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Digital Photography

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Digital Equipment

Well, I've been using the D100 for about eight months. It’s been an interesting experience. For me, the jury is still out on whether digital photography can ever really replace traditional photography. There are some projects where digital photography really makes sense and is the best way to go. For example, I was asked to take some headshots of two of my friends for a newspaper ad. Since the photos were going to be primarily used in advertising materials—and they wanted to have some control over what the photographs looked like—and they were under fairly serious time constraiints, I decided to use my D100. The ability to review the photos on my Powerbook, and see if we needed to change anything was extremely advantageous. In the first set of photos, Patrick was wearing a tie with a narrow striped pattern. After reviewing the photos, I realized, he'd be much better off with a solid color tie. Newspaper photos aren't capable of holding fine detail and the tie would have reproduced terribly. Megan looked much better in the photographs where she was facing to her right, rather than to her left— this was mainly due to her hairstyle, .

So here’s what I carry with me. The D100, a charged spare battery, the battery charger, a hard-sided CF card case, an SB-28 flash with either NiMH or Lithium batteries, four or five CF cards (512MB or greater— one in the camera and the rest in the CF card case), I will also carry my Sekonic lightmeter and a Bogen 3021 tripod. I usually have a 35-70mm f2.8 zoom on the camera, and carry an 80-200 f2.8 as well. I've found that the 35-70 isn't quite wide enough and am looking to purchase the 12-24mm f4 zoom at some point in the future. I also carry a Lexar USB 2.0 7-in-1 multi-card reader. I prefer this card reader over some of the firewire ones my friends have used as it seems to be able read cards, even ones that don't register in the firewire readers. If I'm going to be editing photos on the trip, usually only on a multi-day trip, I will bring my 17" PB and a dozen blank CD-R’s for archiving the images.

Digital Photography Techniques

I normally use the D100 with the camera set to store RAW image files. Raw files, or NEF files have several advantages over the smaller JPG files. TIFF files are about the same size, but don't have the advantages of NEF files, but don't use compression to store the image. NEF files allow you to correct color balance, modify exposure, adjust contrast, brightness and color saturation. It also holds the color information in 16-bit color, versus 8-bit color for the JPG files. The Photoshop RAW plugin also allows you to extrapolate a larger file based on the RAW file. The major disadvantage of using RAW format, especially with the D100, is the lack of buffer capacity. The D100 can only take two or three photos before the buffer fills, and then you have to wait for the camera to finish writing the files.

The most important exposure consideration, from my experience, is making sure that the highlights in the photograph aren't overexposed. The digital image can pull a fair amount of information from the underexposed sections of the image, as I found many years ago with my first digital camera, but blown out highlights are pretty much a total loss. In some ways, exposure for digital images is similar to exposing for slide film— except you don't have a narrow ISO range, as most cameras will change the effective ISO speed, based on ambient light and exposure settings.

One other important difference with digital photography, is the occurence of noise in the image. Noise tends to occur in long exposures more than in shorter exposures and mainly shows up in the shadow areas. Many of the digital camera manufacturers have included some noise compensation feature in their cameras. The noise compensation in the D100 seems to be fairly effective, if you remember to turn it on.

One last recommendation I have for digital photographers— compose your photographs close to full-frame as you can. Digital photographs don't enlarge as gracefully as film negatives, especially if you are cropping the image. I hope these suggestions help.

Going Digital

Earlier this year, I started working with digital photography again. I had started almost six years ago, with an Olympus digital camera that was a gift. Two years ago, I had a hard drive crash on a Toshiba laptop that was my main working machine and I lost most of the digital photographs I had from when Gee and I were dating. I decided to stop working in digital form. The quality wasn't there yet, and the medium was far too ephemeral for me. It was too easy to delete photographs accidentally, or lose them through equipment failure.

From my experience with a view camera— I realized that often a photograph that doesn't look worthwhile at first glance, may, after a few weeks, have something within it that you hadn't seen initially. Working in 4x5, I'd often hang the contact prints up on a bulletin board and leave them for a while— to come back and look at them with a fresh eye. In the digital world, it is far too easy to decide on the spot that a particular photograph doesn't have any merit, and delete it. Often, if you're still working, the file will be overwritten and there’s no chance of recovering it.

Nikon D100Well, circumstances led to me going digital, version 2.0. The D100 is a big improvement over the equipment I had used on my previous trip into the digital world. With the raw format import filter, you can get an image that will print nicely at 16x20, even with a bit of cropping. The camera has much less shutter lag than the smaller consumer cameras I had been using before— and the interchangable lenses are invaluable. The two drawbacks I've found with the D100are: 1) it doesn't have a buffer large enough to capture more than three raw-mode photos in rapid sequence; and 2) the CCD chip in the camera is smaller than a 35mm negative and results in the lenses working at 150% of their focal length... this means you don't really get a wide angle view, and that you have to compensate for the change in angle of view. On the plus side, the 150% focal length helps if you're photographing sports or wildlife, where long lenses are the norm.

