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Digital Photography: 
The Way I See It 

by Gary W. Stanley 

When computers first showed up on the scene for mass consumption, we had our reasons for diving in head first, or for lying back to see if it was something we really needed.  Perhaps it was just a passing fad, I could see why a large business might use one, but me?  Now I feel like the odd man out if I’m not seen on a plane with a laptop, palm pilot, and a cell phone.  

As I continue to lecture, I’m finding a huge interest in digital in one form or another.  After a traditional program, people aren’t asking what time of day was that shot you took in Zion?  Instead I’m mobbed with questions like: What printer do you use?  What scanner?  Who’s inkjet paper do you like best?  What digital camera should I buy?  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize what people are interested in. 

In this article, I want to help you to understand some digital basics, and what to expect.  I will show you how to make an informed decision, based on your needs, and make some suggestions on how to do it economically.  We’ll compare conventional film and digital capture, and the pros and cons of using each.  The answer to all of our photographic problems may not be as simple as you might think.  As you will see, both film and digital have a place in the current market. 

My own needs may be different from yours, and that’s why this article is entitled: Digital Photography: The Way I See It. 

Let’s make the assumption that once the image is in the computer; we are basically on the same playing field.  We can work with the image in Photoshop, we can store the image in our slide filing system, we can email a photograph to a friend or relative, or we can get a nice print from our inkjet printer.  Whatever you want to do with your image after you have it in the computer is up to you.  In a traditionally photographic way, let’s compare film and digital capture. 

Automatic Operation:  For the majority of entry-level digital cameras, you will notice they resemble point and shoot film cameras.  We like to affectionately call them PHD cameras.     Push Here Dummy!     They will be in the $200-$500 range and have 1.3 to 2.2 megapixel recording capability. 

Aperture and Shutter Priority:  Just like traditional photography, allowing you to work with depth-of-field and to control shutter speed.   $500 and up with a zoom lens range of about 35-105.  Many of these models have a Movie Mode (40 sec. or so) and several custom settings. 

Lag Time:  There can be significant time lag between the time you press the shutter release and the actual capture of the image.  People will often want a digital camera to record their children in sporting events at school, not realizing this can be an issue. Plan on spending more money for the higher-end ($800. and up) digital cameras to help with this problem, or . . . 

Tip:   The fewer automatic features you use can shorten your lag time.  If you have the ability to turn of the LCD screen, do so.  Shoot in either Shutter priority or Aperture priority and focus manually.  If you press your shutter release partially down prior to the actual shot, this also will shorten or actually eliminate lag time.  Any of these tricks can reduce lag time by as much as half or more.

Film versus Memory Cards:  In traditional photography, the film you put in your camera, and the ISO you set, is the setting you’re stuck with.  With digital, you can set the camera’s light metering sensitivity to any ISO equivalent after each shot if you want to.  Film is inexpensive but not reusable. Memory cards are expensive but are reusable. Film is light sensitive and affected by x-rays.  Memory cards are very durable and not affected by x-rays, but they are affected by magnetic fields, so keep them away from things like stereo speakers and televisions.  

There are several types, Smart Media, Compact Flash, Sony Stick, IBM, etc.  Compact Flash Cards for example run about, $30 for a 32 meg card, $55 for a 64 meg, $85 for a 128, and $160 for a 256 meg card.   The high-speed cards are substantially more money and benefit the higher end SLR digital cameras. You could pay up to $1,000 for a 1 gigabyte card. Add to that, $40 to $60 for a card reader to get the information into the computer.  LaCie makes a card reader called the Hexamedia that can read all of these cards.  Compact Flash cards currently seem to be the card of choice. 

With digital capture using memory cards, you have immediate use of the image after the exposure is taken.  You can view the image on your LCD panel, print to a portable printer, or download to your laptop.  This allows you to edit your images even before you leave your shooting location, Neat!  With traditional film, you do need to have it processed, hoping that everything came out okay.  Then, you have the task of editing your images on a light table and filing them.  While this appears to be a more tedious process, seeing your images projected on a big screen will usually make me forget that it was anything but a formality. 

Long Exposures:  Quality slow-speed films like Fuji Velvia and Provia 100F handle long exposures well, without a very noticeable increase in grain. Faster films can help shorten the exposures, but increased grain is usually the tradeoff.  In digital capture, long exposures will introduce grain in the image.  This grain is called Noise in digital terms.  The high-end cameras may feature Noise-Reduction as a solution.  You can select higher ‘ISO’ settings in digital as well if you need faster shutter speeds. 

Traditional Metering vs. White Balance:  Both types of metering are designed to do similar things.  In traditional photography, you match the film to the color of the light, tungsten for tungsten light, daylight film for outdoor daylight shooting for example.  With White Balance, the digital camera’s meter is using white as a reference to balance color so the other colors look natural.  While both types of metering systems work well for the majority of your shots, they can both be fooled and register incorrect exposures.  

