Figure of Merit

If there are two things dorks like to do more than anything else in the world, it’s tell you why their favorite widget is the best one to ever grace human existence and why your thing is just barely better than the organisms breaking down the compost pile. They will back up their opinions with arguments that use repitition and vociferousness to make up for what they lack in facts. Usually, they all boil down to putting up a one or two aspects of a product’s performance over all others as the sole determiner of quality.

Since I have, at one time or another, been an dork enthusiast about nearly everything, I have a humble list of examples here. Imaging and Warmth

Back in the late 80s and early 90s when people still cared about LPs, I was a poor graduate student and bought a turntable and a lot of used records to build up a collection of jazz albums on the cheap. Of course, you can’t chuck a rock an few feet from a turntable without hitting a a balding slightly overweight former electrical engineer who will declare to anyone who listens that digital is horseshit.

When pressed on the subject, the most important reason that he will provide for devoting your life to the church of the turntable and the tube amplifier can be summed up in two words: “imaging” and “warmth”. Warmth refers to a combination of frequency response distortions in analog recordings, and most typically has to do with a gradual roll-off in the high frequencies. This does not interest me so much as “imaging” or “soundstage”.

Imaging refers the mystical ability of a two channel sound system to recreate a sense of the space in which original performance occurred. The claim is that a particularly excellent two channel recording played back on a particularly excellent two channel system will have this magical sense of space.

They call it a “soundstage” because, well, you can’t see it, you can only hear it. All those instruments perfectly localized right to left and back to front, right there in front of your ears. Of course, there is a problem with this. Do the following experiment next time you go to the PSO. While the Brahms fourth symphony washes over you, close your eyes and listen to the soundstage. Quick, where is the first cello sitting? I bet you can’t tell. That’s because without specialized training, we just aren’t very good at localizing specific objects using sound alone. That’s why we have eyes.

My advice: if you want imaging from your stereo, hire the PSO to play in your living room. It’s probably cheaper on a one time basis than what the High End wants you to spend on that turntable and tube amp. Meanwhile, the High End guy should remember that whatever digital may or may not lose in terms of imaging, it more than makes up for in ease of use, portability and resilience against damage to the media.

Wow, That’s Really Black

From audio, we move to video. The purchase of a large television has permanently damaged my brain, and I’m taking it out on you. Here is how I know. We took a long weekend in Toronto, and I put a video into the DVD player in the hotel room and was amazed by what the crappy hotel TV did when the screen went black. The screen went black. This is something my new TV doesn’t really do. Actually, I am saying that wrong. The TV does go black, it just doesn’t go totally black. A live black screen is more like a slightly non-uniform cloud of very very dark blue. This is normal for rear projection sets, because to go black the display engine has to block all the light from that bulb. CRT sets like the one in the hotel room can go all the way black because they just turn off the electron gun and send no beam whatsoever. The fact that I even care about this is clear evidence of my new insanity.

There are those in the home theater world who point to this one fact as the crucial reason why rear projection CRT displays are still superior to all the new-fangled big TVs. Never mind that I you can put a 50 inch digital projection TV into a space barely larger than my old 30 inch direct view. Never mind that you never need to fuss with the alignment of three CRT guns. Never mind that you can watch HDTV football in full daylight with the sun hitting the screen itself (something that doesn’t work on my direct view CRT). Never mind that you don’t have to call the calibration guy every few years to put everything that’s drifted out of adjustment back into place. You simply must buy a CRT set for one reason and one reason only: it can really get black.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I would love it if my fancy TV’s blank black screen looked exactly the same as if the TV were off. But I’m not willing to give up its other advantages to make this happen. I want a screen that is larger than the 34 inch limit on direct view CRTs and I don’t want a TV that takes up the entire volume of my living room the way a rear projection set would. Our new TV is already stupidly big, I can’t see buying a larger cabinet.

So, there are two things you can do to make yourself stop worrying about this:

1. Turn a light on. Any ambient light in the room, and I mean any, completely masks the blank screen black level advantage, especially if it reflects off the CRT screen.

2. Don’t watch the credits. Dark scenes in movies generally look good. It’s just the completely black screen that is distracting. Just don’t watch it.

Meanwhile, we can all wait for SED, which will give us thin, large, TVs that do blacks perfectly.

The Camera is just a Light-tight Box

I had a hard time choosing a camera fallacy, because there are too many. My favorites are this one, and the one where the guy who mostly takes pictures from a tour bus while on trips worries that his $4000 EOS-1D Mark II feels too “plasticky”, and that maybe he should buy a Leica instead. Never mind that the toughest camera I ever owned was an Olympus Stylus Epic, which was mostly made of plastic.

Ironically, this statement is usually used to justify the purchase of a particularly expensive camera. The camera dork will examine his purchases and say to himself, “well you know, the important thing is these excellent lenses.” The worship of lens tests is particularly strong among Leica dorks, since the alleged technical superiority of the lenses is the only thing Leica really has going for it since it forgot how to make camera bodies that anyone really cares about. But, the Leica people are by no means unique. The internet forums for all of the major brands are filled with people with much more money than photographic experience agonizing over whether the “L” series Canon lens is worth the 2x or 3x cost premium to get that extra half a stop for the dark places or slightly sharper corners, or less vignetting when wide open, or whatever.

Then they will go off with their new toy and shoot handheld, with direct flash, a noon, and come back to the forum and ask why their pictures don’t have that pop like their favorite photographers. The truth is, the reason those pictures that they love are so great has nothing to do with the magic of the glass. The optics don’t read the light, pick the angle, expose the shot at the right time, and finally make the print look good. The optics just sit there. The truth is that the best lens you have is the one that’s on the camera when the picture is in front of you. The worst thing you can do is spend $2000 on that “Professional Caliber” zoom lens that has that delicious constant 2.8 aperture and works great wide open, only to leave it in the hotel room because it weighs more than your child.

These days, I have two lenses, a wide zoom and a not so wide zoom. I generally only carry one at a time though, and just take the pictures that work with that lens. That way, I think less while shooting, which is always good. The sage photographer/printer David Vestal always said, don’t think while shooting, thinking is for when you are not shooting. I say that’s good advice. I would add: when in doubt, don’t agonize about lenses.