A field of dandelions

When Technology Fails Creativity

This Spring my camera died.

Just when nature started to wake up from a long winter, just when the sun started to warm up the land and the flowers started to burst with colour and drama, my FUJI XT2 failed me.

More specifically, my camera batteries stopped working. It didn’t make sense. I never had trouble with batteries before. But now, just as I would set up another macro shot of a tulip or daffodil, my camera would shut down.

I was only getting 10 or so images to a charge. It was mystifying. At first, I thought it was just that particular battery. I always have two for these moments so I switched it out with a fully charged battery.

The same thing happened. Ten to fifteen pictures in, my camera would stop working. It got to the point where I wouldn’t leave the house without both batteries, even if I was just going to take a couple of shots. Forget about shooting video.

I’m a pretty good problem solver so I went online to see if anyone ever had a similar problem. Now the FUIJI XT2 is known for not having great battery life but I knew that when I bought it. Because it is a mirrorless camera vs a DSLR, the XT2 only gets on average 340 images per battery charge. The Canon professional cameras typically get 900. This was a serious consideration for me as I planned to use the camera for travel.

But it came highly recommended by people I respect so I figured it was worth the risk. Back online I learned that there were many tricks to save power with the FUJI including,

Turn off the LCD monitor on the back (I didn’t even know you could do this)

  • Turn the camera off after each image taken
  • Auto turn off after a short period of time
  • Turn off IS in Manual Focus mode

I tried them all and still, my batteries wouldn’t last. My frustration and anger were increasing each time I had to shut down my creative impulse and wait for my camera batteries to recharge.

But then I thought, even though they are only 2 years old, maybe my batteries have run their course. Not wanting to risk faulty third party batteries, I invested in two new FUJI batteries for around two hundred dollars. I charged them up, headed out to shoot and once again, ten to fifteen images in, my camera died.

I started freaking out. Even if I don’t shoot every day, not having a working camera was unnerving. I’ve been shooting for 35 years. I have always had a camera by my side. And not just any recording device like a smartphone. I actually feel lost without a “real” camera. It’s my primary source of creativity. It would be like a writer not having pen or pencil.

But my biggest worry was that I had chosen the wrong camera.

Life presents many challenges to creativity. By 2015, was shooting less and less, and I had lost what I call my mojo or my inspiration. My real camera, a Canon 5D Mark ii was gathering dust in my studio. Every time I thought to take it out, it seemed like overkill. It was too big and cumbersome. When we travelled, it required its own personal bag.

I decided I needed something smaller and lightweight. Something to suit my new life. Since the 90s, I have been a Canon person. I liked how they were set up. Unlike Nikon, they made sense to me. All the buttons were in the right place. But by 2018 my Mark ii was getting long in the tooth.

I knew I couldn’t justify the expense of the next level up (Mark iii or even the iv) and the smaller Canon cameras lacked the features I wanted. So with great sadness, I took my Canon and all my lenses into the store and traded them in for the FUJI XT2. I figured with a smaller, mirrorless camera, I would use it more. I knew that with a camera I could just leave in my day bag, I would feel more inspired to take more thoughtful, creative shots, rather than the snaps I had gotten used to with my smartphone.

And it worked. My desire to shoot grew every day. I even dusted off my studio equipment and got back to work indoors during the colder months. Working in the studio was not without its hiccups. I was starting from ground zero again, new camera, new systems. I wasn’t even sure if it would work with my old lights. I wasn’t sure I could shoot tethered. I spent a lot of time just learning how the new camera worked. But I didn’t mind.

Playing around in the studio is one of my favourite things and one day over the winter I decided it would be great if I could shoot remotely or trigger the camera without having to touch it. This is very valuable as touching the camera during long exposures can cause camera shake and fuzzy images.

Low and behold I learned that FUJI had an app for just that task. Theoretically, the app allows you to not only send images from your camera to your phone (in case you want to share them immediately) but also, to remotely trigger the camera. I downloaded the app, set up the FUJI specific wifi connection and pushed lots of keys. I read the manuals, followed the instructions, but I never succeeded in getting it to work. I felt totally stupid. Other people seem to make it work. All the Fuji techs I talked to had no problem. But further research revealed that,

The Fuji Camera Remote app has a rating of 1.5 stars on iTunes, which shows how bad it really is.

In the end, I gave up. I was spending more time trying to make it work than actually enjoying the craft of taking pictures.

For a couple of months I was busy with other projects and it was when I went back to my camera in the Spring that I discovered my batteries weren’t working anymore. After all online research was exhausted, I asked my husband to take the camera back to the place I purchased it to see if they could figure out the problem or maybe send it to Fuji for repairs if need be.

As it turned out, they found nothing wrong with either the camera or the batteries. Everything was working fine. Again, cue the feelings of total stupidity and frustration. But my husband had an idea. He is not a photographer. His career has been in Information Technology. He has spent 25 plus years getting computing devices to talk to each other.

When he got back, we started asking different questions. What was the one thing that was different when he took the camera to the dealer? I wasn’t with him, nor was my phone. What is something that will wear out a battery super quick?

A wifi loop.

His solution? Delete the Fuji app from my phone. Once the app was deleted, not just turned off but actually deleted, my camera batteries started to work normally again. Like literally, in the next second.

Our theory was that even when the app was off, lying dormant on my phone, it was still trying to communicate with my camera via wifi, in the background, like some demented robot. And that was wearing down the camera battery.

My relief and joy when this problem got solved were immense.

There was no more frustration over broken technology, there was no more worry over whether I made the right choice.

My camera and I were on the same page and the creative juices started to flow again.

Dandelion in Vase

And what did I learn from this experience? Technology is not always a friend of creativity. Remember when your camera battery lasted years, not days? Cameras have become computers and computers have become cameras. When your needs are simple, like capturing a group selfie of your friends, a smartphone is all you need. But when you want to stretch that creative muscle and play with the ideas in your head, technology often just gets in the way.

I am certainly not against new technology for cameras and the studio. If I was, I would still be shooting film with a Pentax K1000. But perhaps we need to keep things simple. I shouldn’t need a computer science degree to make everything work. I really don’t want to spend hours understanding how digital science works. I would rather spend hours shooting.

And perhaps, a big multinational corporation like FUJI could put more time and effort into developing an app that works for photographers and not against them.

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.