Marina in Toronto

Why Real Cameras Still Matter

With the plethora of smart phone cameras out there, you might think that real cameras with interchangeable lenses would be on their way out. But like books in this digital age, there is a time and place for everything.

I must admit to have been brought reluctantly into the world of smart phone cameras. I was one of those people who held on to the Blackberry for yes, the keyboard, and someone who preferred to shoot with a manual DSLR. It wasn’t until I was introduced to the Hipstamatic app on the iPhone that I started to see the potential. Hipstamatic came out around 2009 and it used filters that could simulate all sorts of film types and lens distortions. In addition, the interface was designed to look like an old camera. The effects were amazing, creative and fun and I was hooked. It was like drawing with crayons when you have been trained to paint with oils.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t continue to be frustrated with smart phone cameras due to their lack of control over the settings and their lousy zoom. For everyday snaps they were fine but even with higher resolutions and 3rd party lenses, I figured they could never replace a real camera, especially for travel photography.

So I was intrigued when a friend let me borrow his Huawei P20 Pro. The camera on this android phone can shoot 40MP images in RAW format, and you can control aperture, shutter speed and ISO plus it uses a Leica lens, considered to be the best manufacturer of lenses in the business. This seemed an amazing breakthrough in smart phone technology. I had to learn more.

Huawei has been in the news a lot lately but not because of their phones. They are a large Chinese company who started out developing telecommunication equipment. A few years ago, they started selling consumer electronics and, as of 2018, they were the second largest manufacturer of smart phones, just behind Samsung. Apple, amazingly, ranks third.

The CEO of Huawei has credited Apple as his inspiration and this is evident in their dedication to making such a sophisticated camera. The wow factor of a 40MP manual camera certainly caught my attention. The pictures my friend showed me were, on screen at least, amazing, with incredibly saturated colours. But what I was really interested in were the manual controls, the telephoto and the quality of a 40MP images.

Manual Controls

My biggest issue with all smart phone cameras is that the default aperture is set to 1.8. This is probably to compensate  for low light situations but it also make for a very short depth of field. This means a very small section of the image will be in sharp focus. Short depth of field is great for portraits and some macro shots but absolutely lousy for landscapes, street photography and group shots.

I was very excited to see that the Pro mode allowed for manually setting the ISO and the shutter speed. However, you can’t change the aperture in the same mode. For those that are used to shooting in full manual mode, this is frustrating as aperture is an essential factor in the creative process. All three elements, ISO, shutter speed and aperture effect each other. Change one, and the others must change as well. But in the Pro setting, no matter how I configure my shutter speed and ISO, the aperture will always be set to 1.8. This isolation of the typical manual controls does strike me as an odd way to go about things.

If I want to play with aperture, you have to leave Pro mode and go to Aperture mode. There I can choose a setting anywhere from .95 – 16. My ISO and shutter speed are set then set automatically by the camera. This would be called Aperture Priority mode on a DSLR and some photographers might be ok with it. But in this mode, 40MP and RAW are no longer available. In Aperture mode I can only shoot at the mid range of 10MP. Certainly not the end of the world. Ten mega pixels is more than enough for travel and every day social media photography.

walking bridge short depth of field
Huawei P20 Pro, F2.0, ISO 50, SS 1/2300. Aperture Mode. Focus set to mid bridge. Most of the image is blurry except for some of the white bridge.
Couple on Walking Bridge, F16
Huawei P20 Pro, F16, ISO 50, SS 1/2000. Aperture Mode. Focus set to mid area. Almost all of the bridge and the couple are in focus. A much more pleasing image.

 

Telephoto Zoom

For the creative photographer, every situation demands a different type of lens. Until the iPhone X, Apple never had the option of telephoto and even now it is only 2x. I was very keen to see what quality the Huawei would produce at 3x optical zoom. Strangely, at 40MP you only have the option of a zoom in the Aperture, Portrait and Night modes. For the 3x and 5x hybrid zoom to be available in Photo and Pro mode, you have to set the resolution to 10MB. It is very confusing to navigate the settings for this. The 5x hybrid zoom is a complex merging of the 3x zoom and the 40MP camera so it’s more digital than optical. Again, quite confusing. It seems once more, the optimal settings for the camera are at 10MB with 40MP being for very special situations. Still, I was curious to see how the 10MB 3x zoom would be like.

