Tag Archives: digital cameras

The instrument versus the recorder

A lot people all over the place keep talking about the digital photography revolution and the fact that we are in the middle of a major shift, at the beginning of something grand and new. I have been thinking long and hard and I have come to a different conclusion. I have a number of friends who are professional musicians, mostly classical. And when looking at their art and their way of working, I find a lot of parallels to photography. First and foremost, there are instruments and there are ways to record, store and reproduce music.

In this post by Digital Photography I am mainly referring to digital cameras, mostly because digital photography in the sense of digitally manipulating images has been around for a quite long time (Adobe Photoshop was first released in 1990).

Most importantly, with the advent of digital cameras there is no new instrument producing images. There is just a new way of recording images using a light-sensitive sensor and magnetic storage media instead of film. However if you think about it a little more, the way of recording something has limited impact on the end product, the photograph.

If you compare the rise of 35mm photography about 70-80 years ago, enabling handheld picture taking, or the emergence of colour photography to the change to digital you will find that those were truly new instruments and enabled a new visual language that simply was not available before. Digital photography does not have that property at all. We are still photographing the way we did before, we are just recording, storing and reproducing differently. Like variable contrast paper in the darkroom (as opposed to graded paper) or the use of film instead of glass plates, this new tool facilitates producing the result and does this in a very versatile manner, but fundamentally does not go beyond what was achievable before, even though it took more effort to achieve it.

Thinking about it more the actual revolutionary aspect of digital photography lies predominantly in the network. The emergence of the Internet coincided with development of digital cameras and for me is the real catalyst behind digital photography. However, the network is the result of the “internet revolution”, and not due to the emergence of digital photography. This timing is coincidental and an enormous promoter of digital photography. Digital photography exploits the network, and does so very well, which is justified and an exciting step forward. The network is to photography (and naturally the written word) a repeat of the invention of the printing press, which -to go back to the initial thought of the instrument vs. the recorder- did not produce better literature. Record, store and reproduce.

Which leads to another interesting observation: the benefits of digital photography without the network are surprisingly few. On a high level they are instant review, ease of editing/manipulation and perhaps selective printing. All of these aspects were already available, albeit requiring more effort and included limitations. The major change lies in distribution and communication which are all owed to the network and the overall “digital revolution”, which as we said above occurred independently. At the moment I do not believe that digital photography has ground-breakingly changed photography, even though many seem to think differently. It is mainly make believe. There is no reason to feel that one is missing out on opportunities to create images when not using a digital camera. All that’s different is how the image is created in the box.

Real world digital photography

I have just come across a news article stating that Iraq is probably the most photographically documented war ever.

OK, you think, that is probably a good thing. Well, there’s more. What they actually refer to is the widespread personal use of digital cameras by the troops. We have already seen the torture images from places like Abu Ghuraieb prison and this phenomenon seems quite similar. It is about people picturing themselves with what can only be viewed as some sort of trophy: burnt bodies of enemy combatants, splattered bodies after suicide bomb attacks, human bodies literally shot into pieces. Next to them smiling soldiers, cracking jokes, thumbs up and all, as if we have gone hunting or fishing.

Then someone creates some sort of online forum or gallery web site, where you can submit your pictures under categories like “clean head shots” or “guess the body part”. I don’t have a link as it was not provided, and I am not keen to research, as you will appreciate.

In a way I can grasp the phenomenon, and the strange need having to photograph oneself in the most extraordinary and violent of circumstances. On the other hand, this is clearly a case of mental derailment and seriously unhealthy.

Whenever we have seen a breakdown of respect towards human dignity and life, bad things followed. Photography is an interesting medium. One reason is that all we keep looking at is an image of ourselves, the beings behind the cameras.

Life’s short – and keeps getting shorter

Broken toys of small and big boys

My matey Gary is a pretty sharp guy and always knows when there’s a bargain available. He sees things long term and seeks value for money. So I was quite surprised when he told me that his Sony digital camera broke after three years and he bought the follow-on model, an exact lookalike, but with updated innards.

Personally I find three years not a very long time. My Canon G2 is also starting to get a little funny after three years (original cost 75.000 yen). Me, I would have reservations buying the same manufacturer again after only three years. Then Gary says:

you’re right about the memory stick lock-in. Not sure about ‘only’ 3 years. I think that most consumer electronics are built for a shorter span than that. I was pretty happy to get 3 years use out of it, really…

Another surprise: low expectations! Then it dawned on me: digital cameras are no longer cameras, they are consumer electronics. Wow. So a whole generation of snappers, who probably never experienced a traditional, and usually well-built, camera may feel completely different about their digital kit.

No, this is not going to be another Red L reference; just think about other, relatively contemporary cameras. I bought my Canon EOS 5 in 1996 for around 400 pounds – used. It still works the same today. And isn’t it ironic that in the much praised age of “no moving parts” such a device breaks down even faster?

Puzzled I am!

I like it RAW

At FANCL, Takashimaya, Kashiwa
I was rather disappointed when I realised that despite supporting RAW file format in the latest version, iPhoto 5 does not read the pictures in RAW format off my Canon G2. See, I thought the file format depends on manufacturer, not camera model. So while the RAW files from other (read: more recent) Canon cameras are understood, the 3 year old G2 is not blessed with iPhoto support.

So much for my little retro journey into digital. Oh, and manual focus is really really terrible on it – first and last time I used it.

It also occurred to me that I am actually not anti-digital per se. I just don’t like the handling of most of the digital cameras out there when compared to a film rangefinder. And the idea of obsoleteness and dependency on somebody providing software is also not appealing.

This week I went to the used camera fair in Matsuya Ginza. It somehow left me cold. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mind set on the day. I popped over to the Apple store afterwards for a little browse and I realised that the camera show with their Leicas and all was full of old men, when life was buzzing down in the streets. Just a subjective impression.

Better than better

This rather enthusiastic article goes on about the great technological advances in digital cameras this year.

How digital cameras are getting more responsive, like conventional cameras are today. How sensors and with them image quality improves, again like film today. How storage capacity gets bigger, how image stabilisation will be part of any camera and more and more.

But has anyone thought about what will happen when digital has caught up with conventional? A camera cannot take a picture faster than you press the button, neither does it make sense to capture more than the eye can see, which incidentally is what film does today adequately, aesthetics aside. What else apart from optics can be improved after that? To be able to take 10.000 images before having to empty the storage space instead of just a roll of film with 36? To take 24 frames per second?

We’re getting close to the point where a camera is a camera is a camera. And a camera will always just be a special device to capture an image. The resource requirements for that purpose are finite and it is hard to see any further possible advance once all those requirements are met.

In the computer world we get faster processors and bigger hard drives all the time. But the computer, unlike a camera, is a general purpose device. More resource-intensive applications for computers keep appearing, but once say video editing, hard disk recording and 3D modelling are taken care of – which besides are applications that 90% of users will never use – there will be very little reason for bigger and better machines. Just like with digital cameras very soon.

That is not to say that one should stick to film or whatever. The overall advantages of the digital workflow are far too significant and it would be silly to ignore them. However as far just advancing digital camera technology is concerned, the time will come where you won’t need better. Because you’ll already have it.

My attempt of a PhotoRant, with friendly regards to the Botzilla Journal.