Site search Web search

Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Agonizing Over the 
Switch to Digital

by Jim McGee

With full frame digital cameras finally reaching the market is it time to throw away your film?

That question is driving an increasing number of photographers batty. I see it every month in the email I receive and it was the hot topic of conversation at Photo Plus Expo in New York the first weekend in November.

The reason it's driving so many of us nuts is that it still isn't an easy yes/no answer. Whether it's the right time for you depends largely on what you shoot; and if you're a pro what market you're shooting for. Here are some of the issues to consider and how the new technologies will affect your decision.

The EOS 1Ds is impressive. At $9,000 so is the price.

Price - Digital can pay for itself in film and processing savings. How quickly it pays off depends on the shooter. It also eliminates the cost of scanning which is becoming a significant cost for many pros as more and more clients demand images in digital format.

However the cost of entry is still VERY high for the serious amateur. The additional cost for lenses to cover wide angles is also an issue for some shooters. While new full frame chips promise to eventually eliminate this problem cameras with those chips are still expensive. $9,000 for the Canon 1Ds and $4,700 for Kodak's 14n.

A nasty surprise for some of the pros I spoke with was that the switch to digital necessitated significant upgrades of their computer equipment, requiring a new system, Photoshop, and a CD burner at a minimum. If you have to buy a new system anyway the consensus is that it's time to switch to a Mac if you haven't already. It's the smart choice for a myriad of reasons. The most basic of which is that it's designed to work with images from the start.

For pros the difference in workflow can hide additional costs. Staff members and photographers need to learn new skills, which can slow the process dramatically during the first few months. Failing to allow for the slowdown has gotten more than one photographer into time trouble.

More than one photographer has told me recently that the actual costs of switching to digital can only be calculated after the fact. There are just too many unexpected bumps in the digital road. This is especially true if your business requires you to continue shooting film alongside your digital work.

Image Quality - Does digital now equal film for quality? It depends on the yardstick you're using. Digital is not yet the equal of film. But for most applications it's good enough and getting better.

The quality of images from the D1X made me seriously consider a switch to digital for the first time.

Image Size - This is a real issue for stock shooters. Agencies typically want image sizes over 50mb and some agencies are now looking at 70mb to 100mb image standards. That means that your workflow will have to change to include resizing all images that you intend to submit. Unfortunately current tools don't allow for simply resizing images. The process creates often artifacts that will need to be touched up by hand using a variety of methods.

This isn't and issue for magazine and newspaper shooters. The current generation of digital cameras can produce images that can be printed as a full page spread without modification.

Speed to market - Digital shooters at sporting events, and those covering current events can edit images on their laptop and submit them via email minutes after an event has occurred. In hostile environments such as war zones, or remote environments in the wilderness images can even be uploaded via satellite phones from locations where it would be impossible to develop film.

Longevity - That cabinet full of slides will still be printable and scanable 30 years from now. Will you be able to read your digital files 30 years from now? What media the files are stored on, and the file format you choose for storage will all affect your ability to still have use of your files in 20 or 30 years. This is especially true for photographers who choose to work in their camera's raw mode.

While it's likely that there will be enough demand for TIFF and JPEG formats in 20 or 30 years that some method will still exist for reading them the same can't be said for proprietary raw formats. These formats are likely to change as new cameras with new capabilities are introduced.

We applaud Canon for the dual file option on the new EOS 1Ds. When turned on it saves every captured image in both raw and high resolution JPEG formats. This is a tremendous time saver after the fact for shooters who want the flexibility of shooting in raw mode (for archival purposes) but don't want to spend the time converting every image they shoot into JPEGS.

Work Flow - Digital will absolutely change your work habits. Whether it's a change for the better will depend on the individual and how comfortable you are with computers. Some photographers would just as soon never touch a keyboard. With film they can confine themselves to the light table and let assistants handle the computer tasks. Digital forces you to the keyboard.

As stated above Macs are the hot ticket for digital shooters. Whether you're talking about reliability, ease of use, or color profiling Apple has the edge. Let me put this in context. We use PCs here at the office. Our next upgrade will see the office go to Macs.

The Pleasure Factor - I probably shoot 25% to 30% digital now. That ranges from evaluating digital cameras to using an in house digital camera for product shots for the magazine. Flipping through images on a computer screen will never give me the same pleasure that I get looking at slides on a light table.

