As I ran alongside
the coastline of Key West listening to The Bends and watched the colors along
the horizon as a storm system blew in, changing the ocean from pale green along
the horizon to milky blue to an angry grey break against the shore I wished,
for the thousandth time, that my iPod contained a camera to capture all the amazing
things I see on my runs but that I never, really, even begin to remember to
return to later, camera in hand. It’s the hunger for ceaseless, universal connectivity, perpetual all-encompassing high grade music and the ability to always document the moment.
As they say, be careful what you wish for, because you will surely get it. While it’s doesn’t quite solve the iPod/camera quandary the Nokia N93 addresses a related convergence flashpoint, the cell phone/camera question. Nokia’s previous hat-toss into this slice of the multi-use pie, the N90, produced some undeniably gorgeous pictures for something made on a phone-sorry, Nokia, a device. But while the Carl Zeiss lens on the N90 yielded admittedly soft, fuzzy, pleasing results like this:
The shot below, taken with the Nokia N93, shows that the bump up in megpaixels (to 3.2) yields the startling clarity and fine detail of this:
and this shot of sunset over White Street Pier
Suddenly there's this precise clarity and rich depth of field. You're first reaction is one of delirious excitement: now the phone really can function as a proper camera, and But wait. Because after a few days of playing with the N93 you may realize that as long as you have the phone on you you’re never really off duty from putting thought and care into taking good pictures, from being concious of your surroundings and the possibilty of making a rich, eloquent photograph. Except at night because the flash is painfully weak. But believe me, the daytime pressure can be crushing. I've spent a month with the N93, and if you'll allow me, I'd like to share some insights into how to maximize the strengths and bypass the weaknesses of the device.
I first got my hands on
the N93 for about one day in Paris, where I used it as a prop in a shoot. I was
so focused on the big cameras that I barely used it. But the detail on what I
did get was so crisp and clean after
I was scared to use it around les super cool French, so self-conscious was I of looking like a dork. But I spied on them from above this café.
I managed to get a couple shots in at the end of a shoot day, but the N93's fatal flaw of poor night photography undermined what would have otherwise been a rather hot image. I didn't yet know about the Nightime setting, where the ISO gets considerably more receptive. You'll get a grainy picture, but you do get it. I think the candles here really threw the exposure off.
Anyhow, you can see some much better shots of Guillame here in reFRESH #42, which comes out December 14th.
In this shot too, you see the muddy, grainy quality low light gives you. What I was to discover was: Dawn and Magic Hour are great, but no dimmer!
My next stop was Key West, where I settled in for my annual Fantasy Fest/Thanksgiving sojourn. Nokia sent me the N93, and free of the nerve wracking equipment overload of a photo shoot and a bunch of French speaking models I was free to take my time with the camera phone. It was still kind of daunting.
At 180 grams it’s lighter than the N90, but the stealth bomber black shell actually draws more, not less, attention to the phone. She’s undeniably slick looking but that makes people take notice, and pulling off candid and locker room shots are highly unlikely. There’s just something about the way she sits in your hand when it’s in the camera mode that’s not discrete. The transition from phone to camera is startling at first, and you may find yourself holding it a bit skittishly, like it’s a hand grenade. People pick up on that. The first day I took her out my friend Alex called it pretentious. And I was certainly self-conscious about handling the beast.
At the Masquearade March, a locals daylight costume parade that precedes the Bachanalian of Fantasy Fest, I took the N93 out for its first test drive. Late afternoon, some clouds. Just the kind of diffuse conditions I was to come to relish.
The next day I caught Cayman Smith-Martin’s krew prepping their Day of the Dead float before the big parade. Even though this was only my second day out, I still think these are some of the best images I’ve got with the thing. I’m sure part of this is how careful and conscious I was with the camera. But the ominous grey clouds that threatened to dump rain all over the festivities constituted perfect lighting conditions.
I want this soundsystem, bad.
By the end of a couple of week of heavy use the N93 sat in my palm much more naturally, and my self-consciousness about the cell diminished, and taking pictures felt smoother and sexier-and the subjects were more comfortable. Just as the first time you’d use a Leica Digilux 3 (Santa…Baby?) you’d be clumsy and fumbling with the controls and more focused on the camera than your subjects, and like love making it’s always more important to pay attention to your partner. After you get over the techno-lust and nervous fumbling the N93 inspires I started to find the old Ready Steady Pendergrass touch coming back to me. But there's a danger in getting too relaxed. This is a high-maintenance lover, but it's also a high-rewqard proposition.
