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The Display Continuum

Modern Conveniences…August 2007

Modern Conveniences…

We are entering an interesting new world of intelligent devices.  Cars that park themselves, appliances that do everything except insert the food into our mouths, and computers that give us near-instant access to nearly all the world’s knowledge.   Who would have thought, even just a few years ago, that we would be able to capture images from wherever we are and of whatever we are doing and instantly and effortlessly transmit them to our friends and family.  Well, maybe not entirely effortlessly just yet, but that time will also soon be here.  The path into the next decade is set for us to be presented with products having ever more intelligence – devices created to do the thinking for us.

But should you perhaps not want all this thinking to be done for you, or if the device is limited in what it can do and you would like to provide it with some of your own intelligence, that is often where the “fun” begins.  

For example, I have a reasonably sophisticated digital camera that has all the standard features of automatic focus, automatic exposure, optical zoom with a close-up option, and flash when the shutter speed falls below 1/30 second.  As with every digital camera, there are various menu options for changing the standard settings and for selecting a manual operation mode.  Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that with all of these features and choices what more could one possibly want?  Who would want to go back to the days of having to decide on a shutter speed, select the optimum aperture, and then manually focus on the object of interest? 

Well, here is a real life story that made me wish for a return to those pre-historic times when cameras had fewer “features” and virtually all of the “thinking” was left to the user. 

My assignment was to photograph electronic products to illustrate their mechanical construction.  Since I would need to transmit the images electronically to another site, using a manual film camera in this case was not an option.   But then, why should we need to do that anyway?  Shouldn’t the newer products have more versatility without giving up any of the conveniences of the older products?   Well, at least in my naivete that is what I was thinking. 

So let’s get to work.  The first problem I encounter is that the camera insists on focusing on some other part of the product than the one that I need to have in focus.  Well, that should be easy to fix -- just switch to a manual focus mode and use a smaller aperture to increase the depth of field.  But how do I do that with this menu-driven electronic marvel?  I suppose, if all else fails read the instruction manual!   After a thorough study of the manual, I learn that “manual” focus does not really mean manual focus.  To this camera it means that I can select from five pre-determined areas in the viewfinder and then by way of the menu options choose one of these where the camera will then focus.  Well, no wonder that up to now I haven’t been able to get the desired objects in focus.  I wasn’t pointing the camera where the focus region had been pre-selected for me.  As I begin to realize, my camera has the ultimate decision making authority and will do what it wants to do, not what I would like it to do.

Ha!  But there must be another way to outsmart this stubborn little electronic dervish.  I know, I’ll go into the manual mode and stop down to a smaller aperture to increase the depth of field.  That way the focal point won’t be as critical and I will have more options for how I compose my shots.  Back to the instruction book.  I learn that the camera has only two options for f-stops, an f2.8 and an f7.8.  To my surprise, there is a small footnote at the bottom of the page that states that depth of field “may not” increase if the smaller f-stop is selected because this “smaller” aperture is simulated using an electronic filter.  What do they mean “may not”?  If the aperture doesn’t change size, it can’t improve the depth of field.  In fact, it turns out that there is no real aperture in this camera at all.  To simulate the smaller aperture, it simply lowers the gain of the sensor array.

The little electronic dervish wins again.  I give in and compose my photos to accommodate what the camera is going to do and not what I really would like it to do.   The final insult is that the flash goes off even when I don’t want it to because I forget to push one of the buttons four times whenever I turn the power back on.  The camera, of course, has reverted to its pre-programmed mode. 

Oh, for a return to those good old days of products not quite so intelligent – products that left some of the thinking to the user.  In fact, after this experience I decide to go on a search to try to find a digital camera that has all of the capability of manual as well as automated photography in the true sense of the word.  I’m pretty sure that I should be able to find this capability in one of the newer digital SLR models, but before I make my next purchase I am going to make really sure that what are designated as manual modes are really “manual”.

Not only that, but just for the record, I am still quite capable of parking my own car and making my own sandwiches.   I can also mow my own lawn and sweep out the garage when it needs it.  Wow, I must be a real pioneer.  I must have grown up walking for miles through the snow just to get to school – well actually it was only about a mile and mostly it was in the rain.  

As we continue this technology evolution, will we be able to achieve an adequate balance between automation and functionality?   It may be that eventually the companies that succeed and prosper will be the ones that devote more resources to the development of products that are designed for intuitive and elegantly simple operation – not just loaded with menu-driven features that in actual fact limit the product’s convenience and usability.

If you have already resolved the photography dilemma described in this column, please let me know how you did it.  I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this topic or others.