The case for craftsmanship and simplicity (2008)
A comparison between the list of features of the Leica M8 and a representative dSLR shows a big difference in the length of this list. With every new generation of slr-models the list grows longer. And handbooks become thicker and thicker. Trying to understand all features and options is a daunting task. The basic question might be to ask whether all this gadgetry is really necessary to get good or satisfactory pictures. Leica’s answer would be a distinct denial, as their engineering approach is based on the notion of simplicity and a reduction to the essential elements of the photographic tool. The classical example is the Leica M3, that only offered manual setting of aperture, speed and distance. Another example is the Nikon F in its basic delivery.
Why would manufacturers want to offer this endless list of features, when they must know that most of these options are not necessary for good imagery? The official argument points to the fact that any operator of the camera can fine tune the working of the machine to the required taste or task. And with the increasing automation of the camera’s processes, the user can influence the procedures to a large degree. Most equipment reviewers share and even support this view by arguing that all these options can be neglected when one wishes and can be activated when there is a need to do so. This is a too simple an approach. Psychologists have analyzed how our brains perceive value and that the brain is very easily misled and misjudges the true value of things. Manufacturers are not making goods for the benefit of mankind, but for making a profit. It is fine when the product also supports some higher human goal, but that is a side-effect. They know that feature overload will disrupt our ability to make choices for products that make us happy or that we really want because it fits our demands. The working of the mind is simply that it will pay attention to every feature we are aware of, irrespective of its value. The human mind is very good at comparing things in pairs and to spot differences. When we need to choose between several camera models, the first thing we do is making lists of features and noting differences. Any difference will be traced, relevant or not. If a camera has 50 custom functions and another one has only 25, then the first one must surely be better? This is basically the approach by all popular camera comparison sites: making lists of all features and drawing attention to differences. The new Pentax 20D has manual focus correction for a lens to calibrate a lens for accurate focus on the true focal plane location. Most comparable cameras do not offer this characteristic. So the Pentax has a point of additional value? And if so, how do we compare it with Nikon’s AF with 51 fields and 3-D tracking? You cannot, but the brain is confused and that is precisely what the manufacturers want it to be. So you stop trying to detect the distinguishing features and choose on brand recognition or buying advice from the numerous press and internet buying guides. And after you selected the product, you are still insecure and continue to seek assurance that you made a wise choice.
The Leica M3 or the Nikon F were/are simple machines, they did only one thing particularly well and you did not need an additional degree to use it. Simple tools are easy to select because you recognize the function and know instantly if you need this. In fact simple tools that you can command without a lengthy study and can be used with confidence are pleasing. Happiness is a scarcely found attribute when one discusses cameras. But it is one of the most important words one can attach to a device. A tool that makes you happy is a tool you will use and exploit. This is one of the reasons for the enduring fascination for and popularity of the M3: the camera is a joy to use because it is a simple tool, where all functions are visible on the surface of the body. No hidden complexity, no steep learning curve.
In my view, Leica could create a new market for its products when they simplify the camera to a tool with a minimalist suite of properties: the M8 offers too much superfluous features. A digital camera with the ease of use of the M3 would be a very seducing proposition. The MIS (make it simple) philosophy will not be popular with retailers and salespersons: they do not want the selection process to be easy: that diminishes their influence on the buying procedure. And simple tools can be very flexible too: an M3 or Nikon F can be used in almost every possible photographic biotope.
