Can a Camera Make You a Better Photographer?

Panasonic thinks their FRT-1 will do exactly that...

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Here is a truism ignored by most of the pixel-peeping, specs-obsessed crowd: a camera does not take better pictures; it is the photographer. Give an artist a Holga, and you will see some outstanding work. A tyro will spend $4000 for the latest digital SLR capable of shooting 8 frames per second, recording this in 15 bits per color, with virtually no noise at ISO 3200 — and the result is, invariably, trash. The wannabe photographer will then blame the camera for his (or, less often, her) failure, seeing the only solution to the problem in spending $6000 for the next, "new and improved" model, offering 12 FPS, 17 BPC and ISO 6400, never giving a thought to improving his/her photography skills by, for example, reading a book on exposure, perspective or other, equally boring, aspect of the picture-taking process.

Camera manufacturers used to be quite happy with this state of affairs: after all, this is as close to an ideal customer as they come, a new model every year, selling to the same group of people, again and again.

This is about to change. Panasonic is ready to revolutionize the digital camera market by introducing the Lumix FRT-1, the first model which will actually make you a better photographer within weeks, if not days (depending on your use of the camera and on how aggressively it is set up).

The concept, licensed from Leica (who patented it in the Thirties!) is quite simple; I am surprised that nobody thought about it earlier. While the full press release is expected to follow within weeks, here is what I was able to learn about it so far from confidential sources.

What's so different about the FRT-1?

Panasonic (a brand of the Japanese technological giant, Matsushita), decided to approach the problem from the opposite end, in a quite revolutionary way, which we would expect from a technology leader. With most cameras within the same price range sporting similar specs and features, it is no longer enough to offer a 19× zoom instead of an 18× one to improve the results of a photographer (or, worse, to offer an MP-3 player on an otherwise mundane model to make the camera stand out of the crowd). True, some makers seek for a solution in offering a 20× zoom instead, but these efforts are not enough.

We have reached a stage where no further progress in image quality is possible without improving the most critical link in the process: the photographer. And Panasonic seems to be the first manufacturer who realized this elementary truth. The details are at this stage quite murky, but this is what I was able to collect from available sources, including some confidential ones.

The new camera model, the Lumix FRT-1 employs the alternative rewards mechanism in a simple and straightforward way, to help the user in developing proper photographic habits.

Remember the happy faces your first grade teacher used to put on your homework (when it was well done)? This is simple and efficient, and it works much better than a first-grader's awareness of the fact that proper spelling is related to better chances on the job market in some indefinite future.

All other cameras reward the photographer's proper decisions by delivering good photographs well after the fact, when these photographs are viewed as prints or as screen displays. This really does not work too well: the reward, if any, is delayed, and if it is withheld, the photographer does not know exactly why, i.e., what really went wrong with a particular image. Besides, an alternative reward is more efficient than a "regular" one.

The scientific foundation behind the system is based on the research of a German psychologist, Ulrich von Rottenschwantz, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, see the Appendix. In short, the system depends on the notion that a negative feedback following a wrong decision is more effective in the learning process than a positive feedback after a right one, a concept sometimes referred to as Lehrvergnügen.

How does Lehrvergnügen work?

The camera constantly monitors photographers actions, settings, and shooting technique. Proper ones (i.e., those usually leading to better pictures) are not reacted upon; the wrong ones are followed by a negative feedback stimulus, a sign that something was done wrong (for example, wrong exposure compensation applied, or a shutter speed too long for safe handholding used).

Here the word alternate in the term alternate reward comes into play (I guess it is more politically correct than punishment, but that's really what it boils down to). The photographer must want to avoid such a "reward" happen again; this is what really speeds up the learning process. Wrong decisions must be immediately followed by a negative stimulus, Dr. Rottenschwantz discovered, so that they happen less and less often.

I realize that deciding on the kind of negative feedback provided was perhaps the toughest decision Panasonic designers had to make. While Rottenschwantz referred in his research to whipping (such were the times, believe it or not), this seemed out of the question, for both cultural (except of some Middle-Eastern markets perhaps) and technical reasons. My first guess would be a mild electric shock (really, just a tiny, high-voltage spark, harmless and safe but noticeable), but the company decided to go a different way. The camera provides two kinds (separately or together) of negative stimuli:

  • Audible: a low, yet quite unpleasant sound emitted from the tiny speaker in camera's back, in a number of graduated variations. (Some testers referred to it in scatological terms, but I can't really say, not having tried a production model.)
  • Olfactory: a tiny (but pungent) puff of unpleasant smell from a separate orifice next to the battery compartment. The magnitude (volume?) of this effect also depends on the gravity of the "offence" committed.

    (This puff consists mostly of hydrogen and methane, which are byproducts of the process of battery discharge, therefore being readily available and easily replenished by recharging.)

The tests I've heard about show that it is usually enough for the camera user to experience a negative stimulus to an improper action (or decision) just five or six times to have the bad habit corrected; this would mean that you may become a better photographer already after the first day of using the FRT-1.

I find this most impressive: much faster than the obsolete way of learning by reading books, especially those with much text and very few color illustrations.