Digital vs. Darkroom

When I was out in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics, I had a discussion with a photographer I know about the pros and cons of digital photography. I told him my viewpoint on digital photography and why I was still a major backer of traditional photography over digital photography.

Digital Advantages

Digital photography has some major advantages over traditional photography.

First, digital photography is much cleaner and neater than traditional photography. No darkroom, no chemicals, no water, no temperature control baths, no film dryers are needed for digital photography. All you need is a computer and a digital camera.

Second, digital photography is fast. Except for Polaroid, traditional photography takes much more time than digital photography does. At the Olympics, we had photographers out at event venues, shooting digital photographs that would hit the wire and be on the Internet within five minutes of being taken. Traditional photography would have taken at least 30 minutes longer.

Third, digital photography can be much less expensive in the long run. The equipment has come down in price and is not much more expensive than traditional camera equipment. Once the equipment is bought— the camera, the memory cards, the computer, and the printer— your costs are really quite low. Also, much of the expense in equipment— the computer and printer— might be purchases that you would have made in any case.

The first cost-saving advantage is that the "film" in digital photography is reusable. You take photos, copy them to CD-R’s or your computer’s hard drive and then you can use the "film" over again. The second cost-saving advantage of digital photography is the cost of "developing" the film. Most digital cameras have an LCD screen. This allows you to select which photographs you want to keep— even as you're taking more photographs. Then, after you've come back from the event you're photographing— you can look through the "negatives" and print just the photos you want. In both cases, the developing costs are negligible, except for paper and ink costs for the photos you actually end up printing.

Fourth, digital photography has major advantages when it comes to reproduction and distribution. Digital files can be easily duplicated with no loss in quality at exceptionally low cost. Digital files can also be transmitted with complete fidelity over long distances at low cost— via e-mail, via modem, or other file transfer methods at very low cost. They can also be distributed very widely with little additional effort.

Fifth, digital photographs are exceptionally easy to modify. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. This ease allows a photographer much more control over total creative process.

Digital Disadvantages

Digital photography also has some major disadvantages over traditional photography.

First, digital photography tends to be a fairly ephemeral medium. CD-R’s, CD-RW’s, DVD-R’s, and DVD-RW’s have not yet proven their durability over time— silver-based negatives have proven to last decades— we still have photos from the dawn of photography— about 175 years ago. The optical storage media are vulnerable to the same factors as traditional negatives are— scratches, dust, fungus, and environmental damage. But, unlike traditional negatives,digital images are also vulnerable to computer viruses—several recent viruses have targeted .jpg files on the infected computer’s drive resulting in their deletion or corruption. The photos stored on hard drives are also at risk since the equipment is relatively fragile. This is something I know painfully well. The prints from most inkjet printers are fairly short-lived— five to ten years. A few printers have been developed with "archival" inks. Like the optical disks, these inks have yet to prove their durability as well.

Second, digital photography doesn't yet have the quality that can be achieved with traditional photography. Most digital cameras top out at 11" x 14" prints or so. A 35mm negative, using a slow film like Kodak T-Max 100 or Kodachrome 64 can easily yield prints 20" x 30" or so without the pixilation that digital photographs would start to show. Granted, if you over enlarge a film negative, you'll start to see film grain, but with modern fine-grained films— this point takes much more magnification to achieve.

Third, digital photographs are exceptionally easy to modify. Unfortunately, this ease allows manipulation of photographs that should be an accurate historical record— documentation of an event. Currently, only certain digital cameras are allowed to be used for forensic photography as they have features to prevent undetected manipulation of the digital image.

Fourth, digital film is reusable. The ease with which digital photographs can be deleted and the immediacy of feedback through the camera’s LCD monitor often results in photographs being deleted during the event being documented. In traditional photography, there was little immediate feedback and all photographs would be developed at the same time. Often, the importance of a photograph might not become apparent until some time has passed. With digital photographs, the images might be deleted before their significance can ever be realized. An example of this are the photos from Marilyn Monroe’s modeling photo shoots. If they had been digital, they may have never seen the light of day— but because they were traditional negatives, they eventually were released in a published book. In my own experience, upon developing the film from a view camera trip, I'd contact print the negatives and leave the prints hanging on the darkroom wall. After a few weeks, I'd often see something in one of the photographs, which was worth printing that I had missed on my first viewing.

Fifth, digital photography is easily reproduced. Yes, I know this is one of digital photography’s main advantages. It is much harder to control digital media distribution. This makes control of copyright, quality and usage much more difficult. A digital photograph that makes it onto the internet will probably never be completely destroyed. There is a persistence to digital files, once they're out on the Internet, that is almost unbelievable.

Which is better?

There are still many more facets to the debate of digital versus traditional photography and which is better. There aren't any solid conclusions to make about which is better. For some purposes digital photography is far superior— news photography is a major win for digital as digital photography’s advantages heavily outweigh its disadvantages— given the needs of the news media.

Personally, I still believe that for documentary purposes— whether for government record, business documentation or personal histories— traditional film may still be the better way to go. This will be an ongoing debate and the arguments will change as the technology evolves. In fact, some of the arguments about the quality of digital photographs have already been weakened as the cameras have improved.