Ownership vs Access

I was at home, pondering over the problem of finding shelf-space for my ever-increasing book collection, when I chanced upon yet another thought-provoking piece by Kevin Kelly of Technium, this time on the merits of Ownership versus Access:

Very likely, in the near future, I won’t “own” any music, or books, or movies. Instead I will have immediate access to all music, all books, all movies using an always-on service, via a subscription fee or tax. I won’t buy — as in make a decision to own — any individual music or books because I can simply request to see or hear them on demand from the stream of ALL. I may pay for them in bulk but I won’t own them. The request to enjoy a work is thus separated from the more complicated choice of whether I want to “own” it.

For many people this type of instant universal access is better than owning. No responsibility of care, backing up, sorting, cataloging, cleaning, or storage.  As they gain in public accessibility, books, music and movies are headed to become social goods even though they might not be paid by taxes. It’s not hard to imagine most other intangible goods becoming social goods as well. Games, education, and health info are also headed in that direction.

Why take charge of it at all if you have instant, constant, durable, full access to it? If you lived inside of the world’s largest rental store, why would you own anything? 

I must confess, when viewed in this light, the concept of renting (or “timesharing” or “shared access”) did have a lot of appeal.  Especially, when I think of all the hours I have to spend each week, just to ensure that the ever-growing mass of digital content that I have to work with, is kept manageable.  And, that includes every thing from the emails at work to the digital photos of my family.  But, there’s a flip side to it, isn’t there?

What happens when the content you wanted, simply disappears from the website, just because it didn’t see enough support from its “users”?  What happens if the “original” article you read, was subsequently modified and re-published online without any trace of version history? 

As a published-author, I also have to ask myself what this means for intellectual-property creators like authors and musicians… If every one wants the “music” and not the CD, or wants the “story” and not the book, will it eventually mean that lesser and lesser folks will see it wise to invest their time producing their art, resulting in their ultimate disappearance?! 

I guess part of the answer lies in Kelly’s post: If a service provider could absolutely guarantee ‘durable’, ‘constant’ and ‘full’ access, chances are that such a service would see a lot more takers opt for “accessing” it rather than wanting to “own” it in the traditional sense of the term.  And, at least some services that are available today in the shared-access format, would be otherwise completely unaffordable for much of its intended audience – the vacation timeshare being a classic example. 

But, I still think there are a few things about ownership that modern technology cannot easily substitute.  The pleasure of jotting-down notes in the margins of your copy of the book… the joy of thumbing through poetry pages, sitting on a garden-bench… the happiness that comes with leafing through the leather-bound edition of a classic… 

Ultimately, Kevin’s view is that “Access is so superior to ownership, or possession, that it will drive the emerging intangible economy”.   While I do think the route he’s taken is in the right direction, I don’t think we’re there yet. 

In the meanwhile, I still have to figure out what to do with all those books I bought last week!

Guide to Photography Gear – Part 2


Note: This series of posts is written for the amateur/hobbyist/newbie photography enthusiast.  It will cover much of what I’ve learned through hundreds of manhours of research and nearly fifteen years of practising photography.  It will include more details on Nikon as I am more familiar with the Nikon system.  However, my own experience with photography gear includes both manual and automatic SLRs in 35mm and digital formats from Nikon, Canon and Pentax.

If you haven’t already, please read Part 1 of this series before proceeding…

How do you choose a lens?

There is no right answer for this question.  It all depends on your individual needs (or shall we say, “wants”?), and the amount of money you’re willing to spend to address that need.

Any lens is a tradeoff.  Size & weight often clash with build quality and optics. Zoom range can compromise distortions and aberrations, and wide apertures (i.e. “fast” lenses) usuall comes at a cost.  You have to choose what you need/want most.

If you’ve just bought your first DSLR kit, and are already shopping around for “another lens”, my advice to you is STOP!  Shoot a few hundred (or thousand) photographs, first.  Then, look at all of them and ask yourself: “What couldn’t I do with my kit lens that a new lens will allow me to?”  The answer for which is the right lens for the job will come from that (and your budget, of course!)

