Image Advice calmly explains why what should have been your favourite picture of all time appears to recreate the vision of a guy whose specs got knocked off when he fell down after drinking eight pints of strong lager.
Digital cameras are selling so fast that the usual industry rules no longer apply. Prices are tumbling at such a rate that logically we should soon see the first five-megapixel SLR selling for under 10 pence. Today, digital cameras are affordable enough for a large percentage of the population to own at least one. As soon as people start using a digital camera they’re hooked. In fact, you only have to show how one works and they’re running down to Jessops or trawling the Internet for the best prices before your eyes have got over the flash.
The things that grab people are the ability to position a shot through the LCD screen rather than squinting through the optical viewfinder (which they’ll soon go back to after some oddly cropped shots), the chance to immediately see the picture they’ve just taken, and the opportunity to delete the picture where they’ve got a triple chin and their tongue is hanging out. This is all you need to show someone for them to toss their film camera in the bin and ditch the BonusPrint envelopes.
Soon they’ll be chatting happily about megapixels, rechargeable batteries and the pros and cons of CompactFlash vs Memory Sticks. It’s the same cranial technology-boost that people get when they buy an iPod – from knowing nothing about the internal workings of a portable CD player, they quickly move to an intimate knowledge of audio compression rates and peer-to-peer file-sharing software. It only takes something neat and simple to turn ordinary Joes and Janes into tech-babble geeks.
But after they’ve mastered all the big words on the side of the box and filed the unread manual in the drawer with the still-cellophaned video instructions and cooker guarantee, digital-camera users rarely bother to learn anything else about their new toy. The M, AV, TV, and P controls are only there to make us feel guilty about not knowing what they’re there for. We can guess what the head, mountain range, star & moon, running-man and movie-camera icons denote, but we’re unlikely to move from the Auto setting that seems to handle most situations well enough. Occasionally we decide to try portrait mode, and then get terribly annoyed with ourselves when we ruin all our subsequent shots by leaving it switched to the head icon. “Never again shall I switch to the star & moon icon. I’ll only forget to switch it back for all my beach-volleyball shots,” you swear noisily.
Actually, it’s reasonably safe to ignore these icons as most modern digital cameras will override the landscape setting when you’re taking a portrait. Apertures may be disrupted, but Joe and Jane will rarely notice the difference. The one exception is the movie mode. Leave it on this and you’ll wonder why there’s no shutter click as you rapidly fill your memory card with a movie of your feet and the inside of the camera case. But if we spent a little longer reading the manual we would quickly learn how to take better photos and have less need to delete blurred or under-exposed snaps and attempt to recreate scenes that end up looking stiff and staged.
Finally, a camera manufacturer has a solution to our inherent fear of white balance and aperture settings. HP’s Photosmart R707 digital camera features something called Image Advice. This is like a manual in your camera that takes a peek at your snaps and lets you know in plain English why that picture of your kids on the beach looks like it was taken in a snowstorm, and why the photo of your kids in a snowstorm is darker than the nightscene that somehow now includes a spectacular aurora borealis. It also calmly explains why what should have been your favourite picture of all time appears to recreate the vision of a guy whose specs got knocked off when he fell down after drinking eight pints of strong lager. Images are analyzed for 50 different problems prioritized in five categories. A cause is identified, and a suggestion is made to help us correct photographic techniques and so improve future images.
The R707 also boasts the world’s first in-camera red-eye removal feature – which again is something that, with a little knowledge, is possible to minimize and at least simple to correct in software, but which is rarely removed. HP’s super-intelligent technologies are – like the immediately apparent benefits of digital photography – so simple and intuitive that they move the technology forward to a space where people’s photography actually improves in quality rather than merely increasing in quantity.