On all previous trips to anywhere (mostly Anime North but also all the times I’ve been to Hong Kong and the previous trip to Japan), I’ve made do with the camera on my smartphone. Mind you even that is probably better than what a lot of tourists last century had to work with though with no front-mounted stargate it’s no good at a distance. This time, I borrowed the mother’s Nikon P80 which, as far as I can tell, is some kind of an entry level little babby’s camera from 2008.
I’ve learned a bit about photography through this trip and I can say that it’s roughly as difficult to learn as Kerbal Space Program. That is, it’s difficult to be actually good at it as games go, but you can do it if you try and have time to learn. The biggest difference, I think, is that whereas KSP is a sit-down mouse and keyboard affair, cameras and photography is probably best played with a 360 controller.
Taking pictures with an actual camera created with 21st century technology is something of a difference for sure. It’s also made me realize the pitfalls of photography. As travel comrade Peel pointed out, the danger of relying on it is that you keep worrying about taking pictures and not getting immersed with the experience. That is definitely true. I’ve taken well over three thousand pictures in the past two weeks and a lot of it – especially early on – was me trying to photograph specific objects of interest in some weird attempt to catalogue Japan. I’ve now learned the best photos (usually) involve more than just one thing. I don’t know how much I may or may not have missed due to this fixation but most of those pictures definitely aren’t very good and I am now confronted with the task of sorting through three thousand plus photos to see what to actually clean up, shrink and upload.
On the more technical side, I learned that camera controls are highly standardised, though I’m not sure that as many people really know how to make their way around them as a good 360 controller. I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen a camera handed off to someone only to ellicit befuddled looks from the recipient. Effectively though, you take a picture with right trigger and a little dial there lets you zoom in or out. The fidelity of that particular control is not very good and it’s very hard to get a precise level of zoom. On the other hand, seeing a camera lense telescope out like the barrel of a megaparticle cannon is one of the coolest common-as-dirt things I’ve ever seen.
The camera turns on very quickly and is ready to shoot far faster than the phone, which sometimes feels the need sort through all “media” in its storage before it feels ready to undertake the task of taking a picture. The software driven auto-focus is also much much better, as expected of a purpose-built device. The little green camera Easy Mode setting actually works great most of the time. Nevertheless, there were many times – such as against a low sun or snow cover – that the camera found conditions simply too demanding to do its job properly. Those times really made me appreciate how handy one’s eyes and brain are to be able to just see through all that nonsense no problem. In addition to the little green camera, there’s also this mode that lets you pick various common conditions with your D-pad and pick whatever is applicable and presumeably the camera does something to compensate. Landscape is easily the most useful as it appears to tell the camera to shut up and take a fucking picture without trying to focus on something that isn’t there. Portrait seems to make it try to focus on faces – I’ve seen it get that right once or twice. Close-up is straightforward and Museum seems to make the camera operate silently which is nice if you want to break the rules of most museums in Japan which forbid photography entirely or if you want to sneakily take a picture of someone from an inappropriate angle. The difference between Sunset and Dusk/Dawn is a little less clear to me and the eldritch mysteries of the logic behind the Backlight setting remain obscure to me.
The most common things that make cameras screw up are movement and darkness. The former is most relevant with cats and taking pictures on the move which becomes necessary since it seems all other members of the party walk faster than me. With regards to the latter, the camera tries to take what little light there is and make the picture as bright as possible because it kind of assumes you want every picture to be well lit. For this, we have two numbers, a fraction and a decimal which are kind of like your thrust and specific impulse. The fraction (or whole number if you get very brazen) is how much of a second the camera fires for and the decimal indicates how little the hole is letting light through. Raising the fraction opens the hole longer, letting more light in but requiring the camera to be held steady for longer. On a bright day, the camera will find 1/500 or 1/1000 quite appropriate. At that setting, taking a picture can be as spontaneous as a dragonfly touching water. At 1/15 or so, blur starts getting noticeable even if you’re holding the camera ‘still’ (you can try to be a sniper and hold your breath before shooting though!). Shrinking the decimal on the other hand, makes the hole larger, which also lets more light in but the tradeoff is that everything at the edges gets blurrier. This is probably why people use tripods so they can push the fraction up as high as possible (into the whole numbers) and push the decimal up as much as possible as a result. And that is also probably why some places ban them because I can imagine how annoying that would be, having people just set shit up all over the lawn of a landmark. Normally, the camera will balance these two factors for you automatically, never letting you in on all the shit that historic photographers must have had to put up with, judging the light, stability and level of movement by eye before taking a picture that isn’t solid black or white. If you want to mess with it yourself, you can use the P setting on the dial to make a suggestion, the S or A settings if you want to mess with one or another, or the M setting (probably means Maniac Mode) if you want to do both.