Reader Questions Answered

Not really a question, but one reader recently wrote me: "With the Z8 I now have a camera with such capable hardware that pretty much every annoyance is now down to software: lack of HDR with <8ms between exposures, lack of programmability, lack of proper iPhone connectivity (Really Nikon, why do you not use the 5 GHz WiFi?), lack of iPhone software to fully setup your camera, lack of consistency between multiple cameras, …" This reader goes on to say that the other makers are just as clueless about software.

But it does bring up a question I've had for a long time: given what the camera makers have seen from how the American companies just came in and leveraged software to dominate computer, mobile, and phone devices—even if produced overseas—why haven't the Japanese companies invested more on the software side?

Unfortunately, due to their dominance on the hardware side, we're pretty much at their whim when it comes to what the embedded software can and can't do. Olympus and Sony dipped their toes in the "let third-parties write software" waters, but apparently they didn't like what they found, as they've raced away from the pool faster than they approached it.

I first started promoting the communicating, programmable, modular bandwagon back in 2007, and went on to give presentations in Japan about what I meant by it. Here we are sixteen years later (!) and not much progress has been made on the first, the second and third are basically non-existent. Okay, I know when I'm not being listened to. But I also strongly believe that not being at the forefront of what can be done—and that means embracing the software side—is one of the things that has caused camera sales to suffer.

"Why can't we have a metering system that produces perfectly exposed images?"

We do, it's called you. ;~)

First, we have to get to the critical word in your question, though: "perfectly." I'd like you to explain what you mean by that word. 

What happens when I ask for an explanation is one of two things (sometimes a combination of both): (1) the person being questioned starts to awkwardly talk in circles; and/or (2) they want the camera to not blow out highlights and then tonally compensate everything the way they think it should be down to black. A few old-timers come up with (3) expose for middle gray.

Good luck with #2, as you and I will certainly disagree on the second half of that construct ("tonally compensate"), and so will everyone else. And a large percent of you will also ask for more saturation and contrast, and typically contrast in the mid-range, where it isn't needed (take that, Clarity! ;~). 

I grew up on the Ansel Adams and the Time/Life photography book series, both of which worked through everything from what is in front of the camera, what lens was being used, and how the camera worked, to what the film captured, how the film was processed, and how a print was made. The goal throughout each step was "optimization," but it was also clear that each step required the person in charge—that would be us, the photographers—to be making decisions. Good decisions, particularly early in the process chain. The more bad decisions you made in the early bits, like image capture, the less likely you could fix them. By contrast, making a bad decision at the final print stage just meant you were going to go back to the darkroom and try again.

What people are asking with the question above is only one step removed from "why can't we have a camera that composes for us?" 

I've written this before, and I'm sure I'll write it again: back when I taught filmmaking at Indiana University one of the things I had to correct in every student's mind was that documentary films are a reflection of the documentarian's decisions, not reality. Why? Because you had so many choices you were going to make, including but not limited to when and where to put cameras, whether the cameras would be visible to the ones being recorded, and which clips you decided to put in your final edit. Hundreds of decisions go into every image capture or film recording. 

Why would you want something else making those decisions for you? That just starts to make you the operator that flips the On switch for a robot. Now I don't mind having a robot clean the floors of my house, as that's not an artistic or personal endeavor at all. But I do mind having a robot pointing and composing my camera, picking when to press the shutter release, and placing each Zone at a particular value. That would not be fun or interesting to me. It probably shouldn't be to you, either. 

The real nugget at the heart of the reader question is "do you have a consistent metering system, and do you know what it is actually metering?" If not, you have some learning to do. All you Z System users, for instance, should be aware of a Custom Setting called Matrix Metering Face Detection. It has an impact on what the camera will do when metering.

"Where I live is relatively boring, so I'm not finding things to take photos of. What should I do?"

Welcome to existentialism. You should be asking Kierkegaard, not me.

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