|Digital, In Just a Short Time
it has Changed Our Lives!
While sitting around a huge table having dinner with a gang from a camera club, I pass around a couple of 8x10 prints for folks to check out. One is a photograph of a Snowy Egret I had taken in Florida. I was only four feet away from him when I took the photo. After the print had gone around the table I asked the folks how they thought I'd captured the image (I said captured but no one picked up the hint). When I told them I took the photo with a point & shoot camera, a digital point & shoot camera, everyone wanted to see the print again.
The disbelief turned into amazement on the folk's faces, a photo I wish I had captured! This was only 1998. Man…has digital changed our lives in just a short time!
Jim said I now qualify as an "old dog" when it comes to digital, so he asked me to write my thoughts on the subject, on how it's evolved and where it's gotten to. He wanted me to talk about what have been some of the surprises for me and the myths that still haunt the medium. More importantly, he wanted me to pull out my crystal ball and forecast where I think it's going to be in five years.
My Digital Roots
My transition from conventional film was from a whirling ten frames per second F5 to the original Kodak DCS 620. It was a real eye-opener. First and foremost, the write times of that old 620 was like tying an anchor on my shooting finger when compared to the F5 (one of my first digital lessons, write times). The next thing that brought me to a roaring halt was the post image processing required with the Kodak software. While I saw instantly how digital could radically change my photography and business, I felt then it was not a workable system for my style of photography. At about this time I was handed a Coolpix 900 by Nikon and I met my new friend the JPEG for the first time. So while I continued to capture my main files with conventional film I shot with the Coolpix as I explored this new medium.
It wasn't until the release of the D1 that my photographic world was turned upside down by digital. I've gone through a few major evolutions in photography in my twenty years; IF- internal focus, TTL flash, Autofocus, and Matrix Metering, just to mention a few. I've always embraced new technology to see if it would solve the problems I face in the process of my creative and communicative pursuits. I did the same thing with digital as I've done with all evolutionary changes - I started with the basics.
Some of my basics came from my high school photo teacher, some came from an old saying when it comes to computers, garbage in is garbage out. And finally, some basics from my own school of hard knocks.
My switch to shooting totally with digital was in June 2000. One of my personal big surprises was just how easy it was for me to make the switch. I was shooting in Nome, Alaska shooting with both the F5 and the D1. I would switch back and forth between the two mediums as I photographed a subject. By the second day it was driving me nuts! Little things like having to carry around bulky pockets of film and having only 36 exposures really stood out when with digital I could keep shooting and shooting on a little card smaller than a match book. But when I could instantly review my images and see what I had done and what I could improve, the creative switch clicked on! Since that afternoon, I've never looked back, not shooting a roll of conventional film since!
Another big surprise to me - which it shouldn't have been - was how all the principles that make up the foundation of photography still matter with digital! I'm sure I had thoughts of PhotoShop (a program I still don't know) dancing through my head and being a requirement with digital images. But I had always been taught, and strived to get it right, right from the start; and with that accomplished, everything else in the photographic process would fall right into place. This translated 100% to digital! While digital does the best job of any medium to capture light, the importance of light in communicating photographically is even more important when shooting digital. All the other elements of lens selection, depth of field, background-middleground-foreground, composition and subject placement just to mention a few, must go into the image for it to be successful.
Moose Moves Into Digital
Digital brings even more math to a pastime which has its basis in physics. Probably more than with the debates of manual focus vs. autofocus in the 80's, and matrix vs. spot metering in the 90's, the debates over digital (spurred on by the web which wasn't around for the others) have really thrown up a smoke screen on the essence of digital photography. Arguments over JPEG vs. RAW, White Balance and Color Management and CCD megapixel counts have become so over inflated, that the old standard debate of which is better, Nikon or Canon, is almost nil (remember those days?)! That's spooky! It's also sad because many who think they would like to venture into digital are scared off by such pointless debates (I bet I fill Jim's email box with that one!).
Why do I say they are pointless? My shooting with a digital camera to see its potential is one thing; I will always push a medium and myself to create the best I can. But I put digital in the hands of folks who not only do not know digital but also don't know photography. My photographic guinea pigs help me understand where the public at large is but unlike other "new photographic fads" or gismos every one of my guinea pigs instantly took to digital. They had no problem taking the camera, capturing an image and creating a print. The problem came when I had them read some of what had been written about digital. The things some tell us we need to worry about.
