In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« The New York Times Takes Marching Orders From 2Blowhards | Main | More on Cameras »

March 13, 2004

My New Kodak

Dear Friedrich --

I treated myself to a cheapo new digital camera the other day -- this Kodak number here.

my kodak.jpg

So far I'm lovin' it. For one thing, it's one-third the size and one-third the price of the fancy digi-camera I bought a few years ago -- yet it performs the same number of tricks, or almost. For another, it couldn't be easier to use. As far as I can tell from playing with samples at stores, Kodak seems to be the current ease-of-use digicam champ.

My previous fancy-for-its-era Nikon was an impressive but (to me, anyway) often frustrating thing. Having spent a little time fussing with film and cameras, I'm familiar with the basics and even enjoy telling a camera what I want it to do. What I hate doing is spraining my brain figuring out how to communicate with the gizmo. The Nikon and I were often at odds. The camera's designers for some reason buried nearly all its commands in software and made them accessible only via onscreen menus. If you wanted to turn off the flash, you had to click through menus. (Peer, squint, click, click, click.) If you wanted to shoot in macro mode, you had to click through menus. (Peer, squint, click, click, click.) I was spending far, far too much time squinting at a tiny screen, deciphering icons, and pointing-and-clicking my way through options, and far too little time actually squeezing off photos. Often by the time I was able to pull my eyes and brain out of menu-ville and return to the real world, I'd have lost the shot. Ah, but I'd had the satisfaction of adjusting the camera's settings correctly!

Are there people who enjoy interacting with gizmos in this way? Me, I couldn't be happier to sacrifice some sophistication for the sake of directness, tactility and ease.

I'm going to play Donald Norman for a sec and think out loud about what makes my new camera such an agreeable beastie. Hmm. I think most of my pleasure results from three choices the Kodak designers have made.

  • Assigning the most-used functions to buttons. Real, physical, right-out-there, well-labeled buttons. What a pleasure, however retro: I can switch off the flash, review the stored shots, and do a few other things too almost without thinking. Does anyone find the state of mind they experience when they enter electronic menu-land to be enjoyable? I certainly don't; interacting with menus requires figuring-out energy. Although I'm semi-capable of summoning some up from time to time, I never find the process enjoyable, while stabbing well-labeled physical buttons gives me a lot of satisfaction.

  • Simplifying the menus. OK, some functions inevitably will have to be lodged in menus. Why make the process of getting at them more laborious than it needs to be? Kodak minimizes the puzzle factor first by assigning certain functions to physical buttons -- which reduces the quantity of what needs to get stuffed into the menus -- and second by slightly restricting the camera's options. There are stunts this camera can't perform that my Nikon could, and one day I might miss them. So far I haven't. I also haven't yet missed a shot I wanted to catch. Brief rant: I confess that I don't quite understand the current mania for point-and-shoot cameras that can do almost as much as SLR cameras, do you? Is it a matter of marketing prowess and consumer gullibility? What I want in a point-and-shoot is something different than what I want in a fancy camera. In a point-and-shoot, give me something better-than-adequate that I don't need to think about. In a fancy camera, load on the options and adjustables and make 'em as quickly-accessed as they can be made -- give me an SLR, basically. It seems that when engineers try to make SLR-like functions easy in point-and-shoot terms the result is zaniness -- layers and layers of self-contradicting "convenience," like an early version of Windows. (Remember Windows 3.1?) I find these in-between products more burdensome than an SLR and less functional than a disposable. They're real one-two losers. (IMHO, of course.) A couple of pro photogs have told me that they themselves dislike the midrange, do-everything point-and-shoots, and that they prefer to move back and forth between a good snapshot camera and a precision tool too. Hey, the experts have spoken.

  • Using good, plain English. Lordy, what a relief not to be stranded in incomprehensible-icon-ville. Forgive another rant: what is this mania gizmo designers have these days for icons? I enjoy the visual punch and the visual relief icons provide; they're happy-making. But I've never found them very helpful where information is concerned. Do you? Does anyone? Perhaps I'm just not someone who has a gift for decoding visual signs. In any case, bless my little Kodak. Not only are its buttons well-labeled with words as well as eensie pictures; when you press them, a little well-put English phrase appears on the LCD screen explaining what you've just told the camera to do. Even the menus themselves rely as much on English as they do on visuals -- bliss. Designers: enough with the icons! I for one often have no idea what they mean. When I do finally "get" them, I usually repond by thinking "Cute!", promptly forgetting their meaning, and then having to figure the whole system out all over again. And, sigh, there I am back in Figuring-It-Out Mind, a state I despise. Do you suppose designers and engineers like inhabiting Figuring-It-Out Mind?

