On cameras and the “networked lens” – or “Should we really say ‘Goodbye camera’?”

Section: Articles

TL;DR: I like the idea of the “networked lens” and additional metadata, but I’m not convinced that “smartphones are the future of photography” is the way to do it!

Technology progresses. It is almost as much of a certainty as the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun. Whatever happens, people always have a way of improving the capabilities of previous inventions either by making it more efficient, more accurate, more compact, or just more. Companies obviously have a vested interest in progress as well: without progress, people wouldn’t need to upgrade and buy new devices.

For Christmas in 2011 I got a decent compact camera and I thought it was good enough that I didn’t see the point of how expensive DSLRs were for the photographs. Then, in early 2013, my wife bought a DSLR to take photos of jewellery. A few trial photos and it became obvious that the combination of sensor and lens were actually significantly better quality than the compact camera that used to seem so great.

At the same time, I was following Tim Bray’s blog (and still am). Tim Bray is an alpha geek (one of the authors of XML standards and a Sun/Google/Android/web technology guy), and like many geeks he is also a photographer. I read his blog posts with interest finding cameras like the Fujifilm X-E2 (which appears to be a good quality camera that has re-thought the controls for ease of access, going almost old-school and mechanical) and seeing a range of great photos (because other people seem to have better locations than I do).

The latest buzz appears to be on “mirrorless” cameras something with a body the size of a compact camera, but with interchangeable lenses like a DSLR. If the sensor and the lens stay the same then I’m all for it. Yeah, I like having a proper view finder (and longer battery life) rather than an LCD screen in the camera, but thinner and lighter is going to win. Some lenses might look a little unbalanced on a mirrorless camera my 28-200mm Nikon lens makes the DSLR about a foot long when fully extended! but that’s just aesthetics and we’ll get used to it. We’re already used to people holding smartphones in weird ways and companies are trying to get people to bolt stupidly large add-on lenses on to smartphones, so why not a real camera that has a thin body with a regular DSLR-style lens?

But then came the other idea. Tim Bray pointed to two pieces one in the New Yorker and the other on the photographer’s blog where a professional had used a DSLR and an iPhone. The conclusion was that people are progressing more and more to viewing images on small screens (smart phones), small scales (embedded in web pages) and generally downgraded quality (social media). In that situation then “good enough” is all people need, and the phone’s ability to act as a “networked lens” that quickly uploads files to the web gives it the killer feature that is (apparently) going to win out in the long run.

I like the thought, and I think a networked lens is definitely useful, but I’m worried about the “smartphone as a networked lens” future. Yes, smartphones can do a lot and they’re improving, but is it really where we want the future emphasis to be?

The New Yorker piece does have some photos that are close enough in quality at “displayed in a web page” resolution, and the iPhone 5 is known to have a good quality camera, but do we really want to go for lowest common denominator stuff? Kids will listen to pop music blasted through tiny speakers in mobile phones while they walk down a noisy street, so why make high-bitrate MP3s? Why not make all music 64Kbps† and be done with it? People obviously don’t need the additional quality for their normal listening habits, so why waste the bits?‡

When a set of Gromit (of “Wallace and…” fame) sculptures came to Bristol, I went out with my camera to take my best attempts at artistic shots. I toured a good number of statues with my wife and young son in tow. At almost every single one I saw people trying to take photos using their smartphones, with their kids next to the statue. If that is how these people are recording their memories of such trips then I don’t see how they can really value the memory. The photo might be passable for handing to friends on a phone screen for a quick round of “oh yeah”, but it won’t be much more than that. My photos, on the other hand, generally turned out nice, crisp, and with a good focus§.

Whether it is limits in the amount of light that can be captured by the sensor (which affects exposure time, ISO levels and hence graininess and general quality) or lens aperture size (which is significantly limited on a smartphone by the laws of physics and optics, and affects depth of field and exposure times) a smartphone just can’t compete with a full-sized camera. Tim Bray has a great comparison in a pair of photographs of a bridge. He says the difference in resolution and zoom makes it an unfair comparison (as the Nexus 5 had fewer pixels to play with after cropping the pictures to the same size) but I think it shows the issues I’m concerned about. In this example, even a decent smartphone camera has poor colour depth, washes out texture, and loses the general quality of the picture when you really look at it. The Nexus 5 shot doesn’t just look like it was lower resolution – it looks like it has post-processed it and compromised the photo at 1:1 zoom to give the best impression when scaled down.

Now, if a camera could be made to easily share photos and have all of the other necessary “meta-data” features of a smartphone* then that’d be great. Samsung are already doing it with the Galaxy Camera, which runs Android on the camera. That’s fine for a compact camera, but can you imagine trying to use the Android touchscreen on the back with a DSLR lens attached to the front of your camera? Definitely not advisable! Instead, a Blutooth Low Energy pairing with a nearby phone would seem to be better: the phone does everything the phone does now, the camera does everything a camera does well, the camera can ask the phone for metadata and the phone can pull the photos from the camera and share them as appropriate.

To my mind, the networked lens is a great concept and I can see that we’re definitely going that way (if we haven’t gone that way already). However, consumerism and lowest common denominator use cases shouldn’t ruin the chance for us to get all of those features in a better pairing where the camera still gets to shine. Yes, smartphones will improve, but then so will higher-end “pro-sumer” cameras, and a generic device that is first and foremost a pocket-sized touchscreen computer will never be as powerful and ergonomic as a properly designed camera with a good quality lens.

To even my less-than-artistic eye, “good enough” isn’t really good enough when you really look at smartphones as a first-choice camera.

† Yes, if you’re old enough then you’ll remember the days of dial-up and those bitrates being “good enough”, especially for streaming radio, but technology has moved on and phones can sport gigabytes of storage and wireless data networks that whip the pants off dial-up!

‡ Yes, I know you can’t actually “waste” bits, but it still wastes storage space and transfer time as the bits are shovelled around. Pedant.

§ Although I need to work on reducing my depth-of-field when “in the field” for that blurred background to emphasise the subject matter

* Primarily phones can add GPS (which is available on some cameras but is integral to few DSLR-grade cameras) but who knows what other sensors could be added – radiation, ambient weather conditions, the list goes on!