price of lenses in APS-C and Four-Thirds camera systems is much lower than top-of-the-line professional lenses manufactured and sold to demanding professionals.

A point of comparison: a full-frame compatible 300 mm telephoto Canon lens that is meant for professionals (meaning that is has very solid construction, on top of glass elements that are designed to produce very sharp and bright images with large aperture values) is priced close to 7000 euros (check out “Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM”). In comparison, and from completely other end of options, one can find a much more versatile telephoto zoom lens for APS-C camera, with 70-300 mm focal range, which has price under 200 euros (check our e.g. “Sigma EOS 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG”). But the f-values here already tell that this lens is much “slower” (that is, it cannot achieve large aperture/small f-values, and therefore will not operate as nicely in low-light conditions – translating also to longer exposure times and/or necessity to use higher ISO settings, which add noise to the image).

But: what is important to notice is that the f-value is not the whole story about the optical and quality characteristics of lenses. And even if one is after that “professional looking” shallow depth of field (and wants to have a nice blurry background “boukeh” effect), it can be achieved with multiple techniques, including shooting with a longer focal range lens (telephoto focal ranges come with more shallow depth of fields) – or even using a smartphone that can apply the subject separation and blur effects with the help of algorithms (your mileage may vary).

And all this discussion has not yet touched the aesthetics. The “commercial / professional” photo aesthetics often dominate the discussion, but there are actually interesting artistic goals that might be achieved by using small-sensor cameras better, than with a full-frame. Some like to create images that are sharp from near to long distance, and smaller sensors suit perfectly for that. Also, there might be artistic reasons for hunting particular “grainy” qualities rather than the common, overly smooth aesthetics. A small sensor camera, or a smartphone might be a good tool for those situations.

One must also think that what is the use situation one is aiming at. In many cases it is no help owning a heavy system camera: if it is always left home, it will not be taking pictures. If the sheer size of the camera attracts attention, or confuses the people you were hoping to feature in the photos, it is no good for you.

Thus, there is no perfect camera that would suit all needs and all opportunities. The hard fact is that if one is planning to shoot “all kinds of images, in all kinds of situations”, then it is very difficult to say what kind of camera and lens are needed – for curious, experimental and exploring photographers it might be pretty impossible to make the “right choice” regarding the tools that would truly be useful for them. Every system will certainly facilitate many options, but every choice inevitably also removes some options from one’s repertoire.

One concrete way forward is of course budget. It is relatively easier with small budget to make advances in photographing mostly landscapes and still-life objects, as a smartphone or e.g. an entry-level APS-C system camera with a rather cheap lens can provide good enough tools for that. However, getting into photography of fast-moving subjects, children, animals – or fast-moving insects (butterflies) or birds, then some dedicated telephoto or macro capabilities are needed, and particularly if these topics are combined with low-light situations, or desire to have really sharp images that have minimal noise, then things can easily get expensive and/or the system becomes really cumbersome to operate and carry around. Professionals use this kinds of heavy and expensive equipment – and are paid to do so. Is it one’s idea of fun and good time as a hobbyist photographer to do similar things? It might be – or not, for some.

Personally, I still need to make up my mind where to go next in my decades-long photography journey. The more pro-style, full-frame world certainly has its certain interesting options, and new generation of mirrorless full-frame cameras are also bit more compact than the older generations of DSLR cameras. However, it is impossible to get away from the laws of physics and optics, and really “capable” full frame lenses tend to be large, heavy and expensive. The style of photography that is based on a selection of high-quality “prime” lenses (as contrasted to zooms) also means that almost every time one changes from taking photos of the landscape to some detail, or close-up/macro subject, one must also physically remove and change those lenses. For a systematic and goal oriented photographer that is not a problem, but I know my own style already, and I tend to be much more opportunistic: looking around, and jumping from subject and style to another all the time.

One needs to make some kinds of compromises. One option that I have been considering recently is that rather than stepping “up” from my current entry level Canon APS-C system, I could also go the other way. There is the interesting Sony bridge camera, Sony RX10 IV, which has a modern 1″ sensor and image processor that enables very fast, 315-point phase-detection autofocus system. The lens in this camera is the most interesting part, though: it is sharp, 24-600mm equivalent F2.4-4 zoom lens designed by Zeiss. This is a rather big camera, though, so like a system cameras, this is nothing you can put into your pocket and carry around daily. In use, if chosen, it would complement the wide-angle and street photography that I would be still doing with my smartphone cameras. This would be a camera that would be dedicated to those telephoto situations in particular. The UI is not perfect, and the touch screen implementation in particular is a bit clumsy. But the autofocus behaviour, and quality of images it creates in bright to medium light conditions is simply excellent. The 1″ sensor cannot compete with full frame systems in low-light conditions, though. There might be some interesting new generation mirrorless camera bodies and lenses coming out this year, which might change the camera landscape in somewhat interesting ways. So: the jury is still out!