I found my Kodak instantly usable; using it is Photography for Dummies Like Me. Which makes me feel relieved; it means that even if I set the camera aside for a few months (something I'm prone to do) I won't ever need to re-learn my way around it. My Nikon's universe was something else entirely -- such an all-engulfing, encoded electronic environment that whenever I returned to it after more than a few weeks away, I once again had to reach for the instruction book. Its system never stuck -- and how dumb that made me feel. With the Kodak, I may feel just as dumb, but I also feel more than adequate to the task of shooting a photograph. I feel happy-and-fulfilled dumb rather than bewildered-and-cross dumb. And I can live with that.

I wonder if this tendency to forget quickly how to use an electronic system is a problem unique to me. I suspect it's not. It seems that when you learn how to use a 3-D, real-world instrument, the knowledge sinks into your flesh and bones. More than 30 years after I stopped playing the piano regularly, for instance, I can still sit down and have a good (if rusty) time at a keyboard. But a couple of weeks away from something like my Nikon and I'm lost. So I've been glad to learn from a few Photoshop and Quark experts that they have the same trouble, if perhaps not as extravagantly. Using electronic tools is a mental far more than a tactile exercise, and even these experts find that their skills drift away unless they're practicing them super-regularly. Do you find this to be the case too?

And how do feel about the current mania for icons?



posted by Michael at March 13, 2004


I don't own a digital camera, but I can definitely see that. I personally don't like icons very much. It's like learning a whole different language when you're trying to work a new gadget. Hieroglyphics anyone?

Posted by: sya on March 13, 2004 4:22 PM

Michael, with all respect, I'm not entirely sure you really get digital photography. You write:

What I want in a point-and-shoot is something different than what I want in a fancy camera. In a point-and-shoot, give me something better-than-adequate that I don't need to think about. In a fancy camera, load on the options and adjustables and make 'em as quickly-accessed as they can be made -- give me an SLR, basically.
And in doing so, you show yourself to be stuck in metaphor world, where digital cameras basically mimic the 35mm cameras we grew up with.

Back in the olden days, you see, taking a halfways-decent photograph was quite a palaver. You had to use an SLR, which was big and heavy, and then manually focus it, set the aperture and the shutter speed, and understand how all of those things worked, along with film speed and whatnot. The fact that this gave you a lot of control was a side benefit; until the point-and-shoots came along, it was simply necessary to take any reasonably good photo at all.

So the point-and-shoots made life a lot easier, although there was still faffing about with film and processing.

Nowadays, in the digital era, there's really no reason to have a big clunky SLR (which, if it's digital, could easily cost 10 or 20 thousand dollars) unless you're a genuine pro. The good 4 and 5 megapixel cameras produce prints which are the equal of most photos taken with SLRs in the 1980s, and consumers want the ability to be able to play around with things if they want -- without having to lug around heavy and expensive equipment. In other words, you can have the benefit of control -- being able to finely adjust your photos -- without the cost in size, weight and price. Why NOT throw that in there?

Now there are real point-and-shoot digital cameras out there. I carry a credit-card-size Casio Exilim with me everywhere I go, just because I can. It's got a tiny lens and doesn't take photos which can be blown up into beautiful prints, but that's not the point: I get great memories and snapshots on my computer screen, all neatly and accessibly stored in iPhoto, rather than in countless shoe boxes. Occasionally, however, I'll want to take a photograph rather than a snapshot, and will require a higher-quality camera. Personally, I'm an old fogey, and therefore have got myself a fully-manual 35mm Voigtlander for that purpose. But were I younger and more of a creature of the digital world, I'd surely get a digital camera instead -- something like yours, perhaps. You say that if you want all the bells and whistles, you want an SLR -- well, a lot of people want bells and whistles but don't want an SLR. Even my Voigtlander isn't an SLR. SLRs are increasingly irrelevant these days, and have long since ceased to be the camera of choice for suburban dads.

So don't force those suburban dads to get an SLR if they want to be able to play around with their new toy! A good Nikon or Canon will do all manner of clever things, many of which an SLR could never do -- digitals only really fall down on manual focus, which they're dreadful at.

More profoundly, however, the distinction between SLRs and point-and-shoots simply doesn't really obtain any more. We're moving to a more democratic world, where any camera can be a point-and-shoot, and any camera can do all manner of fancy stuff as well. In the past, you couldn't point-and-shoot an SLR, and you couldn't fine-tune a point-and-shoot. Now, you can do anything with anything. Which is probably a good thing.

