Apps are the future of DSLRs

Looking back at my photography I think over half of the shots I really treasure are from my iPhone, which is quite amazing for a fixed lens camera with a tiny sensor and no manual control.

I love photography as much as cinematography and my style is quite raw and I like to capture the moment and do it in a natural way. That’s why an iPhone camera is so much fun, because you can grade the image right there in the moment straight away rather than tacking it on later and you know immediately what kind of shot suits the camera and what doesn’t.

So why does a $2 iPhone app satisfy me more than a DSLR? It has multi-touch focus and exposure, 3G and WIFI connectivity built in, I can upload images instantly & directly to social networking sites, it has electronically generated styles that mimic a certain type of film stock or lens, which are subtle yet unique. I can grade the images in-camera using a touch screen and I can even purchase extra digital filters and FX instantly. Not bad for $2.

Although I only have 5 megapixels to play with, I can print the photos on a 1 square metre canvas, hang them on the wall and they look pin sharp.

All from a phone.

For the Japanese photography giants it is as if the multi-trillion dollar computing phenomena never happened and that the internet will always be a strange niche not understood by the masses of photographers. They have listened for far too long to photography industry stick-in-the-muds and they’re in serious need of a visionary from the IT world to show them how to profit from the internet and apps, whilst at the same time improve their products.

If you look at the success of Vitaliy Kiselev’s extra functionality he enabled on the GH1, and will do so shortly with the GH2, and you look at the $1 billion revenue generated by the AppStore recently, there is no doubt in my mind that opening up DSLR hardware to apps is the right way to go.

Compact camera sales are already flagging thanks to the success of the iPhone, and yet Canon don’t have an app store or a camera capable of embellishment or customisation.

You wouldn’t buy a MacBook if you couldn’t change the functionality it arrived with out of the box, would you? So why buy a camera like this?

A laptop can be a basic lifestyle thing, or it can be a very serious professional tool depending on what apps you put on it. Similarly a camera should be either consumer or professional depending on what apps you pay to load onto it.

Canon could charge filmmakers for the ’24p app’, whilst keeping the functionality and cost of the camera ‘out of the box’ simple and cheap enough for normal consumers to use, those that don’t need the extras don’t pay for them. Need peaking in video mode, need manual audio controls? Buy it for $5.99 from the Canon AppStore.

Artists have a fundamental desire to have their voice heard and to share images – Canon use this as a bedrock of their sales and marketing, so not to implement solutions is unbelievably suicidal. Canon could have an online cloud storage service and a social networking photo site as big as Flickr simply with more adventurous software skills and a built in WiFi & 3G chip.

One touch uploading live from location is the future. Organising and processing RAW files from a folder by numeric filenames and uploading from a desk somewhere is the past. Psst – Someone better tell the Japanese camera manufacturers!

You only have to look at some of the Canon or Panasonic bundled apps on the CD that came with your camera too look at their current software skills. Hardly Apple in terms of forward thinking design is it?

So not only could Canon crush Flickr at the flick of a switch and generate massive new revenue streams via apps and internet services, they could put their DSLR on par with my $2 iPhone camera app in terms of functionality!

Of course in terms of hardware, Asian corporations always get it right. My DSLR gives me ‘more’ of everything. As much or as little shallow depth of field as I want, more low light performance, more dynamic range. Lots of pointless extra resolution. But it’s not actually how much you have but how you use it, and sometimes the limitations of the phone’s camera gives me a kind of boundless urge to experiment and play, whilst the DSLR lazily hands it all to me on a plate and sugars it with Photoshop.

As an example if I was to pick one element of consumer DSLR photography that tells me all that’s wrong with a lack of limitations it would be HDR. It’s the crass bling of the photography world – an effect that when used to extremes destroys an image with too much dynamic range, so that every element in the frame looks as vivid as each other, a veritable mess of monotonous sick.

Part of the charm of the iPhone camera is that it lacks dynamic range and so you get that flow of lightness and darkness back in the frame. The extra software power in Camera+ for example is used in imaginative and creative ways and not for ‘brute force’.

Rarely have I looked in front of me and thought “I know what would really improve this shot, 20 stops of dynamic range. I want my shadows to have the same brightness as the highlights”. A more compressed dynamic range accentuates differences in the image, and 90% of images benefit from variation in brightness across a scene – that’s what light is for!

I expect that when high ISO goes to such extremes so we can shoot by moon light, everything will look disappointedly flat and people will lose interest in high ISO and find another easily quantifiable hardware specification to pin their hopes on, when they should really be pinning it on imagination and ideas.

So likewise rather than photography companies spending 99% of their resources on better image quality, they need to relax the arms race and be more creative and think about how we use that power, not how we need more and more of it.

For pros where image quality is top of the list, apps would benefit them and become mission critical. For example, a Getty photo agency app built into the DSLR. Canon could have 30% of the photography app revenues if they wanted to, but they don’t seem interested. Nikon remember turned down the chance of majority ownership in Adobe back in the early 90’s, and they have probably not changed in their outlook. Canon and Nikon see themselves as photography companies, full stop. It’s a purist mentality but they cannot compete like this in the information age, they need broader products.

It would also be more cost effective to make fewer hardware designs and differentiate between them with paid apps which add functionality for pros. Critically a good AppStore also becomes a major unique selling point for a brand of cameras. If Canon had better apps than Nikon, you’d know who to choose – and you couldn’t take the apps over to a different platform so you’d be locked into staying loyal with your preferred brand. Great for profits, Mr Canon San.

It may be ‘consumer’ but Camera+ has more control not less

I use Camera+ by Tap Tap Tap and Hipstamatic – there is no denying that for creative artists they lack something essential that every DSLR just doesn’t have.

All digital cameras should have much better user interfaces. Of the current compact digital cameras, Sony almost have it right with the new HX10 and TX100 but for one thing the pressure sensitive touch screens are STILL not as responsive as Apple’s. It baffles me why they can’t get this right and use a resistive not capitative touch screen. Cost reasons, on a £400 compact??

Tactile manual controls are good at most things, but there are areas where an iPhone excels. On Camera+ I can touch for metering points and swipe my finger round for the desired exposure. It feels more ‘right brain’ as opposed to logic induced. You ‘feel’ it more, and its quicker. It makes you think about highlights – if an area of the photo is let down by highlights blowing out, or you see something you like about trying underexposure or overexposure, you simply touch the highlights or shadows to prioritise them in the image. Yet on a DSLR I thumb a wheel back and forth, without any real live preview in the way you get on the iPhone. All very last century. How long do photographers stop being photographers because really they are faffing with manual controls? Too long, in my opinion.

It is not about giving up control – it is about keeping it but doing it more intuitively, more creatively. For a lot of things touch screens are not the right answer, but surely we can move on from click wheels and d-pads for exposure and user interface control?