I would say that the zoom functionality on the camera is a wonderful upgrade from any other smartphone camera on the market, once you figure out how to get the most out of it. And so long as you don’t plan on blowing up and printing these images to their max – 24″x18″, the images look great.

But, high quality telephoto prime and zoom lenses are all about the size and quality of the glass. Leica is renowned for producing the best lenses in the business but there is just so much you can cram into millimetres of space. Compromise can only reduce quality.

Wide angle of Toronto Skyline
Huawei P20 Pro, F1.8, ISO 50 SS 1/1900. Pro Mode – 40MP, jpeg

 

Telephoto of Toronto Skyline
Huawei P20 Pro, F2.4, ISO 50, SS 1/1250. Regular Photo Mode, 3x zoom
 
Pro Mode – 40MP and RAW

I am certainly no expert when it comes to the technology behind digital sensors but I know enough to question how they could create such high pixels with such a tiny lens. And my suspicions were correct. There is a wow factor to the amount of pixels, but quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality. In this case, it’s like a fancy sports car body covering a tiny, powerless engine.

In order to squeeze 40MP or 7296 x 5472 pixels onto a smart phone camera sensor, they have to make the pixels really tiny. Almost half the size of the pixels on a real camera. Bigger than the iPhone, but still tiny. This means that 40MP on a smart phone camera will never be as clear or sharp as 40MP on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. It’s just plain physics. If you are keen on the scientific breakdown check out this article.

To make up for the lack of physical space, all smart phone cameras compensate with fancy simulating software and AI. For example, to accomplish the brilliant night photography on the Huawei, the camera actually takes multiple exposures at the same time and combines them automatically. This allows for a well exposed image without having to use a tripod. They call this process AIS, as in artificial intelligence image stabilization.

For the purist in me, having software create my picture is fine for everyday pics of family events and social media, but it will never replace a good photograph taken with a real camera. Oh, I know that, compared to my original Pentax K1000, a fully manual film camera, my Fuji XT2 still does a lot of thinking and simulating for me, but in manual mode, I can control the final outcome. AI isn’t creating my image, I am. I can tell by all my mistakes.

Here is a 100% blow up of an image taken with the Huawei set to 40MP RAW and the Fuji XT2 (24MP RAW) with similar settings.

Blow up of 40MP RAW Huawei image
Huawei P20 Pro, shot at 40MP RAW, F1.8, ISO 50, SS 1/750, 100%

 

Blow up of 24MP image taken with Fuji XT2
Fuji XT2 24MP RAW, F2.8, ISO 100, SS 1/500, 100%

 

Compared to other smart phone cameras, the Huawei P20 Pro is an exceptional piece of hardware and software. And for the adventurous photographer, someone who has a DSLR for special situations but also loves their smart phone camera, it could be a lot of fun. The camera in this device has the advantage of being both fully automatic when you want it to be and still give you enough manual control to really challenge your creativity.

I guess I question the need for 40MP RAW on a smart phone when the option is seldom available and when 10MP actually looks better. Even the 7Mp 18.9 ratio produces amazing images that look great on screen.

Image shot with Huawei 7MP
Humber Bay Shores, Toronto

But for the camera purists like me who want to control the creative process every step of the way, this camera promises too much and delivers too little. Smartphone cameras are convenient, entertaining, and useful when bringing out a professional camera could be awkward, but I can’t see them replacing DSLRs or mirrorless cameras in the professional and fine art field of photography any time soon.

Of course, the speed at which technology is developing, who knows when that might change. But just like situations when books are better than digital, I’m sure there will be times when a device driven by physics, rather than software and AI, will be preferred.

I was lucky enough to get to play with this $1000 camera. If you are a keen photographer and you are looking for a fun phone camera that surpasses the iPhone X, the Huawei could be worth considering.

However, keep in mind the effects of the current political situation is having on Huawei’s stability. If you plan on using the camera as a smartphone as it was intended, there are things to keep in mind. As per the US governments order, Google has already indicated it will no longer offer its android operating system to any new Huawei phones and Facebook has also said the same for its app. This doesn’t effect older phones in circulation and the negotiations are still on the table as of June 2019.

