High on Lo-Fi

The camera industry is going through some pretty big movements these days. Since the advent of digital cameras and social networking websites, more and more people have been finding interest in taking photos and exhibiting them online to friends and public at large. Somewhere in this explosive growth of photography, veterans and early enthusiasts sometimes find themselves in a tight spot.

Big Camera, Small Camera

Since their inception, digital camera sensors have been pushing the boundaries of the quality of images they produce. For most of the last decade, it was a case of bigger is better. For better image quality (detail, focus accuracy, lack of noise), you needed to go for the largest digital sensor you could afford. That led to a lot of people lusting after Digital SLR cameras, with sensors having 10-20x more surface area than those of smaller point-and-shoot types.

Early this decade, though, we started seeing a proliferation of back-lit CMOS sensors, which significantly improved the light gathering efficiency of small sensors. More importantly, the improvement did not scale with sensor size, leading to a reduction in the image quality gap between small and large sensors. More importantly, they crossed some sort of an acceptability threshold, above which, quality improvements did not have as profound an impact. When these sensors got mated to always-connected smartphone devices, the ability to take good photos and immediately broadcast them to friends via social networks turned into a compelling channel for creation and consumption of photographs.

DSLR Owners’ Conundrum

A lot of people who acquired DSLRs in the middle of last decade now find themselves in a tricky situation. Using a DSLR means that you need to know a lot about how cameras work, in order to get the best out of the equipment. You need to know, for example, what ISO to shoot at, because unlike older compacts that produced noisy results at any sensitivity, a DSLR can give you very clean images near base ISO. You need to know about lenses and aperture and focal length, because the DSLRs force you to choose your lens carefully. Compact camera lenses get everything in focus most of the time, but DSLR lenses allow selective focus, which is one of the secrets behind their captivating results. Lenses are no longer just one number — 12x zoom and such. Most good-quality lenses are either primes (1x zoom) or 3-5x zooms at most. The zoom factor itself has no bearing with how magnified the image appears — there’s no comparison between the field of view of an 18-55mm lens and a 70-200mm lens, even though both are roughly 3x zooms.

Anyhow, we’re digressing. The point is, if you wanted to take not-crappy pictures in 200x, you had to buy a DSLR and to use it effectively you needed to know a lot about how cameras and lenses work. Unfortunately, the then top-of-the-heap IQ has now pretty much been surpassed by compact cameras and smartphone cameras in terms of resolution and low light sensitivity. The only thing holding smart-phones back is that they don’t have optical zoom and have to rely on “digital zoom” (crop & resize) some times.

A lot of DSLR owners from the last decade or older now feel threatened by the improving quality of compact shooters. Add to that the complex retouching and post-processing that is now available as cookie-cutter presets in applications like Snapseed, Instagram, etc., for which people spent hours in front of a computer fiddling with layer masks and such, and the feeling of threat is compounded. There’s a feeling of loss when you see someone producing as good results as you do, despite your skill and experience, because your skills have been codified in the camera’s firmware. Is the threat perception justified, though?

Say, “Hi!” to Lo-Fi

I, for one, really like what’s happening with the small camera industry right now. Comparing pictures from 5-10 years ago to what we have now, I see a significant improvement in the quality of pictures that people are putting up. The cameras’ scene detection and exposure metering has become smarter, they have better image quality baselines, the low MP counts allow these devices to capture shots in a burst and perform operations like noise reduction, DR enhancement, panorama creation, etc. on board. The artistic presets for lo-fi imagery help make the otherwise boring shots more catchy. Since most of these shots are consumed on the web, their IQ deficiency doesn’t even stand out much, compared to shots from a DSLR.

As an enthusiast photographer, though, you must not forget the reason why you stuck your neck out and put in your hard-earned money for a DSLR — to produce better looking photos than random Joes’. It’s just that having high resolution, noise-free, colour-corrected pictures is not enough differentiation now. You need to look for other differentiating factors. Some of it could be internal differentiators — improving your procedures to allow creation of images that typically need more expensive gear. Some of it could be looking for new frontiers to break with photography that smartphones and compacts still haven’t broken — they can’t do HD video in low light, they still shoot JPEGs, they can’t do 1:1 macro photography, they’re slow to focus. Some of it could be doing a one-up on them at their own tricks. For example, there is tremendous opportunity for being creative with multiple shot photographs that are merged in creative, non-cookie-cutter ways.

All said and done, it doesn’t matter which camera you use, as long as you find interesting stuff to photograph in interesting ways. DSLRs, compacts, lo-fi, hi-fi, are just means to producing something interesting.