Thanksgiving at my parent’s house is a giant potluck. Mid-afternoon light, dense trees overhead, a garden choked with plants. Perfect. But are you starting to sense an ideal lighting story?
I realize I’ve been ragging on the nighttime capacity of the N93, but I actually got a couple good things on Thanksgiving in the evening. I think the trick is that you need some good spot lights, some ambient stuff in the background helps, and rock extra steady when you snap the pic as the shutter slo-o-ows down.
SETTINGS AND LIGHTING
Of course, the camera is so good it presents you with the dilemma of removing yourself from the moment and focusing on the technical aspects of making a good photo: exposure, wb. While the N93 handles a range of lighting situations well, strategically choosing your settings makes a big difference. This is most true with NIGHTIME. The flash feature is-not surprisingly given the size and already spread thin functionality of the device-rather weak, and works better as a fill in situations where’s there’s already light and you want to catch the faces in the foreground. Even then it’s a bit sallow. But if you’re relying on the flash to fill up a night shot you may be unhappy. My advice on shooting in the dark is switch her over to Night. W/o this adjustment you get this;Here's a pool at night on Automatic
When you could get this on Night:
Night portrait splits the difference between a more sensitive ISO and the flash so you may manage to cover the subject but the color is pretty rank, somehow both blue and sallow at the same time. I’ve simply gone for Night setting and tried to cover my subject with a little light and hoped for the best. Often it’s quite good.
Here's grey and rain-threatening versus bright sunlight.
Little something on the lens there.
But where the N93 really shines is in diffuse, medium lighting conditions, like early morning or late, late afternoon on days with some cloud cover and some moisture in the air. Impractical? Perhaps, but that’s how they shot Heaven’s Gate, and look how that turned out. Well, visually at least. At any rate, I took to calling it the Magic Hour camera for a while, after nabbing some shots like this:
When you’re getting real close do take advantage of the Close-up setting. Without:
Steve Pinariello, a
cameraman/videographer I know in
We sat in a café as Steve attempted to upload the videos he’d shot onto his Powerbook. The day before Steve had been hanging off the side of a helicopter shooting Power Boat races for ESPN. We fumbled through the sync process with relative ease. “I found this process how I found everything else with this phone” he said as we transferred each video individually (drag-with TK cable you can suck em off the phone en masse but the Bluetooth doesn’t like multiple files). “I could just figure it out. It wasn’t like with Sony cameras where you have to have a masters in the Sony interface. It’s nice and intuitive.
“I hate the lens cap. Taking it off and putting it back on, and the little string attached to it—very disruptive. But you do need something so you don’t lose the lens cap-on shoots that’s one of the biggest problems. They should have a little rubber gasket like they have over the memory card slot.It’s good video, I was really impressed. I’ve got a Canon S3IS that I got just in case one of mine went down.
I was very self conscious of the weight of it in my pocket, and I found I babied it a bit. If I owned it I’d have to get something to carry it in, a case.
I had a bit of a problem holding the camera, getting used to properly applying pressure to the shutter button; you’re finger doesn’t normally press down on it, and you have to be sure you get some purchase. And your finger naturally goes directly over the flash. I got it in the end, though.
The nighhtime stuff is a little grainy although the sound is good. But the daytime stuff is impressive.
Now I consider my Motorola I530 a big phone, and the N93 is a lot bigger.
For video on phone? I’m very satisfied with the quality of the video. For a phone. My Canon S3 does much better video; but that’s why I got it, as a backup in case my main camera goes down. And that’s a camera." Steve's
During the process we had to turn the phone off and on a couple of times; the constant demands we were making were too much for her, it seemed. The N93
Will I buy this one? No. Will I by version 3, maybe a little smaller? Maybe.
Steve went on a cruise for a few days right after we spoke. When he returned he admitted that he’d missed having the phone at random moments when he didn’t have his Canon on him. So Steve has been infected with Convergence Fever. Sorry, buddy. Here's some footage I shot on the fly at the Masquearade March the day before the Fantasy Fest parade in Key West. Unfortunately when it's posted to YouTube so I can embed it here you lose at lot of quality-this looks painfully pixilated but on my laptop it looks about 50% better. The transfer to YouTube for the purposes of embedding here you lose a lot of quality and wide up with this pixilated, choppy-shutter effect. At 30 frames/second the qualtiy on a monitor or a TV is a lot better.
Here are a couple videos I shot at night; These first two demonstrate the remarkably good sound recording even with the sallow/ ultra-fuzzy low light condition. Oh, and that's a ghost costume, not a Klan outfit.
