Cameras and technology - Help or Hindrance? - Wi-Fi, Apps and the Cloud.

Camera manufacturers make a great deal these days about the tech. add-ons that their cameras come bundled with. They are very keen to let us know that the camera we are considering is wi-fi enabled and comes with an Android / Mac OIS app. that lets us control the camera remotely and download / upload / sync our pictures. Connectivity is all. In addition to this the various companies who offer (some) Cloud storage for free are constantly exhorting us to get our images onto their server space ASAP as an alternative to saving those files on conventional hard drives, normally attached to our computers either externally or internally (So 20th. Century!!!) . We are presented with what appear to be very attractive options that let us share our images between our cameras, our computers, our phones and our tablets. Instant access everywhere and the ability to post to social media, give and get access to images from our family and friends. What could be better? It's new, it's modern, it's clean and it saves all that messing around with USB leads, hard disks and all the assorted paraphernalia that comes with being a digital photographer in 2015. Sounds irrisistable doesn't it? However there is a problem with all this. Much of the time this struggles to work properly and it's actually less convenient, takes more time, removes the control over our images that is essential to us and can end up costing us a lot more than we thought. I've been exploring lots of these wireless, supposed better alternatives and options recently and what follows is my take on it all. Because my experience of using Wi-Fi, Apps and the Cloud is a tale of frustration, trying to work round poorly designed and implemented software and a lot of waiting. An awful lot of waiting. A really seriously awful lot waiting!!!

WI-FI

This ranges from flawed to appalling. Starting at the bottom.

SONY PLAY MEMORIES - When I tried this with my Sony A7 and A7r, the app. I wanted - The seriously misnamed SONY SMART REMOTE CONTROL APP wasn't even installed on the camera. I had to go to the Sony App Store, register and download it. This took ages and I couldn't help but suspect that Sony did it this way purely and simply to get me to sign up to the store and attempt to extract money from me at a future date. When I did persevere and downloaded it to the camera I discovered it only worked for stills and not for video. I haven't bothered with it since and won't again in the future. Appalling.

FUJI CAMERA REMOTE - I'd like to tell you about this, but it worked sporadically and when it did it kept crashing on my iPad. Again appalling.

And then there is this:-

LEICA T APP

Firstly, Leica have this crazy idea that the camera and the tablet phone have to connect via an existing wi-fi network rather than create one between the camera and the phone / tablet. So you either have to find a non-password wi-fi hotspot (good luck with that if you're a landscape / travel photographer) find a passworded network you CAN get the password for or try some convoluted process to link with your mobile phone. But there's no point in bothering, because the app. simply doesn't work. It just won't connect for longer than a few seconds (on only two occasions I have to say) and then crashes. Now this is my favourite camera and it can lay claim to being one of the most modern cameras out there, but this is simply unacceptable, both in terms of design and implementation. Truly awful.

Now there are two tolerable m4/3 apps. that make wi-fi at least usable.

Both Leica Image Shuttle (A copy of the Panasonic Image App) and Olympus Image Share do at least work. And both allow control of both stills and video. However, the Leica / Panasonic app. looses the wi-fi connection very easily and the screen freezes on my Android Panasonic CM1 smartphone and for some reason the Olympus app. turns of the camera live view screen. Both are also fiddly to start up and if I don't do everything in the correct order then I have to start all over again.

Now none of the above is robust and what a professional photographer could rely on 100%. It's no wonder that tethering to a computer is done with leads and normally confined to the studio. Because if this wi-fi technology is going to be in any way useful it has to be easy to set up, stable and work reliably all the time. And that is simply not the case, I'll expand on this in the section below.

APPS.

I've already outlined the poor wi-fi response above and most of the apps. I've discussed are buggy and unreliable. Hardly inspiring confidence. It is I guess, the nature of the app. business. Quality control doesn't seem to be a premium here. Here are some other examples.

Above is the Lightroom Mobile App. which is supposed to allow me to upload my images from wherever I am and send them via the Adobe 'Creative' Cloud to my copy of Lightroom at home. This can happen via wi-fi or the mobile phone networks. However, the copy on my Android Panasonic CM1 has locked up on three separate occasions and had to be re-installed.

Above is an app. for one of my picture libraries, Dreamstime. It's for phones / tablets and is supposed to let me take pictures on those devices and upload them directly the library, caption and keyword them when I'm out and about. As you can see there is a submit button next to the images. The problem is that I've ALREADY SUBMITTED THEM ONCE!!!! and captioned and keyworded them. This stupid app. keeps making me do everything twice. Consequently, I don't use it and upload everything from my computers at home. I've re-installed it several times but it always defaults back to this buggy way of working.

Above is the app. for another of my picture libraries, 123RF. This is also far from 100% reliable. It keeps giving me error messages and is currently crashing every time I reach 100% on an image upload.

I would however mention the above Alamy / Stockimo picture library upload app. which is fast and (so far) 100% reliable. Plus since they like Instagram pictures I have set up a situation that uploads every picture I send to Instagram to this app. as well. So far that's working perfectly.

Finally on the app. front, though slightly different to the above, Snapseed, owned by Google, have just 'upgraded' the app. and included several nice features including a transform / straightening option. However they have removed several of the options I used to use all the time. There has been a great fuss made of this from other Snapseed fans and quite rightly so. You add features to make apps. more versatile, you DON'T remove what's there already and what people are already using.

