DSLR vs Point-and-Shoot Cameras: Tools vs Craft, and the Nature of Obsession

Yesterday, I hiked the Dipsea Trail with my sister, Jessica. It was a beautiful, warm, Bay Area day, perfect for a long, ambling hike toward the coast. The Dipsea Trail, best known for hosting the second oldest foot race in the U.S., is a 7.5 mile trail that goes from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. There are two steep hills along the trail, totaling about 4,000 feet of elevation gain, which is one of the reasons why the annual race is known as the “Race from Hell.” Hiking the trail, though, is not so bad if you take it slow.

I had a good reason to take it slow. Groupaya recently acquired a DSLR, the Canon Rebel T2i, and I wanted to take it for a spin.

Choosing a DSLR

I’ve had a Canon S95 point-and-shoot camera for a few years now, and I absolutely love it. It has a large sensor for a point-and-shoot, which means it takes pictures in rich colors, even in relatively low light. Its compact size has made it perfect for travel, for casual use, and for work.

However, despite its relatively large sensor, we were starting to run into problems when using the camera to record meetings, where lighting conditions are often less than optimal. It was particularly bad at capturing large artifacts, including the beautiful graphic recordings our designer, Amy Wu Wong, was creating in some of our meetings. Furthermore, it’s nice to have a camera with a big zoom lens and large depth-of-field for photographing individuals in conversation, which is something you just can’t do with a point-and-shoot.

We decided that it was worth investing in a DSLR for the company. Not only would this address our meeting capture requirements, it would also give us a high-quality video recorder as well. All we had to do was choose a camera.

To do this, I went to my go-to place for crowdsourcing recommendations — Twitter — and made sure some of my go-to photographer friends — Eugene Chan, Justin Lin, and Andy Wang — saw my post. Everybody came through with some really good advice, which allowed me to triangulate quickly and make a good decision.

Interestingly, Andy was the only person who took my original question literally, and we ended up going with his recommendation, the Canon Rebel T2i. The key word, in this case, was “starter,” and if I had had room to spare in my tweet, I might have clarified that this would be a company camera, not a personal one, and that others in the company would need to be comfortable using it.

The reason this would have been a useful distinction emerged from Eugene and Justin’s answers. Both of them suggested purchasing a great lens and not worrying as much about the body. Justin suggested getting a used Canon 20D, 30D, or 40D body, older (in the case of the 20D, almost 10 years) professional camera bodies. If I were getting a DSLR for myself, I probably would have went with this advice. But, I wanted to be sure that the camera we purchased would have great auto modes and good usability, so that anyone at Groupaya could easily take solid pictures with it without having to take a photography course. I essentially wanted a DSLR-equivalent of a point-and-shoot.

Choosing Obsessions Carefully

That said, the discussion — and Eugene and Justin’s assumptions in particular — made me wonder about my own skills and commitment as a photographer. I like taking pictures. I take a lot of them, as my large Flickr stream suggests. I also have a soft spot for tools and for craftsmanship. I’ve framed my career around treating collaboration (and the tools we use to collaborate) as craft, and I frame a lot of my personal interests (such as cooking and even sports) the same way.

However, I’m not obsessive about my obsessions, or I’m disciplined about them at least. I choose my obsessions carefully, simply because I know that I cannot possibly go deeply down all of the paths that interest me.

For example, several years ago, Justin and his wife, Cindy, turned me onto Santa Maria-style BBQ, which is tri-tip grilled slowly over red oak, a wood that’s native to the Santa Maria Valley. Of course, upon learning about it, we had to try recreating it, which meant that we needed red oak logs. At the time, I convinced some friends who were driving down to Santa Barbara to take a side trip to Santa Maria to find some red oak. That led to a bit of a wild goose chase, but we got our wood. Then, of course, we had to do a side-by-side comparison with a different kind of wood (in this case, mesquite) to see if the red oak version was better or even detectably different.

Some might call this behavior obsessive, but to me, this was only mildly so. If we were truly hardcore, we would have driven down to Santa Maria ourselves to get the wood, rather than depending on serendipity. Heck, if we were truly hardcore, we probably would have harvested the wood ourselves. We also would have done a better job of controlling our variables when cooking and comparing the different versions of tri-tip.

Which brings me back to photography. I love to take pictures, and I’d like to get a lot better at it. However, I’m not sure I want to go down the path of obsession with it, and so I’ve been careful to pace myself. I’ve felt ready to take another leap for a while now, but I never had the push until this professional need came up.

And so the question I found myself asking was, if I had decided to purchase a DSLR for myself, would I have taken Andy’s advice, or would I have taken Justin and Eugene’s?

Tools vs Craft

In a way, my adventures yesterday with the Rebel T2i would be a way for me to explore this question. Would I take better pictures with the new camera? Would I even know how to leverage the capabilities of the new camera? What would a better lens or a better body enable me to do?