Nokia's Lifeblog feature allows you to upload photos directly from your phone to a Typepad blog. While the sequence is a little unwieldy and requires about one too many steps to feel effortless, the Lifeblog feature does offer a pretty serious rush to the blogger on the go. [NOTE: Got a great response to this from a helpful reader named Hugo, who may or may not be a Nokia staffer. I tend to think yes.]
A tip: To blog a photo quickly, press the green "call" key once to open the blog editor view, then again if you wish to blog it quickly without editing any of the default captions.
Two keys: Blam! Blam!
Following the instructions, but if you like things verablly explained to you there’s a demo on Nokia's Nseries WOM World blog.
But the lust for
immediate gratification is palplable, and after the first taste of magically
uploading your photos to the web or a Flickr account which it's also enabled for, you’re hooked. And like an addict, when
it doesn’t work, you get the jones in your bones. I found Lifelblog to be a little twitchy, freezing up occasionally and requiring the classic turn-the-thing-off-and-then-back-on manouevre. Could be worse.
Could be worse.
TIPS FOR GETTING THE MOST OUT OF THE N93
DO YOUR HOMEWORK.
Read the manual. Carefully. Keep it on you for the first month or two. Aside from a big variety of combo settings for both still and video photography there’s a slew of other elements to the device that I haven't even covered here.
SPEND MORE MONEY.
Get a 2 Gig Mini-SD card. While the device isn’t going to replace your TK (yet) you may as well have ample record time since the beauty of having a video/camera/phone is denuded very quickly when you run out of space to record. And even though you’ve already spent a mint on the N93 spring for the $30; the jump up to over half an hour to play with versus the 3 minutes the 256 card the phone comes with.
STEADY AS SHE GOES.
Hold her tight, take aim, stand still, and squeeze the trigger hard. Moving around and unsteady trigger finger were my biggest cause of messed up shots. You don't have the flexibility and wiggle room of a fast PowerShot of the forgiving quality of slow synchro flash here. Think like a formal old school portaitist and look, compose and. Get. That. Shot. Nerves of steel, baby.
WRAP IT UP.
Use the little cord that comes with and attaches the cap to the base of the device. The cap is really small and when I simply took it off and dropped it in my pocket I was constantly worried about losing it somehow.
IS THAT A $900 PHONE IN YOUR POCKET OR ARE YOU JUST GLAD TO SEE ME?
Holster that weapon, son. Are belt cases Geeky? No more geeky than walking around with a non-sexy bulge in your pants. Nokia’s CP-117 hooks on your belt and keeps the not-lightweight N93 from banging against your goodies all day.
CONTROL (I WANT TO BE THE ONE IN)
The little buttons on the side that control flash and switch the camera from video to image mode are extremely useful and much faster than changing settings by toggling through the menu.
It helps to have a little bit of fingernail on your index finger as said buttons are tiny.
SET IT OFF.
Really pay attention to your settings. Can't stress enough. I blew a lot of good shots because I treated the N93 like an all-purpose point-and-shoot. It's not. Think of it like an Nikon F. Very manual.
OLIVER: PORTRAIT OF A BAD INFLUENCE
I worked with Oliver on a photo project I did; part co-hort, part muse, part bad influence, part comic foil.
Ollie’s starting a rock band called Splash of Cran with a drag queen fronting some bi/gay dudes and they're gonna play Depeche Mode and Bowie and Queen and Joplin. Sean there on the left is in the band. I said I’d play Brian Epstein for them.
I know, not very mature. Pretty bad, the way I sexually exploit my friend, right? Shame on me. Uh..this is how the pictures look with light clouds and reflection from the ocean?
Without this camera cell combination I wouldn’t-on little jaunts where I left my camera at home-have captured this:
Or this one poolside at the Island House
Or this one of my friend Chris, the chef at my favorite Key West restaurant,915. I stopped in to see him in the afternoon, before the place was open, when the room has this incredible Vermeer-like light.
You can be driven quite mad by the relentless, inescapable opportunity to make really quite good pictures or video that the N93 affords. There is no hiatus, no time off from the often jarring gear switch from simply experiencing the moment to framing and conceptualizing and getting that shot.
The N93 isn't perfect, but it’s still pretty dazzling. Therein lies the riddle: without perfect, Tricorder-grade performance from your ultimate picture making/communicator/GPS locator/PDA/music player/recorder, there will always be one feature that’s left aside, and that you wish you had. As we inch nearer to that possibility, the devices that come closest-like the N93-leave you maddened and hungry for more converegence. I love you and I hate you, N93. Give me more.