"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
November 5, 2013

Addicted To Innovation

In recent years I’ve heard a lot of photographers complain about camera design. It’s a common thread of concern; many new high cameras are moving away from “pure photography” by adding features geared more towards towards video and film-making, or adding complications like wireless and GPS technology. This angst has, in part, fuelled the popularity […]

In recent years I’ve heard a lot of photographers complain about camera design. It’s a common thread of concern; many new high cameras are moving away from “pure photography” by adding features geared more towards towards video and film-making, or adding complications like wireless and GPS technology.

This angst has, in part, fuelled the popularity of many back to basics cameras, like the Fuji X range. It’s not just the old school aesthetics that make cameras like the X100s appealing, it’s also the sense you are holding in your hands a purpose built tool, designed for making photographs in an informed and thoughtful way.

Cameras, Art And Language

Photography, like any art form, has its own language. Just as musicians divide the properties of sound into rhythm, pitch and tone, so photographers divide light into shadows and highlights, contrasts and colours. Musicians divide pitches into mathematical relationships, which we call scales and photographers divide light into similar mathematical ratios, using shutter speeds, aperture and ISO settings.

The camera, like a guitar or saxophone, is a tool for making art. Or, to put it another way, it’s a tool for taking the grammar and mathematics of the art form’s language and seamlessly using those to express ideas, emotions and human insights.

The relationship of great photos to the camera is the same as the relationship of great poetry to the pen and paper (or typewriter or computer). We know Hemingway wore on a typewriter; but do we really believe the quality of his work was determined by the brand or model of typewriter he used?

Nikon’s New, Old, Direction

When Nikon released the D800 camera, there was a fair bit of criticism, over both the huge 36 megapixel sensor and the video features. While I love this camera I’ll admit I was also in the camp who wished there was a “for photographers only” version of this camera.

Now Nikon have a new camera, the DF, marketed with a campaign called “pure photography.” With a look reminiscent of Nikon’s older film cameras, full manual controls, no video capability and innards close to the top of the range D4 full frame camera, the DF is what many photographers, including myself, have wanted.

However, there’s been a lot of criticism of the DF, even before its launch. Naturally some might not like the retro aesthetic or the relatively high price. More surprising is the claim this camera is a sign Nikon are not “innovating.” What does this mean?

In plain language, innovate simply means to create a new product. It comes from the Latin and implies make new, renew or just simply, alter. Sometimes we use innovate in a more rarified sense, to imply realising a new idea in a product.

So, how is the Nikon DF not an innovative product? It’s what many photographers have said they want. It’s a change of strategy for Nikon, away from cameras that do both photo and video to a purely photographic tool. It’s a step away from menu and screen driven photography back to a viewfinder and control through your fingers approach.

It reminds me of the way many tech writers are saying Apple no longer innovates, despite intense revamps to both Apple’s desktop and mobile operating systems and highly successful launches for new iPhones and iPads in the past three months. This isn’t a lack of innovation, it’s a lack of titillation.

Do Cameras Need To Be Innovative?

Does a saxophone maker need to be innovative? Think about musical instruments for a minute. How innovative does a saxophone, guitar or piano maker need to be?

Actually, instrument makers are relentlessly innovative, exploring the way new materials and building materials can improve the musical capabilities of their products. But, the basic shape of a saxophone or guitar might not change in this process. Innovation is improvement, it’s the rigorous focus involved in making your products better while not being distracted in making them something other than what they need to be.

Which makes me wonder; how innovative do cameras need to be? Sure, new technologies can help make cameras smaller and lighter, though at some point strength, durability and usability will limit that. Yes, better sensors can improve performance in certain situations, but aren’t today’s cameras already kind of amazing?

Aren’t we just addicted to innovation? Constantly craving every new bit of technology, hoping all the best specifications will be scooped up and added to our next camera, regardless of whether they will really make a perceivable difference to the photos we produce?

Wherever Our Time Is, There Is Our Passion

“My father used to say, find the one thing you can do all day without looking at your watch – that’s your passion.”

The last Nikon pure photography advertisement has this great line about passion. It’s an idea I believe in. Our goal in life should be to make our passions central to the way we live, or as Robert Frost put it, to unite our vocation with our avocation.

Does the addiction to innovation the true colours of the photographic world? Could it be the thing we can do all day without looking at our watch isn’t making photos, but talking about making photos, reading and ranting about the specifications of this or that camera, while our photography gear sits on the shelf gathering dust?

Toni 11 years ago

I’d not been aware of the Nikon DF, but I’m probably also not ‘target market’. Thanks for the heads up – it looks like a fascinating tool.

I’m interested why you’ve tagged a post about photography and innovation with apple? There’s an obvious answer, but I’m hoping it was something more than that.

Fernando Gros 11 years ago

Toni – simply because the article mentioned Apple. I’m woefully inconstant about tagging.

Toni 11 years ago

Ah, found it. I think my brain had decided “this belongs somewhere else” and there after prevented me seeing that paragraph mentioning that company.

One might ask if the launch of products that appear derivative refinements of existing products is innovation or developmental evolution. I’m not really wanting to have that argument, but on the side of those saying Apple doesn’t innovate they have probably looked and seen other similar products predating apple’s that didn’t achieve market acceptance, possibly through lack of refinement or that the supporting technology hadn’t caught up yet. You couldn’t imagine Apple producing a truly innovative product like Google Glass because they are a logically progressive company that iterates, rather than creating wildly innovative products that cannot be commercially successful.

So is the DF innovative or merely an obvious case of spotting a niche and going back to ones roots? You’re probably right to link to Apple, because this development progression is very apple-like, but, to me, not innovating in the way that, say developing the first anti-shake or autofocus system that worked was innovative.

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