Camera Shopping

Photo of two cameras

This post is long and rather geeky. If you have no interest in interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) and/or my process of buying a new one, it’s time to move to the next item in your RSS feed.

As you may have noticed from the photo-related posts around here, and especially if you have followed the link to my photo site, I make a lot of pictures. If you dug a little deeper, you would find that most of them were taken with a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera. I also use a smartphone camera, of course, but most often those wind up on Twitter, Flickr, and other sharing sites with no processing.

My current camera1 is now more than six years old, which, considering it’s been well-used on a dozen major trips, lots of shorter ones, and plenty of local photowalks, is getting up there in age. When I bought it, this model was considered “entry-level” in the world of ILC cameras, as was my previous DSLR and which I used for seven years.

So, I’m shopping for a new camera, a not-at-all simple process as well as a potentially expensive investment.

One complicating factor is that the technology has made some major advancements since I last did any serious camera research. Another is that I’m ready to move up a category, to something that might be considered “intermediate”. And that means more complex options.

However, the biggest issue I’m dealing with are the titanic developments in mirrorless technology coming from camera companies. Mirrorless will almost certainly become the standard for ILCs in the future, but we are currently near the beginning of that shift. Although the basics of shooting with a mirrorless camera aren’t really different, there are still some key differences between them and traditional DSLRs. And some important features still lag behind.2

All of this is why I rented a mirrorless camera last week and did a lot of shooting with it.3 Renting gave me a relatively inexpensive opportunity to play with the new technology, along with experience with the new operating system of a different camera brand.4 Plus a whole lot of buttons, dials, and joystick, all of which I couldn’t possibly learn in just a few days. But it was fun trying.

Of course, everything above is just about the camera. Buying an ILC system also means there are new lenses to consider, lenses that can also be very expensive. Although, I have friends who are really into camera equipment and own four or five different pieces of glass, in addition to a couple of bodies, my needs and wants are simpler. I will start with just one general purpose “travel” zoom lens and maybe add a second “prime” lens later.

Anyway, the bottom line to this long rambling post is that I won’t be buying anything right away. My current camera still has some good life in it, and budgeting for a whole new system will require some additional savings.

But the big unknown in my decision-making process is that the industry has not heard from the two big guys in ILCs. Canon and Nikon have not yet released “serious” mirrorless camera systems. They seem to be close. Both are expected to make some big announcements about their new equipment very soon, possibly at Photokina, the huge international photography show in September. The new systems aren’t expected to be widely available until next year, but knowing something about their plans will be good.

In the meantime, I’ll do more research, keep adding to my piggy bank, and continue making many more pictures with the cameras I have.

The common wisdom, of course, is that the best camera is the one you have with you. And that it’s not the equipment that makes great images, it’s the photographer.

However, advanced technology and understanding how to make the best use of it can make even better photographs possible.

Thanks for reading to the end of this rant. If you have any thoughts or experience to contribute to my search for a new ILC, I’d love to hear them. Or if you could benefit from what I’ve learned, I’m happy to help. Either way, please leave a comment or tweet at me.


1. The one on the left in the photo is my Canon Digital Rebel T4i. It was released in June, 2012 and I bought it not long after in advance of a big trip. The camera was unique at the time for having a touch screen, something that is now common on most ILC, but was by no means state of the art. BTW, no irony in the fact the picture was taken with an iPhone.

2. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the differences, this post from Tom’s Guide is a good place to start.

3. The one on the right is the rental, a Sony A7 III. That model was released in April of this year and is considered one of the best intermediate mirrorless cameras available right now. A few photos from experimenting with this camera are here. More to come.

4. Unlike computers, every camera company has their own OS. Like computers, all of them are very similar but just different enough to add another layer of difficulty when moving to a new camera.

What’s Your Attitude Towards Science?

Word cloud based on question

3M, the US-based conglomerate probably best known for their Post-It notes, recently released a report called the State of Science Index. They call it “one of the largest, most global studies” done in recent years to gain some understanding of the public attitude towards scientists and their work, surveying more than 14,000 people in 14 countries.

