Technology December 2001

Pixels at an Exhibition

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

I find, too, that the instant feedback I get from digital photography is invaluable. I can reshoot a particular scene until I get the right exposure or smile, without wasting film or waiting for it to come back from the lab. As Linke pointed out to me, I'm more likely to get that good shot in the first place with a digital camera, because it captures a greater range of brightness than a traditional camera does. That is, two faces, one lit more brightly than the other, have a better chance of coming out well together in a digital photograph. "Digital is much more forgiving than even color negative film," Linke says. And when the contrasts between light and dark are just too strong, you can use Adobe Photoshop to lighten up the darker section or even to patch together sections of several shots taken at different f-stops. I don't like to spend much of my free time on the computer, but even quick and simple tasks—cropping to remedy poor composition, for example—can make a big difference.

From the archives:

"The Scrapbook" (November 2001)
An accidental encounter with two briefly famous lives. By Cullen Murphy

When I extol the virtues of digital photography to my friends, they sometimes object that computer files are too perishable or easily lost. But my family photos are much safer as computer files than they would be as pieces of paper and negative film. Each month or two I copy my entire photo collection onto all three computers in our home in a few seconds, and I also occasionally back up the archive onto a CD and leave it at a relative's house. If my house should ever burn down, all my twentieth-century photos and negatives will vanish, but my digital collection will survive in the form of perfect copies.

Another fear people have is that their pictures will someday be about as accessible as the diary they wrote fifteen years ago in PeachText. But the problem of obsolescence that plagued early word-processing programs has been obviated by the dominance of Microsoft Word. In the same way, the universal use of JPEG as the file format for digital photography provides assurance. Just as no word-processing program that doesn't easily convert to and from Word can possibly succeed, no imaging software that doesn't read JPEG could survive a day in the marketplace.

Not only does digital photography provide greater security than film, but it's actually cheaper. Sprague's $5,000 Nikon paid for itself in three months of saved film and processing costs, and the same principle applies for the family shutterbug. If you shoot a roll of film a month, a $300 digital camera will pay for itself in two years.

But to me, the greatest advantage is being able to take as many shots as I want. (There is a limit, of course, but a high one. I carry two 32MB SmartMedia disks, which together afford me 110 high-quality shots before I have to download to the computer and start again. The escalation of megapixels means larger file sizes, but surely the storage media will keep pace.) A professional photographer I once worked with told me that the main difference between a pro and an amateur is the number of rolls he shoots; he was being modest, but the freedom to take more photos is bound to result in better ones.

This newfound blessing can also be a curse, though. A quarter century ago Susan Sontag argued that amateur photographers, "compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter," often miss out on true experiences. In the digital age, without the palliative effect of film costs, the syndrome intensifies. The digital photographer finds himself trying to turn every vista, every Wiffle ball swing, into pixels. Hordes of photo and video files invade my hard drive each month, demanding cropping, filing, printing. I sometimes wonder if we human beings are evolving into bipedal electronic circuitry whose function is to record our entire, if ever less fulfilling, lives. But when I see my little boy grinning out at me from my monitor, digital cameras seem less doomful. And after all, restraint, along with the vigilant deleting of outtake files, is still an option.

In any case, whether or not the digital revolution is salubrious, there's no stopping it. I harbor a great fondness for typewriters and fountain pens, LP records and wooden tennis rackets. But for the most part I write on a computer, listen to CDs, and swing an oversized piece of fiberglass. I have made the switch to digital photography with even less regret: the advantages simply drown out the nostalgia. And the way computer technology escalates, hitherto-unheard-of megapixel levels will soon reach the low end of the market. Inevitably, within a few years people clinging to film will be like those audiophiles still spinning LPs today.

Digital television won't make its 2006 date with destiny, but it will probably supplant analog TV by the end of the decade. One of these days that long-promised six-foot flat digital screen will be hanging on your family-room wall. When it is, you'll be glad to have a substantial archive of digital photographs to present, in a slide show that compares to—actually, is far superior to—your father's Ektachrome version. There's no longer any reason not to take the leap into digital waters. Come on in; the information's fine.

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