On cameras, smartphones, smug superiority and the geek’s pissing contest

April 09, 2015

Richard J. Anderson published a very interesting essay today on how in certain online circles, particularly in the tech community, we geeks tend to over-emphasize the importance of owning high-end items like fancy cameras and the like, to the detriment of other perfectly adequate alternatives:

There’s nothing wrong with liking the crazy, fancy stuff us geeks like. We can’t control our obsessions, but we can control how we communicate them to others. Smug superiority gets us nowhere. The elitism that too often creeps into any discussion of our obsessions is maddening to hear, even by some of us who share the obsession.

He makes a great point, and it’s true that there’s a lot of misplaced “ownership pride” in our online community and sometimes, unfortunately, there’s not enough common sense to recognize that for many, many people, having the fanciest camera or the latest iPhone is little more than a waste of perfectly good money.

He also makes a great point on the matter of taste:

In response, for geeks “better” is about less quantifiable things, like taste. While I’m probably the last person who would recommend a Samsung phone, I’m not about to bash the taste of a Samsung owner. When certain tech pundits—Jim Dalrymple and John Gruber especially—start calling people who buy certain products idiots, or claiming a covered micro-USB port on the back of a smartwatch is a mark of bad taste, they’re losing the thread. It’s not that Samsung customers are idiots, or the designer of the Sony Smartwatch has no taste, it’s that their priorities are in a different place.

Agreed. The differences between an iPhone and a high-end Android phone today are largely a matter of personal preference and yes, taste. I also agree that dismissing a rather large group of customers who keep buying — and loving — their Samsung phones as being tasteless is not particularly constructive, or even rational.

Today, both smartphone platforms are excellent and while I still prefer the iPhone, I have no qualms about recommending an Android phone to somebody with a different set of priorities than mine. Heck, there are actually several cool features I wish the iPhone had that are commonplace in Android, so it’s not like there’s a universal, objective criterium by which the iPhone is unquestionably better.

So in general I agree with Richard, and I quite enjoyed the essay. However, I do take issue with his use of cameras as an example, and I believe it’s a flawed argument in several ways:

When I see a piece on cameras, I just zone out, and it all becomes a sea of meaningless technical terms: mirrorless micro four-thirds full-frame DSLR with pancake lens at f/32 aperture… whatever. The camera on my iPhone 5S is more than good enough for the few photos I take of my life. I have to wonder if the geek obsession with high-end cameras is, in part, because point-and-shoot digital and smartphone cameras have become good enough for the average person.

I understand this completely, as I felt exactly the same way until just a year ago. In fact, for the two most important trips I’ve taken in my life — to Australia and Brazil — the only camera I took with me was my iPhone 4S. Think about that for a moment. This is a camera that is so grossly outdated by today’s standards that nobody in their right mind would recommend it as an acceptable choice for documenting a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And yet, when I look at those pictures now I’m perfectly happy with them, and I recall the great moments I lived in those trips just fine.

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. January 8, 2012. Picture taken with an iPhone 4S

That said, if I were to take those trips today, would I take my iPhone 5S — a clearly superior model in every way — as my only camera? No way in hell.

It’s not that the iPhone camera isn’t good enough for documenting memories — it actually excels at that. I’m perfectly happy to capture moments with my phone, and in fact I do it every day. In a pinch or when an unexpected photo opportunity arises, a smartphone will do but when there’s time to think, compose and create an image, I rely on my camera.

Friends you haven’t met yet

“Don’t forget that strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet”. Porto Alegre, Brazil. December 27, 2011. Picture taken with an iPhone 4S.

The reason for that is something I’ve discovered over these past twelve months. It’s actually the same reason why I sometimes obsess over fancy cameras and lenses on this very site: as it turns out, I love photography.

I don’t mean that the intensity with which I love photography somehow justifies my obsession, that it’s OK for me to do it because I love it more than you do. Nothing like that. What I mean is that I probably think of photography in a different way than you do. To me, a camera is not just a memory-making machine: it’s a creative tool. It’s not just about capturing moments, it’s about creating the images I see in my head, much like a painter creates an image on an empty canvas.