Interestingly, an early FRT-1 prototype used the audible feedback in form of pre-recorded sarcastic remarks. Most testers, however, found that more funny than annoying, so that the solution did not work to the desired effect.

Last but not least, the whole process is not static: as the user stops making the most basic errors (therefore reducing the frequency of negative feedback), new behaviors are being classified as offending, so that the frequency rises again. For example, after gaining enough skills in elementary areas like camera holding, exposure, or WB settings, you may start getting alternate rewards related to some more advanced or even aesthetic aspects, like image composition (this uses the same technology as face recognition, in which Panasonic was one of the pioneers). I was not given any details on that, except that the system works at three skill levels: elementary, intermediate, and advanced.

One of my first questions, obviously, was whether the system can be disabled. It cannot, my source said, as this would be too tempting for a user unwilling to learn.

There are two settings, however, each with two choices. First, you may set the camera to react to just technical issues or also to aesthetic ones. Second, you can decide whether the camera will allow you to take a picture in spite of violating some rules or not. (This is not unlike focus and release priority modes in some models, with the former not allowing to release the shutter if AF was not achieved.)

FRT-1 as a "regular" camera

Besides of the features described above, the FRT-1 is a fairly typical EVF model, similar to others in this class (often referred to as "bridge" or "SLR-like"). Actually, its specs look quite similar to the Lumix FZ-18 I used recently (if improved a bit): a 20× zoom, 3" LCD monitor, ISO settings from 100 to 6400 and similar stuff. There is possibly a new sensor technology involved, as the sensor size is a paltry 1/3.2".

I was shown a picture of the camera prototype and, indeed, it looked very much like the FZ-19, with the Leica logo clearly visible on the zoom barrel. Unfortunately, my source did not want to risk his job by letting me use the picture, but this is understandable.

The camera is expected to enter the production stage before the summer vacation season, so we can expect an official announcement from Panasonic at any moment now.

It remains unclear if Panasonic is planning an SLR model with the Lehrvergnügen feature; this would be of great interest to the existing Four Thirds user community. "You haven't seen anything yet", my source just said, smiling.

What do I think of all that?

Initially, the idea stroke me as something half-way between funny and stupid. Imagine that: a concept based on highly unpopular work of a foreign psychologist of 100 years ago, and implemented in, I dare say, a suggestively scatological manner (I was led to believe thet FRT stands for Flatulence Reinforced Training, but this would be really too much).

Then I gave it a second thought. Why not? As long as the goal (making you a better, or even better, photographer) is achieved without hurting tropical forest or baby animals, it is the bottom line what counts. Actually, I think Panasonic may be doing the photographic community a big favor, thinking not just about its cash flow but also about making its average camera user a better photographer and, most probably, a better person.

This is why I am ready to give the FRT-1 my highest rating (five stars out of five), even before I had an opportunity to use the camera. Just tell them you first heard about it from me, so they can send me some money.

Extremely Highly Recommended.

Appendix: Ulrich von Rottenschwantz and his work

Modern psychology in the beginning of the 20th century was dominated by two giants. One of them was Sigmund Freud, the founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology (his first scientific paper was about testicles of eels, and if you think I'm inventing this, check here). The other was Ulrich von Rottenschwantz, a Prussian scientist exploring the psychology of learning, who published his findings in a brilliant series of articles in Mitteilungen der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften between 1887 and 1908.

How come everybody heard about Freud while the legacy of von Rottenschwantz is known only to specialists? There are two reasons here. First, Freud had enough sense to switch his area of interest from sexuality of eels to that of humans, which turned out to be a hot subject. (After all, almost everyone knows with whom Britney Spears had two babies, while nobody cares who won the Nobel prize in physics last year.)

Secondly, von Rottenschwantz's findings, as proven as they were scientifically, became politically incorrect in later years, and this excluded them from any academic curricula in the U.S. and many European countries. Keep on reading to see why.

Von Rottenschwantz studied the learning process (first of animals, then of humans) and came to three major conclusions: (a) the process is sped up by proper application of reward and punishment stimuli; (b) the latter are more effective than the former, and (c) the stimuli are most effective when applied immediately. For example, a barrel-maker's apprentice learns much faster if he is whipped for every botched barrel than if he is rewarded for a properly assembled one (except when the reward is not being whipped). A good lashing right on the spot works better than a day off next week. So simple and so true, except that quite difficult to sell to the educators of today...

Obviously, I am simplifying things here; this is not an article on psychology. The frequency and magnitude of punishments (more recently referred to as alternative rewards) has to be carefully chosen to maximize the progress, and the math behind that is quite convoluted — perhaps the first and only use of group theory in psychology.

In later years, when it became obvious that whipping slow learners may never become the teaching method of choice, the work of von Rottenschwantz became largely neglected, except for a series of obscure patents related to mechanical devices, applying the necessary feedback to their users, therefore accelerating the learning process.

Personally, I believe that Dr. von Rottenschwantz was right all the time, and history will prove that. Just wait and see.


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Posted 2008/04/01

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