The flip side is that when shooting digital I can see the images while I'm still out in the field. I know if I nailed the shot. If something's not quite right and can re-shoot and change composition or exposure as necessary. Those times at the light table when I was disappointed that a perfectly composed shot didn't hold enough highlight or shadow detail can be a thing of the past with digital - assuming I have the time and opportunity to check every shot while I'm still on location.

So with digital I'm trading the delight of the light table for instant gratification in the field.

Fine Art Prints - If you're shooting with the intention of creating gallery prints film still has a significant edge. I've been talking with labs that do large (40 inch and larger) fine art prints recently to research the next installment of that series of articles and they all say the same thing. Really big prints need more detail than they see from digital cameras.

Learning Curves - Digital can be a great learning tool. You can instantly see the results of different camera settings in different situations. That's a much easier process than shooting slides and taking notes and then comparing those notes against frame numbers on the light table.

But there's also a whole new lexicon to learn. White balance gives a lot of photographers fits. Let's be honest - digital cameras are a lot harder to learn and operate than film cameras. They possess a myriad of small buttons, and even more features are buried in menus behind the LCD. For those photographers who were already complaining about the complexity of current SLRs digital is a nightmare. The manuals for these cameras, and there are often more than one, can be daunting, complex and intimidating for those who are not computer literate. The fact that some are less than clearly written doesn't help. I would bet that most photographers using digital SLRs use only a tiny subset of the camera's features and have no idea what it's additional capabilities are.

It Doesn't Feel Like Photography - I've heard this from more than one person who's switched. It's a simple statement but it seems to affect some deeply. These folks appreciate the necessity of the switch but they're uncomfortable with it. It just doesn't feel like photography to them anymore at a gut level.

The most extreme example of this I've seen was the gentleman I spoke with in Canon's booth. He had sold all his film gear and converted to an EOS 1D about six months ago. He was in Canon's booth looking at gear because he had decided to trade his digital in and switch back to film. Why? He said he didn't feel like a photographer anymore.

By the same token there are many photographers like Moose who've embraced digital and love it. I don't think you could get Moose back to shooting just film if you used a tow truck! And there are many photographers just like him.

The Next Technology Syndrome - The greatest source of angst among those pondering the switch is the constant announcement of new cameras and new technologies. There is the fear of investing a sizable chunk of money into a camera that will be upstaged by something better in a few months or a year. Digital is currently too expensive to upgrade every time something new comes out. "Should I wait for the new XYZ model or should I get the ABC model that's available now?" It's a question I get every month.

It's the same question that drove computer buyers nuts for years until new systems became so fast that most people no longer feel the need to own the latest and fastest.

The answer for camera buyers today is the same as it was for computer buyers five years ago. Buy the best that your wallet can comfortably afford as long as it meets your needs and don't worry about it. For at least the next five years the technology will continue to be updated at a furious pace and there will ALWAYS be something "better" on the horizon. If you focus on what's coming instead of what's here you'll never buy anything.

Unfortunately that also means that the trade-in value for used digital bodies falls off much faster than comparable film bodies. So if you do decide to upgrade you'll take a bigger hit.

Though I regularly shoot with digitals such as the D60 I haven't made the switch in my personal gear - yet.

So is it the right time? 
Be honest with yourself about your needs and desires. It's OK to switch to digital just because you want to. It's OK to stay with film for the same reason - unless you're a pro. There are few clients these days who will still demand slides but many are demanding digital files. Whether it makes sense to keep using film and scanning or to switch to digital will be driven by the economics of your individual business.

Nothing Says You Have to Abandon Film 
Nothing says that you have to sell off or abandon your film cameras if you switch to digital, though from a cost standpoint many photographers will choose to trade in their old film cameras to offset the costs.

Readers ask what I would do personally if cost was taken out of the equation and I were to overhaul my personal camera system.

Well if cost were no option I would keep my F100 and add a digital body - either the D1X or Kodak DCS 14n. They would trade places as primary and backup body depending on what I was shooting. Then I would trade-in my old manual bodies for a new FM3a.

Why on earth would I want a manual FM3a?

For pleasure. Sometimes photography should just be about pleasure.

  Subscribe to Vivid Light 
Photography by email 

Tell Us What You Think












Vivid Light Photography, monthly photography magazine online

Site search Web search

Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online