Some links for further reading:

The right camera lens?

Currently in the Canon camp, my only item from their “Lexus” line – of the more high-quality professional L lenses – is the old Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM (pictured). The second picture, the nice crocus close-up, is however not coming from that long tube, but is shot using a smartphone (Huawei Mate 20 Pro). There are professional quality macro lenses that would definitely produce better results on a DSLR camera, but for a hobbyist photographer it is also a question of “good enough”. This is good enough for me.

The current generation of smartphone cameras and optics are definitely strong in the macro, wide angle to normal lens ranges (meaning in traditional terms the 10-70 mm lenses on full frame cameras). Going to telephoto territory (over 70 mm in full frame terms), a good DSLR lens is still the best option – though, the “periscope” lens systems that are currently developed for smartphone cameras suggest that the situation might change in that front also, for hobbyist and everyday photo needs. (See the Chinese Huawei P30 Pro and OPPO’s coming phones’ periscope cameras leading the way here.) The powerful processors and learning, AI algorithms are used in the future camera systems to combine data coming from multiple lenses and sensors for image-stabilized, long-range and macro photography needs – with very handy, seamless zoom experiences.

My old L telephoto lens is non-stabilized f/4 version, so while it is “fast” in terms of focus and zoom, it is not particularly “fast” in terms of aperture (i.e. not being able to shoot in short exposure times with very wide apertures, in low-light conditions). But in daytime, well-lighted conditions, it is a nice companion to the Huawei smartphone camera, even while the aging technology of Canon APS-C system camera is truly from completely different era, as compared to the fine-tuning, editing and wireless capabilities in the smartphone. I will probably next try to set up a wireless SD card & app system for streaming the telephoto images from the old Canon into the Huawei (or e.g. iPad Pro), so that both the wide-angle, macro, normal range and telephoto images could all, in more-or-less handy manner, meet in the same mobile-access photo roll or editing software. Let’s see how this goes!

(Below, also a Great Tit/talitiainen, shot using the Canon 70-200, as a reference. In an APS-C crop body, it gives same field of view as a 112-320 mm in a full frame, if I calculate this correctly.)

Talitiainen (shot with Canon EOS 550D, EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM lens).

Photography and artificial intelligence

Google Clips camera
Google Clips camera (image copyright: Google).

The main media attention in applications of AI, artificial intelligence and machine learning, has been on such application areas as smart traffic, autonomous cars, recommendation algorithms, and expert systems in all kinds of professional work. There are, however, also very interesting developments taking place around photography currently.

There are multiple areas where AI is augmenting or transforming photography. One is in how the software tools that professional and amateur photographers are using are advancing. It is getting all the time easier to select complex areas in photos, for example, and apply all kinds of useful, interesting or creative effects and functions in them (see e.g. what Adobe is writing about this in: https://blogs.adobe.com/conversations/2017/10/primer-on-artificial-intelligence.html). The technical quality of photos is improving, as AI and advanced algorithmic techniques are applied in e.g. enhancing the level of detail in digital photos. Even a blurry, low-pixel file can be augmented with AI to look like a very realistic, high resolution photo of the subject (on this, see: https://petapixel.com/2017/11/01/photo-enhancement-starting-get-crazy/.

But the applications of AI do not stop there. Google and other developers are experimenting with “AI-augmented cameras” that can recognize persons and events taking place, and take action, making photos and videos at moments and topics that the AI, rather than the human photographer deemed as worthy (see, e.g. Google Clips: https://www.theverge.com/2017/10/4/16405200/google-clips-camera-ai-photos-video-hands-on-wi-fi-direct). This development can go into multiple directions. There are already smart surveillance cameras, for example, that learn to recognize the family members, and differentiate them from unknown persons entering the house, for example. Such a camera, combined with a conversant backend service, can also serve the human users in their various information needs: telling whether kids have come home in time, or in keeping track of any out-of-ordinary events that the camera and algorithms might have noticed. In the below video is featured Lighthouse AI, that combines a smart security camera with such an “interactive assistant”:

In the domain of amateur (and also professional) photographer practices, AI also means many fundamental changes. There are already add-on tools like Arsenal, the “smart camera assistant”, which is based on the idea that manually tweaking all the complex settings of modern DSLR cameras is not that inspiring, or even necessary, for many users, and that a cloud-based intelligence could handle many challenging photography situations with better success than a fumbling regular user (see their Kickstarter video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmfGeaBX-0Q). Such algorithms are already also being built into the cameras of flagship smartphones (see, e.g. AI-enhanced camera functionalities in Huawei Mate 10, and in Google’s Pixel 2, which use AI to produce sharper photos with better image stabilization and better optimized dynamic range). Such smartphones, like Apple’s iPhone X, typically come with a dedicated chip for AI/machine learning operations, like the “Neural Engine” of Apple. (See e.g. https://www.wired.com/story/apples-neural-engine-infuses-the-iphone-with-ai-smarts/).

