Selective Focus: Lessons Learned from Lessons Taught

Selective Focus: Lessons Learned from Lessons Taught

The Enthusiast & the DSLR/Mirrorless Market


Now that the battle of the snapshot has been won by the cameraphone and the sales panic of early 2014 has subsided, analysts are predicting growth in mirrorless and what they call “personalized” cameras (action, rugged, wearable, what you will).

That’s a relief, yet overall, measured by sheer volume, the cameraphone has grabbed a large and ever-growing hunk of the picture pie. This is a matter of concern. And although I think the business press is sending up the white flag on the “traditional” digital camera business a bit prematurely (and for the wrong reasons), I do think it might be time to consider how putting emphasis on image quality while engendering passion for the photographic craft might help turn things around, or at the least keep the real live camera market viable.

I am not concerned with the pro market; it’s unlikely a wedding photographer would stay in business should he or she show up with an iPhone to handle the job. I am thinking more about the “mid-level” DSLR and mirrorless market, that being made up of students and enthusiasts who have a passion for photography as a form of expression—those who want to do more with their images than snap, share and then forget about them.

This is not a large proportion of people today, but in fact it never was. There were always more Instamatic, 110 and, heaven help us, APS shooters than there were those who worked with high-end rangefinders and SLRs. Let’s face it, the 110 shooter of the past is today’s camphone shooter—with the same expectations and, albeit with much more sophisticated forms of communication, having the same image end use. Photography was and is for them functional and needs to be easy and unobtrusive. I am not putting this market segment or their aspirations down—they certainly helped pay the rent in many segments of the trade—but now they have mainly vacated the photo industry building.

Today’s DSLR and mirrorless shooters share more of an identity with SLR shooters of the past, even if they snap and share the occasional moment with their camphone. These folks see the image as expression, as an essential part of the experience of life, and as a wonderful hobby that makes the camera a fairly constant companion, especially when traveling or at events. They follow tech developments but for the most part are not obsessed by them (though a small percentage certainly are). Yet they are very interested in improving their images, be it with technique, a lens, flash or even software. They are invested emotionally and financially in picture taking and care about quality and the ability to control their camera (and images) and not have it control them.

Back to School

The question is: what should cameras for these folks look like and how should they deliver the goods? What is it that will have folks choose a real live camera over a cameraphone? To do my bit of research I went to my usual source, the end user, this time in the person of folks I recently had the pleasure to teach two-day “intensive” digital camera courses at a college in New York City and a workshop in the southwest.

Some background: the course is designed to instill comfort and familiarity, so at the end attendees can get good (hopefully great) images with their interchangeable-lens digital cameras. Most folks come in with DSLRs, mainly Nikon and Canon, although I have seen more Panasonic, Olympus and Fujifilm mirrorless in recent classes. (To be fair, I have seen Sony and Pentax cameras, but only a few.)

The folks who have Nikon and Canon tend to be “legacy” users—those who had brand or compatible mount lenses from past digital cameras, or in the case of Nikon, from their old film days. Some come with older DSLRs they got from family who bought a newer model. There are always a few kit buyers who show up with the box unopened and are quite proud of their first-time “step-up” DSLR or mirrorless.

Those who come in with mirrorless tend to be “shoppers” who chose the mirrorless for the size, weight and traveling convenience. In other words, they considered both and came up with mirrorless as more meeting their photo needs. Oddly, quite a few of them felt somewhat intimidated by a room full of DSLRs, although what they had was quite often a superior photographic instrument to some of the older DSLRs.

This, it turned out, often had to do with the touch-screen interface on some of their mirrorless cameras and their perception this was a point-and-shoot, “amateur” camera feature, thus assuming that images would be inferior. (In fact, the touch-screen operation—focus, exposure, setups—was probably the most befuddling thing for them to figure out; many ended up bypassing it, and frankly admired the DSLR ease of operation and viewfinder system.)

