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February 2012

Social camera


I got to handle a Nex-5N yesterday, thanks to Timo, and it felt very good in the hand — lovely size and weight, easy to grip and manipulate. And when kitted out with the beautiful Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 lens it’s still small and nifty — much smaller than the review photos make it look.

What I want out of a camera is something that doesn’t get in my way — as I travel and walk, and as I take photos or shoot video. It also needs to be as inconspicuous as possible. On Thursday, Mads (23 Video) showed me his iPhone 4S video kit, a perfect lightweight assemblage of monopod, iPhone and OWLE:

Mads demos his iPhone video kit Mads demos his iPhone video kit Mads demos his iPhone video kit Mads demos his iPhone video kit Mads demos his iPhone video kit

Living off the iPhone (4) camera for much of this year has been most interesting, and once again I’ve found myself wondering how long it will be before we see traditional camera manufacturers incorporating the social and contextual into their cameras in imaginative and fulfilling ways. Christian Lindholm wrote last week: ‘Imagine a camera manufacturer turning the camera into … a social app platform for imaging. … who is going to do this. … This is in my mind the future of digital cameras, a social camera. A type of 21st century extension of the Brownie box’. (Of course, it may be all too late for any kind of triumph — skating to where the puck is, not where it’s going to be. I think of John Gruber’s comment on the ‘iPhone 4S Camera Made by Sony’ story.)

I overlooked this interview with Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom in my last post:

“What interests us are the natural limits in terms of how many people are owning these phones, whether that’s Apple, or Android or whatever it is. I don’t foresee a future where people don’t have some sort of phone that’s like a computer. I don’t foresee a future where those phones don’t have cameras in them. That spells a future where smartphones are the status quo. You have to ask yourself how you allow people to communicate what’s in their lives,” says Systrom. “I don’t like the idea of Instagram as a photo sharing service, and I don’t think it is,” says Systrom, “it’s very much a communication tool, it’s a visual communications tool. The printing press did something really big for the world when everyone could get books in their hands and read. I’m not saying we’re a printing press, but I am saying technology pushes people forward in some way and unlocks potential. We’re not focused on how we can make toys, we’re focused on how do we change the world in some real way. Like, how many companies have been handed the opportunity to get 15 million users in the first year? Not many. We want to take this ticket and ride.”

Whatever dedicated camera I buy this year will surely look strangely isolated in just a few years — capable, for sure, of being linked up to the larger world, in which my photos are taken and then shared (made part of conversations), but only by making the tiresome journey from hardware to software to web to social networks, a journey that, increasingly, is just being taken care of by the cameras most of us now carry with us every day: ‘iPhone photography is so much more though. It’s the ability to instantly capture what you see, edit and share it with someone or everyone’. (HT Alex for this link.)

What I want out of a camera is something that doesn’t get in my way. There will be times when I most definitely do not want to go the social, digital route, but I do want the “it just works” option.

Let’s Adore And Endure Each Other

Not good enough

Black lab

8 years ago this month, I joined Flickr, but I don’t think I posted anything there until July that year. Was I, even then, hesitating and thinking, ‘is this good enough’?

… somehow creating an environment where people started to believe that their photos were not good enough for Flickr. I mean, really, how did we ever let that happen? I was speechless the first time a friend said that me and for the record: It was never part of the plan. How did we ever let people think that there is one measure of photography? How did we let people imagine that a medium which gave the world both Ansel Adams and Garry Winogrand (a photographer who died with a reported 10, 000 rolls of undeveloped film in his studio and who said that every time you take a picture you are hopefully risking failure) and everyone else in between was about any other than the joy and the discovery of the possible, foofy equipment and technique and measures of “good”-iness be damned?

Since then, the Instagram steamroller has come along and earned its success fair and square by making a thing that is genuinely fun and easy and immediate to use. There’s a lot about the larger project that I find problematic but you can not fault them their ability stripping away all the cruft at the intersection of photography and our Interphones. And all it took to get a whole crowd of people who I know and were intimidated (apparently) by Flickr (of all things) genuinely interested again in the act of photography was, let’s be honest here, a heavy application of 1970’s vaseline-porn filtering to their pictures.