At minimum, I knew that I should be able to take better low light pictures, but I didn’t expect to see that taking pictures outdoors during the day. My Canon S95 has a plethora of manual controls, but they would be easier to manipulate on the bigger body of the Rebel T2i. Similarly, the quicker trigger on the DSLR meant I would be less likely to miss a shot. The main difference I expected would be from the lens. It was a stock 18-55mm lens, nothing special from a DSLR point of view, but certainly better than the lens on my S95.

I’m happy about the pictures I took, but I’m not sure they were significantly better than what I would have taken with my S95. As expected, the main difference was from zoom and depth-of-field:

  

Last week, I went to Pop-Up Magazine, where I saw Aaron Huey preview his upcoming photo essay of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for National Geographic. It was absolutely stunning, an amazing example of how a technical master can use his craft to tell a moving story.

I clearly have much more to learn about the craft of photography (especially lighting and composition), and so I’m not sure that investing in an expensive lens or a better DSLR body (used or otherwise) would have been worth it for me. I also don’t do any post-processing right now, which doesn’t require any equipment I don’t already have, so I know I’m missing out on a lot of possibilities there.

That said, I’m curious about what I could do with a better lens, and I might try renting one to play around. I loved Sohail Mamdani’s recent essay on this topic, “Gear Doesn’t Matter — Except When It Does.” I’m looking forward to more learning and playing… in a non-obsessive way, of course!

Surrounded by Positive People

Today was a very Bay Area day, from work meetings to dinner with an old friend. I was surrounded by positive people, even when the subject matter wasn’t particularly positive. Even the street and sidewalk art was positive. And you know something. It makes a difference. A big difference.    (N1U)

I haven’t been blogging much recently, although I’ve tried to sneak in an occasional tidbit on Twitter and Identi.ca. I’ve been doing a lot of reflection and synthesis using IBIS and Compendium, and I’ve had a bunch of great conversations. There’s been a lot of work, but it’s been very gratifying. Looking forward to sharing more here soon.    (N1V)

Quick Thoughts on BarCampBlock

I emerged from my summer hermitdom to attend parts of BarCampBlock this past weekend. My favorite part of Bar Camp was actually something I missed because I overslept on Saturday morning: the unveiling of the original Bar Camp attendee list (photo by Chris Heuer):    (MJC)

https://i2.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1352/1176806198_263159d5ab.jpg?w=700    (MJD)

This is such a wonderful picture on so many levels. Seeing it brought back vivid memories of the first Bar Camp: the sense of excitement about what a few passionate folks had created in a ridiculously short amount of time, the forging of new friendships and the strengthening of old ones. This little touch created a strong sense of continuity between the first camp, this third year anniversary celebration, and everything in-between. It also demonstrated the subtle difference between holding space well and simply holding space. Masters of this art understand the importance of the artifact, of Leave A Trail.    (MJE)

I didn’t get to stay as long as I would have liked, but here are some quick thoughts on what I did see:    (MJF)

  • The organizers (Chris Messina, Tara Hunt, Ross Mayfield, Liz Henry, and Tantek Celik) and volunteers did an incredible job of making everything run smoothly. The hardest part of a collaborative event isn’t the process; it’s logistics. In this particular case, the organizers had to deal with a sudden spike in registrations — 900 to be exact — with no clue as to the actual number who would show up (564 on Saturday, 260 on Sunday) and a location literally spread out over 11 locations within a few square blocks. When I saw various organizers on Saturday morning, I noted with surprise how calm everything was, and everyone just looked at me and laughed. There’s a ton amount of behind-the-scenes hard work and stress required to make any event run smoothly. Kudos to all who contributed.    (MJG)
  • There were a ton of first-timers there. I saw several people I knew, and many more I didn’t. I like to see about 25 percent yield of repeat attendees at events like these, and this came close to that. I think that’s outstanding. The danger of events like these is that they become cliques. That wasn’t the case with this Bar Camp. In some ways, I think the oversaturation of networking events in the Bay Area — including many Bar Camp spin-offs — as well as the spirit of Bar Camp prevented this from happening.    (MJH)
  • I heard a few folks comment on the lack of depth in the sessions, and I experienced some of this myself firsthand. This is common at open, collaborative events, but most folks misunderstand what this means. Open Space-ish events are particularly conducive to building Shared Language among disparate folks. Deeper learning and collaboration often occur as a result, but it doesn’t necessarily happen at the event itself. You can facilitate this deeper learning at events by making them more intentional — Internet Identity Workshop is a great example of this — but Bar Camps are more meta than that.    (MJI)
  • I loved the Continuous Learning, not just from the Bar Camps that the organizers had played an active role in, but from the wider Bar Camp community. The demo party, for example, was an idea borrowed from Bar Camp Toronto, and while the execution needed tweaking, I loved the spirit of experimentation.    (MJN)