Many of these developments point the way towards a future age of “computational photography”, where algorithms play as crucial role in the creation of visual representations as optics do today (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computational_photography). It is interesting, for example, to think about situations where photographic presentations are constructed from data derived from myriad of different kinds of optical sensors, scattered in wearable technologies and into the environment, and who will try their best to match the mood, tone or message, set by the human “creative director”, who is no longer employed as the actual camera-man/woman. It is also becoming increasingly complex to define authorship and ownership of photos, and most importantly, the privacy and related processing issues related to the visual and photographic data. – We are living interesting times…

Pokémon GO Plus: The challenge of casual pervasive gaming?

Pokémon GO Plus package contents.
Pokémon GO Plus package contents.

Our research projects have explored the directions of pervasive gaming and more general ludification trends in culture and society. One of the success stories of last year was Pokémon GO, the location-based mobile game by Niantic (a Google spin-off) and Pokémon Company. When winter came, the player numbers dropped: at least in Finnish winter is became practically impossible to play a smartphone outdoors game in below-freezing temperatures. Considering that, I have been interested in trying the Pokémon GO Plus accessory – it is a small bluetooth device with one button that you can wear, so that constant handling of smartphone is no longer needed.

Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.

Based on a couple of hours quick testing, this kind of add-on certainly has certain potential. It reduces (an already rather simple) game into its most basic elements: the buzz and colourful led signals when there is a familiar (green) or new (yellow) Pokémon creature nearby, ready for catching. Pressing the button will automatically try to capture the virtual critter: easy ones usually register as “captured” in a few seconds (rainbow-style multi-coloured led signal), more challenging ones might “flee” (red light). When one arrives next to a Pokéstop, there will be a blue light & buzz signal, and with a press of button one can quickly interact with the stop, and get all available items registered into ones inventory. This is actually much more convenient than the usual routine of clicking and swiping at stops, Pokémons and balls. When the “Plus” is active, the game app itself also keeps running in the background, registering walking distances also when the phone is locked. This is how the game should function in the first place, of course. It seems that it is also much easier to capture Pokémons with the “Plus” than without it (how fair this is to other gamers, is a subject of discussion, too).

Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.

The larger question that remains is, what “casual pervasive gaming” will become, in the long run. If this kind of devices show the direction, it might be that a casual, always-on game will be more like a “zero player game”: an automated simulated of gaming, where game server and game client keep on making steady progress in the game, while the human player is free to concentrate on other things. Maybe it is enough just to check the game progress at the end of the day, getting some kind of summary of what the automated, “surrogate player” had experienced, during the day?

Playing Pokémon GO with the “Plus” add-on is not quite there, though. There were moments today when the device was buzzing every few second, asking for its button to be pressed. I quickly collected a nice selection of random, low level Pokémon, but I also ran out of Poke Balls in a minute. Maybe the device is made for “Pokémon GO whales”: those players who use real money to buy an endless suppy of poke-balls, and who are happy to have this semi-automatic collecting practice going on, whole day, in order to grind their way towards higher levels?

The strategic element of choice is mostly missing while using the “Plus”. I have no specific knowledge which Pokémon I am trying to capture, and as the game is configured to use only the basic sort of Poke Ball automatically, any “Great”, or “Ultra” balls, for example, are not used, which means that any more challenging, high-level Pokémon will most likely be missed and flee. At the same time, the occasionall buzz of the device taps evokes the “play frame” of Pokémon GO – which relates to the “playful mindset” that we also have been researching – so it is easier to keep on having a contact with a pervasive gaming reality, while mostly concentrating on mundane, everyday things, like doing grocery shopping. Some of us are better at multitasking, but experiments like Pokémon GO Plus provide us with a better understanding on how to scale both the game-related information, as well as the in-game tasks and functionalities, so that they do not seriously interfere with the other daily activities, but rather support them in the manner we see preferable. At least for me, wearing the “Plus” made those winter walking trips a bit more interesting and motivating again today.

iPhone 6: boring, but must-have?

iPhone 6 & 6 Plus © Apple.
iPhone 6 & 6 Plus © Apple.

