Since I last broached the issue last year, there have been a flurry of releases and announcements making this ‘compact system camera’ (CSC) genre increasingly attractive, not only for what we’ve seen, but also for what it hints at. So why bother with a smaller camera? Apart from being more portable, it stands a good chance of being more fun. Look at the DSLR’s. With a few exceptions perhaps, they all look practically the same. Whilst they may have picture styles and so on, the tendency is to shoot as literally as possible, to capture the scene and perhaps play around later with post-processing. They are image-capture machines, very good ones and allow for a lot of creativity, but I’m not so sure that they actively encourage the same kind of experimentation and zaniness as a smaller camera might, one that you bring along to capture what you happen to see and do, rather than having necessarily stepped outside to ‘take photos’.
By contrast, each company’s mirrorless models are wildly different, almost as if they were species as various as a tiger or an antelope. Not having to support a mirror or film has made just about anything possible. Sony, Olympus, Panasonic Nikon, Pentax (and no doubt soon Canon, too), have not only different sensors, but an entirely different concept of what kind of body to put it in. We are witnessing a kind of biodiversity that never really came to digital imagery, except for the odd ‘camera of the future’ prototype until now. Sure, there were some unique designs released, often in compacts, but unless larger sensors were being used, as these do, there wasn’t much point in taking them too seriously and they were often evolutionary dead ends. Now that semi-large-sized sensors like M4/3 or NX can be so high quality, the door is open for all kinds of form-factors and experimentation.
Along with this, I also detect a rekindling of varied, creative photography itself. Now that macho megapixels are less important (and I think they still are to a point, just to get enough fine detail in an image), there is more of a focus on the image’s richness. Dynamic range, artistic style, pleasing colour are all coming to the center stage the way they haven’t since, well, choosing different films was all the rage! Once you can trust your camera to do its thing in the image processing pipeline, there’s just more a state of mind that might produce interesting photos as a by-product of a zest for life, rather than one feeling pressured to capture things ‘as they are’ in the world. It’s basically a question of philosophy and of not letting the power of the gear dictate how it is used, impose any seriousness that might be stifling, or otherwise limit you with an awe of technology. Feeling open to playfulness is a good thing, as playfulness leads to creativity, playfulness being in itself a creative state.
Anyway, I just got into all this to suggest that we should be open to other types of photography, whether post-processed or done with magical filters on the camera (preferably with jpeg/RAW capture to ensure a pristine digital negative). To my mind, this free approach has its natural home on the rangefinders, the Holgas, light DSLRS and perhaps even the camera phones, as they are (relatively) small, light, unassuming and also in their own way very precise, specially made and specialised towards a particular type of capture. A rangefinder is naturally at home with a bright prime, a Holga with its diffuse, mysterious lens and a camera-phone (though less and less these days) simply low quality, lo-fi, with the unique aesthetic this brings. Okay, camera phones have long lost this ever since the iPhone 3G had its camera upgraded, but you will see that Instagram et all makes up for the progress by lofi-ing it once more.
Now, with mirrorless, we have another burst of rangefinderesuqe tools making their way into the world, discouraging merely literal photography with their picture styles, art modes and what not. As they get more popular, they have made their way onto DSLR’s too, with increasing sophistication. I wonder if the results will be taken seriously the same way cross-processing, various types of black and white and exotic lenses are? I suspect it will all come down to how well the effect is done.
In a sense all this is a strange and ironic business. For a camera to succeed it has to be taken seriously, but here I am talking of making them more fun to use. In fact a seriously designed and capable camera that doesn’t get in the way ends up being a lot of fun to use. Knowing the final image will be high quality just helps you get into it all with gusto. The results of all this really can be incredible!
To close, here is a slideshow of image edits of The Incredible Machine, which I’ll be showing in a gallery in Ginza later in the year. The photos were all taken years ago in England, with a Nikon D70 and a Tamron 24-135mm lens. The filters were all added from FX Studio Pro, a sophisticated filtering program available from the Mac App store, or on iOS as an iPad version. I had great fun seeing how the photo changed, not so much getting further away from the original as you might think. No, no, no, getting closer to the nostalgic feeling that the event inspired in me. What is reality? In terms of our personal experience, it’s only what we see of it and through the arts, this insight can miraculously be shared.