Digital photography – past the tipping point

08Jan08

The run up to Christmas found me once again looking for the digital camera that I want (and many hours at dpreview.com). My requirements are simple (and I’m not deceived by the ‘megapixel madness‘) – I’d like a large imaging area (e.g. 35x24mm), a reasonable size and weight (<600g is probably in the right ball park) and not too expensive (<$1000 seems about right). Basically I want a high end sensor in a consumer body. Nobody makes such a camera, and from what I can tell nobody plans to make one in the foreseeable future. So… I gave up on the specs, and ended up buying a cheap end of line compact that was defined by having a very good image sensor – handy for those low light shots without flash.

My experience since then has convinced me that buying a DSLR would probably have been an error anyway. You can only take pictures when you have the camera with you, and that’s a whole lot more likely when it fits into a pocket rather than requiring its own luggage. I’m willing to concede that a very small lens on a reasonably small DSLR body might just about do the trick, though I somehow feel that being the guy walking around with a camera slung around their neck defines somebody as ‘photographer’. Anyway, I wouldn’t have got this shot with a DSLR, as I had to poke the lens through the bars of the cage:

Bears an Peña Escrita

This particular camera is now my 3rd digital compact, and it seems that the 3rd time is the charm. My first was hopelessly lacking in resolution (at a mere 1.3MP) and the second just wasn’t responsive enough. The best thing about the new model is that it does stuff immediately when you press whatever button. Things also seem to have improved in UI land over the last few years with stuff like transitioning from review mode back to taking pictures.

The improvement in responsiveness seems to have been what was needed to get Rachel to leave behind her 35mm compact and go digital on our recent Christmas holiday. This allowed us to share pictures with family and friends back at home in a way that leaves me questioning the need for hard copy prints. In the end we got some hard copies anyway, with the plan being to create a collage, and every print was good because we had the opportunity to crop and edit and eliminate red eyes before pigment ever met paper. I’m impressed with the quality of some of the highly cropped pictures too. For ages I’d clung on to using a 35mm SLR and a 12MP film scanner for stuff, but now I realise that I’ve still not done anything about the SCSI driver issue I met with the film scanner versus my new PC – and that was almost 2 years ago.

So… it seems digital photography is ‘winning’, and like most things digital it’s winning on convenience more so than quality.



4 Responses to “Digital photography – past the tipping point”

  1. 1 Little Bro

    Once you’re over 6 MP, quality becomes subjective – content, lighting and composition matter more than per-pixel image quality compared to a decent film camera. How often is your view media going to be a physical print vs some display technology? editing, transferring, archiving are less convenience features and more required expectations which we take for granted with digital media but fail to remember just how painful the process was with negatives. Remember Emma’s darkroom?

    Nic’s new toy:
    http://www.cameras.co.uk/reviews/casio-exilim-ex-z1050.cfm

    didn’t get anywhere near as much exercise this christmas as I was expecting, but I’d imagine she’ll thrash it on the wedding day.

  2. 2 Chris Swan

    I do remember Emma’s dark room. In fact I still have all of my processing stuff tucked away in a box in the garage. Rachel still harbours aspirations of having a dark room one day, but I think (as you point out) the convenience of doing stuff in software means those days are gone.

    The point about view media is central here. I think the real issue is about multipurposing. We are going to increasingly snap away with the intention of sharing on social networking sites rather than ever getting to physical print. But what about that once in a lifetime shot that you want blown up to poster size? Tough luck if you got it with something that has an imaging area smaller than your fingernail. I guess it’s that kind of contingency that drove me to seeking the specs outlined at the begining, but I’ve found that it collides pretty badly with day to day practicality.

  3. 3 John Painter

    I wholeheartedly agree with the statement that you cannot take any pictures if you don’t have your camera with you. Being the proud owner of an overweight DLSR that I am, I can attest to the psychological torment that one endures when trying to decide if its worth lugging the gear to your kid’s friend’s birthday party on the weekend…just in case that perfect rear-curtain-sync flash shot can be made.

    Moreover, I agree that the megapixel obsession is pointless. Megapixels are important, but there are many other components of a camera and qualities of a sensor that matter. Here’s a lighthearted comparison of two new mega-DLSRs that makes the point – http://photobusinessforum.blogspot.com/2007/12/nikon-vs-canon-introduction.html. There is a minimum bar, however in terms of overall camera quality, below which picture quality and control afforded the photographer will suffer.

    What’s the solution? Its simple, of course. You need more than one camera. You definitely want a DSLR for the flexibility that it affords you in terms of available glass, features and general versatility, etc (such as being able to shoot 8fps in the event that Britney, or Amy Winehouse rolls through your neighborhood). You also need something that fits in a backpack, purse or comfortably hangs from your shoulder without being conspicuous. There are many choices one could make in terms of a second, more portable camera.

    Personally, I chose the Leica M8, partly because of a temporary loss of sanity and partly because it is a shinning example of quality in every measure and is an absolute pleasure to use. There are some shortcomings, including the general limitations of a rangefinder (short focal length lens, takes a lot of practice to focus) as well as lame flash options from Leica, but there are also some great benefits, including fantastic lenses and superb support for low light/slow shutter shooting.

    Finally, regarding digital printing, I do agree that we mostly shoot digital pics with the intention of posting them on a social networking or picture sharing site, however I have found that great satisfaction can be had from attempting to master the art of digital printing. Its not quite the same experience as soaking your bare hands in fixer over and over again, however with the availability of fine art papers and excellent low-cost inkjet printers, very good digital prints can be made. Of course, Adobe has done everything in their power to make color matching an impossible science, but with careful selection of the right settings and printer profile, and a moderate amount of trial and error, excellent color and b+w prints can be made…

  4. 4 Hugh

    John’s absolutely right. You need more than one camera. Preferably seven. Though I am a Nikonian when it comes to the SLR wars, for compact cameras I’ve had some good luck with a Canon G5, which is now starting to fall apart from abuse. I don’t know if I can justify a Leica M8, so I will just have to be jealous of John instead. He who dies with the most toys wins!

    I miss the wet darkroom, though I don’t miss the noxious chemicals, and the amazing ability of darkroom work to suck up even more time than Photoshop. I still haven’t managed to get digital printing right, and I haven’t managed to convince my wife that we need to spend a significant chunk of my bonus on a new pro printer. Just as well we have both sets of in-laws online these days ;-)


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