There have been substantial delays in my advance order for iPhone 6 Plus (apparently Apple underestimated the demand), and I have had some time to reflect on why I want to get the damned thing in the first place. There are no unique technological features in this phone that really set it apart in today’s hi-tech landscape (Apple Pay, for example, is not working in Finland). The screen is nice, the phone (both models, 6 and 6 Plus) are well-designed and thin, but then again – so are many other flagship smartphones today. Feature-wise, Apple has never really been the one to play the “we have the most, we get there first” game, rather, they are famous for coming in later, and for perfecting few selected ideas that often have been previously introduced by someone else.

I have never been an active “Apple fan”, even while it has been interesting to follow what they have to offer. Apple pays very close attention to design, but on the other hand closes down many options for hacking, personalising and extending their systems, which is something that a typical power-user or geek type abhors – or, at least used to.

What has changed then, if anything? On one hand, the crucial thing is that in the tech ecosystem, devices are increasingly just interfaces and entry points to content and services that reside in the cloud. My projects, documents, photos, and increasingly also the applications I use, live in the cloud. There is simply not that much need for tweaking the operating system, installing specific software, customising keyboard shortcuts, system parameters etc. than before – or is it just that I have got lazy? Moving all the time from office to the meeting room, then to the lecture hall, next to seminar room, then to home, and next to the airport, there are multiple devices while on the road that serve as portals for information, documents and services that are needed then and there. Internet connectivity and electricity rather than CPU cycles or available RAM are the key currencies today.

While on the run, I carry four tools with me today: Samsung Galaxy S4 (work phone), iPhone 4S (personal phone), iPad Air (main work tablet device), and Macbook Pro 13 Retina (personal laptop). I also use three Windows laptops (Asus Vivobook at home, Vaio Z and Vaio Z3 which I run in tandem in the office), and in the basement is the PC workstation/gaming PC that I self-assembled in December 2011. (The video gaming consoles, alternative tablets, media servers and streaming media boxes are not included in the discussion here.) All in all, it is S4 that is the most crucial element here, simply because it is mostly at hand whenever I need to check some discussion or document, look for some fact, reply to someone – and while a rather large smartphone, it is still compact enough so that I can carry it with me all the time, and it is also fast and responsive, and it has large enough, sharp touchscreen that allows interacting with all that media and communication in timely and effortless manner. I use iPhone 4S much less, mainly because its screen is so small. (Also, since both iOS 8 and today’s apps have been designed for much speedier iPhone versions, it is terribly slow.) Yet, the Android apps regularly fall short when compared to their iOS counterparts: there are missing features, updates arrive later, the user experience is not optimised for the device. For example, I really like Samsung Note 10.1 2014 Edition, which is – with its S Pen and multitasking features – arguably a better professional tablet device than iPad; yet, I do not carry it with me daily, simply as the Android apps are still often terrible. (Have you used e.g. official Facebook app in a large-screen Android tablet? The user interface looks like it is just the smartphone UI, blown up to 10 inches. Text is so small you have to squint.)

iPhone 6, and particularly 6 Plus, show Apple rising up to the challenge of screen size and performance level that Android users have enjoyed for some time already. Since many US based tech companies still have “iOS first” strategy, the app ecosystem of iPhones is so much stronger than its Android counterpart that in my kinds of use at least, investing to the expensive Apple offering makes sense. I study digital culture, media, Internet and games by profession, and many interesting games and apps only come available to the Apple land, or Android versions come later or in stripped-down forms. I am also avid mobile photographer, and while iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have smaller number of megapixels to offer than their leading rivals, their fast auto-focus, natural colours, and good low-light performance makes the new iPhones good choices also from the mobile photographer angle. (Top Lumia phones would have even better mobile cameras in this standpoint, but Windows Phone app ecosystem is even worse than Android one, where at least the numbers of apps have been rising, as the world-wide adoption of Android handsets creates demand for low-cost apps, in particular.)

To summarise, mobile is where the spotlight of information and communication technologies lies at the moment, and where games and digital culture in general is undergoing powerful developments. While raw processing power or piles of advanced features are no longer the pinnacle or guarantee for best user experiences, it is all those key elements in the minimalistic design, unified software and service ecosystem that support smooth and effortless access to content, that really counts. And while the new iPhone in terms of its technology and UI design is frankly pretty boring, it is for many people the optimal entrance to those services, discussions and creative efforts of theirs that they really care about.

So, where is that damned 6 Plus of mine, again? <sigh>