Technology December 2001

Pixels at an Exhibition

It may be time to take a closer look at digital photography

Over the past two decades a digital juggernaut has run through the cultural landscape, leaving the old analog ruling class trampled in its wake. In the 1980s word processors took the place of typewriters, and CDs replaced LP records. In the 1990s personal computers took over offices, even home offices, and e-mail all but relegated letter writing to history. Television went digital too—in theory, at least—as the Federal Communications Commission rolled out a timetable for the conversion of U.S. television to digital by 2006. Most people still watch analog TV, but there seems to be little doubt that it will soon go the way of the typewriter and the LP.

More surprising than the pertinacity of sixty-year-old television technology a decade after the development of digital TV is the endurance of film photography. Converting the country to digital television requires a multibillion-dollar effort on the part of broadcasters, manufacturers, and viewers, roughly simultaneously. Digital cameras, though, have flooded the market, work beautifully, and pay for themselves, because you no longer have to keep buying film and getting it developed. Many people wanting to make the switch have been waiting until the resolution offered by digital cameras is equal to that of film. This year, if it hadn't already, the digital greyhound finally caught the rabbit.

Digital images, like other computer files, are simply information. The more information your camera captures, the better the resolution you get. Resolution is measured in pixels—"picture elements," the tiny dots that make up any digital image—or, usually, megapixels (millions of pixels). This year the major digital-camera manufacturers brought out consumer models that cost less than $1,000 and produce images of roughly four megapixels—more precisely, from 3.3 to 4.2. "Three-point-three megapixels basically means you can print out a good eight-by-ten photo," David Brommer, a digital specialist at B&H Photo Video, in New York City, told me. "But how many people print eight-by-tens, even with film? Most people print for their album; for that, as well as for e-mailing photos or uploading to Web pages, a three-hundred-dollar two-megapixel camera is great."

Indeed, digital cameras allow you to do much more than fill a photo album. You can send photos over the Internet; post them on Web pages; give "slide" shows on a computer, a TV set, or a digital projector; and use your computer to incorporate photos into greeting cards (printed or e-mailed) and other documents. Many models now also allow you to make short video clips, which add a remarkably pleasing touch to a slide show.

The Nikon Coolpix 995, the Olympus C-3040Z, and the Canon PowerShot G2 are among the top four-megapixel cameras costing $800 to $900, according to Brommer. Each features a liquid-crystal display for immediate viewing of photos, a zoom lens, a fairly wide aperture range, high ISO speeds, and shutter speeds up to at least 1/800 of a second. For less money there are many two-to-three-megapixel cameras to choose from. For analyses and comparisons of digital cameras, see dpreview.com, consumersearch.com, or consumerreports.org.

When I visited Studio Two, a graphic-design business in Lenox, Massachusetts, I saw what six megapixels can do. Kevin Sprague, a co-founder of Studio Two, converted to digital two years ago, when Nikon came out with the D1, a $5,000 three-megapixel professional single-lens-reflex camera that looks and operates very much like Nikon's popular F series of regular SLR cameras, and even uses the same line of lenses. Now Sprague shoots with the D1X, the D1's six-megapixel successor. A Coriolanus poster for the theater group Shakespeare & Company; a shot of Rolf Smedvig playing his trumpet in a summer garden for a CD cover; a lineup of whiskey bottles for a restaurant ad: you could never guess the digital origin of Studio Two's work.

"Students learning photography today should buy digital cameras and never look back," Sprague told me. "By the time they're out of school, no one will be shooting film commercially." Richard J. Linke, a professor of art at Skidmore College, went ahead and converted the school's entire photography studio to digital two years ago. "I thought it would be irresponsible not to," he told me recently. "I had to decide whether to retire an old fogy or learn the way of the future, and it's been a real, revolutionary thrill."

Many experts, however, told me they didn't think the average consumer was ready for digital. "I don't think I'd recommend a digital camera for the soccer mom," Brommer said. "If you like to make prints and put them in an album, at this point you're better off buying a roll of film, getting it developed, and you have your four-by-sixes." Sprague said, "My wife complains when I bring my D1 on family trips. She knows she'll never see the pictures. They're all here on my hard drive in the office."

I was surprised to hear such objections. Nudged into the twenty-first century by a holiday gift, I have been shooting exclusively digitally since January of 2000. And though I am far from a computer maven, and pack only 2.5 megapixels, I have found digital photography to be a great boon. I'm guessing it will soon become as vital a parenting tool as the VCR.

For those who want prints to paste into an album, Epson offers the Stylus Photo 785EPX ink-jet printer ($249), which can print high-quality 4x6 photos directly from most cameras' storage disks, without even using a computer. Other such printers are sure to follow. But I prefer to present my photos in slide shows on my computer or by e-mail. My shots already look far more impressive on my twenty-one-inch screen than they do on paper, and they'll look even better as computer monitors grow larger and flatter and eventually merge with digital TV. Albums of 4x6s will come more and more to look like relics of a bygone age.

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