Posted by: Felix on March 13, 2004 9:10 PM

Maybe if they use icons instead of English labels, they don't have to reconfigure the camera umpteen different ways for French, Spanish, German, Russian, Dutch, Polish, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, or wherever they sell the thing?

Posted by: Dwight Decker on March 14, 2004 7:05 PM

Me, I happen to love the tactility of film.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on March 14, 2004 8:06 PM

Michael, I agree with you 100% on the Kodak. I've got the older 2mpx version, and it is the easiest digital camera (of three) that I've owned. Bit of a battery hog, but I think all cameras are like that.

Posted by: Sasha Castel on March 15, 2004 2:50 AM

Icons, once recognized, are processed on a lower level than words. Icons are just understood, while words have to be interpreted by the brain. This is why traffic signals don't just say "stop," "go," and "stop if you can." Imagine looking at a VCR remote where all of the buttons were named (i.e. play, rewind, fast forward, eject, etc.) compared to one with the arrow symbols now common. The second is much faster to use once you are used to it.

Posted by: Joel Korb on March 15, 2004 1:51 PM

SYA -- Hieroglyphics, exactly.

Felix -- Given my dislike of remote control and automation, I'll never be fully part of the digital age. I'm someone who dislikes electric car windows and automatic car locks, so you can imagine how infuriating I find a lot of what computers seem to demand. But vis a vis cameras, aren't we saying something similar? Ie., better to have two cameras (one supereasy for snapshots, one for really making photos) than one that tries to be everything?

Dwight -- You're probably right, they're probably hoping to impose a kind of universal language on us. Interesting that the Kodak people are so committed to using languages that they supply four or five in the software of the camera -- you can set it to communicate with you in Spanish, French, English, maybe one or two others. Tres retro, no?

Tim -- I crave tactility generally, and miss it when I'm in cyberville. But the tactility of still-camera film has never meant anything to me. You mean, like loading and unloading it, and keeping cartridges and spools around?

Sasha -- My Kodak engineer indicated that the model you and I have has been their most popular digi-camera ever. Seems to have hit some kind of sweet quality/ease sweet spot. Battery life on mine seems prettty good, too -- I wonder if they made some useful strides there.

Joel -- That's the theory -- that icons are a kind of visual Esperanto. I wonder how many people find that it suits them in fact. I may be a very text-centric person, but looking at my Mac's desktop, for instance, I find that lots of the icons communicate next to nothing in terms of content or meaning. They're cute, they brighten up the screen and provide some visual relief. But they don't by themselves mean anything, and I find I read the labels in many cases anyway. The big "W" for Word is easy enough. But the icon for Tex-Edit, for instance, might be an icon for dozens of other programs. I'm curious about how many other people find this to be the case. In an airport, for instance, it's clear that the designers have often made a big point of using icons for "baggage" or "taxis." Yet I almost always find myself looking to the words anyway -- partly to confirm the visual impression I got, but often because the icons are so stylized that I didn't "get" them in the first place. And so, instead of one look that answers my questions, my mind winds up flipping around between two or three diffferent questions before figuring out where, say, the baggage area is. Do you find that all icons speak clearly and unambiguously to you?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 15, 2004 3:30 PM

Felix: I am not I know what you are talking about. Canon sells a digital Rebel SLR for under $1,000 as does Nikon (D70). They are small, versatile, and great at manual focus. Certainly, I do not understand why you could not take a good photo with an SLR in the 80-s (or 70s), but I assure you that if you could not take a good photo, or snapshot, with an SLR, using a cheapo digital point-and-shoot is not going to help. Your Voitlanger is not an SLR because it is a rangefiner - I guess I do not see your point there at all.

Michael: There is a definitely movement in digicams away from shiny and funky to tried-and-true forms and controls. Leica makes a digicam that is identical in its form and controls to one of its M-series models. Epson just announced a rangefinder digital camera that will take Leica lenses and looks pretty much like a "classic" film rangefinder. Rollei is also putting out a TLR - a digital clone of one of their classic models (although much smaller in size). Perhaps in 2 years when you get tired of the Kodak you can get yourself a digicam that is operated just like an old camera, looks just like an old camera, but does not use expensive (for your purposes) film and is great in auto-mode. I am certainly looking forward to getting one.

Posted by: Con Tendem on March 15, 2004 7:13 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?