THE CLOUD

I've got lots of cloud accounts, which generally arrive with the cameras, devices and or software I buy. And I have a lot a free storage, different limits for each (Apple being the meanest unsurprisingly!) I have Google Drive, Dropbox, One Drive, BT Cloud, Adobe Creative Cloud and Amazon, which I pay for with a prime membership but since I've already got my money back on free postage gives my unlimited photo storage.

But the whole cloud thing is full of questions.

  • Where are my images?
  • Will I always be able to retrieve them?
  • Are they safe?
  • Do they servers they sit on have backups?
  • Will my free storage space suddenly require payment?
  • Who else has access to my files?
  • Why is it so slow?

There is no way in the world I would ever solely trust the cloud with the backup of my images. Every raw file and edited jpg. I've ever produced ends up on four separate hard drives. Every time I fill up a drive I store it away and buy a bigger one. My agieng MacPro tower is now pretty much a backup server with 4 x 4TB hard drives in it. Something even I with the amount of images I shoot will have trouble filling. Because everything I've shot, raw and jpg plus my video footage currently takes up about 3.5 TB. Now if I shoot a lot of 4K as I'm planning to, that will increase dramatically, but storage is getting cheaper and cheaper and you can now get 6TB internal drives and I'm planning to get a couple of those and put them in my PC.

So the cloud is useful for me as a way of saving files (jpg. only as raw takes to long to upload) and transferring them between my computers and my phones and tablets. But it's really no more than that.

So what does all of this add up to?

CONCLUSIONS

I guess, if was inclined to be charitable I might say that all of the above is in it's infancy, but since I'm not I won't! As a working professional I can maybe tolerate the odd experimental excursion to see how something behaves because of the way I work, but the majority of my fellow professionals won't even entertain that. There is no cahnce that any of us are going to trust this new technology, wi-fi, apps, and the cloud with the images that make us our living. Because apart from anything else the technology we have already is more reliable, easier to navigate and in many cases quicker anyway. Try uploading 1000's of images to the cloud without fibre optic broadband and you'll see what I mean.

The upshot of all this is that, at present, most of this is just entertainment technology. Something to play around with and raise a smile when it works and a shrug when it doesn't. For it to be seriously useful for serious photographers, whether they be amateur or professional, it has to work properly ALL of the time, be reliable, repeatable and quicker than the alternatives we currently have. Otherwise it's just technology for the occasional snapper, who isn't that bothered about the implications for either the quality or longevity of their images. Now I don't know why wi-fi, which is after all a technology that's been around for a long time, is so poor when it ends up in a camera. And yes I know that software has always been released with bugs in it, but surely we deserve better than what the manufacturers are currently giving us.

To my mind, many of the camera manufacturers are simply hastening their demise and loss of business to smartphones because of the poor quality of what they provide. Smartphones are so much better at this stuff already and in many cases, such as cloud uploading, they do it automatically anyway. If standalone cameras are to survive surely they have to embrace what smartphones are now offering us. Now, for me, i actually doesn't really matter that much. After exploring all these options, I'm pretty much back doing what I've doing for years. Taking pictures with the camera next to my eye, saving the pictures to an SD card, loading those images from the card to my computers and hard drives, editing them in Photoshop or Lightroom and uploading them to my picture library websites from home. And after having a few problems with my home wi-fi from a new BT modem that arrived last week I'm connected to the internet on both my Macs and the PC's Ann I own via ethernet cables. I'm sitting here upstairs on the sofa composing this article on my Macbook Pro and sticking out the left hand side is a 15 metre ethernet cable that connects directly to my modem downstairs next to the phone point. And it may be a bit messy, but it works and my connection is fast and reliable.

Now I also can't help wondering about how much of this wi-fi, app and cloud technology is driven by the objective of financial gain. Why don't Apple phones and tablets allow wired connections? Everything has to go via the cloud. And yes they give you some free space, but that soon fills up and you need more. And guess what, it costs. There are also lots of free apps., but with restricted features and those annoying ads that you end up being desperate to pay for to remove. And of course the big corporations can get even more of their hooks into all of us even stronger. We are all aware that Google stuff isn't really free, because whenever we download something we get even more bombarded with 'targeted' advertising. For me much of the point is I don't actually need most of this wi-fi / app / cloud technology, because apart from anything else I waste so much time trying to get it to work and when it do I discover it's not that much quicker anyway and in many case slows me down.

As regular readers will be aware I've just bought a PC tower. (Once mere so 20th. Century) and having explored all the alternatives including laptops and iMacs, this simply does the job it's supposed to better than anything else. It's big, it's noisy and cool it's not (cool in terms of style that is, in terms of temperature it never gets hot) but it works. It edits my pictures quickly, it lets me view 4K video more or less properly and I know how to work it. It doesn't flake out on me, it isn't temperamental (Yet!) and overall it's been a good buy. And for the last few days I've been out shooting with my Nikon Df. No apps. no video and no wi-fi. Though you can get a Nikon add-on for that, which probably works a darn sight better than the rubbish currently on many cameras, but then it is designed for professionals and not gadget heads looking for amusement. So all in all I'm less than impressed by the options most camera manufacturers and other companies are providing in terms of wi-fi, apps and cloud storage. It's just too unreliabel and badly designed to be of any use to me to me at the moment. But if it was it could be something that helped rather than hindered me. And as you know I like shooting on smartphones, but I still transfer the images to my old school computers via direct lead or SD card. and it's faster that way and it doesn't go wrong. And maybe the people who give us this stuff and talk it up should actually go out and try to use it the real world and see how they handle the frustrations it creates. Because I'm not going to bother any more.