By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BEST INDICATIONS THAT YOUR TECH CUSTOMER IS, er, of a certain age is when you hear the question, “where’s the user manual?”, a phrase which registers, these days as, well, quaint. For photographers, the acceleratingly intuitive nature of camera gear, especially in the post-film era, may just mean that the designers have done their best to obviate the manual to as great a degree as possible.
This makes sense. Cameras used to require a lot of explaining just to make them work at all, and user manuals reflected this. The message was simple: unless you follow our prescribed steps, you can really louse things up. In an age that predated modern givens like autofocus, exposure compensation, or aperture priority, the user was responsible for everything involved in the making of a picture. You felt responsible as well, since you yourself had to deliberately set up anything you wanted your camera to do. There were no defaults, and the camera would not assume to know what you wanted.
Fast-forward to now, then, when, in taking delivery of your new camera, you are not usually taking delivery of the full “user’s manual”. It exists, but mostly online as a pdf. What’s actually in your box is a mini-quickie “startup guide”, about twenty pages of basics to allow you to operate the main functions of the toy. Curious about the rest? Go online. The secret behind the Amazing Shrinking Manual is simply that manufacturers don’t believe you will read the full manual ever, ever, anyway. A recent article on Learningstream.com, aimed at designers and marketers, even made a list of seven reasons why consumers would rather swallow arsenic than read the manual. They are; 1. They don’t have time; 2. They are lazy. 3. They “already know everything”. 4. They aren’t too bright. 5. They think “common sense” is enough. 6. They would rather call a help line. 7. The instructions are poorly written.
I would posit an eighth reason that people don’t read the full camera manual anymore; they will likely never use even half of the deluxe functions and add-on tricks that the camera has on offer. All cameras function largely the same way, and making a picture in the most basic fashion is remarkably consistent across brands. The things that give those brands their competitive edge is in the add-ons, the extra options that have been crammed into their chassis. Look through the documentation for your own camera and ask yourself, honestly, if there are tricks the thing will perform that you never thought to ask for, don’t use, or wouldn’t use in a million years. The simple truth; you don’t need a two-hundred page document to tell you how to take a picture. The bulk of the manual is for the “sometime” functions and exotic accents, while the majority of us can get up and running with only the start-up pamphlet. For pete’s sake, you get no documentation at all inside the box of the camera you’ll probably use most in your life…the one inside your phone. The manufacturers for cels have already taken things to the next level, assuming that consumers are not only bored but annoyed at anything that slows the taking of pictures. And since mistakes are free, and easy to fix, who can say they’re wrong?
One thing I do think is profound is that designers are constantly shrinking the space between our desire to make a picture and the delivery of said picture into our hands. It can certainly be argued that anything that gets out from in between the camera and the user is an overall good. As to the other stuff, take the advice my father gave me every time I asked him an annoying question: go look it up.
TO-DO’s AND TO-DONT’S
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE EASIEST THINGS TO LEARN ABOUT IN PHOTOGRAPHY, apparently, is what you’re doing wrong, or so a casual stroll through the Googleweb would suggest. The internet is lots of things, but starved for opinions it ain’t, and so one of the fattest search yields you’ll find online consists of lists, endless in number, on how we are falling short as shooters. You may have sought them out yourself: “Ten most common mistakes”, “the beginner errors everyone makes” “twenty things not to do with your pictures” and so on into the night, rosters of failure and shame compiled by everyone from prominent pros to the village idiot. Actually, that’s unfair. Likely the village idiot is having too much fun taking photos to worry a lot about whether he’s doing it right. As a lifelong village idiot, I can attest that it takes one to know one.
Many of the sins, both venial and mortal, that make up these “to-don’t” lists are of a purely technical nature, such as picking the right aperture or making sure that you haven’t posed a subject in such a way as to make it appear that a hibiscus is sprouting out of the top of his head. Surprisingly, there are fewer suggestions about composure…what makes it stark or busy, what makes it fail to engage or confusing to “read”…than you’d suppose. Almost none of these lists actually address ideas or motivation. And so I mainly regard all such lists with a bit of an arched eyebrow, for the simple reason that they are so very practical. Practical and art are not often on speaking terms.
Orson Welles, a directorial virgin when he arrived in Hollywood to make Citizen Kane, was told by his cinematographer Gregg Toland that there was nothing about shooting a picture that couldn’t be taught in a weekend. Welles’ verdict: Toland was right. Still photography is similar: the mechanics of merely getting a picture into the box are not like the procedures for splitting the atom: much of the moves we make to make an image are but variations on the moves we’e always made, and even without formal instruction, digital has made the learning curve so short that you can muster (if not master) the basics in a few days. It’s what to do with all those technical tips that separates the men/women from the boys/girls, and the endless online (or printed) to-don’t lists don’t even address that amidst all their edicts on lighting and lenses. Because they can’t. Because it can’t be taught like the steps of changing your oil can be taught. It can be learned, but only from yourself. Certainly, if you can’t see, you can still shoot. It just won’t matter that you did, that’s all.
