Magazine Article


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

Ten years ago, this early adopter used a Quadra 950 which—once loaded-up with then-huge gobs of RAM (64 megs!) and stupendous disk drives (three at one gigabyte apiece!) and a blazing fast CPU (egad, 33-MHz!)—altogether cost twenty thousand dollars. Digital photography was indeed a professional's game.

Today, a system that performs like what we used to call "supercomputers"—2-gHz CPUs, 60-gig drives, a half-gig of RAM—sell just about everywhere for nine hundred bucks.

With 10-megapixels and more, digital cameras may overcome the final argument against them. If they do, they'll find an infrastructure ready to support them. It's a different environment than the one facing the first digicams in the early nineties. Everyone now has a computer. Everyone has a CD burner, if not a DVD burner. Anyone running the latest OS has a picture-viewing and managing utility. Folks already have their digital photo systems, even if they went out and bought 'em for surfing the Net or playing video games. To some, the camera is almost an afterthought, but hey, it fits in.

The Final Argument Against Digicams

The final argument against digicams has involved the enlargeability of their pictures. The best digital field cameras make pictures that can't be enlarged, or cropped, as greatly as the best film pictures. Does it really matter? The masses don't crop, do they? And are mostly happy with 4x6-inch prints, aren't they?

That could change, too. Each home computer these days has this thing called a zoom tool. For the first time, Joe 'n Jane Foto are actively invited to crop into their pictures, to see what's there. Is that really Uncle Ashton in the background, or his twin brother? The opportunities to find out are offered at kiosks and public editing stations already in place.

It's unsafe to assume that customs and tastes and patterns of the past will continue unadjusted in a new environment like this. There are too many forces encouraging otherwise. If folks want to zoom-in, they'll find a way to do so. But they'll need carloads of pixels to do it.

We don't know if 11.1 million pixels make a picture equally enlargeable as the best film image. We don't know if 13.89 million pixels do. Kodak used to say eighteen million pixels equaled "film quality" while others suggested it would take thirty million or more. The only way we'll be able to tell if the current high-resolution imaging chips truly "equal film" will be to put them to the test.

But we're getting there. And even if those new cameras were only 10% better than the current crop, I was a happy photographer with 5-megapixels, anyway. They provided a viable trade-off of features and capabilities.

The Viable Trade-Off

I've preferred the digital camera since my first outing with the Nikon D1. I took it out to shoot tugboats. This wasn't a speciality yet, on that morning in May, 2000. I was writing a review of that camera, and simply thought that subjects like boats would make a tough, revealing test of what a camera could do.

Most tugs have black hulls, with black fenders against them. But their cabinwork comes in all colors—some light, some dense. They stand tall against a bright, stark sky. If a camera can shoot into the sky, and still show black tires against a black hull, it has a very broad dynamic range.

It hasn't been marketed this way, but a broad dynamic range is more important to good-quality pictures than the number of pixels is.

Think of it like this. The pixels determine how large the picture can go, but the dynamic range—or contrast—affects the picture at any size. If the shadows fill-in and the highlights burn-out in a 3000x2000 original, they'll fill-in and burn-out in a 640x480 reduction. Reducing a picture's size can often correct problems of resolution or sharpness or noise, but not contrast.

In film, a good range of contrast (or exposure latitude) is about nine f-stops from darkest to lightest. I'd never tried comparing digicams against that before May 2000, simply assuming they wouldn't measure-up. But that first D1 certainly did, as have its successors in the Nikon D-SLR line, including the D1x and the D100. They have been outstanding tugboat photographers.

A 10-Megapixel Webcam?

If so much of the Internet uses XGA-size pictures and smaller, who needs to break the 10MP barrier? The most foreseeable uses for such high pixel-count cameras would seem to involve the world of printed output. But again, on the eve of the momentous, we can't always be sure.