More good thoughts from Liz, Ross, and Tara.    (MJJ)

35 Year Anniversary of Open Space Preservation

This coming election day (November 6, 2007) will mark the 35th anniversary of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District‘s formation (Measure R). I’m not talking about the group process, I’m talking about the preservation of natural Open Space, one of the reasons the Bay Area is so beautiful. The latest district newsletter cited a beautiful passage from the campaign materials back then:    (MBZ)

Open space is our green backdrop of hills. It is rolling grasslands — cool forests in the Coast Range — orchards and vineyards in the sun. It is the patch of grass between communities where children can run. It is uncluttered baylands where water birds wheel and soar, where blowing cordgrass yields its blessings of oxygen, where the din of urban life gives way to the soft sounds of nature. It is the serene, unbuilt, unspoiled earth that awakens all our senses and makes us whole again… it is room to breathe.    (MC0)

Work Rhythms

I’ve been absent from this blog for almost a month, which is unusual for me. It started with my trip to Baltimore last month for Creating Space, the Leadership Learning Community‘s annual conference, and it ended with the Compendium Institute workshop last week here in the Bay Area. In the middle, I cranked away on my projects and spent some quality time with friends and family. I didn’t get much reading done, but I got a whole lot of good thinking done.    (M7Z)

Nancy White recently wrote of the challenge of balancing work and life, of the nitty gritty and the big picture:    (M80)

Because I fear that if I allow myself to be consumed by work, I will not achieve what I aspire from my work: to add value to the world. Work with a capital W. Some days lately I feel I’m tottering on a “check the box” mode of working. That is when learning stops and, to me, my ability to add value stops. It is a fuzzy line and easy to miss. It is when the quality of attention shifts. Diminishes.    (M81)

I want the shift to always be towards the side of learning, not just getting things done. Of attention and reflection, not forgetting.    (M82)

Her words resonated with me (as they often do). Last year was ground-breaking for me in this regard. For the first time since founding Blue Oxen Associates, I started to build in time for deep reflection about what I was doing and why, and about whether I was accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.    (M83)

When I was in college, I used to lift weights with a buddy of mine who was an ex-football player. We were both intense guys, and when I’d get in one of my workout grooves (not that often), we’d lift almost two hours a day, five days a week. I got much stronger pretty quickly, but I also peaked quickly as well. I blamed it on the irregularity of these workout grooves.    (M84)

My junior year of college, I started lifting with a neighbor of mine, a big guy who was fanatic about fitness. In one of our early workouts, I complained that I never seemed to get any stronger. “How often do you lift?” he asked. Upon hearing my response, he told me to shorten my workouts — three days a week, no more than 45 minutes a day. I was extremely skeptical, but I tried it, and to my surprise, it worked amazingly well.    (M85)

I’ve written previously about the cycle of thinking and doing. When you’re designing for collaboration, you need to take these natural cycles into account. Doing so usually requires a lot of discipline, especially because it requires fighting workaholic instincts.    (M86)

One of my epiphanies last year was that I wasn’t doing a good job of practicing what I preached, of living what I knew. In particular, I was getting too caught up in the nitty gritty and not spending enough time reflecting. I was getting too deeply involved in too many things, and I was overscheduling and overcommitting.    (M87)

I decided to make four major changes. First, I was going to cut down on the number of projects I would take on simultaneously. That meant saying no more often, and fighting the instinct to get deeply involved in everything I did.    (M88)

Second, I was going to cut down on the number of events I attended, especially those that required travel. Because most of the events I participate in are intense experiences (I rarely participate in networking events), I decided that I would schedule an equal amount of time for reflection. In other words, for every three day workshop, I would need to schedule three days for reflection and processing.    (M89)

Third, I was going to go on more walks. Not only is this a great way to get exercise and think, it’s a great way to think with others. It’s no coincidence that Aristotle and his followers were known as Peripatetics. Instead of constantly meeting folks in coffee shops, I started telling people to join me on walks instead, a trick I picked up from Howard Rheingold. Fortunately, San Francisco has a number of gorgeous places for short, casual hikes.    (M8A)

Fourth, I was going to spend more meaningful time with people. This nicely aligned with my walking edict, but it also meant interacting with less people overall.    (M8B)

I’ve been good about doing all four of these things. Not great, but good. As with the weightlifting, doing less still feels counterintuitive. And just as with the weightlifting, doing less has generated the desired results. This has manifested itself in a number of ways. I’ve only gone on one work trip so far this year, whereas last year, I averaged a trip a month. I’ve blogged more consistently. I feel more connected with colleages and with friends. I’ve had time to really develop ideas and projects that are core to my mission. Most importantly, I feel Less Dumb, which is one of the main tenets of The Blue Oxen Way.    (M8C)