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Digicams Can!



Digicams Can!

By Don Sutherland

August 2001

Meet Dorit, a Middle-Eastern dancer from Serena Studios. In the quarter-second it took a "new breed" digicam to capture these four shots, she demonstrated new possibilities for documentation - or is it art? (See text.) (Photo: Don Sutherland.)

It goes without saying that readers of a paper called Photo Trade News are, by definition, interested in sales-promotion. Less clearly defined, however, is the dictionary definition of "sales-promotion" as opposed to, say, "hype." Has Webster's adopted this term yet? In case not, let's establish a working definition of our own. How about, "'Hype' is sales-promotion that is grasping at straws." Hype is sales-promotion at its most desperate. It falls short of outright lying, but sometimes only technically so. Hype consists of claims invented, when the product's actual benefits don't seem sufficient. If we can agree on this as a working definition, we can probably agree on an observation as well: there's been an awful lot of hype about digicams.
Why hype instead of sales-promotion? If we look at today's top cameras, we have to wonder. The cream of the current crop are so outstanding that unless we understate them, we may seem garish. But it's no understatement to say that today there are cameras that can do things no cameras did before. In the process, photographers can do things they didn't before. This is all very big stuff, and very happy stuff too. Why would anyone think digicams need to be hyped?



The Digital Dude seems all puffed up, and a bit bent out of shape too, by the thought that hypsters, though o so loud, may actually be underrating digital cameras.

The history of hype
The history of hype goes back very far, at the least to that snake and its apple. It's a bit much to cover in one PTN column, so we'll pick it up in more recent times, 1996, when consumer digicams first came on strong. In that particular year, there really wasn't so much to say about them. Their VGA output was better than TV, and there were SVGA models already, from outfits like Kodak. Their DC50, along with Olympus' XGA-resolution D-300L, changed a lot of minds about digital cameras that year. Assuming their output size could remain within limits - say, 4x6 inches - they were very decent cameras indeed.
"Better than TV" was factual, but TV itself aspired to "film quality" since the beginning. NTSC is NTSC. Sure, the very best NTSC is better than the very worst NTSC, but it's better than nothing else in current use. NTSC is a graphical jail cell, with thick bars constraining the view.
"Better than TV" was actual, but nothing to crow about. It was, however, easy to demonstrate, with a fair hocus-pocus at that. Just snap Joe & Jane's Foto, and show them their portraits there on the spot, on the monitor screen, in the blink of an eye. Shucks, even a Polaroid takes a minute, and here, look at this screen - don't you look great? The Fotos are charmed til they get back home to the 14-inch monitor. Oh gee, that picture was out of focus. Funny, it didn't look out of focus on the camera's LCD.
Nowadays, some manufacturers provide a zoom-in feature that helps verification of correct focus on the camera's monitor. Others place their emphasis on claims other than focus verification, such as you can see right away if your subject blinked. That is a genuine benefit of the LCD monitor today, just as it was in '96. Why was something different hyped? Insufficient confidence in the feature's true values? Grasping at straws?

Prophecies fulfilled
It took some good dancing to get Joe & Jane Foto to slap-down seven large, for those first generations of cameras. The fancy dancing kicked-up when J. & J. returned the next Tuesday, asking for refunds. A lot of people five years ago acted annoyed, the way folks do when they think they've been hyped.
But while folks were fuming, prophetic features of technology, pricing, and quality were also rearing their heads among digicams. To a degree, the cameras were ahead of the curve. Now the world's catching up. At the same time, potentials that are exclusive to electronic cameras - could not be constructed in film cameras - are bursting out all over. Who needs hype, when you have all these great features?
Consider something like fast framing rates. A few cameras in '96 offered "video," or what we now call "mini-movies," although what it could be used for was not always so clear. Focus and exposure tended to be locked at one setting during "video" mode, precluding much camera or subject movement during the sequence.
This was acceptable, because the "movies" were neither full-motion, nor full-frame. They didn't run long enough for most people to move into new focus or exposure conditions. They occupied bitty little windows on the monitor screen. The dedicated camcorder was hardly threatened.
The mini-movie was a new thing with ill-defined uses, but it was prophetic. Now plenty of digicams offer something like it. It's a novelty new to still cameras, another way to have fun, in a way you cannot with 35mm. It's not serious video, but it's a perk.
But it also made a point. Digital frames, although they were small, could be recorded in rapid succession. What would happen if they were recorded full-size, in rapid succession?
All it takes is a big frame buffer, to hold a sequence of pix till they're written to the memory card. At least two recent cameras - the Olympus E-100RS and the Nikon D1h - do exactly that. They can shoot full-frame pictures, around 2-Megapixels per frame, at the rate of 15 per second. This introduces something really interesting that never existed before.

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