Random Brain Waves, vol. 12

Is still photography dying? That may seem like an odd question to ask, given the vast number of images people share online. Yet sometimes it seems as if camera manufacturers are pushing us in that direction. Perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit, but the release last night of Canon’s new 70D had me thinking about this subject. The 70D appears to be a highly competent enthusiast DSLR, but it’s only new ground-breaking feature has nothing to do with still photography. Canon’s new Dual Pixel CMOS AF system is intended to greatly improved autofocus performance when shooting video. Now for video enthusiasts, I’m sure this is great news. The new system, at least on paper, seems quite impressive. For a stills photographer, things are a bit different. I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed, as I did when Nikon’s D7100 was launched. I simply can’t recall the last time anyone released a camera that offered some truly revolutionary new feature or level of performance affecting stills capture. Recent upgrades to stills capture capability, if there have been any at all, have been of the evolutionary variety – small improvements at best. Part of the reason is that digital cameras have matured in the last couple of years – currently technologies have been pushed about as far as they can go, and it will take a significant leap forward in design and manufacturing processes to achieve a similar leap in performance. These types of leaps forward take time. Yet we would almost certainly be one or two steps ahead of where we are now on the stills side, had not so much time and money been spent improving the video side. Compare the way video capture in DSLRs has progressed since the first video-capable DSLR was released in 2008(Nikon’s D90) with the progress that’s been made on the stills side during the same period, and… well, there is no comparison. From a stills perspective, the D90’s image quality holds up pretty darn well against the D7100. One could still use a D90 today to create professional caliber images. On the video side however, the D90 looks positively archaic compared to the D7100. A $100 Nikon compact camera now offers video quality comparable to the D90.

There’s only a couple of places where real innovation seems to be taking place – in the mirrorless and high end compact markets. This is a big part of why I find myself increasingly drawn to these types of cameras. Big sensors in small cameras, electronic viewfinders, advanced image stabilization systems, highly accurate contrast autofocus systems, image monitoring during bulb shooting – all of these and more have changed for the better the way I create images. Yet even in these markets, I think about where we might be right now without video siphoning away resources that could be used to further improve stills capture. Once again I can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed.

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One reason I don’t post full-blown lens reviews is that reviewing a single copy of a lens doesn’t really tell you all that much. It’s always possible that your review copy isn’t up to spec, or that you were lucky enough to get a copy that performs above spec. A truly useful review would require testing multiple copies of the same lens. Yet this is rarely done, even by the biggest and best known sites. Those same sites almost never talk about product reliability or customer service. Yet quality control, reliability and customer service are at least as important as the features and performance of a product. There’s one brand I absolutely will not use at this point, based on personal experience and word of mouth, at least until they come clean about their recent QC and customer service shortcomings and make a transparent effort to address them. When I purchase a product, I have a right to expect it to work properly right out of the box. If there’s a problem, I expect the manufacturer to own up to it, and make things right in a timely fashion at their expense. Consumers need to send a message to manufacturers to do the right thing, and the best way is by not giving your hard-earned dollars to the ones who treat you like an afterthought… as if you should simply feel honored to be using their poorly assembled and unreliable equipment.

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Now that I’ve taken the camera manufacturers to task, let me do the same with myself. From my perspective, things have felt a bit unfocused around here recently. Other commitments have me spread a bit thin at the moment, but I’ve been toying with the notion of bringing some structure to the blog – perhaps a regular schedule where I cover specific topics on certain days, and more focus to the image selection via concentrating on specific projects. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

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