I love photography as a creative outlet. Using the right tools, the tools that give you control over the end result, is an absolutely essential part of the creative process, and that is true for any creative discipline, including photography. Unfortunately when you’re talking about tools, going into technical details is sometimes inevitable.

But that doesn’t mean it has to be “the best” camera, either. All it takes is a minimum of manual controls — ISO, aperture and shutter speed — and, depending on your preference as a photographer, the possibility to use interchangeable lenses. That’s it.

My Olympus E-M10 was never the best camera in the market in any measurable way: it isn’t the fastest, nor the best built. It doesn’t have the largest sensor, or the best low-light performance. But it does have the right combination of features for my skill level, it allows me to pursue my creative goals, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

As for regretting the future quality of your pictures, there’s also something else I disagree with:

When I read articles defending the purchase of fancy cameras, there’s a recurring mantra of “you’ll regret it when your kids grow up and all you have are cell phone pictures.” I don’t know about other people in my age group, but I remember growing up with albums of badly exposed 35mm prints from point-and-shoot film cameras. My parents didn’t mind, and I doubt the parents of most other people my age minded either.

As I said above, I’m still perfectly happy with the many pictures I took with my iPhone 4S as my main camera, and I believe he’s correct that this “you’ll regret it later” argument is deeply flawed. Unfortunately though, I can’t help but feel this example is flawed, as well.

As far as “badly exposed” images go well, that’s unfortunately a matter of the human operating the camera. But beyond that, the comparison is flawed because 35mm film cameras from 30 years ago, even point and shoots, offered much better performance than any smartphone available today — and they still do.

Granted, if you look at some 30-year-old prints today, most of them will look like crap. The cheap prints that were typically done in bulk 30 years ago left much to be desired in terms of quality, but if you were to redo those prints using a high-end optical printer, or scan those same 30-year-old negatives today, you’d be surprised at the amount of detail that’s in there.1

Photography reached the pinnacle of optical performance sometime in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s and the industry has mostly been reinventing itself since the switch to digital. Even today we’re still playing catch-up to what medium format film has been able to do for over 40 years. Heck, some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken were shot with a 34-year-old, fully manual 35mm film camera, and I wouldn’t trade it for a smartphone in a million years.

Debod Temple, Madrid

Debod Temple, Madrid, Spain. February 2015. Picture taken with a Canon AE-1 Program 35mm film SLR.

That said, would I criticize someone for believing their smartphone camera is good enough for their needs? Absolutely not. But if they enjoy taking pictures and the creative process that goes with it, I wouldn’t tell them that there’s no point in ever buying a dedicated camera, either. And I certainly wouldn’t tell them that their smartphone camera won’t limit their creativity in any way, because those things are simply not true.

Smartphone cameras have become incredibly capable in the last few years, but they’ll never be able to get around the optical laws of physics, and photography is an area of life where size truly matters. Sensor size, to be precise. A 35mm film negative is the same size as the full frame sensors available in high-end professional DSLRs today. That size difference grants them a distinct set of advantages as far as performance and control over depth of field go that are simply impossible to achieve with a smaller sensor.

While it’s true that for the majority of people smartphones are an increasingly capable choice, there will always be plenty of legitimate reasons to buy a dedicated camera. And if you enjoy photography as a creative endeavor — beyond merely capturing memories for future reference — it not only makes perfect sense to invest in more capable tools, it’s actually indispensable.

Finally and as far as pissing contests go, I have no interest in those. Richard is right, and we should all try to keep other people’s values in mind instead of trying to impose our own. I’m well aware that most of the photography talk I do around here will be lost on many potential readers, and I’m perfectly OK with that, just as I’m OK with others disagreeing with me. I try not to judge anyone based on their choices as consumers — or anything else, for that matter — but if I’ve failed to do that here, I apologize. And if you’d like to share some of your own views on the matter with me, feel free to send them my way.

  1. It’s been estimated that, in order to capture the same amount of detail as a 35mm film negative, a digital sensor would need to have about 175 MP, which isn’t happening anytime soon. Not to mention medium format film, of course, where the difference is just ridiculous.