Say what you want about those goofy filters (and I am the last person to call that particular kettle black) but they have been a startlingly good device for getting people to play at taking pictures again.

Aaron Straup Cope (via Paul)

A long time ago, I’d set out on a road that would have led me to being a much more confident photographer, but then necessity bit, along with a determination to be independent, and I sold my expensive Nikon camera bodies to help fund a change of degree course. That was the right thing for then, but it did cauterise part of me.

A little part of what’s been happening to me now, over the last few months, flows from Instagram. It’s got me playing and messing around, fooling with the filters, yes, but, above all, just noticing more — simultaneously loosening up and attending. And along with this goes a pleasure in the social flow — what my mother, 94, said today about Instagram when I showed it to her: ‘It’s so … conversational ’.

A few things written recently about Instagram have stuck in my mind. Dan Catt, My first Instagram Christmas, a nervous step away from Flickr:

… flow, connection, joining in of everyone’s experience, a bit like a pictorial version of twitter. … Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Flickr. It makes me think about photography, inspires possible projects to play with, upload proper photos taken with my proper camera. But when there’s something happening (often involving the kids, a cat or a visual joke I know my friends will get) I find myself reaching for the iPhone and uploading to Instagram.

Dan Williams on this: ‘Why I never got into flickr: it’s for ‘proper’ photographers only and my friends weren’t on there.’

Tom Insam: ‘I’ve started to quite like the ambient pictures that it gives me’ (describing Carousel, which brings Instagram to the Mac — and have you tried his Flickrgram?). He goes on:

… these models — “shoeboxing” verses Instaagram-style “lifestreaming” — are two entirely different usage models for a photo sharing site. Flickr was built for the streaming case (it’s got a photostream as the main thing you see) but recently the shoeboxing is rather swamping the streaming, and the two models just can’t coexist in the same contacts list - the uploads of the shoeboxers will swamp the incoming streams of people who just want to follow streamers. Instagram, on the other hand, by utterly ignoring the needs of shoeboxers, has been able to build a much better streaming experience.

It reminds me of Twitter, where the same thing has happened.

(Shoeboxing vs lifestreaming … and for Instagram users, an archive-less future? Tom Insam, again: ‘Are they going to realise in a few years that they’ve not built up any meaningful history in this service? When they want a photo they remember taking, and can’t get it, will there be pain? Or will no-one care?’.)

Anyway, I’ve been playing and fooling around. Whilst wondering which dedicated camera I might buy next, I’ve got so much pleasure from using my iPhone, learning more about what it can do well and what it can’t, and why user mistakes and hardware shortcomings might nonetheless be portals to discovery and new ideas. And there are those filters. (And tilt-shift. Haven't used that much.)

Robot face

Another lost toy

Bike and snow

Why did Instagram catch on so? Paul did a great job of snagging some pieces about this (see, eg, Nate Bolt’s ‘Why Instragram is so Popular: Quality, Audience, & Constraints’) and I’m in his debt. Here’s Clive Thompson (Wired, December 2011):

In old analog cameras, many such filter “effects” were a chemical byproduct of the film, so photographers became expert at understanding the unique powers of each. Fujifilm’s Velvia film, with its high saturation and strong contrast, attracts photographers looking to capture the vibrancy of nature, Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom notes.

But casual photographers rarely developed this type of eye, because they just wanted to point and shoot. What Instagram is doing—along with the myriad other photo apps that have recently emerged—is giving newbies a way to develop deeper visual literacy.

The quirky and the quotidian, domestic and intimate … A sense of place, of the world we’re shaping and being made by … It’s been great fun (each little act one small creative counter-blow to the wearisomeness of routine), and over time it’s seemed like someone has been teaching me, my eye.




Fish plate

Sunrise over St Paul’s

Blue screens of death, Chiswick Flyover, Hammersmith




Boots, gloves, scarf …

The Measure of Love