Huawei is being isolated by the international community. They have assured their customers that they will continue to support their products and they are in the process of developing their own operating system but despite their success and popularity, their future is somewhat uncertain. Invest with caution.

Please note, I am not a professional reviewer of technology. My tests were not necessarily scientific, just more about how I use a camera and what I look for. This is just my personal perspective.

Private sign above a mailbox

Are Your Images Safe With Google?

In this post I talked about the importance of saving your images to the cloud as at least one form of backing up and preserving. The recent wildfire tragedy in California really hammers home the importance of keeping your vital documents and memories off site. Sometimes you just won’t have the time. It’s a horrible way to think. No one wants to plan for the worst case. But it can happen. Some people, myself included on occasion, can be very suspicious of these big companies holding on to their private photos and documents. So I thought I would review their Privacy Policies, starting with Google. First the bad news. Google saves, analyzes and uses all of your data for their purposes of making money. But they don’t hide this fact from you. They have written out their Privacy Policy in simple terms so you can read all about it. If you are interested in going deeper, it’s totally worth the time. They tell you straight out what they are doing. They compile and sort your data and activity, from your Gmail account, your photos, where you travel with your phone, what apps you use, how your smartphone is performing and what you search for on the internet. They say they do this to enhance your internet experience with pushed information that suits your interests and patterns. You see this with faster map searches, consistent language choices, autocomplete forms, YouTube video suggestions based on past searches, ads for the last store you visited online etc. etc. And if you have other devices connected to their services, like home control, or smartwatches, they will collect that as well. What that really means is that they can build comprehensive data packages of targeted and specific audiences that they can sell to their advertisers. But before you go all Mr. Robot on me let’s look at the fine print. It may seem a bit overwhelming at first but they do allow you to control, to a certain extent, how much information they can collect from you and if that information is directly connected to your name and contact info. In my How To document Google Privacy Settings, I break down the relevant sections for both your Google Account and your Google Photos so that you can go through and review your activity and privacy settings. It is very easy to do and Google provides many areas where you can read more about a particular setting and how it effects your activity. If you dig deeper into their information, you will also find that they,
…don’t show you personalized ads based on sensitive categories, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, or health.

…don’t share information that personally identifies you with advertisers, such as your name or email, unless you ask us to. For example, if you see an ad for a nearby flower shop and select the “tap to call” button, we’ll connect your call and may share your phone number with the flower shop.(1)

In addition, you can read their Public Transparency Report where they talk about how they ensure high levels of encryption for data as it travels from your devices to the cloud as well as how they manage government and third party requests for information. In many places they reiterate that they never sell the information they collect. Why would they? Information is their most valuable asset. It’s what sets them apart from other online services. Selling effective, directed advertising is also what pays for your free Gmail account and your free Google Photos and Google Drive storage. One might argue, as Bob Anderson at Quora does, that they are still making money from your data and therefore it is “selling” but ultimately, that is for you to decide. As with file storage security so goes information privacy. You have to understand what you are using and how it best applies to your lifestyle. All of this incredible convenience, using Google Maps to determine local traffic or find a good coffee shop, being able to control your thermostat with your phone, share your photos with friends, auto fill out forms, save passwords, all of these things and more comes with a price: information for convenience. But let’s think about what is private anymore. Everything is tracked. Almost everywhere you go, if you look up, you will see a camera following your movements. Meaning, without our consent, we give up privacy for implied safety. If you use any points card, be it Air Miles or Aeroplan, your purchases are being tracked. You travel anywhere with your passport it’s tracked. Any transit card, credit card or coffee card is tracked. But there are also laws around how that information can be used. Laws not only for mass surveilance but also data collection. In May, 2018 the EU passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which highly regulates how businesses can collect, keep and use customer information. Google has been on the front lines making sure they comply with the new rules. Nothing is perfect of course. The internet and many companies these days are global in their reach. GDPR can come into conflict with some country’s laws. Time will tell how this will all pan out. Rather than be annoyed at being asked to accept cookies or receive emails, know that they are the result of organizations trying to protect your information. I’m a great fan of the Terminator movie series. With the advances in AI and Machine Learning, I don’t doubt for a second that Skynet is a possibility. The more information we hand over, the more the systems we automate, the more power we give to objects and devices, the higher the possibility of loss of control. Truly, it is up to us to decide how we want to live. I don’t think the internet is going away but it has become a beast worth reckoning with. You need to determine what you are comfortable with. Be informed and decide accordingly.
Sky and Clouds

How Safe is the Cloud?

