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>