The current range of complex dSLR’s promotes the message that the full feature set is designed to simplify the photographic process by shielding the user from basic decision making: exposure and distance settings are made by the camera, adjustments to different conditions of light intensity, position of the sun, luminance distribution, color balance are also programmed into the computer chip. Scene exposure can be adjusted to highlight end shadow detail, and the addition of flash in numerous ways of balancing ambient light and flashlight. Here we are talking about hundreds of different combinations, disregarding the many autofocus adjustments, which when added would amount to thousands of options and settings. A camera can only have a limited number of buttons and menu positions, so any button must be multifunctional and any menu item needs several levels of submenus. Jeffrey Kluger in his book ‘Simplexity’ notes that the limit of complexity in consumer electronics may have been reached or even crossed, and assumes that a counter movement to less complex apparatus may be imminent. This I dare to doubt. Photographers are in the process of becoming mutated into in-camera computer operators. The processing software in the camera can, in a split second analyze the light situation at several distances of the subject, check the appropriate custom functions and select an exposure setting that matches the luminance distribution to the pre-programmed tone curve, adding a certain amount of flashlight when required. The system has such a high level of effectiveness that even the tiniest deviation of the required result can be compensated by making a series of exposures with small adjustments on either side of the zero position. The photographer does not have to think anymore about scene analysis and film characteristics and exposure settings. The amazing thing is that all the ingenious computer programs crammed into the camera do adjust the exposure by one or one and a half stop from a normal exposure, an exposure setting that any experience photographer with a handheld exposure meter can do for himself with some moments of reflection based on insight and experience. This is of course the core of the problem: the reliance on the computer programs in the camera imply a loss of experience and insight into the photographic process. Richard Sennett in ‘The craftsman’ notes that the use of CAD/CAM software in the architects-profession denies the architect the physical experience of being involved in actually building a house, the tactile experience of being in touch with materials and the natural environment where the building will be constructed.
Simple tools are very flexible, but one has to learn how to use them effectively and with precision. Craftsmanship is founded on skill and skill is what one needs to have to use simple tools to get the required results. Craftsmanship is based on hand-head coordination, exactly what is at the roots of good rangefinder photography and exemplary executed by someone like Cartier-Bresson. Not well-known is the time-honored rule that one needs ten thousand hours of practice to evolve from beginner to a fine craftsman. Image you take pictures five hours per day and five days a week. Then you will need 8 years before you may claim to be a master photographer. With this prospect it is quite easy to leave the learning to the computer and rely on the software algorithms in the camera and in the post-processing software on the computer.
Post-processing and post-analysis are almost the same, as the whole process of photo-electric imagery is based on mathematical manipulation of numeric (pixel) values. No wonder that comparing performance aspects is the number one preoccupation of many digital camera users. In my recent report about the performance loss that one have to accept when using a camera in handheld position compared to tripod mounting or relying on VR technology, I noted that the traditional virtues of the Leica CRF (less shutter and mirror vibration) have lost some of their importance. One of my readers tapped me on my fingers and noted that the current predominance of performance issues is biased to the extreme and loses sight of a more important issue: the joy of using the Leica CRF in low light situations where its capabilities can be exploited in combination with the photographer’s skill to take pictures with content. With few exceptions, the great masters of filmbased Leica photography, took pictures full of content but often with acceptable technical excellence. The Leica CRF inspires one, by its unique hand-head coordination, to take pictures that cannot be made with other types of camera.
Photo-chemical photography may be a shrinking niche and soon be as extinct as dinosaurs, the use of film is as effective as it is simple. While you cannot use black and white film without some basic expertise, the whole process is more simple and direct than the photo-electrical technique. You cannot rely on in-camera logic to get the picture you want and you need to know about developer effects and characteristic curves in relation to exposure settings. The final result is certainly very rewarding. The new test of the Rollei ATP with the Schain and Moersch developers does show that film still has an amazing potential in quality and happiness in use. This type of film in an Leica CRF reduces the activity of photography to the purest essence.
Now we have to hope that the Leica company will design a new digital CRF that is as simple to use as the M3 and brings the essence of photography back in the digital process, evolving from the current synthetic photography to naturalistic photography.
What we wish to have is a camera with a clearly defined identity. It may be interesting to recall the old days when we had cameras that offered a definite profile: if you wanted a fast handling good reportage camera, you bought a Pentax, when you needed a versatile robust camera, you had a choice for Nikon F or the Canonflex; a camera for scientific purposes was the Exacta or the Topcon and for fast reliable rangefinder shooting the M3 was the only option. And if you wanted a superbly made camera with a small array of great lenses, the Contarex was on sale.
In the meantime we have to hone our skills as craftsmen on photo-chemical photography and try to simplify the digital techniques in such a way that we are in command again and not the software engineers and the manufacturers who want to push us out of a mental comfort zone where they cannot influence our buying decisions with an overload of gadgetry.