With traditional photography, you know your meter is trying to render your subject as a medium tonality or 18% gray.  You then use your exposure compensation dial or switch to manual exposure and make your adjustments.  With White Balance your digital camera is trying to make adjustments based on a pure white subject being pure white in the final exposure. It works much like your eye does trying to adjust to changing light.  But what happens in the case of a sunset shot, a snow scene, or back lighting?   You probably will need to override this suggestion and control the white balance manually.  

LCD Screen:  If there is one item on digital cameras that I feel helps you when trying to make a good exposure, it is the LCD panel.  This “Polaroid Back” of the digital world is your saving grace.  You can review or preview your composition before finalizing the image.  Take the shot and look at it on the LCD panel, then either keep it or delete it.  Wow!  No wasted film, no bracketing necessary.  “I could learn to like this.” 

The down side:  Keep a good supply of batteries on hand.  Digital cameras like batteries!  Buy a rechargeable system using NiMH (Nickel Medal Hydride) batteries in the camera.  Using the LCD panel increases battery consumption significantly on most cameras.  When shooting outside, you will also need an accessory rubber hood that fits over the panel to block out extraneous light from hitting the screen. 

Using the LCD panel, however, can make you LAZY!  “What?” “How?”  Well, being able to quickly take a shot, review it and re-shoot can allow you to become a little lazy.

I don’t want you to forget all those basics of good photography that you’ve learned.  I believe you should still use a tripod, a cable release, pay attention to details, and have a good understanding of what it takes to make a good photograph. 

Fill-Flash:  This is still a very handy feature of any camera, especially the point-and-shoot variety.  I have shown people pictures of my children using the fill-flash feature, and people are amazed at how much fill-flash improves the look of the image.  People are also amazed at how two beautiful children could have been produced from such a homely father, but that’s another issue. 

Lenses and Filters:  Many digital point-and-shoot cameras have zoom lenses that serve the user well in general shooting situations.  Many manufactures make screw-on accessory filters as well as screw-on lenses for macro, wide-angle or telephoto use.  The digital SLR can use built-in filtering systems or, interchangeable lenses and screw-on filters in the same manner as you would with a traditional system.  

One of the biggest differences however in digital SLR photography, comes at the expense of wide angle.  Because of the way the sensor captures or accepts light, there is about a 50% loss in the effective angle of view when using a wide-angle lens.  Translated, this means a 28mm lenses mounted on your digital SLR now becomes a 40mm.  Wow! Not so wide any more is it?  As a result, manufacturers have scrambled to produce lenses from 14–17mm just to achieve a decent wide-angle in the 20-24mm range.  At the other end of the spectrum however, is that a modest 400mm f/5.6 becomes a 600mm f/5.6 when used on a digital SLR camera.  Yes a 50% increase in telephoto without an increase in f-stops.  “Wow, Again!”  Don’t let that be the only reason you switch to digital. 

The Bottom Line:  With digital capture, the number of megapixels that a particular digital camera is able to record will have a direct bearing on the quality and size of a print, should you decide to make one.  Cost will certainly come into play as those megapixels increase.  For example, a 2-megapixel digital camera ($250 - $450.) should produce a decent 4x6 print.  A camera with 3.3 megapixels ($450 - $950.) will be good for at least a 5x7 to 8x10 print.  A 5 to 6 megapixel camera ($2,000 - $5,500.) should be able to produce a print in the 11x14 to 16x20 range.  So how deep is your wallet? 

Yes, there are some bargains out there.  As technology improves and new cameras come along, you’ll see excellent cameras that were released on the market just a short while ago, drop in price.  Nikon’s 995 for example was over $900, now you can buy it for about $600. Nikon, Fuji, and Canon all just released 6 megapixel plus, SLR cameras that will have street prices ranging from $1,995 to around $2,500.  That’s not much higher than the top-of-the-line 35mm cameras many of us have. 

It is tough to compare the costs between the two types of systems.  So much depends upon your needs and final output.  When you lay down that kind of serious money, you know it will take a few years before you recoup your investment.  “So, like my computer, will my digital camera become a useless paperweight in two years?”  Well I hope not.  Manufacturers tell us this shouldn’t happen.  The cameras are made to last for a long period of time.  This certainly won’t stop technology from moving forward, but hopefully they will still be compatible.  The same holds true with film and traditional photography, it will be with us for a long time to come.  

Perhaps one other area of sharp difference between the two mediums is that you can use high quality film like Velvia in a 20, 30, or even a 40-year-old camera and as long as the lenses are sharp and you use good technique, you can produce wonderful images.  At this point in time, I don’t believe you can say that of digital.  Yes, I know it has not been around as long, but, as long as there are improvements in the capturing method or increase in the megapixels from one model to the next, image quality will improve.  

When they finally do match film in quality, then your purchase will be bankable.  Two years ago we all went ooh! and ah! when high-end digital cameras went from 3.3 megapixels to 5 megapixels.  Now they are over 6 megapixels and climbing.  

I still feel film has the edge over digital in terms of recorded information, overall quality, sharpness, color and look.  I’m not quite ready for a total transformation.  Digital has become a force to be reckoned with, and yes it is very good.  So I’ll take it one step at a time, and for the time being I’ll continue to hug my film canisters and keep on shooting.  And that’s Digital Photography The Way I See It!

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