Overall, the general attitudes expressed were positive:

  • 87% said that their general attitude towards science was one of fascination, rather than boring.
  • The same percentage thought “the world is a better place today because of science” and were “hopeful” when they heard the word mentioned.
  • Two-thirds said they were “excited when thinking about the future impact of science on society” and that “science is very important to society in general”.

However, when you dig down into the responses, there is much to be worried about.

I don’t mind the 32% who said they were “skeptical” of science. Questioning claims made in scientific reports is a healthy approach to understanding complex ideas. Especially since most people get their science news from a TV news reader who likely doesn’t understand beyond the summary statement in their script.

Far more troubling than skeptics is the 27% of respondents who “do not see the point of needing to understand science as adults”. Plus the relatively large percentage of people who agree with statements like “If science didn’t exist, my everyday life would not be all that different.” and who fail to see a link between scientific research and “technology”.

In the US, these numbers parallel the around-30% in political poll after poll who refuse to accept basic scientific findings like the existence of climate change as major problem facing society. Or who believe that childhood vaccinations are some kind of conspiracy between doctors and drug companies.

These kinds of attitude surveys can be interesting, although they should also be read with some skepticism. But if you teach middle or high school students, you may want to give them the executive summary and ask them to reflect on the findings. How do their attitudes compare to those of the adults in this survey?

Of course, the 3M Index is looking at current opinions and only tangentially addresses the state of science education. However, how children are taught science during their years in K12 directly affects their understanding of science as adults.

There is a direct link between classroom science instruction that involves memorizing lots of facts and little direct interaction with scientific concepts and the 86% of respondents who say they know “little or nothing” about science. And the large percentage of those people who have no interest in learning more as adults.

Unfortunately, we tend to elect far too many of those people to leadership positions.


I learned of this survey through a discussion with former astronaut Scott Kelly on Marketplace Tech, a daily podcast about how technology affects our lives.

The image is from the executive summary of this report and shows the word cloud created when people were asked to complete this task: “Please fill in what you think science is in no more than two to three sentences. Science is…”.

Don’t Blame the Lecture

A few days ago, the New York Times published the latest high profile story advocating for a ban of laptops from classrooms, mostly at the college level. They all point to a “growing body of evidence” claiming to show that students learn less and get poorer grades when they use devices during lectures.

I was going to chime in with my thoughts on the matter, including more than a few questions about the methodology and assumptions behind these studies. But marketing guru Seth Godin, who occasionally chimes in on education issues (and often makes a lot of sense), has already written a high profile response that has popped into my Twitter feed many times in the past few days.

While it’s not a great challenge to this simplistic nonsense, at least Godin is exactly right that the professor who authored the Times op-ed has missed the real issue.

The times they are a'changing

Why give lectures at all?

Why offer a handmade, real-time oration for a small audience of students—students who are expected to slow down their clock speed, listen attentively and take good notes at the very same rate as all the other students?

I know why we used to do it. We used to do it because a lecture is a thoughtful exposition, a reasoned, researched argument that delivers a lot of information in a fairly condensed period of time. And before technology, the best way to deliver that exposition was to do it live.

But now?

Godin’s recommendation to replace the live lecture – basically going to the “flipped” classroom approach and have students watch a recording of the presentation outside of class – is a crappy alternative.

But he does ask the right question: Why lectures? Why do we continue with the “watch presentation-take notes-answer test questions” approach to learning? Especially since it is becoming clear that this is not an effective learning process.

Which leads to the other half of this question: if we’re not going to lecture at students, what do with do with all that “precious classroom time”?

And it is precious. It’s a curated group of thirty or a hundred students, coordinated in real-time and in real-space, inhabiting a very expensive room, simultaneously.

The K-12 experience is thirteen years built on compliance and obedience, a systemic effort to train kids to become cogs in the industrial machine. And it has worked. One component of this regime is the top-down nature of the classroom. We don’t want to train kids to ask difficult questions, so we lecture at them.

