The Crapshoot Resolution

April 13th, 2004  |  Published in Uncategorized

Executive Summary:

Sometimes we take good pictures when we don’t mean to. Abolish the planned mediocrity of self-censorship by shooting crap and learning to love it.

TOC:

My first real army duty station was in the Republic of Korea. Never having understood the propensity of nearly everybody in basic training to take pictures of each other (and see to it they were in the maximum number of pictures), it took me a while to get around to buying a camera in the army. When I did buy one, it lasted about three days before someone broke into my hotel room in Seoul and took it from my coat pocket while I slept. I’d paid over $100 for it (it was a decent point and shoot… nothing to write home about by today’s standards, but it did autofocus and maybe had a limited zoom) and I was really bummed, because for a brief period I wanted to take a lot of pictures of people, too.

So I came back from Seoul with no photgraphic record of the trip, down a reasonably expensive camera, and I had to go down to the MP station and report the theft: Because I’d bought the camera at the PX, the army reserved the right to make sure that any high value items like that were still in my possession and not being funneled back out on the local economy at discount prices. It was probably a real Private Square thing to do, but I reported it on the theories “you never know,” and “I’ve never seen inside the MP station,” (though if I’d known to hold out until they made me be the escort driver for a prisoner during a rape and battery trial I wouldn’t have bothered because I saw all sorts of holding facilities and army jails before that assignment was over).

I was still enthused about having a camera and taking/being in a lot of pictures because there’s the whole manly “photo of me and my buddy Sully, who didn’t come back from that last…” uh, run to the bar or whatever… no one ever shot at me… thing. I wasn’t about to pay a ton of money for a good camera, though. So I bought the cheapest camera I could find: a Kodak EktraLite, which used the funny little 110 cartridges. It had a few benefits:

  • It was so cheap, I didn’t care about it at all outside “I hope it doesn’t break in half and spoil the film.” The listings for it show it hit the market at $35 in the late ’70s. I’m pretty sure mine cost well under $20, with a starter roll of film and batteries for the flash.

  • It was small. When I went to the field, I could slide it into an ammo pouch on my LBE or in a cargo pocket.

  • It was pleasantly lo-tech. It was made of plastic, it had a flash. If the flash was set to “on” and I pressed the button (which was sort of squishy and frail to the touch), the shutter snapped and the flash flashed. I had to advance the film by hand.

I’d shot extensively with a decent SLR for a newspaper for a while, so I wasn’t afraid of a “real” camera, but I didn’t want to have to fiddle with anything. I could have stopped one short of a 110-based camera, and bought a manual 35mm point-n-shoot, but the 110 cartridge was really handy for someone out in a field environment. No threading film or any of that.

The results were about what you’d expect from a sub-$20 camera with not-so-great optics and 16mm film. Colors weren’t special, there was a fuzzy lossiness to everything (especially if you’re used to 35mm prints), and the horrible viewfinder made composition really hard.

The nice thing about shooting with that camera was that the near-total lack of niceties made it easy to “just shoot.” Parallax error conspired against even thoughtful composition much of the time, and the flash was a cointoss of either adding a sickly white edge to pale skin and making everyone’s eyes red or just blowing all the color out and leaving nothing but black blobs where eyes and mouths must have been. It pretty much felt like a plastic box of filmic entropy. I’ve got some nice shots from that camera in my Korea shoebox, though. Not nice because they’re good photographs, but because the camera did what it was supposed to do: It took a snapshot and I can recognize what’s in the picture.

Flash forward to the summer after I got out of the army. Digital cameras were out and around. I’d been playing around with a Polaroid instant camera for a while, but I wanted a new toy. So I bought a Canon S10, which had a 2 megapixel resolution, some nice features, and some gewgaws to play with. It took nice pictures for me right up until late last year when I auctioned it off.

Newer digital cameras are (almost) the antithesis of a Kodak EktraLite. If you have the time and inclination, you can control almost everything. Even if the actual viewfinder is crappy and terrible for composing, you just consult the LCD screen and it’s all pretty much WYSIWYG (compared to a bad viewfinder, anyhow). Unlike a Kodak EktraLite, you aren’t usually nonchalant about dropping a digicam and kicking it across the floor. Ektralites don’t have “panorama mode” or “sepia tone” mode, or special white balance controls. They don’t present histograms when you’re done taking a shot. Where digicams are plainly better than an Ektralite, though, is in the instant gratification department. When you shoot a picture with a digicam, it’s right there to look at, or you’ll be able to look at it on a computer as soon as you’re near one again. With an Ektralite, you’re hauling the film down to the store, and praying they can develop it on site, because otherwise you’ve got this multi-day turnaround for stupid snapshots.

I enjoyed the Canon, and I liked shooting digital because I could make a lot of mistakes and learn from them nearly instantly without the cost of film. It also allowed me to goof around with some effects that would be harder to deal with using a film camera without introducing the intermediary of a scanner. It was missing a certain ambience, though. I liked the lossy 110 film and the sense that you could just point and shoot and forget. I liked not being held responsible for the results. With a $300 digicam, I felt like every picture had to justify its existence and reflect the awesome array of digital imaging tech at my fingertips. It was very stifling.