The reason arbitrary rules don’t work with art is because art works best when rules are broken. If all we had to do with a camera was faithfully record light and dark, we would eventually, with practice, all have the same level of excellence. But we don’t. And we can’t. Sometimes a picture just works, despite some line judge saying that it’s too dark, too blurry, or too busy. And if a picture does not transmit your passion to someone else, then all the technical excellence in the world can’t make it connect any better. Why don’t all the do-and-don’t lists talk about motivation, or intention, or just the habit of shooting mindfully? Because that is a matter of mystery beyond measurement. A picture is built, not taken. It happens within the eye and mind of the shooter, and sometimes leapfrogs over all the correct techniques to arrive at a result that is too personal to be contained in a rule book.
GO ON. LOOK IT UP. WE DARE YOU.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO HAS PURCHASED A CAMERA IN RECENT YEARS could easily conclude that the relationship between manufacturers and consumers has moved into a unique new place. Quite simply, the reason camera-makers make certain features, and what they believe we want them for, has fundamentally changed.
Since the push, near the beginning of the digital era, to make basic camera operation more and more instinctual (which is to say, make the cameras smarter so we can think about their processes less and less), several stages of the maker/user relationship can be observed. In the first stage, the classic owner manual is split into two separate publications: the “quick start” booklet of twenty-some pages in which the basic operations of the camera are explained: and the “full-on” manual, which includes all the information in the booklet along with everything else the camera does beyond just pointing and clicking. This first stage has lasted some twenty years, after which we have entered a second phase in which cameras are being sold with only the quick start guide included, while the full manual exists not even as a physical book but as a download. This is a very big change in emphasis, when you think about it.
Obviously the camera makers still think some people want a boatload of options and features built into their cameras. But their research must be showing them that, not only do fewer and fewer people want to know how these tools work, it’s not even important to tell them that such features exist. There is no other reason for the manufacturers to make a shift to a business model in which the full manual need is not even included with a camera purchase, other than a belief that the majority of users will take pictures in much the same way with much the same finite menu of options for as long as they own their cameras. Moreover, the makers must be convinced that it’s safe to save money by not including more sophisticated guides for their products because most people will never miss them or seek them out.
The “just the basics” approach to user manuals makes a little more sense with compacts and point-and-shoots than it might with full-on mirrorless or DSLR models, but in between those two extremes there is the growing middle ground of “bridge” cameras, units that hybridize the convenience and simplicity of the low-end of the market with the vast array of features from the higher end. Instruction for these mid-phase cameras is important both for the basic photographer, who is now ready for some additional flexibility, and the more experienced shooter, who wants to know how much “less” is being offered from what he’s used to. Certainly cameras are capable of accomplishing more and more with less and less human input. But photography is about more than merely “getting a picture”, and it should be easier, not harder, for consumers to learn the full use of devices in which they’ve invested serious money.
THE BOOK OF KODAK
By MICHAEL PERKINS
KODAK’S SAD AND WOBBLY RE-EMERGENCE FROM BANKRUPTCY, announced this week, finalizes the process of “saving” a famous name, while annihilating the legacy of innovation that made that name great for over a century. Having already said goodbye to Kodachrome, most of its other trademark films, and camera production itself, Kodak will now concentrate on “imaging products”, which, for, most of us, means “printers”. Most of the news coverage of this corporate resurrection will “focus” (sorry) on what the new company stock will be worth, who goes, who stays, and a few scant mentions of the company’s original role as camera producer to the world.
That will leave a significant part of the story untold.
Certainly, George Eastman’s genius for marketing helped develop the first flexible roll films, then ingeniously created a market for them by putting a basic, usable camera in the hands of the Everyman. Nearly everyone has heard the slogan Kodak created to demonstrate how truly effortless its products had made photography: you press the button and we do the rest. But none of that would have guaranteed the company’s growth if Kodak has not also decided to become photography’s first great mass teacher, creating pro-active education programs to guarantee that, not only could Uncle Clem snap a photo easily, he could snap a good photo easily. What had once been a dark art for a select cabal of techno-wizards became, under Kodak’s outreach, something that could anybody could do.
And Kodak was going to show you how to do it.
Beginning before the end of the Victorian era, the company began to publish the first of an endless stream of practical guides on technique and simple theory aimed at the average shutterbug. Starting in 1898 with Picture Taking And Picture Making (115 pages of tips in a cardboard cover for fifty cents!), Eastman Kodak moved to 1905’s The Modern Way In Picture Making, and, finally, to the most successful photo instruction series in history, How To Make Good Pictures, introduced in 1912 and revised continually until finishing up with its 37th edition, in 1995. Over the years the “make” in the title had been changed to “take”, and its 1890’s essays on bromide paper, collodion matte, and ground-glass focusing had evolved, over the decades, to instructions on the use of flash, color, drop-in film cartridges, and “how to tell a picture story” with your Kodacolor slides. Hundreds of printings and millions of sales later, How To Make Good Pictures forged an ironclad link between consumer and company in a way no corporation before or since has done.
To everything there is a season. Kodak’s (now historically) tragic failure to see digital photography as a viable consumer revolution, until it was too late, is a matter of raw record. The company that taught the world to see had a blind spot, a fatal one, and the irony that nearly all of the rest of the industry developed digital technology by applying processes originated (and patented) by Kodak makes the story even sadder.
But, once upon a time, the Eastman Kodak Company not only knew what the future of photography was going to look like, it wrote a handy dandy little book that told everyone how to master that future.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye
- Kodak moments are just a memory as company exits bankruptcy (kansascity.com)