The world is also divided between those who swear by lenses made by camera makers like Canon and Nikon, and those who think that “off-brand” versions from Sigma or Tamron or Vivitar will do just as well.  Typically, off-brand lenses lose much of their market value in a re-sale, but there are exceptions to the rule.  Once again, you decide what works for you, and what you can afford.

There’s also the “subject” to think about.  If you work in low-light conditions, you need fast glass.  If you’re into birding and wildlife photography, you need a telephoto in excess of 200mm (and a fast glass, if you can afford it!).  If your thing is landscapes, you may want a wide or an ultra-wide lens.

A mid-zoom like the 18-55mm on the entry-level DSLRs (equivalent in field-of-view to the 28-80mm on 35mm film cameras) is a good starting point for most newbies.  But your specific need will determine if you need any thing else, and whether or not a particular lens can deliver it for you.

Then, there’s the issue of dust on the sensor (on DSLRs), and the matter of changing lenses when you’re on the field trying to capture that “good light”.  If you’re looking for an ideal walk-around lens, you’ll need to figure out the focal length that works best for you, given your specific needs.

If you shoot wide as well as long, you should consider a versatile zoom like the 18-135 or a super-zoom like the 18-200.  It’ll save you the bother of changing lenses, and let you capture every thing you can see over a really wide range.  Don’t sweat too much about distortion figures or chromatic aberrations that are a part of any super-zoom… you can always correct it in Photoshop if you’re really picky about it.

Just remember, AF lenses don’t always autofocus with different camera models – there are a lot of variations out there, depending on when your particular model was made.  e.g. If you’re a Nikonian, the entry-level DSLRs (D40/x/60/3000/5000) will not AF with the older lenses and will need an AF-S lens for autofocus.

Tip: Unlike in the old days, “big” or “heavy” (or even expensive!) glass does not necessarily translate into better quality.  You’d be surprised what modern-day technological advances can do to lens design.  The Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-D is a fine example of outstanding optics in an affordable package that costs less than $150.

As an aside, if you are buying big or heavy, you will also need a tripod.  That is a subject matter for an independant post, but the short story is Tripods come with three attributes: Capable (sturdy), Light-weight, Affordable – You can choose any two!

One more thing: Lenses also use different filter sizes, and the lens you really want may use a non-standard filter.  In the long run, this translates into more hassle maintaining and changing filters, for someone who owns several lenses. (e.g. Nikon’s lenses use a few standard filter sizes, which keeps things simple).  Many serious photographers get around this problem by buying the biggest filters each time (77mm) and use step-up rings to mount them across their different-sized lenses.  That, of course, costs more but is also more convenient.

Finally, here’s an extensive writeup on all you need to know about Nikon Lenses’ features and compatibility. (Thanks, Ken!)


Digital vs Film?!

Is that even a valid question?  It’s natural for a newbie to wonder why, in today’s age, would any one consider Film?!  After all, you’re probably reading this because you’ve finally taken the decision to move from Film to Digital, right?

I started photography more than a decade ago, naturally, with a film-based camera.  At first it was just reading about photography, then using some friends’ equipment, then my very own manual SLR (Zenit Z12), and then a nice little Canon AF SLR (EOS 300).  Every one starts off in film, and then goes digital.  But, when you’ve shot enough digital, you can begin to truly appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of each medium.  And yes, there are limitations in both.

There are volumes written about the “dynamic range” or “latitude” that film offers that digital simply cannot, or about the hi-magnification print output possible with standard 35mm film that is mostly unmatched by DSLRs, even today!  It is also a fact that Film (because of its cost) forces you to plan and frame each shot carefully, instead of firing away carelessly on your digital.

Today, I mainly shoot digital, but I also enjoy having a vintage Pentax Spotmatic with a Super Takumar 35mm lens at hand, for those times when I just want to slow down and “experience” the art of photography to its fullest. It all depends on which stage of the learning curve you’re at.

