Photography or the Difference Between Capturing and Drawing With Light

In the gold rush, neither the gold diggers nor buyers of the gold made the most money. It was the grocers and hardware stores who made the money, those who sold food, shovels, buckets, hammers, nails and tents. Similar dynamics can be found in today’s photography industry. It’s neither the photographers who make the big money nor the camera industry. It’s the suppliers of camera components who rub their hands with glee. Take Sony. Yes, as a newcomer to the industry they’ve made some great inroads within a relatively short timespan. But the real money Sony doesn’t make with own cameras. Profits come from imagers a.k.a. digital imaging sensors that today you find in Nikon cameras, in iPhones and other brands that actually compete with Sony consumer products.

According to the Guardian Sony can hardly keep up with sensor demand:

Sony announced recently that it’s going to increase its production of image sensors by 45% over the next 18 months to meet growing demand. Sony’s imaging division (which makes the sensors) is one of its most profitable divisions. Its customers include Xiaomi, the fast-growing Chinese smartphone maker, and Apple. When there’s a gold rush, sell shovels.

We all know the prelude to this. The Guardian:

Times are hard (not only) in Japan, and particularly so for the makers of single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras — those one you see professionals touting, especially their digital (DSLR) variant. Combined worldwide sales of DSLRs and their sibling, mirrorless digital cameras, are slumping year after year, according to data from Japan’s Camera and Imaging Products Association CIPA.

Shipments of film cameras essentially died in 2006; DSLRs, which had been rising since 2000, quickly took over, ramping up until they reached a peak in 2008. The financial crisis in 2009 depressed sales badly but, after recovering in 2010 to a high of 120 million, they have gone down to a forecast of just over 30 million this year. Mirrorless cameras, which are more compact than SLR styles, have seen some growth, but they can’t make up for the overall indifference of the market to CIPA’s members’ offerings. CIPA isn’t the whole of the world’s camera industry, but it represents the vast majority of the high end — and so the money. And those numbers show that the money is pouring out of their business.

The article goes on:

This stark reality seems to infuriate people who love SLRs and DSLRs. Browse a few camera sites, and you’ll find people fulminating about the rubbish quality of photos taken with smartphones; you’ll also find them commenting on articles comparing the picture quality from various smartphones. Yes, DSLRs capture more light, because they have a larger sensor, and they have lots of settings to fiddle with. Their problem though is that they aren’t connected, and they don’t have a ton of apps devoted to sharing photos on them. They don’t (in general) have 3G or Wi-Fi connectivity. In 2013 Samsung made an Android-powered mirrorless stand-alone camera, the Galaxy NX which included 4G connectivity. Despite the apps and the Wi-Fi, there hasn’t been a follow-up, which I take to mean that it didn’t sell very well.

And now we’re coming to the most frustrating part of all this — that those inferior smartphones might, in the end, actually deliver.

It’s something I had to realize recently, as mentioned in a previous post, when shooting a news assignment. TV crews with huge cameras and sound guy were on site. Me? Filmed an interview with a smartphone. Image and sound quality? Just fine. Good enough to be broadcasted on several TV stations.

Camera modules in portable devices get better and better. Apple, Samsung & Co. are are not just trying to edge out cameras as we once knew them. They’re trying to destroy them and own their space. And, no surprise, the Guardian tells the story of a BBC reporter who needed to get some video. All he had was his smartphone:

He took some video, found a Wi-Fi hotspot, and uploaded it to the BBC’s system; and it was used on the 10 O’Clock News. It didn’t, he thought, look that different from the footage taken by a professional with a shoulder-mounted camera.

My thoughts exactly after that recent assignment. Again, not saying stand-alone cameras are a thing of the past. But we better start living in the present without being delusional romantics who turn into fanatics when it comes to gear talk.

I still prefer the old-style viewfinder approach with a solid, preferably partly mechanical, optical machine in hand. Photography is a whole different thing with flat, squarish telephone that, amongst many other things, also happens to be a camera. The end results look the same. Both churn out images. Smartphones, however, tend to deliver a photography experience as flat as the devices themselves. A nice camera, on the other hand, feels and tastes like a good wine. And this, and only this, is what a smartphone will never be able to take away from a quality stand-alone camera: the process, the experience of photographing.

Honestly, I care less about perfect image rendition than the experience of getting there. As the old saying says, “The journey is the reward.” Smartphone photography, in this regard, is completely counterproductive with all the functions and connectivity and filters and effects, drawing attention away from the experience, an experience we commonly call “drawing with light.”

The word “photography” was created from the Greek roots φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light.”

Photography per se therefore does not mean to capture light. It means to draw with light. It’s a process, not a single action. A good old camera makes me draw with light. A smartphone? It captures light.

Which doesn’t contradict the fact that today even professionals are using smartphones to capture events. Right, to capture events. See the thin line? To draw an event is a whole different ballgame.

  • lightworker

    I couldn’t appreciate my dissatisfaction with my phone-cam and mirrorless point-and-shooter – holding them away from my body after decades with eye-level RF and SLRs felt odd. Now with my Sony Nex-6, I can choose eye-level EVF or display screen viewing, depending on whim or need. For me, the connection between seeing and capturing trumps “maximum theoretical technical image quality” whatever that really might be.

    • “Maximum theoretical technical image quality,” there you go. The yearning for it often is an excuse to whitewash own shortcomings or simply the lack of talent. But who knows, some are more inspired by a squarish flat device in their hands and detest the clumsiness of stand-alone camera gear that cannot be carried in a jeans pocket. Not judging here, each to his own, but again, there’s a difference between capturing light and drawing with it.

  • Omer

    For me the difference between capture and drawing is in intent rather than gear. I’ve made a few pictures with smartphones that aesthetically are the equal of anything I’ve done with stand alone cameras. The technical image quality difference is apparent but the art is there. Still, I prefer stand alone cameras for their flexibility and yes, better technical image quality.

    And now Apple has purchased a mobile camera company that specializes in multi-lens camera designs. Supposedly the image quality from the multi lens camera design is quite good. The company is LinX Imaging, out of Israel. So progress marches on, immutably.

    • It’s always risky to dwell on generalizations. Certainly a smartphone can deliver stellar visuals. Add Moore’s law, and we’re approaching the convergence of old and new cameras. Still, what about the ergonomics, haptics, overall feel and responsiveness. A “good” camera feels like an extension of myself. A smartphone is what it is, a smartphone, nothing less, nothing more. Soulless, really. A fine camera, to me, has soul.

  • Brian

    Camera phones are the modern equivalent of an Instamatic 100 of the 1960s or Instamatic 20 of the 1970s. You take a picture with it, a snapshot. Autofocus P&S 35’s of the 80s and 90s upped the quality of the image, steered more people into SLR’s. AF-SLR’s made them easier to use. Digital changed the medium, and changed the time-constant for updating gear. Something 3 years old is “ancient”, needs to be replaced with the next/best thing.

    I enjoy using a fine camera, especially if I’ve had it for a few years. Even if it’s Digital.