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Scotch Whisky 101 - A Beginners Guide →

April 08, 2015 |

If you get tired of all the Apple Watch reviews, or if you just need a drink afterwards, allow me to point you towards this excellent primer on Scotch whisky by J. A. Shapira over at Gentleman’s Gazette:

I can tell you right now that if your first experience with Scotch is trying a 25 year old Lagavulin straight up, you’ll probably never try it again. When you’re selecting your first dram whether it be purchasing a bottle or trying it at the pub, choosing a Scotch will make or break your relationship very quickly. This isn’t a spirit you guzzle for the fun of it like you did tequila on spring break. For one, it’s just too expensive and second it’s not intended for that. Do you really think that the crafter spent years perfecting a whisky so you could down it like jello shots? Of course not.

That’s a phenomenal point. I’ve been extremely cautious in my own introduction to single malt Scotch whisky, in part because the first one I ever tried was a heavily peated Talisker, which left such a terrible taste in my mouth that after that I couldn’t get anywhere near a whisky glass for years.

Luckily, this time around I’m taking my time, slowly working my way up and letting my palate become accustomed to the stronger drams. After a few months, I’ve even been able to drink Talisker again and appreciate it for the excellent single malt it is.

Strongly peated whiskies like Lagavulin and Talisker are still not my cup of tea and I doubt they ever will be, but at least now I can enjoy one on occasion without making silly faces. And I definitely enjoy more lightly peated single malts like Oban, which has become one of my favorite drams.

Most importantly, now I know which whiskies to go for and which ones to avoid when I’m out drinking with friends, and so I’m able to enjoy them much more. That’s a measure of progress, and that’s how you want to approach these things.

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Here’s a chart of every Apple Watch review worth reading →

April 08, 2015 |

The review embargo for Apple Watch was lifted today, meaning the entire Internet is buzzing with tons of brand new Apple Watch reviews.

Even though we all new this was coming, I’m still genuinely surprised by the sheer volume of work that’s been published about such a small device. All in all, we’re talking about many tens of thousands of words to read, which to be honest is pretty intimidating. Luckily, Raymond Wong of Mashable has compiled this handy chart for your convenience.

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Police in Iceland are having way more fun than you on Instagram →

April 08, 2015 |

Messy Nessy:

I didn’t even know police forces having instagram accounts was a thing, but apparently it is. The NYPD even has time for one. But no one gets it quite like the official Instagram account of the Reykjavík metropolitan police. From silly selfless, posing with adorable kittens to re-enacting their own scenes from Baywatch and using all the right hashtags, the charming coppers of Iceland’s capital have accumulated more than 144K instagram followers– that’s even more than the total population of Reykjavík (around 118k).

Kind of puts a few things in perspective, doesn’t it?

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Studio Neat introduces Highball →

April 08, 2015 |

Super-cool new iPhone app for collecting and sharing cocktail recipes:

Additionally, we wanted to create an easy way to share recipes. When you stumble upon something tasty, the inclination is to share it. There were many paths we could have gone down in regards to sharing, but we took the simple one, with a twist. When you share a recipe, the app generates an image of a “recipe card,” which is super easy to share on Twitter or iMessage or email or whatever. The image is 16x9, orientated in portrait, so it is designed to look great on mobile.

Having been designed by Studio Neat, Highball is not only clever and useful, it’s gorgeous to look at, too. And don’t miss the accompanying Sandwich video.

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Picking the right bag for a trip: a simple set of rules

April 07, 2015

Today I read a great article by Ben Brooks, on which type of bag to take for a short trip:

After this recent trip, the answer became pretty clear: backpacks are always the way to go.

Even with the short duration and carry times I did during this trip, a shoulder bag was supremely annoying. It was in my way, noticeable, and uncomfortable even after a short while carrying it. So even though the bag was physically smaller than my GR1, it felt much larger than the GR1. This is a simple matter of how shoulder bags hang and pull at our body.

Agreed. Backpacks are almost always the most comfortable and convenient bags to carry, and they’re always my default choice.