So when the Eyemodule came along, I was completely jazzed. It had the instant gratification of a digicam with the lo-tech ambience of a 110 camera (even if it did have to be attached to a PDA). There was little controlling the results, but it took some cool pictures all the same. I loved shooting with it. An eyemodule photo When someone worked out how to make it work with Linux, but not quite, I made my first and last contribution to an open source project that involved actual code.

The Eyemodule had its share of problems: 320×240 isn’t a very workable image size, and nothing outside of about a 50 meter radius was really recognizable. It wanted a lot of light, too. The biggest problem was that it had to be used attached to a Handspring Visor with the correct accessory slot. So the second I moved on from the Visor line (after the buggy, crappy Edge) I was down a camera.

All of these cameras had something in common, though: The lack of control meant uncertainty, and that meant more pictures taken per session, and that meant more chances for things to go really, really right by mistake, vs. medicore by design. Sometimes compelling pictures

It took a little while, but over the past year or so the era of the cheap and almost-good digital camera has arrived. A lot of them seem to be coming from the same place in China, only rebranded by more recognized firms like Bell & Howell, Aiptek, and cheap camera kings Argus. Most of them are able to shoot at least at 640×480, have enough memory on board to store at least two or three dozen shots, and come in reasonably small form factors (about the length of a pen and about as fat as a few fingers). A few of the higher-end models (where we start getting into the $100+ range) include slots for removable memory and even a flash. But most are the digital equivalent of a pinhole camera, with some models unable to even store images for more than a few hours if you turn off their power. The other thing they have in common with the broader field of “knock-off cheap electronics” is a lamentable sense of ergonomics, with tiny and strangely placed buttons and a tendency toward the sort of plastic goop that’s meant to convey functionality or performance that isn’t really there. Think back to the pre-arrival of the cheap CD player in the ’80s and the store-brand boomboxes, when manufacturers would put a rounded plastic shape on the cassette door to make it look like a CD player was there and you’ve got the vibe.

For my birthday last week, I got a Philips 007 keychain camera. It’s as long as my index finger and a little fatter than my thumb, comes with a handy lanyard for my neck, and has 64MB of memory on which it stores fairly small (~100kb) photos. The pictures it takes are, well, nothing to write home about: 640×480, with a lot of lossy artifacterie going on. The real plus side is that it adheres to the USB mass storage standard, so it can be stuck in about any machine with a USB port and a modern OS and “just work.”

So I’ve been going around with my new camera hanging from my neck, taking the occasional picture of my finger (as the illustration shows, it’s got pretty awful ergonomics… the button is on top, forcing some awkward holds) and a few more pictures of stuff in my neighborhood. It’s spontaneous, discrete, and I’m happy to blame it for all sorts of errors, from composition (damn parallax error!) to ugliness (damn JPEG lossiness!). It’s not real fond of indoor lighting, either, so under the fluorescent lights of the local Walgreens, it needs a steady hand.

The Resolution Part

So that brings us to the “Resolution” part:

Whereas:

  1. Taking pictures is fun

  2. Taking pictures lets us share our world with other people.

  3. Taking pictures without a lot of control of the results means you’ll just end up taking more pictures and worrying less about what comes back, possibly getting something really good out of the act of not worrying so much.

  4. Cheap cameras are both cheap (duh) and plentiful.

We resolve to:

  1. Take a lot of pictures with cheap, plentiful cameras.

  2. Put them up on the web.

  3. Have fun doing it.

We’ll achieve that with these guidelines:

  • We’ll limit composition to either through-the-viewfinder or “from-the-hip.” Dawdling with the LCD on your digicam is a bad thing. All hail parallax error!

  • We’ll avoid post-shooting cleanup, because the pictures become less useful as raw material.

  • We’ll encourage the use of both cheap digicams and/or non-automated point-n-shoot film cameras. Nicer cameras (where nice = lots of goopy features and automated stuff) are welcome, too, but we’ll get in the spirit of things and just use the automatic setting regardless of how much more perfect things could be if we twiddled just one more knob.

  • We’ll try for a picture a day, even if it’s just a picture of lunch.

And we welcome anyone to visit the crapshoot gallery and register for an account and gallery.

Some Qualifying Remarks

There are other crapshooters in the world. There’s an interesting community surrounding toy cameras, and the folks at Lomography.com preach a “don’t think, just shoot” ethic as they peddle somewhat pricey “one-step-above-toy” gear and a few toys. But there’s an underlying “No, really we’re serious, we’re just not serious” hint to some of these efforts. I’m not after even a hint of seriousness outside the natural tendency to want pictures to come out looking like something when we shoot them (or like nothing, but in a directed way).

It’s like people who apologize for some pop culture thing they enjoy by dressing it up in high-minded rhetoric about its “meaning.” That’s a waste of breath, and as people become more and more able to reliably shoot mediocre but pleasant pictures of their surroundings and lives, they’re going to care less and less about other people’s slightly more technically qualified execution. Photography will move into a territory where yeah, a superb photo will still be compositionally superb, but it won’t resonate the way that perfect picture of a remembered moment resonates. At least, I hope it won’t.

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