Selling and marketing high technology is what I do for a living. My counterpart is the customer or buyer, and I help design, build, explain, an market these products. In this role, I am most usually the expert on the domain, helping potential customers understand what we sell and why it will help them. Both at the high-level value proposition and the details behind it. Some people focus most of the their energy on the high-level value proposition, but I feel that youoften need a bit detail backing that as well.
I recently had the enlightening experience of being on the buying side instead, experiencing the transition from high-level value proposition to low-level details. It struck me as being quite similar to what the customers for our virtual platforms would experience when coming in new to the field.
I bought a camera.
My high-level requirements were clear.
- I needed a new main camera, as the old Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 I bought some five years ago was literally starting to have pieces falling off of it.
- I wanted something that was faster (as I have been trying to capture moving kids for some years now)
- I wanted something that was provided less noisy pictures in low light conditions
- I wanted something better than a basic compact digital camera
- Size was not a big issue, the Lumix I have was pretty big already
- It would be nice to have a computer control mode to do time-lapse photography
Based on this, I decided the best solution was to be found by buying a “real” camera, i.e., a Digital Single-Lens Reflex, or DSLR, camera (cue drumroll). Many of my friends have DSLRs and they do seem to enable higher-quality pictures. However, pretty much every DSLR on the market satisfies the high-level requirements.
So how to decide on what to buy? This is where it got hairy and turned from a buying expedition into a learning experience. To spend my money (easy enough), I first had understand how the technology to be acquired worked (hard). I turned from the program manager level of “having a DSLR will improve things” (accepted) to the technical buyer level of “how do I find the best DSLR for me?” Which in turned prompted the question “how does a DSLR actually work and what are the relevant parameters?”
I think this situation is very analogous to what many of the people buying tools like virtual platforms are facing. They can see that other people get good value out of theirs. They know they need something like it in order to improve their own work process. But in order to be comfortable buying, they need to understand more.
I started out by asking friends and reading some random reviews online, narrowing the field down to “entry-level DSLRs from the big manufacturers Canon, Nikon, Sony and Pentax”. Problem is that even one of these manufacturers happily sell a handful of different cameras that are all entry level. So, no way to avoid the need to understand a bit more about the technology of cameras. Something I had never really done before, since I felt I had managed to take decent enough pictures with my oversized compact camera – which did not require such knowledge.
To make a long story long, I figured out that:
- A large sensor is better than a small sensor, and that pretty much all DSLRs use the same sensor size, “APS-C”. Thus, clearly a factor that makes a DSLR better than another camera, but with no value in terms of choosing a DSLR.
- The processing of pictures in a camera vary with manufacturer, processor generation, and model. Reading reviews was the way to come to terms with that, followed by the simplification that it actually did not seem to matter that much anyway.
- Image stabilization can be located in the camera body or in the lens system. Maybe having it in the lens is better, but this seems more like an arbitrary technology choice for me. At least at my current level of understanding.
- Lenses are key. Apparently, a typical “kit lens” (jargon for “lens typically included with the camera in typical package deals) does not quite exploit the full power of the camera body. Buying a better lens later is thus a nice way to upgrade the same camera body. Always nice with partial upgrade paths.
- If I want the nice effect of short focus depth, I needed to have a lens with large aperture (low “f number”). Zooming with a lens reduces the aperture (on most lenses, for some reason related to the physics of light).
- The size of the sensor affects how much zoom you can get out of an equivalent amount of physical travel. My old camera had a lens that zoomed about 12 times, compared to the 3 times zoom I get out of my DSLR with a lens that is roughly the same size. The reason is the much small sensor on the old camera.
- There are several different standards for how to attach lenses to a DSLR (obvious, really), and this means that different cameras have different-size ecosystems of lens choice. There is a clear long-term advantage to getting a camera with a popular lens attachment. Also, this will tend to encourage users to stick with a certain manufacturer as they upgrade over the years.
- Autofocus can be done in very many different ways, and I still do not get the finer points between the methods. So I largely ignored this factor. * Typically, using the screen to frame a picture forces the camera to work more as it needs to focus and take a picture and display it. This makes such framing slower than using the viewfinder.
- For some reason, on most models (Sony seems to be an exception) different autofocus techniques are used for pictures taken via the optical view finder and the screen. And the optical one is faster so the viewfinder is best for quick shooting.
- The screens on DSLRs had evolved into something pretty sophisticated. 3 inch, million pixel displays that rival current smartphones. Suddenly, my old camera looked dull and myopic… You could even find cameras with touch-screen interfaces!
- More professional-class cameras have intimidating-looking displays of setting in a small monochrome LCD on top of the camera body. Entry-level DSLRs did not. While I probably can appreciate such features in a few years time, today they seemed overkill.
- Ergonomics matter and you should try the hands-on feel of a camera before buying. Different cameras fit different hands, simply. Without the advice of my friends, I actually would not have considered this an important point.
- While entry-level DSLRs tend to be friendly and operating much like a compact camera, there are also some exotic high-end beasts that provide fantastic control and image quality for the real experts. This is a sign of a sound market, in my opinion, and makes getting an entry-level device all the more comforting knowing that there is room to grow.
- There is a new breed of “mirrorless” DSLRs (how they can be reflex without a mirror is a bit of a mystery, but that’s what they are called) that do not have an optical viewfinder and as a result offers far smaller bodies with interchangeable lenses. But compactness was not an issue for me, and they seemed to make a few compromises in terms of picture quality and speed. It seemed safer to go with the standard DSLR style, simply.
In the end, I decided to play it safe and bought a camera that all the review sites I had checked said was excellent. The Canon 650D. It might be overkill for me right now, but it does do everything I wanted it to. And as a bonus, I really like its touch-screen interface – it is a camera that the kids effortlessly browse the pictures on, as it works just like any touch-screen phone or device.
Now, I need to learn how to master this new world of photography. For the time being, I am happy with a kit lens. Next upgrade step is another lens, either a wider view lens for landscapes, or a more aggressive zoom. I will live with the camera for a while before I decide on what I need the most. Right now, I am leaning towards the wider field of view rather than big zoom.
It was an interesting experience to have to learn a whole new world of technology. Interesting and elucidating, serving as a strong reminder to me that you always need to provide a bit more than a high-level value proposition to steer customers your way. And that it is often necessary to go back to basics and teach prospective customers about how things work at a very basic level. To an outsider, almost every field of technology can be very intimidating.