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Is It Time To Say Goodbye To Your Camera?
Nikon D800, Panasonic Lumix GH3 and Apple iPhone 5
A recent article on the New Yorker blog raises the question of whether it's time to say goodbye to the camera. The writer and photographer, Craig Mod, recounts his progression of cameras, from his first Kodak film camera all the way up to his Lumix GX1 micro four-thirds camera. Based on a recent experience on a trip shooting with both his iPhone 5 and a Lumix GX1, Craig came back with the feeling that he's done with cameras. His primary rationale is that everything is becoming more networked, so the camera as a standalone, disconnected device no longer has a place in his world. He calls the camera of the future a "networked lens."
So what do I think about this networked lens thing? First, I should say that I think there is definitely something to it. Camera manufacturers have been frustratingly slow adding connectivity to cameras, especially Nikon and Canon. Panasonic is playing a bit of a leading role here, with WiFi capability included with most of their newer micro four-thirds cameras. Paired with the Lumix Link application on a smartphone or tablet, WiFi on the Lumix GH3 enables you to transfer images to a smartphone or tablet and control the camera remotely from the device. You can't share images directly from the GH3 to Facebook, Google+, Twitter or via email. You have to go through another device. For me that's not a bad thing, because I'll generally want to do a bit of post-processing before sharing the image. And the fact is, if I am going to share out a snapshot right away, I'll take that photo on my iPhone. So while I like having WiFi on my GH3, it's not make or break for me. It's actually easier for me to import photos into my iPad using Apple's Camera Connection kit. I actually think WiFi on my GH3 will prove more useful in enabling remote control of the camera from my iPhone. I see a lot more uses for that.
Assuming that cameras become connected lenses presumes that there is minimal to no post-processing--that the digital darkroom goes away. I don't buy that assumption. At least, I don't buy that assumption for me. It may be the case for a lot of other people though, I certainly can see that. Just as the vast majority of photographers in film days only ever viewed their photos as 4x6 prints, the vast majority of digital photographers only ever see their images as jpegs on a screen. Most serious photographers, though, are deeply concerned with the rendering process of getting from the original raw image to the final product, often a larger print. For them, and that includes me, the post-processing step isn't going away.
Portrait of my father, shot on a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 micro four-thirds camera
Another factor that comes into play in comparing smartphone cameras with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras is basic physics. The smaller the physical size of the sensor (i.e. area, not resolution) the more that is in focus in an image. You might think that is a positive thing, but for most serious photographers, control of depth-of-field is an extremely important creative element in the making a photograph. For example, if you're a making a portrait of someone, you might not want the background in as crisp a focus as your subject. Clearly, there is a tradeoff between sensor size and camera portability. Large format camera users know this all too well. For years, many photographers found that the 35mm format hit the sweet spot. Now, many photographers are turning to micro four-thirds and other mirrorless formats. Each move to a smaller sensor gives up some ground in the ability to control depth-of-field. Let's be clear though, there is a huge size difference between smartphone sensors and micro four-thirds or full-frame sensors. For example, the iPhone 5s sensor measures 6mm on the diagonal. That compares to 21.6mm for micro four-thirds sensors and 43.2mm for full-frame sensors. What this means in practice is that everything is in focus in images taken on a smartphone. With larger sensors, you have much more ability to put portions of an image out of focus and the control just how blurry those out of focus portions of the image are. In the digital world, full-frame sensors are about as good as it gets in terms of control of depth-of-field. Digital medium format cameras are simply out of reach for the pocketbooks of most photographers, including mine.
So where does that leave us? Is it really time to say goodbye to our cameras in favor of our smartphones? For many people, the answer to that question will be yes. If you are a casual shooter who really just wants snapshots that you can share easily on your social networks, then your smartphone is probably going to be all the camera you ever need. For many photographers, though, the answer will be no. If you are interested in maintaining control over the entire process of capturing, processing and rendering photographs, then you're going to be better served by a dedicated, highly capable camera, coupled with image processing and cataloging software. There is no doubt that smartphones have had a negative affect on camera sales, but where they've had the biggest impact has been in the point-and-shoot market. That's to be expected. I'm sure there are others out there too like Craig that have decided that they're tired of lugging camera gear around and are going to give up cameras for their smartphones. Based on the questions I get from friends, though, I'm sure there are many out there who are tired of taking blurry photos of their children at a holiday gathering and would like a more capable camera. We'll have to just wait and see how the market shakes out over time.
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