Overexposed: The Blurry Picture of The Imaging Industry

Have we forgot that we invent things? Here’s a picture from Maira Kalman:

Recently Leica came up with a new camera system, Nikon introduced a slew of new products last weekend, while Kodak seemed to have jumped at the video market and came up with a Mac-friendly, 1080p HD pocket camera along with some point-and-shoot cameras.

Yet, some not-so-distant 4 decades ago people took a shot at the moon and landed there.

Are you seeing the pattern—or more appropriately—the gap, here?

No real invention has been made to the league of extraordinary light-capturing, image-making world where some Japanese, aptly named Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Sony, Konica/Minolta have conquered this playground a few decades ago and took the game over from the Europeans of Heir Leitz, Sir Hasselblad, Mr. Carl Zeiss. Recently Jim of the United States of America claimed that he has found a future-proof formula to the still/moving camera-making world with his RED Digital Cinema Camera Company, and its modular-designed camcorder/DSLR hybrid.

Nonetheless, we are very excited about this recent development, Leica S2 expected to make a jolt only to drop the bombshell and announce its jaw-dropping price point for the new system, and RED is still yet to conceive a universally accepted software solution for both the video and the photo images it captured. You see, videos & photos are two different worlds.

So where do they left us?

The very notion of photography (image capturing craft) as an expensive and not-so-easy hobby have left a considerably comfortable playing field for them camera makers, unlike the computer/software industry where people now lives & breathes by it, they can make mistakes and go away with it in glory, they don’t have the sets of eyes & ears of the awry bloggers & journalists of the world wide web where they spotted some irregularities like Apple’s rejection of Google Voice iPhone App from their App Store, made some buzz, and days later Obama’s crew picked it up and made formal inquiries where some real answers—or even changes, are expected to come fold.

We, photographers, on the other hand are left cold. We have to survive between the optical crispness of an image and some poor engineering in between, the word ‘usability’ is unknown behind the lenses, let alone ‘notable industrial design’. We’re like the spectators of the megapixel race where there’s no judge nor referee to call the fouls, we’re consumers of highly priced objects where insurance companies do not have products like Auto-mate, or Life-Sure, or Edu-Safe in most part of the world[1. Most developing countries do not offer insurance for photographic equipments.], an industry where there’s no Photographic Products Overseeing Committee or Photographic Usability Commission, we are abused by the vision & persistence we photographers go by, the very thing that produced the photographic industry in the first place.

That was the state of the mobile communication industry, until Apple came to the game.

The iPhone has changed the rule of the game, uplift the whole thing altogether and turn the game into some mature play, they move the industry with real inventions, they put some smiles in a lot of people’s faces. The broken voicemail? Fixed. The unnecessary buttons & clumsy interface? Changed forever. Technology that we can touch? Done. Copy & Paste? Piece of cake! And not to mention how millions of developers joined up the ride and develop 3-rd party Apps, helping the wheel of innovation move faster.

The camera that we came to know now are basically imaging computers, behind those optics & metal enclosures are silicons driven by binary codes, the same codes that empower the computers or mobile phones that we use everyday, only the different thing is computer software has standards. We have software usability groups, hackers & journalists who knows what’s wrong and help protect the users from the oblivion of poor software, want an example? Windows Vista.

Camera software do not have such luxuries. It mainly consists of 3 different layers: 1) a firmware that governs the camera and its functions/features (operating layer), 2) image processing algorithm that reads and translates data from its sensor into a computer readable image format (core layer) and 3) imaging software/drivers/codecs that runs in our computer to further develop the images into a usable outcome (user layer).

Development on the user layer is almost healthy, camera makers are making available their codecs for free, some even offer documentation of their specification and we have different companies competing and crafting very usable softwares, good and not-so-good apps are being used everyday to make the world looks better.

However, inside the core layer, amongst the lines of codes, there are arrays of safely guarded secrets that aren’t as healthy, a rooting decay existed here which is practically invisible from the rest of us due to the nature of the afore mentioned particulars. Each company made their camera in a certain way that only they have access to the components and created APIs that are known only to their engineers, which means when they decide to put a feature that goes with a corresponding button, only they can decide how and which button goes and what is the outcome of that button push.

There’s an apparent lack of standards that left us ‘stuck’ for a long winding ride.

Here are some examples: Beyond cameras & camcorders, Canon is also a printer manufacturer, so they assimilated a scenario for us to snap & print a photo directly from the camera and decided to create a proprietary button that do just that, and guess what? People don’t use it, a few camera models later they decided to remove the feature and leave the button for some other good use. Under those big bright viewfinder of a Nikon camera, lies the heart of the image called the CCD sensor that Nikon has battled long and hard to make the colors look right. When they finally got the formula right, they switched side and goes with CMOS which leaves many users in doubt[2. CMOS is what Canon has and still used today to power their EOS line DSLR]. Longtime Nikon users will know the pain of producing color-consistent images between each camera models—similarly non-Nikon users also fight the same problem only at a relatively smaller intensities.

One major flaw in camera design that still exists today is what we call shutter-lag time, though mostly appear in consumer-level point-and-shoot camera, the fact that it still exists bothers me a lot. It’s like a car when you hit the break pedal it stops a few seconds late, it’s no longer a botheration but a crime of some sort. Camera makers publishes only the megapixel or how fast the camera starts, but not how slow the shutter responds to your reflexes. Just because operating camera is not a life-threatening activity it doesn’t mean that the camera makers are exempt from the basic law of human logic.

What is wrong about the industry is not knowing about what we want, but simply to recognize what we DO NOT want, camera makers must learn from the tech industry and steal a couple of ideas from the iPhone or the Mac. Wouldn’t it be great if one could tap, pinch or swipe zoom, focus, scroll an image from the tiny LCD at the back? Wouldn’t it be awesome to record interviews and captions on the go directly to the camera? It would be much rewarding even if one could finally trust the camera and shoot picture without ever correcting the colors! It’s funny how some newer consumer cameras has a face/smile detector but most still couldn’t tell color balance[3. Also known as white balance is a system to adjust color temperature] correctly! Try shooting inside a café overseeing a window and see if the camera can capture both scenes correctly.

Photographers are innovating and inventing images every day, but we are also human beings, not because we are uniquely persistence in what we do they can treat us like god, do anything they want and get a way with it; they have to start inventing and make the camera industry stronger, nimbler & healthier by introducing usability, consistency & user-friendliness to their products. It’d be even better if they could stop their ego fight and work together into creating a standard that benefits no other than us as their customers.

Nothing is ever perfect when it comes to beauty, the grass is always greener on the other side, we are just one tiny eco-system of creative workers and tool-makers whose main purpose is to envision beauty and to craft visual art, such practice can only be maintained with supporting habitat of creative-inducing tools, tools that empowers, inspires and aspires. We are now at a crossroad where the two have met, the question is how do we go from here without ever going lost in the coming journey, the engineering genius must now see how far the vision goes, as much as the creative worker’s workaround of engineering limitation and lack of innovation.

The truth is, the race is not going away. New products introduced by Nikon will soon get a respond from Canon, while others will follow, this will happen again next year, and the year after that. The cycle that moves the industry are being driven by market demand & competition, no longer by pure science. Hopefully, someone will make the effort to bring innovation back to that cycle; fresh ideas on the world wide web and how the images came to life will certainly bring new paradigms in the coming year, some new players will emerge and are already doing creative things on the marketing side for their upcoming surprises, one could only hope that they do something right this time.

We need that change.