Magazine Article


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

What's to stop Web photographers from discovering that if they have tons of pixels, they can crop-in—that is to say, zoom—with much shorter, more compact telephoto lenses? It remains to be seen what the market will make of that. Maybe Web photography will become as distinct a form as movie photography did.

A broad contrast range will be required regardless. Will these newest image sensors provide it? That's a bit of a wildcard, until they're tested out. For unlike the CCDs in the Nikons I've used, the new Canon and Kodak use CMOS technology. Once thought destined for "machine vision" applications and entry-level cameras, CMOS surprised everyone when it first showed-up in a "serious" camera—the Canon D30—a few years ago. The performance of that camera was surprising—although Canon at the time positioned the camera for portrait studio work. And portraits, characteristically, are made with fairly low contrast.

Another CMOS technology, the Foveon version in the Sigma SD-9, showed a very good range in my brief test at photokina (see November 2002 issue). It too was inconclusive—the camera was still more than two months away from release—but the results were promising indeed.

The Foveon CMOS technology uses a new kind of pixel, while the 10+MP Canon and Kodak CMOS imagers are more conventional, from the standpoint of recording color. However, they introduce wildcards of their own. They're "full-frame" sensors, 24x36mm in size (same as a 35mm negative). In theory at least, this permits a larger-size pixel. And in theory at least, that could have advantageous effects on the resulting dynamic range.

There is much yet to settle on the subject of these images. But while we're waiting, we can also ask ourselves...

Who Cares About Picture Quality?

Once you hit five or six megapixels, you've enough picture quality to satisfy many conditions. And where they do suffice, the excitement of shooting digital starts to emerge from factors beyond the camera as such.

How about those half-gigabyte and 1-gigabyte memory cards? I get 400 to 800 pictures on one of those, depending on in-camera compression.

The tides obey me no more than they did Canut. Things happen fast on a tug on-the-job, just as they do at a birthday party. Where I'd have to stop—and hope the world stops with me—after 36 shots with a 35mm camera, I can just keep on going with my trusty old digicam.

When the card finally fills, I can pop in another. No film camera reloads as swiftly. And rather than opening the whole camera, exposing the interior to dust or to rain or to occasional salty spray, it's a small door over a smaller slot. If I should drop a film camera and it pops open upon impact, I've lost all my pictures. Under the same circumstances with a digicam, I may have a repair bill to face—but I get to keep the pictures.

Who Cares About Pictures?

Having 400 to 800 pictures per load means fewer interruptions, but wait! that's not all! Since you have that many exposures to use, you have that many to squander. Why take a picture once, when you can take it three times?

Someone you're taking pictures of is talking. What's he or she talking about? Does his or her expression change with nuances of the topic? Does a laugh creep in, or a momentary frown? Do any of these variances make better portraits of the subject than the very first shot you took? Would you have dared to shoot more than the first, if you had only 35 more shots before reloading?

The liberty to keep shooting almost ad infinitum is something new to photography, and radical at that. It lets the photographer hone-in on dynamic subjects, deciding which picture—or pictures—is/are best, all after the fact.

So why not keep shooting? Since even bad pix are stored in RAM, they're free, anyway.

Don Sutherland has sold cameras across the counter, shot with them as a pro, and written about them for more than 30 years. His first article predicting the future of digital photography (1976) is becoming truer and truer. Don is a photo historian as well as futurist, and is author of the immortal slogan, "If you have one foot in the future and one in the past, you understand the present perfectly."

Sometimes I go out to shoot on a boat for days at a time—as far from home as the average Disney world vacationer is. I bring a notebook computer for my ongoing downloads (aboard tugs, I favor a Panasonic Toughbook, an armored and reinforced, ruggedized machine that seems custom-made for the bumps and bashes of a workboat) but I don't necessarily have to bring my own. Computers are everywhere, not only in tugboat wheelhouses, but in hotel offices, Kinko's, and Uncle Ashton's den as well.