Cameras [BBC column]

This is the script for a piece I recorded for the BBC World Service. It’ s based on a piece I wrote for my employer, Reuters.

We always assume that when a new technology comes along it will displace the old. And that tends to be the case. But displace doesn’t mean delete, remove, consign to the dustpile–which is often what we mean. Radio didn’t obliterate books or newspapers, TV didn’t obliterate radio. The Internet hasn’t obliterated any of them–although if you’re in TV, radio, newspapers or book publishing, you probably feel a bit obliterated. There will still be all those things, though they’ll have to make way for a digital, online world.

The same is true of cameras. Many of us assumed that just as film gave way to digital photos, so would the camera give way to the cameraphone. After all, who wants to carry more than one gadget around with them? Well, it turns out, quite a lot of us. Instead of a camera in a phone obliterating the need for a camera, we took so many pictures with our camera phone that we started wanting to take better photos. So we bought a better camera.

There’s another conundrum here, too. We thought that because all these camera phones could take video, people would be more interested in video than still photography. That’s also turned out not to be true. Sure, we get out the video camera out for Junior’s role in the school play, but for the most part we take still photos because they’re easier to upload, less time consuming to look at. When we do upload video it’s in short bursts, and of something noteworthy. In short, we use our digital gadgets not to build up a mass of memories but to select and share the best ones.

In other words, we are finding ways of coping with this digital cornucopia–where we can capture, store, and upload pretty much everything by focusing on quality rather than quantity. However good our mobile phone is at taking photos, we still think a dedicated camera, with a better lens and innards, will do a better job. We don’t want 1000s of photos–we want the best one. Same with video. We don’t have time to edit hours of footage down to something watchable, so we record video sparingly, and don’t dare subject our Facebook friends to anything longer than a minute.

I don’t know if there’s a law of digital disruption in here, but for sure there are lessons. First off is that people are happy to carry more than one gadget around with them if they think they serve a purpose. Second, the more they do of something the more they want to explore it–so long as they can see an uptick in the quality of the outcome.

And finally, we’re learning how to harness the expected tidal wave of data by using technology to filter out the stuff we don’t need, while ensuring that what we do keep is the best. It’s not surprising, then, that the makes of camera we rely on today are brands our parents would recognise: brands such as Nikon, Canon and Fuji. While the technologies may have changed the way we store and share pictures, the way we take them hasn’t.

One thought on “Cameras [BBC column]

  1. Digital photography also has gotten some enthusiasts interested in analog photography. There is a fringe, but growing perception that “real” photographers also shoot film. In this, we observe how the new inspires interest in the old.

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