Live View Options

The cameras were split into two “generations”: those with live view functions and those without, with everyone firmly convinced the live view models were the way to go. This was for two reasons, depending on the camera form factor. For mirrorless folks it mostly had to do with the inadequacy of the EVF and its lag and pixelated view; for DSLR users it was the option of being able to shoot using an articulating monitor. When the mirrorless folks looked through the DSLRs’ optical finders versus the EVFs, they saw the difference and weren’t pleased. However, everyone usually agreed monitor viewing in very bright light was a joke that made reading the screen difficult at best, suggesting the necessity of a Hoodman or, in one student’s suggestion, a return to using a dark viewing cloth outdoors.

(As a sidebar, I should mention video and “connected” capabilities, and at least in these classes the general lack of interest in both. This may be generational, although everyone in the class regardless of age had a sophisticated phone and knew how to shoot and send video and still images with it. In terms of connectivity and sharing, the thinking was: my phone takes care of that nicely, thank you, and why would I shoot an image on a camera and then pass it along to a phone to share, or complicate my life with even more connected devices? As to video, anyone with documentary aspirations was not going to be in this class. And all agreed that while video is nice, it is not why they chose one camera over another, 4K or no 4K—whatever that is—and who can figure out how to edit them anyway?)

The Real Live Camera Difference

So at the end of the day, what lessons where learned? Why did these folks get these cameras and why did they want to learn more about how to use them? Two words: image quality. Quite a few came in having not taken the mode dial off the “green zone” (full auto) and knew there was more to it than that. A few had shot with film so knew about ISO, aperture, shutter speed, EV, meter “failure,” middle gray, etc. In fact, the level of knowledge about photographic technique was shockingly low, but that’s why they were there.

I often had the feeling in the past that the degree of automation and scene modes would lead to the death of technique, and these classes reinforced that. True, you do not need to know how a transmission works to drive a car, but by the same token, if you leave a sophisticated camera in the green zone you eventually get to the point where you certainly do not need a sophisticated camera. As anyone who drives a stick knows, it is by necessity a more engaging way to drive.

When folks understand how to control image effects like motion depiction and depth of field; when they see why image stabilization is great for low-light images and why it is more common in kit lenses; when they get the sense of how white balance and mood go together; when they see why RAW is sometimes best and when JPEG is just fine; when they understand why ISO shouldn’t always be at 6400; when they learn how to nuance light and color using CWA or spot metering patterns; when they figure out how to separate focus and exposure lock for macro photography; in short, when they learn how to use a photographic instrument and the “aha!” moment occurs, then they appreciate what a real live camera is all about—and they stick with it now, and in the future.

In the slow strangling of technique that automation has wrought and the trumpeting of features that are often irrelevant to photographic engagement, there’s perhaps the planting of the seed of the real live camera’s destruction. And with that comes the loss of a segment of the picture-taking public that has long kept camera, lens and accessory sales alive. Yes, there may be some adventure in figuring out how to program a camera into the third level of the menu, but my suspicion is that it’s not the reason someone wants to work with a camera.

What remained most intriguing to many of the folks in those classes was seeing and understanding how to capture light in a way that made their images unique and exciting extensions of their mind’s eye. Digital to them was great in that they could test their ideas without spending money on and wasting film and waiting for results. They saw how they could process images later for more refinement and experimentation and where the digital image could go.

What was less exciting were overly complicated operations, viewing systems that obscured rather than revealed, operational lingo that assumed knowledge about the Kelvin scale and sensitometers, clumsy menu access that got in the way of spontaneity, and the assumption that everyone was as excited about digital tech and programming as the engineers who designed the cameras.

So, perhaps some lessons can be learned from the lessons we teach, especially from those we teach. What these classes taught me is we should create cameras that keep the advanced camera user engaged and excited about photography and that let them be part of the process—not just as programmers but as discoverers of their own sense of vision and light. At the end of that day, these are the people who will help the real live camera market remain viable, as well as all the lenses, lighting, software and accessories that are part of the mix.