Although teachers in K12 don’t perform as many lectures as college instructors1, most classrooms are still structured around direct instruction. With material structured by the adults and presented to students, who are then expected to extract the required information, and recall it on some kind of test at some later time.

In the end, however, my biggest objection to all these “laptops are making kids stupid” stories is that the researchers – and the writers reporting on their work – always start by blindly blaming the technology and the students.

And assuming our current educational structure is above reproach and needs no alteration.


1 However, the lecture format is still a fundamental part of many high school courses, especially Advanced Placement, which is essentially a college course adapted for slightly younger students.

Picture from Flickr and used under Creative Commons license from brett jordan.

No, We Aren’t Losing a Generation to Smartphones

Betteridge’s law of headlines says “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

Which certainly applies to the very provocative title of a recent article in The Atlantic: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

The author tries very hard to convince the reader that teenagers (the group she calls iGen) who “spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy”, more prone to depression, and at greater risk for suicide.

There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.

But at the generational level, when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common.

So is depression. Once again, the effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.

After reading the article, I’m not at all convinced of definitive claims like this.Evil iphone pack

Certainly smartphones have “radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives”, at least the lives of those kids who are financially able to own them. On the other hand, I could also say the same about myself and many other adults.

However, is the technology entirely to blame for any psychological problem she sees in the teenagers she has been studying? Where are the adults, especially parents, in all this? And the fundamental question that always needs to be asked in any human research, is behavior A the direct cause of behavior B?

I don’t think the author is entirely sure either.

Of course, these analyses don’t unequivocally prove that screen time causes unhappiness; it’s possible that unhappy teens spend more time online. But recent research suggests that screen time, in particular social-media use, does indeed cause unhappiness.

What’s the connection between smartphones and the apparent psychological distress this generation is experiencing? For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out.

Ok, I’m not an expert in this area. I haven’t read the research and don’t have any countervailing evidence to present.

But I always have many doubts when someone definitively attributes great harm, or benefits, to a particular technology. 

In this case, I’m extremely hesitant to accept the author’s conjecture that we are losing an entire generation (which I understood to encompass thirty years) to a technology that has only really been widespread in society for less than a decade.

What Doesn’t Work In Education Reporting

School House1

Rather than asking what works in education, NPR asked “education researcher John Hattie” about ideas that don’t work. His answers are not based on his own work but on a review of “more than 1,000 ‘meta-analyses’”, whatever that is.

Anyway, I wish the writer had started by asking Mr. Hattie what he means by “works”. Of course, I know the answer. Works means improving scores on standardized tests, even though his number two non-working solution is standardized testing.

High-performing schools, and countries, don’t necessarily give more standardized tests than low performers. They often give fewer.

The alternative: testing that emphasizes giving teachers immediate, actionable feedback to improve teaching.

Having said that, his final item, in which he says the US spends too much money on public education, is based on the fact that other countries spend much less while their students score higher than American kids on an international standardized test (the PISA).

He also says that smaller class sizes don’t work because countries like Japan and Korea have relatively large classes and are “high performing”, again on those standardized tests.

It’s too bad NPR just transcribed the executive summary of Hattie’s paper, instead doing some research of their own and asking some informed questions.

The worst part about stories like this is the failure to recognize that there are major differences between American society and our approach to education with those of other countries. Start with the fact that, instead of national education goals, we have 51 educational policies, plus around 31,000 local school boards.

Then review the level of public support for public education in the US compared to Finland, Japan, and the rest. How many of their government leaders are working hard to demonize teachers and privatize schools?

Finally, look at the societal support systems for children in each country, especially rankings of child poverty rates (anywhere from 20% to 33% of all children, depending on the definition of “poverty”). I’ll bet “making America great again” has nothing to do with improving those dismal statistics.

And anyone who says poverty has nothing to do with learning, has never tried to teach math to a class of hungry middle school students.