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Friday, December 03, 2004

The Joy of Digital Photography 

[Er, this essay is sort of stomping all over The Lovely One's latest post, so go down and read that first. Then you can come back and check out my rant on digital photography. I didn't plan it that way; I've been working on this essay for several days, and just finished it. -RjC]

Apologies to those of you who already understand digital photography. The following essay will mostly be old hat, but I hope it contains at least one or two new insights.

Digital photography is leading me into a picture-taking renaissance.

I have been a shutterbug most of my life, introduced into the hobby early on at my father's knee, and for most of that time I used a Pentax Spotmatic SP, just a classic old manual camera. I never felt a need to upgrade from that tough, fully manual beast.

But as time passed, I found that I didn't take a lot of pictures. The key reasons, I think, were the size and the cost of photos. Spending several dollars to print a roll of 36 shots was sort of annoying, especially since half the pictures were just terrible, another quarter were uninteresting, and if I was lucky, there was one really good picture on a roll that just happened to work right. Not that I knew what I'd done, since feedback was separated from shooting by a matter of days or weeks. No, I did not keep little shooter's notebooks.

The size issue was simply that an SLR, especially with a reasonably flexible zoom lens mounted, is a huge chunk of metal, and it was always a deliberate decision to take it. Even with a nice lens like a 50mm prime, it's still big, and only got bigger if I wanted to bring along a flash.

Maybe if I had been smart I would have bought a Yashica T5 (aka T4-Super), most beloved of the little rangefinder cameras, and made that my main camera. I have seen a great number serious amateur photographers be very happy shooting with good compact film cameras.

But I didn't. Basically, I stopped taking photos. And that was fine with me: I had other hobbies to keep me busy.

But I've been borrowing a high-end Sony DSC-V1 from work for some time, and it's a sweet little machine that really got me back into taking pictures again. The key with that camera was the ability to just shoot photos without worrying about burning film.

That decided me that I wanted my own digicam, if only for web work and because I kept getting nervous about endangering someone else's $600 camera. Eric gave me a sweetheart deal on his retired Nikon Coolpix 2500, including a couple of memory cards.

By current standards, this thing is obsolete: 3 megapixels is the minimum resolution for a non-joke digital camera, and the offerings at that level are impressively diverse, from bargain-priced non-zoom Kodaks to reasonably serious long-zoom cameras like the Canon S1 IS (here's a bonus hint if you're shopping for a camera right now: if Eric hadn't sold me the Coolpix, I would have purchased a Canon A75, which is a great camera with all-manual controls. This article was inspired largely by my desire to convince my father to buy the A75 as a replacement for a terrible Minolta film SLR he recently returned). The Coolpix I bought doesn't even have any direct manual controls. It picks the shutter, the aperture, and I get to adjust the exposure values if I feel such a need. Normally, I'd find that intolerable.

But none of that matters, when balanced against the gross advantages of digital cameras. The Coolpix is well on its way to turning me into a much smarter photographer, mainly because of the things I noted above: I now take a ton of pictures (because they're free) and I get instant feedback (from the LCD) and keep shooting (again, free photos) until I do something that makes the picture look good. Just think: 10 years ago, a proper studio setup would have involved the amateurs-need-not-apply investment in a Polaroid back for at least one camera, simply so that the photographer could get immediate feedback on how the lighting would work out. Now that feature is available on any digital camera worth buying.

All this, and the Coolpix has the natural virtues of any compact camera: fits in pockets, goes anywhere. Well, actually, it's better than that. I would argue that a compact form factor is the natural form for a digital camera, as they already incorporate the key feature of SLRs: the LCD screen on the back shows you exactly what the image sensor is seeing. No parallax, and near-perfect coverage of the imaging area. (Indeed, so natural that I suspect there's an untapped (?) market for a rangefinder-styled non-SLR digicam that still accepts current SLR and digital SLR (DSLR) lenses). My Nikon takes advantage of the LCD screen by not even bothering with a conventional viewfinder (a few other cameras on the market do the same, and some high-end non-SLRs (including the Canon S1) actually have a second digital viewfinder, a suspiciously hokey feature in my opinion).