In his piece, Ben also called upon readers to share their own criteria for choosing the right bag for a trip, so here are my two cents on the matter.

General rules

My personal rules for choosing a bag are fairly simple. As a general rule, I will only carry one bag with me, with the possible exception of a small camera bag or a small daypack tucked inside the main bag. For the vast majority of trips though, I’m a one-bag kind of guy.

Also, the bag must be carry-on compatible. I will never check my bag in voluntarily, and the only way I’ll agree to having it checked in is if I’m required to do so by the cabin crew. Unfortunately this can happen sometimes, like when they run out of storage space in the overhead lockers, so always keep a security lock in your bag, just in case.

There are plenty of good reasons never to check in your bag, but that’s a story for another day. For now, suffice it to say that if you can, you should always carry your bag with you on the plane. And don’t make excuses, there’s no real reason to carry more stuff for a trip other than laziness. If I made it for 24 days in Australia and 23 days in Brazil with a single carry-on bag, so can you.

Additionally, there’s one final, very important rule: Under no circumstances will I ever pack more than one week’s worth of clothing and gear.1 For those trips that are longer, I will simply choose to do laundry at my destination once every seven days, however expensive or inconvenient that may be.

In practice though, it’s never really expensive or inconvenient, since many hotels and hostels around the world offer that service or at the very least, facilities you can use. For the few that don’t, you will need to look around town for a self service laundry, or go to a specialized place where you can have it done for you. For example, I paid $25 in Brazil — twice — to have all my clothes cleaned and ironed overnight. That may sound like a lot but I assure you, it was money well spent.

Doing laundry on the go seems like an annoying errand you don’t want to be doing while away on a trip, but the advantages it offers are nothing to sneeze at and the inconveniences are really not that bad. At best, you’ll find plenty of places that will take care of everything for you. At worst, it’ll take a couple hours of your time once a week, it will be expensive, or both. Either way, it definitely beats having to carry a mix of clean and dirty clothes in your backpack for three weeks in tropical weather. Trust me.

Bag choices and recommendations

Once the general rules are set and when it comes to which bag to carry, it all hinges on the duration of the trip and the expected weather conditions. These are my bags of choice for each situation:

  • Two or fewer days in warm weather: The GORUCK GR Echo. If you can pack light, this bag is just the right size for short escapades. I use it all the time when I go to my hometown to visit my folks for the weekend, and I love it. I typically carry a couple spare shirts, underwear, my laptop with charger, a dopp kit and maybe my Kindle for these trips. Anything else and you’re not really packing light anymore.

  • Three to five days in warm weather, or up to four days in colder conditions: a 25-liter backpack. I personally use an all-black Nike Hayward 25M backpack, which I’ve owned for over a decade. I wasn’t expecting much of it in terms of performance, particularly given its rather modest price tag — I seem to remember paying something like $70 for it when I bought it all those years ago. Surprisingly though, this bag far and away exceeded all my expectations. Sadly, this particular model was discontinued by Nike and the current one is a lot less to my liking, so when the time finally comes to upgrade my bag I will probably buy a GORUCK GR1 instead.

  • Six or more days in good weather, five or more days in colder conditions: The GORUCK GR2. I wouldn’t pick any other bag over the GR2 for a serious trip, with just one caveat: big backpacks are heavy, and the GR2 is no exception. If you foresee the need to walk a lot, you may want to opt for a different type of bag, like a rolling suitcase, for example. Yes, they’re less convenient and maybe even less fancy, but your back will thank you for it. And another thing: carrying a backpack makes your back sweat. A lot. There’s simply no way around it, so be prepared and keep a spare shirt handy in case you need to change during your trip, or upon reaching your destination. Hugging your welcoming hosts with a sweaty back is just bad etiquette.

  • Cycling trips: The Ortlieb Back Roller City panniers. Depending on the duration of the trip, I will take one or both panniers with me. These are incredibly durable and completely waterproof, so there’s no need to worry when you’re pedaling your way across a river — although, if you do find yourself in that situation, you may want to stop and think hard about your travel choices. Just saying.