Tip: Yes, shooting film is expensive, and only affordably for a few.  When you’re a newbie, the best tool to really hone your photography skills is the “instant replay” feature of digital and the ability to shoot without worrying about the costs.  Here’s a detailed analysis of film vs digital, if you’d like to know more.

Parting Thoughts?

This series is the beginner’s version.  Each time you encounter a term or concept that you didn’t know about, you need to start digging more.  Do your own research.  There’s no substitute for it.

There is plenty of rich information on photography forums like Flickr.com and review sites like ByThom.com, KenRockwell.com, DPReview.com or Steves-Digicams.com.  Don’t believe every thing you read in any one place, if you want to play it safe.  I’d recommend reading multiple sources and forming your own opinion.

Last but not the least, remember that the only way to get better at it is to shoot, shoot, shoot…

Happy clicking!

Guide to Photography Gear – Part 1

Note: This series of posts is written for the amateur/hobbyist/newbie photography enthusiast.  It will cover much of what I’ve learned through hundreds of manhours of research and nearly fifteen years of practising photography.  It will include more details on Nikon as I am more familiar with the Nikon system.  However, my own experience with photography gear includes both manual and automatic SLRs in 35mm and digital formats from Nikon, Canon and Pentax.

Update: Jan 2012:

If you’re jumping onto the DSLR bandwagon for the first time, you may want to consider alternatives to DSLRs like mirrorless “hybrid systems” and “EVIL” cameras. Purists will argue that a DSLR is a DSLR, but you must answer for your self – Do you want a DSLR or do you want to shoot the kind of pictures it is capable of taking? As always, your answer may differ from mine.

Update: June 2011:

Camera makers keep releasing newer models, and marketers will keep trying to convince you that you really need to buy that latest, shiny piece of Technology to make your dream come true.  It’s been a while since I wrote this post, and they no longer make some of the models referred to in the examples.  However, conceptually the writeup still holds true.  So, while the D40/x/60 family has been replaced by the D3x00 or the D5x00 lineup, do bear in mind that the examples used throughout this post are just that – examples. 

Philosophically, entry-level DSLRs still make it affordable for folks to upgrade to a DSLR by crippling “semi-pro” features like the ability to autofocus with older (cheaper) lenses, it still makes sense to invest in better lenses than in better camera bodies, and you still ought to do a fair bit of introspection about your specific needs before deciding on which camera system or lens is the ideal for your unique needs…

Should you buy a compact or a DSLR?

Excellent question ; The fact is, it depends on your particular needs.  Let’s face it, today the price difference between an expensive compact, an affordable prosumer and an entry-level DSLR is almost non existent.  This makes the decision even more difficult!

If portability is of paramount importance, go for a nice compact aim-and-shoot that you like handling (ergonomics, ease of use, etc.) from Fuji, Casio or Canon.   If “reach” is what matters most (i.e. shooting closeups of far away things), you’ll be best served by a prosumer with a mega zoom factor upwards of 12x.  Here, I’d recommend the excellent and versatile Lumix FZ35.

As a rule, compacts and prosumers have smaller sensors (hence, less light-gathering capacity), fixed lenses, consume much more power and are slower to respond than DSLRs (which limits shooting pets/kids/things that move).  If portability or reach is not a criterion, go for the lightest, smallest DSLR you can afford, choosing your “system” wisely.

No matter what kind of photography you want to do – birds, buildings or beasts – a good DSLR can give you results that are just not possible with a fixed-lens camera, no matter how much it costs or how long the zoom is.  The list of DSLR-only features usually includes startup times of less than a fraction of 1 second, excellent results in high ISOs (i.e. unbelievable results in low light, if you know what you’re doing), and very fast AutoFocus – stuff that lets you “get” that shot in an instant.  And, don’t forget, the DSLR can always be used in its “Auto” (or even better “Program”) mode, just like a point-and-shoot!  In short, every thing is better on a DSLR!

(Through the rest of this post, when I say “DSLR”, it includes modern-day post-DSLR variants like 4/3rds and micro 4/3rds and every other mirrorless design that offers interchangeable lenses.)

