Hello, Hello? Can You Shoot Me Now?


At the right age, 6 or so, to be able to observe and draw life-long conclusions, I knew that my dad's household toolbox contained very little: a 12’ steel tape; two screw drivers, one Phillips and one regular; a small level that I still use as my father did, to straighten pictures on walls; and the star - a chrome plated metal hammer, about 7” long. The head, maybe 3", had a square face on one end and a nail puller that didn’t work on the other. The handle was knurl-turned for a gem-facet look and a better grip even though no one would think of using it in a serious manner.

The hammer head and the bottom cap of the handle unscrewed, yielding interchangeable heads: Philips #1, Philips #2, and slot head screwdrivers, an awl with a dull point, and a 2” saw blade with teeth about ⅛” thick, not capable of sawing anything, but good for a young boy’s sword or knife; perhaps the impetus for my constant pocket knife.

My father was not handy, and neither am I, but I was able to conclude that tools that do many things do none of them very well. So I’ve always bought purpose-made, individual tools, even if I was only going to use it once in a great while, or even just once. Mostly I just made my own frames until I got tired of bad frames.

I have eight or ten beautiful pocket knives, having carried one since I was a kid, none of them have even two blades. No Swiss army knife, no Leatherman in a belt sheath.

Until my adulthood, phones only made phone calls, cameras took either (but not both) stills or motion pictures.  Each tool made to do one thing well, and nothing else. Each tool worked well because its designers only had to design for one job.

Today there is crossover from both sides, but phones have the advantage in Swiss army terms. Motion picture cameras like the Go-Pro can take damn good still pictures, while still cameras like the Canon 5D series, can take very good movies, with sound, then add GPS notations, and distribute the files via WiFi or wire directly onto computers, and prepare them in different formats and quality levels, with or without various kinds of processing.

Phones - smartphones - can do all of those things and much more, the least used of which is to make phone calls.

For the sake of discussion I’d like to divide a smartphone’s capabilities into three levels:

            Trivial: games, e-readers, weather, simple time-wasting apps, playing music or video, calculator, contact lists.

            Intermediate: internet and WiFi access, texting, compass, location and mapping, email, photo alteration, apps that need to engage other apps.

            Critical: Telephone, image and/or sound capture.


Critical jobs are those which require dedicated, quality parts and software. Frankly, who cares if a game takes a bit longer to load or crashes? But no one likes a dropped call, difficulty hearing or being heard, missing a photo or having one poorly focused or exposed.

With a Swiss army knife I assume the blade will come reasonably sharp and the tools sort of work. I expect to be able to sharpen edges that get dull, wash out sand and pocket lint, oil joints when necessary. But I wouldn’t count on the saw for firewood. The fork will be a fork but the awl will not be a pry bar, the nail file will vaguely work, but I wouldn’t find it on a manicurist’s taboret. In a Swiss army knife more money buys more tools, but not more quality.

So I’m leery of multi-functionality. It seems as if something is always sacrificed when a task is made easier or tools are combined. And this isn’t a screed against computers or against smartphones, it's just something that is. For example, in music it is a general case that quality starts with live performance by experts on quality instruments in a purpose-built space, and then listening quality drops with every improvement that makes it easier or cheaper. Step by step, listener by listener, as we become accustomed to lower sound quality, we are pleased just as much by cheaper and easier delivery. Live —> reel to reel tape —> vinyl record —> cassette tape —> cd —> MP3 download; Ear —> tuned separate speakers —> bookshelf speakers —>  boombox —> ear buds. As convenience and capacity rise, quality and cost don't.

The same progress occurred in photography. Nothing surpasses a Daguerreotype for image quality, assuming a modern lens. Every improvement since has been purposed for ease of use and lowering of cost:  from silvered metal to glass plate to paper negatives to flexible sheet film to large roll film to small roll film to an SD card.

At each stage some convenience (the ability to make multiple prints, automating certain technical decisions, lower cost, ease of use, portability, distribution, etc.) - has been important enough to surpass the loss of fidelity. Where resolution was once measured in line pairs per mm (a black and a white line), it is now given as dots per inch, like a halftone. As an example, a good lens might resolve 20 - 30 lp/mm which converts to 762 to 1096 dpi. A print resolves 240 - 360 dpi (this is very arguable), but a screen only 72. Today most people are satisfied most of the time by lenses and image files just good enough to be viewed on a mobile screen.

So where are we so far?

A.      As tools get easier, cheaper, and/or more functional, theie quality and the quality they produce goes down

B.      In multi-function tools, there are only a few critical uses where the best design and parts are required

C.      Humans have usually adapted to lower quality as a trade off for easier functionality, convenience, and lower cost.


From other essays you should understand that I believe that

A.      Creativity does not live in the tool, but in the person. There is no app for that.

B.      Buy a different tool only when your present one no longer satisfies.

C.      It's ok with me if you use a camera/phone. But you might have to get a better one if you want to go bigger.

D.     There is plenty you can do to the photograph on and off the phone.

E.      Special effects become crutches. Bad photographs cannot be effect-ed into good ones.

F.      A good camera will be better than a good phone, but not as handy.


And finally, the best camera is the one you have with you, and the most important imaging device is your mind.