Recently, when I have encouraged my friends to back up their smart phone images to the cloud I have met resistance. They are suspicious of this “cloud” thing. They don’t think their images will be secure. This resistance to the cloud could be the result of two things. News coverage of celebrities having their accounts hacked and a lack of understanding of what the cloud is and how it works.

First let’s address this ridiculous word “cloud”.  A friend recently admitted that she couldn’t wrap her mind around this esoteric concept of her images floating around in space. The word doesn’t sell the concept very well. Even the origins of the use of the word are a bit vague. Essentially, the use of the word is the result of computer technicians trying to visually express what the “internet” would look like.

It has been used as a symbol in the Information Technology industry since the 60s but it didn’t really cloud computing illustrationgain mainstream use until the late 90s with the advent of Salesforce and Amazon Web Services.(1)

So the “cloud” means the internet. But where are your images actually stored?

Simply put, when you save your images to the cloud, you use the internet to upload your images to a large room full of computers or servers. Those servers could be located near your home or anywhere a cloud services company such as Google, Amazon, or Apple has server farms or buildings on your continent. These servers hold thousands of terabytes of data from many companies and individuals around the world. They have incredibly sophisticated encryption and back up systems. They are many times more secure than your computer at home. Meaning, having your images stored on an offsite server would mean they would be very secure.

But what if those servers get hacked?

The famous story from 2014 where Apple was “hacked” and Jennifer Lawrence’s personal images were splashed around social media is still prominent in people’s minds. But the industry is addressing this issue.

Apple has stated that they were not hacked but that the accounts were accessed through a process called phishing whereby people are tricked into giving up their passwords via an email scam. In other words, a lack of understanding by the user is what allowed their security to be breached. Which brings us to the essential point.

Nothing in this world is 100% secure. You could save all your photos on your computer hard drive. But your computer could get a virus or have a hard drive failure, or your house could be broken into and your computer stolen. You could save your images to an external hard drive as well. If you keep that hard drive in your house it too could be subject to the same hazards – theft, fire, flooding. You could keep a second hard drive in a bank vault. A good idea but still, that bank is subject to the same risks as your house. Bottom line is there are risks to every place you physically store your precious items.

So when it comes to protecting your images, the cloud is just one of a few solutions. As they say, best not to store all your apples in one basket. We go into this in more detail in this article.

As for the cloud and anything else on the internet, the user must take some responsibility for the security of their data. Understanding the protocols of the cloud services company you use is essential. Yes, once your data is uploaded it is encrypted. But every company uses different standards for how that data is then stored and who has access to it. And simply put, what is free has the least security protocols.

Google and Apple both allow you to personalize your security settings. Amazon Web Services probably has the most customizable services but they will cost a bit more. Most importantly, almost every service now has two-factor authentication and I strongly urge you to set this up on your online accounts like Apple and Google. Two-factor authentication means you sign in with a strong password (not your birthday or your dog’s name) and then you enter a time sensitive number that is sent to your cell phone. It sounds a bit cumbersome but it guarantees that if someone steals your password, they still can’t access your account. And don’t trust any “official looking” emails asking for your passwords!

Insurance companies exist because of fear; fear of the worst case scenario. The question comes down to, how important are your photos to you? When given evacuation notices, one of the things people grab first are their photos. Everything can be replaced except memories.

I’m a photographer. My work is in my photos. But so is my life. I would hate to lose my images. So, I back up my smart phone and camera to my computer. I then make a duplicate of those images to a separate hard drive. That hard drive is held off site. Finally, I save my images to the cloud. It may seem excessive to some but it is peace of mind to me.

Your choice of provider depends on whether you want to view and share your images or just store them off-site. I created this document, Photo Sharing Overview where you can compare their services. 

Further Reading

iCloud Security

Google Drive Security