Title text: *click* Let him know he's got a stain on his shirt, though.
In this comic, Cueball is showing off his new superzoom camera to White Hat. These are cameras with large zoom lenses, often up to 25× or higher magnification. He is very excited and starts by exclaiming how they can take detailed photos of the craters on the Moon, and (on better models) relatively large photos of Jupiter even with a resolution so individual clouds can be seen. (See examples of zoom on these objects here and here without cloud resolution though, but with Jupiter's four large moons and Saturn's rings.)
He then spots a bird (which is just a speck in the sky) and uses the superzoom for birdwatching, which is a popular use for these cameras. He can see that it's a peregrine falcon and that it has been banded (ringed) and he can even read the number on the band. He then spots an airplane and having taken a picture of it, he can tell that it is a 787 Dreamliner from Japan Airlines, and he can even make out the registration number. All this is possible, with a Nikon Coolpix P900, which may not be much larger than the one Cueball stands with here, with an extremely long lens, and at the time of this comics release that type of camera could be bought at Amazon for less than $600. If that is within the limit Cueball gives of a few hundred dollars can be debated... A SX-60, refurbished with optical zoom currently sells for $379. Its predecessor, the SX-50 sold, refurbished, for less than $200 until going out of stock.
Note that before each comment he has taken a picture, presumably zooming further in after each photo of each new object, zooming out again before beginning with the next object.
Finally, White Hat exclaims that he is sold and states that he also want a superzoom camera like Cueball's. Cueball then points the camera down the street takes a picture and tells White Hat that the shop on Union Road has these camera in stock, indicating that he can see this inside the store (or in their window). He then takes another image and is able to make out not only the worker Kevin inside, he also recognizes him and (as mentioned in the title text after taking yet a further zoomed in picture) notice a stain on Kevin's shirt. He seems to like Kevin and asks White Hat to tell Kevin about the stain when he goes there to buy a superzoom camera. (This was the first time the name Kevin was used in xkcd for a fictive person, see more in this trivia).
Even with the ability of these cameras, it would be difficult for Cueball to be able to make out a specific worker inside the store, but if he is standing near a window it is not impossible, and if he has a stain on his shirt, it is in the same league as spotting a band on a bird in the air. Of course he has to be in a spot where he can see straight to the front of the shop.
The last panel and title text is also a remark on how such cameras can be used to spy on people for quite a far distance, which has often been (mis)used by paparazzi photographers taking pictures of famous people (often while almost naked or in bikini or other bathing clothes). Now everyman gets this disconcerting possibility to spy on their neighbors and others for just a few hundred dollars.
There are lenses that can do what Cueball describes about Jupiter's clouds in the comic (e.g., the Canon 5200mm), but so far not such a small consumer camera as shown in the illustration.
A couple of other factors that many people may not realize until after they've bought a consumer-level superzoom camera is that a) taking a hand-held picture at maximum zoom is typically rather blurry because the lens is magnifying all vibration and it's impossible to hold the camera steady enough (so a camera tripod would be needed), and b) that the lens' aperture at maximum zoom is typically much smaller than at normal focal lengths, with the result that the shutter time must be several times longer to get proper exposure, compounding the vibration / blurry problem. Modern superzoom cameras do have "image stabilization", which can mitigate blurriness due to vibration, but extreme telephoto photography is still more challenging than implied in the comic.
Also having zoomed so much it is very hard to actually locate a moving plane or bird in the sky while looking at the image shown on the camera. And as shown in the comic the lens is zoomed very much in. Of course this could be done by Cueball after having found the flying object with much less zoom. But still if he loses sight of the bird while fully zoomed in it will be almost impossible to find it again without zooming back out.
White Hat and Cueball have discussed photography before in 1314: Photos.
- [White Hat and Cueball are walking right. Cueball is looking down at a camera with a long lens he is holding in both hands.]
- Cueball: I love these superzoom cameras. For a few hundred dollars you can take pictures of Moon craters and Jupiter's clouds.
- [They stop, White Hat looks up in the air while Cueball does the same but through the camera he is holding up to his eye while taking pictures. The camera lens is further zoomed out and is clicking.]
- Cueball: And birds! See that speck up there?
- Cueball: Peregrine falcon!
- Cueball: It's banded, too. Want the number?
- [White Hat looks even further up as Cueball turns left and point the even further zoomed camera almost straight up while taking photos.]
- Cueball: And see that plane?
- Cueball: 787 Dreamliner
- Cueball: Japan Airlines.
- Cueball: Registration is—
- [White Hat looks back down on Cueball who has turned to the right holding the fully out-zoomed camera level to the right along the ground.]
- White Hat: OK, I'm sold—I want one.
- Cueball: They're in stock at the place on Union Road.
- Cueball: Hey, Kevin's working today! He's great.
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