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!

Words and Reputation

Over at the Blue Oxen blog, I wrote about how I’ve incorporated Contextual Authority Tagging (your reputation in context) into my work.    (N5Z)

In the piece, I started using myself as an example. I listed three words that I would use to describe myself in a work context. I then started to contrast this with words that my colleagues might use to describe me. Then I stopped, thinking, “Why make up words that others might use to describe me, when I can get actual words?”    (N60)

Enter Twitter (and by extension, Facebook):    (N61)

Please help with an ad hoc experiment. Reply with three words that describe me. Will blog an explanation and the results.    (N62)

In retrospect, it was an incredibly self-indulgent thing to do. When I do this exercise with groups, it’s anonymous, and all of the participants are doing it for everyone. Neither was true in this case. No one was going to voluntarily say something critical for me, especially without understanding the purpose. Furthermore, I’m usually doing the exercise in a specific context, which is a big part of the point. The beauty (and challenge) of Twitter and Facebook is that my networks there cross all sorts of boundaries.    (N63)

All that said, the exercise was still instructive in many ways:    (N64)

https://i0.wp.com/farm4.static.flickr.com/3340/3490759097_e700bbd3a2.jpg?w=700    (N65)

Most words were only used once. The larger words were repeated one other time. This distribution makes sense, given the multiple contexts of my friends and colleagues. One of my friends wrote, barbecue, something that most of my colleagues probably don’t know about me. A few of my colleagues wrote, wiki, which probably wouldn’t come up first for most of my personal friends.    (N66)

No one repeated any of my words, which surprised me. (Can you guess which three words were mine? See my other post for the answer.) The words that folks did choose certainly paint a fuller picture.    (N67)

I love how a few words can tell a rich story. Gabe Wachob contributed “Eugene Lee doppelganger,” is a reference to the parallel lives that Eugene Lee, the CEO of Socialtext, and I seem to lead. (I’m younger, but Eugene has more hair.) My friend, Elizabeth, wrote, “wicked scary smaht,” an oblique reference to our shared ties to the Boston area.    (N68)

Eugene Chan wrote, “curious, competitive, cunning,” a few days after I talked trash with his six year old son in a vicious game of Uno. The good folks at WikiHowl called me “myopic,” hopefully a reference to my eyesight and not my vision. (They are also my new favorites for calling me, “cute.”)    (N69)

Which brings me to my final point. There were a few cheeky comments (Cindy and Scott, that means you!), which made me laugh, and there were a lot of incredibly nice comments, which… well, which felt good. I’m a fairly well-balanced individual with a strong sense of self (“confident” was one of the words that was repeated), and I don’t need to hear this stuff to know that my friends and colleagues care about me. Still, it’s nice to hear. It made my day that much better. And that’s probably the greatest thing about the exercise. If at worst, all it does is elicit a few nice comments from your peers, well, that’s a great thing. We don’t do that often enough.    (N6A)

Many thanks to all of you!    (N6B)

Tools and Culture

Tools reinforce power relationships. If you want a more emergent power model within a group, you have to make sure your tools support that. Git is a beautiful example of how a tool can support the right power relationships.    (MRK)

However, just because a tool has affordances doesn’t mean people will pay any attention to them. Linus Torvalds alluded to an example in a software development context: Giving everyone commit access to a centralized repository. He refers to this happening in companies, but there’s precedent for it happening in Open Source communities as well. For example, TikiWiki gives commit access to anyone who asks. The underlying philosophy behind this policy is very Wiki-like: Empowering everyone to make things better offsets the risk of giving everyone the opportunity to screw things up. By not imposing a power structure, the right model can emerge.    (MRL)

In the case of git, the tool explicitly supports an emergent power model. In the case of the TikiWiki community, the tool’s inherent model is overridden by the community’s culture.    (MRM)

What can we learn from this? Tools have the potential to transform culture, but transformation never comes easily. In the Wiki community, the classic case of this is when users email an administrator about a typo in a Wiki rather than fixing it themselves. We in the Wiki community use this behavior as a leverage point to explain that they have Permission To Participate and can change the content themselves. Once people start modeling this behavior, transformation becomes a possibility.    (MRN)

When I saw Michael Herman last month, we talked about how tools do and don’t encourage emergent models of behavior and how often we need to catalyze this process by other means. Michael brought up the phenomenon of a few people gathering at a circle of movable chairs, then sitting on opposite sides of each other with many chairs between them rather than moving the chairs they needed into a tighter circle. Even though the environment was adaptable, people chose to go with the default rather than optimize it for their needs.    (MRO)

I saw a similar phenomenon a few weeks ago at TAG, where I sat in on Eugene Chan, Lucy Bernholz, and Suki O’Kane‘s session on Web 2.0 and philanthropy. They had a very interactive design, which in the context of TAG (a very traditional conference format for a very conservative community), was highly unusual. They kicked things off by doing a spectrogram.    (MRP)

https://i2.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2197/1914433901_f1acf95cf8_m.jpg?w=700    (MRQ)

Not only did this establish a sense of self-awareness and Shared Understanding among the participants, it also got people moving (and laughing), which was especially important since the session was right after lunch. Without saying anything, it was clear that this was not going to be your traditional talking heads session. Smart, smart, smart. Then they led a discussion. They gave people Permission To Participate by explicitly setting expectations, catalyzed the discussion by asking broad questions, then held space and exercised self-restraint whenever there were awkward silences. Again, very nice.    (MRR)

But they also did something dumb. Look at the space:    (MRS)

https://i0.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2296/1915270732_369c6fa3e3_m.jpg?w=700    (MRT)

Whereas the leaders of the session were saying, “Please talk! Participate! Learn from each other!”, the space was saying, “Look at the leaders! Keep quiet! Check your email while pretending to listen!” And the space was really, really loud, much louder than the leaders.    (MRU)

In fairness to Eugene, Lucy, and Suki, it would have been a major pain in the rear to rearrange the space, and there were strong disincentives to doing so (specifically, the wrath of Lisa Pool). But space makes a huge difference, and even super smart people don’t account for this as much as they should. Even people who are in the business of collaboration and are constantly preaching about this sort of thing (i.e. me) make these mistakes all the time. Old habits and thinking die hard.    (MRV)

The online tool space is rampant with these examples. How often do you see Wikis where the “Edit this page” button is impossible to find?    (MRW)

Tools can encourage or discourage certain types of behavior, and it is in our best interest to choose and adapt our tools to encourage the behavior that we want. That’s not always enough, but it’s generally a good start. Eliminating obstacles can be as much of a catalyst as a good kick in the pants, but a combination of both is even more effective.    (MRX)