But all the digicam makers have gone out of the way to take advantage of the fact that digital cameras just plain have a lot of CPU power inside of them. My under-featured Coolpix, for example, has exposure compensation, twelve (!) different specialty modes of varying utility for problematic shooting situations (everything from macro mode to a special "night scene" mode). I can almost always nudge the camera into a good picture by using these fancy modes, and trial-and-error possibilities mean I don't lose the shot if my first guess is wrong (action photography excepted, of course). Nikon even throws in an amusing trick called "Best Shot Selector" (BSS), which takes up to 10 pictures in a series, automatically finds the sharpest, clearest one, and then tosses the rest. They tout it for circumstances when holding the camera is marginal.

Digital cameras have all kinds of other advantages large and small. My photos are automatically catalogued (I use Picasa, as I have mentioned previously; there are many other album programs out there), so unlike the box of slides in my parents' house, I can see what I took at a glance. When I get smart, I'll do the easy thing and archive every last picture to CD, then give them to my parents, just so I have a safe backup. Easy. Digital cameras can even capture primitive (or in some cases, not particularly primitive) short movie clips. (I have a theory that the inability of digital cameras shooting video to do the 30-minute shots beloved by duffer videographers would go far in improving the average home movie, but that's another essay).

One of the more surprising advantages of my camera was that it allows my mother-in-law to take pictures again. She has vision problems which mean that framing a picture using a normal viewfinder is almost impossible. But lining up the shot with a 1.5" LCD screen which can be held at arm's length and which is nice and bright? That's easy.

The Coolpix also takes advantage of the different physical configurations available to digital cameras. The lens and the main body twist separately, which is used on this camera to give the lens side really good protection when it's not being used, and which also allows the viewscreen to be at an angle relative to the lens, making high- and low-angle shots easier.

In exchange for all these advantages, digital gives away to film, at most, superior image quality, mostly in large-scale enlargements, of the type that my serious, experienced, shutterbug father has actually created about once in the last decade. That's not a lot to give away, and the speed at which digital cameras are improving means they are rapidly taking that advantage back. Indeed, among DSLRs there is no longer any resolution advantage, though there may still be a colour reproduction advantage. That is trickling down into consumer-land fairly quickly. By next year, 3-megapixel cameras will be very cheap, if they exist at all among high-quality camera makers. The sweet spot will probably be 5-megapixel cameras, at about the same price as 3-MP units today. Lenses will soon be more important than the digital sensor at determining the ultimate resolution of consumer cameras.

More important than any technical advantage, though, is this simple point: digital cameras, even relatively simple ones, are fun. They're fun to use. They provide instant gratification, just like a Polaroid camera once did (and at a fraction of the marginal cost). They provide interesting ways of messing with the image, both within the camera and within the computer. They encourage experimentation. It's fun to shoot digital! What more do I have to say?

If I had to imagine my ideal does-it-all digicam, within the constraints of currently available lens systems, I would pick one which was compact enough to put in a cycling jersey pocket (those jersey pockets are really big, so the criterion would be met by most digital cameras smaller than a DSLR), had at least a 3x zoom, as many megapixels as possible, fully-manual shooting, and I'd be very happy. If I could have two cameras, by name, right now, I'd pick a really teeny-tiny camera like the Canon SD (Digital ELPH) series that I would carry everywhere at all times, and then a nifty semi-compact like one of the several high-megapixel prosumer cameras recently released. Third camera, cost no serious object, would probably be the gross overkill of a really serious digital SLR and a couple of lenses. But I bet if I didn't buy a DSLR, I'd never really miss it.

If you were paying for this article, or if the author was a serious pro-type, you'd get a nice conclusion now. You're not, so the wrap-up is this: digital cameras are now good enough and cheap enough that I would recommend one to almost anyone considering a camera purchase, and with a budget of at least C$200. You'll never miss the putative advantages of film, and you'll have more fun taking pictures.

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