Tip: Start with any entry-level DSLR from Canon, Nikon, Sony or Pentax, and you should do just fine!  Plus, if you stick with a good “system” like Canon or Nikon, your investment stays relatively future-proof as it will allow you to use great lenses over a period of decades.


Canon, Nikon or other?

Broadly speaking, Nikon and Canon systems allow you access to a universe of glass.  And they’re both fantastic camera- and lens- makers that you can rely on.

Personally, I prefer Nikon because of their commitment to quality, their superior ergonomics and their serious approach to design.  As an example, Nikon has consistently chosen to limit the megapixels (totally irrelevant to picture quality) instead, working on increasing ISO capabilities in their camera bodies (totally relevant to picture quality), in spite of enormous market pressures to do otherwise.  If you handle comparable models from both Canon and Nikon, you will also find that Nikon cameras make it easier for you to get to the features that matter.   I also like the fact that, thanks to the ‘Nikon’ system, modern cameras (with few exceptions) can mount almost any lens made since the 1950s’!

If you already have old glass (i.e. lenses), the choice is easy.  If not, you’ll have to factor in other dependancies like memory cards (Sony’s proprietary format?), service support in your country (Pentax’s non-existent presence in India?), etc.  If you have no such constraints, you can start with any thing.

You should also bear in mind that innovations in industry often come from other players, not the market leaders. One example is how entry-level Pentax DSLRs have had in-body Image Stabilisation (IS) for years!  Another example is Panasonic’s recently launched (DMC G1) – a completely new mirror-less shutter design in a new micro four-third mount, making it half the size of a comparable DSLR!

The fact remains that there are alternatives to Nikon and Canon that have a lot to offer at comparable or lower costs.  Do your research, and factor in your personal constraints to make the choice that’s right for you.


Should you spend more on a better body or a better lens?

The short answer : Lenses.

Remember, DSLR bodies get obsolete in two years but a good lens can last you for two decades or more.

The long answer : Don’t compromise significantly on the body either.  As in all things, it’s a tradeoff.  Make sure you’re well informed about which factor you’re trading for what benefit.

For example, Nikon’s entry-level DSLRs (D40/D40x/D60) are simply outstanding in what they do.  But, they don’t AF with older (non AF-S) lenses, as the AF motor is not on the body but on the bundled kit lens.  This also keeps their costs down, making it more affordable for you to buy.  And, this is not a problem when you’re starting off, since the kit lens works just fine and autofocuses too.  But, if you want to expand your kit to include other lenses (new or old), you’ll soon discover that AF-S lenses cost significantly more than their AF counterparts.  So, you’ll have to spend many more times the dollars you saved on the body, on buying lenses that AF with that body!

And, in case you’re thinking : “I’m never going to buy a bunch of lenses”, think again.  Sooner or later, you will.  And you will also discover the other golden rule of buying photography gear – The investment you made on the first DSLR was only the beginning, not the end!

Tip: If you’re on a budget and still want AF capabilities with older lenses, go for a used Nikon D50 / D70 / D90. You should be able to get one for a bargain (with its kit lens!).

There is enough and more out there on the issue of whether or not the equipment matters.  My own take?  Many a times, newer technology helps you shoot in light conditions where earlier technology may not have.  At least when it comes to modern-day DSLRs, every few months or so, there are significant advances made that can be used to your advantage.  That said, bear in mind that all things newer are not necessarily “better”.  Detailed reviews of DSLR models from even Canon and Nikon – the global leaders in this category – will show how a certain feature (like metering) worked better on the older model than it does on the newer one!  So, do your research.

Thom Hogan has written the best writeup I’ve ever encountered on choosing lenses rationally.  Also, If you want to compare specifications across Nikon DSLRs, see these links for current and old models. (Thanks, Thom!)

That said, I wouldn’t worry too much about buying Nikon or Canon technology that’s a year or two older than the current.  But it may make a difference to you if you want a feature that they rolled out only in the last year.

Continue reading Part 2