That pretty much covers every type of trip I usually take. These rules are very easy to follow and remove any uncertainty about what to pack and how to pack it. They have served me well in the past but of course, your mileage may vary.

In any case, these are flexible rules and nothing is set in stone. For example, if a short trip requires more formal clothing I will probably choose to go with a bigger bag. The key is to play with them a little bit, make them work for you and your particular trip, and find the right balance.

Finally and above all, remember that with packing, as with many things in life, practice makes perfect. So if you really want to get better at it, you’re just going to have to keep traveling.

  1. As a side benefit, this also helps with the no checked baggage rule above.

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The Sweet Setup’s favorite podcast client for iOS →

April 07, 2015 |

Speaking of Marco, my friends over at The Sweet Setup have chosen Overcast as their new favorite podcast client for iOS, and I agree. Overcast is a terrific app, I use it every single day and I love it. Absolutely recommended.

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An iPhone 6 owner lives with the iPhone 6 Plus →

April 07, 2015 |

Marco Arment has been recently toying with the idea of switching from his current iPhone 6 to the uber-sized iPhone 6 Plus. He took it with him on a couple of trips to the British Isles, and this is what he thought about it:

Having used an iPhone 6 full-time from its launch until these 6 Plus experiments over the last few weeks, I can confidently say that neither phone is extremely well-designed. Both have nontrivial and completely avoidable flaws. But the 6 Plus has bigger advantages over the other phones, while the 6 seems to sit in a mediocre middle ground.

CGP Grey summarized the difference well in the aforelinked Hello Internet episode: “I am more and more convinced that the iPhone 6 is the phone for nobody; it’s the in-between phone that has all of the disadvantages of both [the 5S and 6 Plus]”.

It’s an interesting thought. I can definitely see the iPhone 6 as the odd man out, especially given that it’s already too big for my taste so in that regard, it doesn’t really hold a size advantage over the 6 Plus for me. I’m still happily using my iPhone 5S which size-wise, is pretty spot on for my needs but funnily enough, had I decided to upgrade to one of the two new iPhones, it probably would have been the 6 Plus. I mean, if you’re going big, you might as well go all the way and get the extra benefits that come with it, like the better camera and the awesome battery life.

But Marco is not the only one wondering about the 6 Plus. Stephen Hackett has also decided to switch after using the regular 6 for a few months, so it seems this perception is somewhat common, at least inside the tech circle.

For what it’s worth, and after trying the 6 Plus for two weeks, Jason Snell seems to disagree:

People with large hands (or who rely less on one-handed operation) might have a very different experience, but for me it was just too big a device, with not enough functional gain elsewhere. I’m back to the iPhone 6 now and not missing the big guy at all. I don’t disapprove of people who prefer the 6 Plus to the 6—and I know a bunch of my colleagues are definitely rethinking their choices—but I’m afraid I won’t be joining the club.

I have to say I’m leaning more towards Marco’s side on this one, but not by much. I honestly don’t like the idea of carrying a monstrously big phone in my pocket, which is why I decided to stick with my 5S for another year. Who knows, maybe the next generation will go back to featuring a 4-inch model and we’ll have three different sizes to choose from. If so, the smaller one is definitely where I’d feel most at home.

However, if we’re stuck with just the two bigger phones for the foreseeable future, any one of those will be a compromise in my book in terms of size. That said, camera performance is something I’ve come to value extremely highly in my years as an iPhone user and if the camera differences between both models continue to exist, the Plus will still offer a tiny bit more, which will probably be enough to win me over.

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Welcome to our design studio, where you’ll never see the light of day but you can bring your dog →

April 07, 2015 |

Kimberly Harrington:

If you’re thinking tweets, keep them upbeat and clever. But whatever you do, don’t start an “OH at the studio” account. Because what’s overheard is, quite frankly, a lot of bitching. A lot of pom-pom hat wearing four eyes complaining about how this isn’t “what they fucking signed up for.” My motto is “On Instagram they can’t hear you scream.” Unless you post videos. Don’t ever post videos.

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