Magazine Article


The Golden Age of Photography Part 2: Beyond the Digicam Revolution

The Digital Imaging Scene

by Don Sutherland

There are certain eves that never leave memory. Mine include the night before I first went to college, the night before I first sailed on a ship, and plenty of others with a difference. Unlike, say, New Year's Eve, where the outline of events is foreseeable. Maybe for some folks it's the night before entering the service, or before getting married—nights-before that were suffused with wonder at a new and grand adventure. Where it would lead was a mystery.

On such occasions, we try to peer through that veil and imagine things to come. If you're like me, your imaginings are stifling and provincial. They're based on what came before, and the events now being scoped-out are unprecedented. And tomorrow it all begins, and living will be changed evermore.

That feeling is back. It has to do with cameras. It feels like we're on the eve of a new and transforming event whose magnitude we accept but whose measure escapes us. What, exactly, will be the result of cameras with 10-megapixels and more?

As an advertising copywriter, I'd state my predictions with clarity and conviction—and, as we've seen so frequently, with great fallibility. We can sometimes forecast the first round of changes, but what about the changes to those changes that come next?

Those are unfathomable, reducing our expectations to mere fantasy—the sort of dreaming that once predicted we'd all have helicopters in our garages by now, and self-driving cars, and pneumatic tubes to commute us to work. A lot of things that we fantasize don't come about, because they're outflanked by things we couldn't begin to imagine.

So anyone who says he knows where photography's heading is, shall we say, bluffing. Still, the magic of soothsaying isn't altogether stilled. We can look at recent events and get a few clues. They don't really portray what's coming, but they do characterize how much has changed already. That should be enough to forewarn you, quite loudly, to take both your hands and hang onto your hat.

Film Is Dead? (Chapter 300 to the 4th Power)

One of the presumed certainties of the digital revolution has been the demise of film. I still don't know why. Film is great stuff. At some times and in some places, it's the only way possible to take pictures. Even if we restrict all film usage to single-use cameras, we're still serving a huge market. Even if the manufacturers stopped making film cameras tomorrow, the "installed base" of "legacy cameras" would continue gobbling film for decades.

And in the wired world, where people post snapshots online, where magazines are laid-out on computer screens and presses work straight from digital files, there's a ubiquitous need—a fundamental one, even—to get those film pictures digitized. As a columnist for Photo Trade News, these are things I must look into, meaning I test scanners or compare the latest digicams against the best film has to offer. Sure I use film.

But as a PTN columnist, I'm also now satisfied that we've turned a corner, and are making the transition into an epoch where the predominant form of picture-taking devices are digital. See, I'm a PTN columnist on Mondays and Wednesdays. Tuesdays and Thursdays? I do a column for Marine News magazine too, and my editor loves pictures. My readers love pictures. Pictures of tugboats doing tugboat-like things. And everything I've shot for publication since the year 2000 has been with a digicam.

Now, not everyone takes pictures of tugboats for a living. First of all, not everyone takes pictures of anything for a living—for the masses, photography's a hobby. And not even all pros shoot the documentary-style pictures I do. So if taking pictures of tugs is a specialized trade, should I bring it up when discussing the coming digicam market? It's that mass market we're interested in, right? The one where they say all the money is, right?

More Different Is Less Different

The things I take pictures of vary from extreme to extreme, without advance warning. One moment it's the skipper three feet away in the wheelhouse, where I need wide-angle and maybe a fill-flash. The next moment it's what the skipper was just looking at, three miles away on a sunny horizon. What's this got to do with the mass market?

Actually, it has a lot to do with the mass market. Because almost all consumers shoot the way I do. Maybe not tugs at work. Maybe kids at play. They've still got to frame-up things near and far, arising spontaneously, in all kinds of lighting. If their needs are like mine, their solutions are too. I'm using pro cameras for the extra range and versatility, but otherwise I'm just another early adopter.

The cameras I use cost two to five grand, less lenses. That sounds like big money, but is about a third of their D-SLR counterparts five years ago—and they make much better pictures. With cameras like the Sigma SD-9 (introducing the Foveon chip) expected to sell for $1,500, we can forecast a day when film and digicams will be priced almost equally.

Equal pricing for the pro and the consumer is already accomplished with many accessories we use in photography. How about a CD-recorder? When I started using 'em, one of these cost thousands of dollars, recordable to blanks at thirty bucks apiece. These were "professional" resources because only the pros could justify the cost. Today a much improved CD burner costs under eighty bucks, and recordable blanks are priced like floppy disks.

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