A Lab Owners Perspective
by Mitch Moraski
The latest statistics show that 3.5 out of 10 people now own digital cameras. In 2003, for the second year in a row, digital cameras outsold film cameras. The question I hear most is, "Hey Mitch, do think film will become obsolete?" Welcome to the new world of picture taking!
As a lab owner in the greater Central Vermont area digital imaging is not as pervasive as it may be in larger metro areas. Certainly it will grow with each and every day as we continue to see the daily roll count spiral downward. In my case, I'm not surrounded by large chain drugstores or retail outlets. I'm in a community that is loyal and dedicated to supporting their small town businesses. But what I'm seeing and what I hear about the digital imaging era makes me believe that a majority of the population that has gone digital is doing so without having all the facts or information they need to be successful in capturing digital images. In this article I would like to share with you my first hand experiences with digital imaging from both sides of the counter.
First and foremost, let me make it perfectly clear that I think digital imaging is a wonderful and fascinating technology, and it will only get better. But let us remember that it is truly a "new" technology. I don't claim to be an expert in the field or have all the answers, my facts come from images and experiences recorded by the general public most of whom are point and shoot photographers. It's these photographers who make the majority of images captured.
Over the last several months as we continue to see more and more digital images from a variety of digital cameras I can only say one thing: The overall quality and ability to capture images has gone backwards for the general public.
I feel like 150 years of technology has taken a step in the wrong direction. I know from speaking with other lab owners I am not alone in my feelings. Picture taking has become easier, but the big question in my mind is has it gotten better? From my first hand experience I can only say no.
Sure, I'm not your average point and shoot photographer. I shoot on a professional level and study the ins and outs of what it takes to produce a quality image. But I care about the quality of your images as well. I care because photography is my love, and supporting my clients comes first. Call me the Ralph Nader of photography.
In a recent seminar, it was my intention to get into what exactly digital camera owners understood about certain camera functions, such as histograms, and exposure compensation, two vital components of a digital camera.
Not one person knew what I was talking about.
The most common complaints from participants were that they cannot see their LCD in bright light. "So then how do you know if the image you captured is acceptable?" I asked. Is this something that was explained to you prior to purchasing? On my camera I learned to read my histogram, and use it as my guide. Other complaints were lag time in the shutter. Not being able to capture the "moment". Positive notes were that they could delete the image if it did not come out. Sure, that's great, but now you still don't have the image you wanted. Do you know how to correct for your mistakes? Do you know why the image wasn't properly exposed? In the end, many people showed their appreciation for my concerns and were in agreement with my feelings.
The ability to pick and choose which images get printed is a big plus. But in all honesty, very few customers seem to be taking the time to do it. Blurry images, underexposed, and overexposed images are all too common. Wasn't that the positive side with digital, that you can edit what you want printed? In my lab, I'm very good about not printing images from film, that I feel the customer may not want, underexposed, blurry and such. Sure it's less money in my pocket at the point of purchase, but when I explain it to the customer, they're very appreciative. My efforts keep them coming back. So in the long run we're all better off. But if digital images aren't edited I print them all. If you have the ability to edit, you need to take the time to do it. I also spend more time per digital image in correcting for sharpness, contrast, brightness, density and such than I do with film. With film the process is much quicker per image. Remember not all labs take the time to work with your images as we do. This is the extra mile that we choose to put into our customers pictures.
Exposure latitude with digital is much like shooting slide film. There is very little room for error. People aren't aware of this. Color negative film is much more forgiving in terms of exposure. I tell people to go out and shoot snow digitally and look at their gray snow. You must have a better grasp of the zone system in certain situations. With today's minilabs, an underexposed or overexposed negative can produce a much more acceptable image. I can take an 800 ASA film from a disposable camera with overexposed flash, which I see often, and give the customer a really good print. With digital, if it lacks detail there's no bringing it back. The same applies with underexposed files.
Printing at home is being presented to us as the cost saving grace for our images. But if you are using non-archival inks or paper, as most people are, prints will fade in a relatively short period of time when exposed to UV light. No one tells you about printing under daylight balanced bulbs, or the biggest complaint…that the print output doesn't match your monitor. Welcome to the world of printing at home. How many people have a true background in color management? Do you really know if an image is too magenta or cyan? I had a customer spend close to three thousand dollars on a digital camera, new computer, Photoshop 7, and printer (Epson 1280), and hates it!
Why? Because their prints don't match their monitor. Now they bring all their images to us. Besides cost, after working all day, who has the time to spend hours printing?
I recently had a customer who's card "crashed". They lost over 200 images. Is it possible to load the equivalent of eight rolls of 24 exposure films and not have all eight rolls go through the camera? Seems highly unlikely. Although we have seen this happen only a handful of times, the customer lost an entire vacation. That's why I choose to shoot smaller cards. I'd rather shoot on multiple cards than have all my images on one card.
Digital will not disappear, but there's no getting around the fact there are issues that need to be dealt with. I have even seen a handful of customers switch back to film, for the mere fact that they claim the image quality from their point and shoot digital has been worse not better. The frustrations of computers and learning all the bells and whistles of a digital camera seem overwhelming for some. I still see customers who can't comprehend all the functions of their 35mm point and shoot cameras. Both digital and film have a place in our society. The choice is which is best suited for you.
My personal feeling is I'd like to see more people spending time on understanding the basic fundamentals of picture taking: light, composition and such, as in reading their manuals to understand the equipment they already have. It's not uncommon for someone to purchase a camera elsewhere and then come to us to help them understand it's functions. If your spending hundreds of dollars on new technology, doesn't it make sense to take the time to read or research what you've just invested in. That way you can better do what we all love to do - capture the moments that are special to us?
Whether it's with a book or on the internet, I encourage people to take the time to learn. You'll be happy you did.