One of the current "problems" that folks feel they need to worry about is color management. I'm the first to admit that technically the need for tight color control from the beginning to the end of the process is essential - for all of about .00005% of the digital photographers out there (which must include fine art printers). This same thing could be said of the RAW file format. But for the rest of us, including me, color management is no more than simply being able to see the best color from what we've captured on the monitor. It has no effect on our photography. (The second batch of emails are now heading for Jim's email box.)
Why and how can I say this blasphemy? The goal of color management is to produce an end result that matches the original. Let's say we're photographing a high-end leather shoe, the manufacturer requiring rightfully so that the photo look like their shoe.
With total control over the digital process, which includes the printing of the ad brochure, a digital photographer can accomplish these goals with great color management. But take that exact same photograph that looks perfect in the brochure and print it in two different magazines and you'll have two totally different looking photographs. The color will no longer match the shoes, no matter how much color profiling you've done. They didn't get the color right when you sent in your beautiful chromes; they aren't going to do it better with a profiled digital file! So, why put your energies into that when you could be out shooting!?! (That's the third batch of emails hastily being written to Jim.)
Where's Moose's digital, and where's it going?
This is strictly me, but personally I'm still a shooter producing images that first, satisfy my desires as a communicator and secondly take care of my buyers' needs. As it was rightfully pointed out in an article by my partner, with all that goes on with an image in the printing process "mudding" it up, you'd best have the basics of light, composition and the like firmly in place so the image can get its message out. The bottom-line is really quite simple, digital photography is still photography. So for me right now, digital is right where I like it. It works for me and for my clients; and if you get it right, right from the start, you don't have to rely on megapixels or PhotoShop to finish what you were trying to say when you pressed the shutter release. Will this always be the case?
I have a lot of conversations with my partner who is very smart. One time we got on the subject of conventional and digital film types. We were talking about how Kodachrome has a red bias, Velvia a green-saturated bias and my old favorite Agfa the clean whites. I asked if digital could ever have such biases. David said that the film couldn't but the camera could. He explained, in a lot of detail, that basically the camera could change how it calculated color. Simply do the math a little differently, and we'd have Kodachrome, Velvia or Agfa! This was almost two years ago and today, we now have the D100 which has a Color Mode III which produces pretty darn close the film characteristics of Velvia! (I told you he was smart!) This is one of the directions where digital is heading.
Folks always like to ask me, "when's the D2 coming out?" as if that's going to solve some mythical digital problem (and as if I could announce something before Nikon does). A couple years back I heard of a new CompactFlash card coming out - 256MB! I was excited because that meant I could capture more images on one card (today we have 2GB cards!). Dave made a statement that has always stuck with me. He said that if they are giving you more space, they are going to use even more of it! Cameras to come will have bigger files which means more hard drive space is required to store them and more processing power to process them. Will the image be proportionally better? That depends more on capabilities of who's behind the camera than the capabilities of the camera.
The future of digital I predict is just going to be bigger and better! I don't think we've even begun to touch the magic of this medium. I know there are only a few photographers truly pushing this medium to its potential right now (and I'm not one of them). By the time we catch up to these creative and technical giants the next generation of digital wizardry will be out.
A good example of this is my statement to Dave that I'm quite happy with the quality my Jpegs produce for me and my clients. He countered with, "that's because you haven't seen what more digital can give you, and you haven't seen the best yet!" And he's right! The magic the manufacturers have in store for us blows away any web rumor you might read. Just look what they've come out with in the last couple of years!
Should you wait for the D2 to jump into digital? Should you jump in now with the D100 or D60? Personally, I think you should have jumped in with the Coolpix 900! I don't think personally there will ever be the perfect digital camera. If nothing else, what would that say about our imaginations?!
The digital medium has evolved faster than any other photographic process or camera innovation in the history of photography. Yet, all the elements that make a great photograph remain the same. While we could debate the importance and virtue of RAW over JPEG or Profiles over no profiles, you can't debate an image with great light or stunning composition or better yet, all of that combined into one great image. This is true no matter the medium in which it was captured.
Whether you're painting emulsion onto a piece of glass in a tent, loading sheet film into a holder, popping in a roll of Velvia or loading a CompactFlash card, photography is still photography. As my high school teacher tried to impress upon all of his students (and it sure stuck with this one), it's the person behind the camera that counts!