Monday, April 30, 2018

The Kitsch Machine

If you gave a budget and some sort of control over policy to an architect, you would not be surprised when many of the solutions produced by that office involved building something. Replace the architect with a sailor, and boats will start to appear in the office's projects. People tend to fit the tools they have to the problems they need to solve.

When you purchase a camera, more often than not you will attempt to buy the "best" one within your constraints of budget and other preferences, which usually means that you're buying the camera with the most megapixels you can afford. Lately, less so, because everything has too many megapixels, and even the least interested consumer is starting to realize it.

Regardless, you probably know roughly how many megapixels your camera has, and you're probably roughly aware that the more you've got, the sharper your pictures will be. Or, more properly, can be. Might be. If you do the work properly.

One of the consequences of this is that people want to make sharp photographs. In general, they spent money for the sharpness. The tool they have in their hand has, still, a single Most Important figure of merit, which is how sharp the pictures it makes can be. Like the architect above, we're drawn to making sharp pictures. We know, or are rapidly taught, the importance of obtaining correct focus, of using an appropriate shutter speed, of using a suitable aperture, all in the pursuit of sharpness.

Naturally, we saw all these things in the days of film as well. Group f/64 was all over this stuff.

I think, though, in the days of film, there was more space left in the minds of photographers for the option. Many chose the route of sharpness (curse you, Ansel Adams, and your clear, accessible books). Not everyone did.

In this era, it seems to me that sharpness barely a choice. To make an unsharp photograph on purpose is as absurd as trying to sew a shirt with a knife, the tool simply doesn't fit the job.

It requires an effort of will to conceive of and shoot this picture:

Exhibit B. My camera has a feature which is widely enjoyed by other cameras. It has a cluster of focus points, which I think of as magic dots in the viewfinder which can be used to select what the camera should focus on. You can set the thing up so that the default focus point is one of them, whichever one you select. But, here's the cool thing, set it up right and you can focus on a thing, and then as the thing moves in the viewfinder the camera will follow it. The magic spot in use will follow the child, the car, the bird, as it and the camera move. Focus, ideally, will remain locked on the thing more or less whatever it does.

Once you discover this feature, and learn how it works, you're likely to start thinking about ways to use it. It might occur to you to go to a racetrack, just to shoot cars, Because, your camera can do that. I tried to use it with kids, but it turns out that it can't maintain focus on children that have left the frame, which they always do, so it's really more of a sports-mode feature.

I have no solid read on how many people went and spent a bunch of time shooting sports of various sorts because their Nikon camera was particularly good at following cars and players around, but the answer is unquestionably more than zero.

Compare the modern camera with the ancient. The view cameras and box cameras of yore were simple devices for projecting light onto a rectangle of film. The design made little to no judgement about focus, about sharpness, about really anything. Project light however you want, it's up to you.

The modern camera adds to this a motley array of conveniences which, in their design, implicitly judge. They meter tells you what your exposure ought to be. The autofocus module tells you that your focus should be sharp. Some cameras will warn you if they think your shutter speed is too low. The design drives toward a common singular goal of the sharp and colorful photograph, whatever the circumstance. Of course, this is because that's what the market wants. It is in general what people want: a sharp and colorful representation of what's in front of the frame.

The design has enshrined this general preference of the buying public as the ne plus ultra, as the actual defining characteristic of a good photograph. The general preference of the public has become the standard by which people who ought to know better (serious photographers, whatever that means) judge pictures. Arguably, the modern camera is literally a kitsch machine.

Say what you will about my bamboo picture, you're unlikely to describe it as kitsch.

I do know that we have way too many pictures of pee-wee football players in perfect focus, and way too many pictures of brightly logoed cars whizzing by a camera on a racetrack that looks like any other racetrack in the world.

Now, for many people it appears that this is photography: learning the capabilities of the machine, and developing the skills necessary to use those capabilities to the utmost. This is a perfectly good hobby, and I don't grudge it to anyone.

It's a bit like jigsaw puzzles (and I love jigsaw puzzles, to the extent that you probably should keep me away from them since I cannot stop once I start assembling one). Every camera presents new challenges, new features that can be learned, and in the end you get a picture that shows off your success with the new one.

It doesn't produce pictures that are interesting to look at, except as evidence of the hobbyist's degree of success, and I don't care about anyone's panning skills, or their ability to correctly use Back Button Focus.

It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, nobody really wants to look at the picture you made at the end. It's just kitschy evidence that you can perform a task.


  1. Ahh yes, the person with the camera who can make clear pictures of all subject matter. Legendary and lionized in every camera club as the person who makes good or great pictures.

    But these days anyone can make a good picture, even with their phone. It's a low bar.

    Making an interesting photo, well that's something different. Some people manage to make an interesting photo by chance every so often.

    There are others that make photos with a sense of purpose, following their instincts and curiosities. Usually, but not always, their photos are more interesting and can withstand the scrutiny of multiple viewings while holding the viewers interest each time.

    There is way too much out there that is like a well crafted one line joke, funny only once.

    1. Well, to be fair, it's not that the camera will inevitably make a sharp in-focus picture every time ;) But that IS the aesthetic that the design strives to enforce.

  2. Interestingly, all the stuff that is sooo important can always be assessed in terms of numbers:
    - Sharpness/resolution
    - Megapixels
    - No of focus points
    - Dynamic range
    - Signal-to-noise ratio
    - etc

    Higher numbers are always better. Makes me think of the car top trumps games we used to play when we were kids.
    Today when I read over on TOP that DXO went for chapter 11, I almost rejoiced, but then had to learn that DXOMark is a separate company. Bah.

    Best, Thomas

  3. No doubt it's just my ego whispering to me, but I can't help but think Molitor had me in mind, at least faintly, when he wrote this piece ... lol.

    Because, as many of my comments here have made clear, I am very much concerned with the image quality of photos I take -- as well as their content, of course! -- and I am also bit of a camera nerd, to the point where I make or modify a fair amount of the gear I use.

    As a former journalist, I also know inspiration can sometimes be hard to come by, so to whatever extent I helped to bring this piece into existence, if at all, then I'm happy to have been of service! 8^)

    1. You are always on my mind when I write things that could be construed as questioning the usefulness of image quality ;)

      As I recall, though, you use cameras which are rather not particularly disposed to these things, though. At least some of the contraptions I have seen assigned to your name appear to demand a great deal of coaxing to produce a picture at all, let alone a sharp one!

      So the "look, modern cameras really really push you to make a certain thing" may not be quite as applicable!