Thursday, 19 June 2008

Sexist photography

Yesterday I wore my Inspector Gadget attire again and went out to buy a Canon PowerShot A590IS digital compact camera ($215 at JB Hi Fi).
I have discussed it in the past, but in general the criteria for choosing this specific model were:
1. Cheap price.
2. The ability to take decent YouTube friendly videos.
3. The ability to use rechargeable AA batteries, so we don’t need to carry yet another charger with us while travelling and so we can use ordinary and easily obtainable AA batteries if shit hits the fan.
4. The provision of manual camera control facilities, that is – manual control over the shutter, aperture, flash and ISO settings.
5. Light weight and a small size: While the camera is not the smallest, given the need to accommodate two AA batteries, it would still happily fit the pocket of one of my numerous cargo pants. That battery compartment’s bulge also means it is easier to properly hold the camera when taking a shot, which implies better quality photos.
6. A warm recommendation from dpreview, by far the best digital photography reference I am aware of, which guarantees output quality will not be an issue.
7. The “IS” part of the camera's model name refers to Image Stabilization, that is, the suspension of either the lens or the sensor in order to combat a shaky hand or a longer exposure. Since long hand held exposures are my forte, I preferred a model which sports an effective image stabilization feature (according to dpreview).
8. The camera features a proper viewfinder that you can compose your shots with, as opposed to having to rely on the screen alone. The strong Aussie sun is not screen friendly.
9. The camera uses ordinary SD cards as opposed to esoteric formats such as Sony’s. After buying it I learned that it supports the SDHC format, which is even better, although probably irrelevant with a compact camera that doesn’t shoot in RAW.

Overall, the most important thing to realize about my compact camera choice is that this new camera plays a very second fiddle to my Nikon SLR. Although it sports significantly more mega pixels than my SLR there can be no doubt whatsoever as to which camera reigns supreme on the quality side of things.
The new Canon’s role is therefore pure and simple:
1. Help us to easily take videos of Dylan as he grows up, because we noticed just how effective the small videos we take of him are at documenting his development. They’re literally pieces of history for us.
2. Act as a backup camera.
3. Act as a camera we can just stick in our pockets when going to places we can’t be bothered taking the SLR to. Say, when meeting friends at a cafĂ© or when Jo takes Dylan to a mothers’ group meeting.

To be completely honest, my expectations out of this new camera were/are pretty low. I have never seen me a really good photo that was taken with a compact camera unless the photo was taken by a pro (and usually Photoshopped to the N-th degree), whereas even idiot I can produce nice exhibition quality stuff from time to time on my SLR.
One of the main problems infecting the modern compact digital camera is their overabundance of mega-pixels. For marketing reasons, camera manufacturers want us to think that the more mega-pixels the better, at least when it comes to them providing us with a nice excuse to buy more of their stuff.
The reality, however, is significantly different. There really is no excuse for a compact camera to have more than 6 mega-pixels, and even that is great overkill. Given the small size of the sensor on a compact digital camera (significantly smaller than the sensor sizes on SLR’s and a fraction of the size of 35mm film), the more mega-pixels you add the more noise is generated, to the point where getting rid of the noise robs away more detail than any gains made through the addition of extra mega-pixels.
What we have today is a generation of compact cameras sporting astronomical pixel counts while relying on pretty sophisticated heuristic algorithms to clear the resulting noise. Thing is, those algorithms can only do that much, and the result is that photos look washed of details and “flat”.
As I have said, there is no reason for my SLR to fear neglection.

Next on the discussion board are my first impression with the new Canon camera. Between the Euro 2008 and Dylan, I have only fiddled with it for 10 minutes or so thus far; the point is that with a compact camera you shouldn’t really need more.
Opening the box, I noticed the camera comes bundled with a 32mb memory card. What the hell does Canon think there? What's the point of supplying you with a card that won't manage 6 photos in a world where you can easily get a proper Sandisk 2gb card for $20? What a waste!
On to the camera itself.
The first thing that strikes you is the abundance of shooting modes. There are three “auto” modes alone: One for the complete and utter idiot, another for the idiot that wants to be able to manually control the flash, and the normal P mode that really should be almost everyone’s default. To the best of my understanding, the main difference between P and the idiot modes are that in P you can manually control the ISO settings; given the noise issues discussed above, with most compact cameras you really don’t want to shoot on anything higher than 200 ISO because the extra gain on the sensor will add even more noise to the bleeding wound. Yet the idiot modes will gladly take you into this no man’s land.
The second thing I noticed was the clutter on the display. With so many onscreen icons and symbols when you are about to take a photo, you could easily conclude you are in charge of the next space shuttle launch! Yet with all the clutter, what you don’t get by default, at least on P mode, are the really important shooting statistics: namely, the aperture and shutter settings about to be used. Thus far I haven’t been able to find the setting that would add them to the clutter, which could either mean that Canon doesn’t think us consumers need to know that much or that the camera’s user interface is not as good as it should be (it should be idiot proof, even Moshe grade idiot proof). The importance of knowing the shutter setting cannot be underestimated as it has a crucial effect on how blurry the photo is; the same goes for the aperture setting which determines the depth of field. Judgment based on the small screen’s image cannot be deemed reliable.
Then you get to mess with those “special” features camera manufacturers throw at you in order to sell more of their stuff. Take, for example, the “face detection” feature, which is supposed to have the camera focus automatically on a human face. On the two occasions I played with it the results were rather mixed: The first time around it managed to detect Jo’s face in the dark very quickly. However, on the second go the camera kept persistently focusing on Jo’s knee while completely ignoring hers and Dylan’s faces. Given that you need to go through annoying menus in order to switch from face detection focusing to the simple center focusing, by which time the faces you’re trying to photograph are bound to go grim, I do not see myself relying on the camera there; pointing at the face, clicking half way, and then recomposing the photo doesn’t sound that demanding to me. And it works every time!

The $60 beauty treatment voucher I have received with the camera indicates pretty clearly the market segment Canon has aimed at with the A590is.
My problem with the camera is therefore simple. While it is definitely a good simple camera, why does it have to be so dumbed down?
The tour de force SLR I would buy if and when my current SLR dies, the Nikon D300, has dispensed with shooting modes altogether; you just flip between P, A (aperture priority), S (shutter priority) and M (fully manual). Why do compact cameras have to take the opposing approach of flooding the user with dozens or pretty useless modes while hiding the really crucial information and often making bad decisions on behalf of the user? Is it really that hard to know your way around the shutter and the aperture?
My answer is no, it’s not hard at all. But even if you don’t know what an aperture is and even if you can’t be bothered to know in the first place, there is still no reason for you to have to go beyond the P mode for the vast majority of photos. Do you really need special separate modes to take care of all conceivable shooting subjects from fireworks to farts (to stick to F subjects alone)? Will you even remember that you have such a mode available to use the next time you need to document that precious fart? And what are the chances of you remembering to take your camera off “fart mode” for the next photo?
In my opinion, camera manufactures are treating us all like idiots. That is, you’re either a sophisticated SLR consumer or an idiot compact camera one; there can be no combinations. The problem is accentuated with the specific aiming of the idiot proof features towards women while men are usually the target of the SLR arena. Do camera manufacturers really think so poorly of women?

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