Magazine Article


Post-photokina '04: Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm?

The paradigm shift in our thinking about photography is visible in the photographs themselves. Browse through some 19th-century scenes, with a close eye on the people. When found in groups, they're liable to be casual and slouched. Even if they were called together to appear in a group portrait, their minds clearly were on whatever they'd been doing previous.

Today, people pose for the picture. Automatically. They straighten-up, they flash their best smile. The family group knows how to arrange itself, where the tall and the short go, who stands beside whom. Tourists go to landmarks not to look at them, but to be photographed alongside. Those all involve paradigm shifts in thought. The paradigms continue shifting. In an age of security-consciousness, to say nothing of ambitious traffic authorities, we're now told we're under almost continuous observation. We're always "on." Say "cheese" to the lamppost? That's a paradigm change.

Perhaps the love of photography is in transition, too. Maybe it's becoming love/hate.

Another paradigm change.

The Shape of Photography Traditions

The paradigm for the photography market has been that there are three predominant forms of cameras that appeal to clearly-defined populations. There is (as it was called when 35mm first came out) the "miniature" market, which turns out to be the numerically largest market. It's the market that uses portable cameras in the field, most often to capture images on-the-fly as they occur, as spontaneously as required. This covers the current 35mm and APS line of cameras, and includes markets ranging from the mom or dad photographing the birthday party, to the media correspondent photographing a war.

The second tier in the photo-market paradigm was loosely collected under the term "medium format." This refers to larger cameras using larger film, usually 120 rollfilm, to make larger negatives (whose specific size and shape could be any of a number of choices). Most latterday expressions of this format were the boxy SLRs produced by Bronica, Hasselblad, and Mamiya (Fujifilm has also had some notable entries in this market). These cameras were used mainly by photographers working in-studio, under controlled settings. They featured interchangeable backs which permitted the use of different film emulsions (or frame formats) during a photographic session. Since 1992 they've also been able to accept digital backs, drawing them into the emerging infrastructure.

The third tier in the photo-market paradigm was "large format," generally starting with 4x5-inch film and going upward. Polaroid's 20x24 "instant" camera gave everyone an opportunity to see how startlingly sharp a humongous original could be. But in addition, the large-format cameras, as a breed called "view cameras" (which frequently accept medium-format film backs), target a different type of photographer than the other two. With a flexible bellows between the optics and the sensitive substance, the lens itself could be manipulated—raised, lowered, or angled relative to the center of the recording surface—permitting a degree of control over perspective and other optical considerations generally beyond the reach of the other two tiers.

The user of view cameras faced a completely different agenda—or paradigm—than camera users on the other two tiers. This was someone who composed his picture by composing the things within it, then adapting the physics of the camera to suit. His is a completely different approach and thought-process than the users of the other two (which might include himself too, wearing a different hat). Beyond that, if Matthew Brady should return to earth, he might get a little flummoxed by the operation of a D2X—but he'd probably take to a Sinar intuitively.

Photography Traditions Reshaped

The foregoing paradigm of the photography market has changed in the past two years. The primary cause was the advent of digital cameras whose pixel-count exceeds 10 million. Canon was the first to deliver, with the 11.1-megapixel 1Ds, Kodak trumped that in the stats derby with the 14n and its 13.5 effective megapixels. Together they formed a promising sortie into a new paradigm, one where a single digital camera built on the pattern of a fast-handling 35mm SLR could be considered an alternative to the clunky medium-format.

The paradigm initially succeeded on the psychological side of the equation, better than the practical side. That is, just as photography formed a kind of paradigm that could presage the MRI, these cameras presaged a digicam which—after years of broken promises about "equaling 35mm"—was now claiming to surpass medium format.

But actual progress was a little less emphatic. The 1Ds is a pricey camera, beyond the reach of many smaller studios. Canon hasn't told us how many were sold, but as this is written, none are offered (new or used) on eBay. Kodak's 14n has appeared routinely on that online barometer of democracy, but practice proved it was not without limitations. At ISO 80, it made a stunning picture, but pictures at higher speeds became progressively useless. The medium-format paradigm made a great foray into the hearts and minds of the intended market, but less great into its hands.

It's 2004 now, and since February we've seen the 14n's replacement, the SLR/n—so dandy a replacement that we bought one for ourselves. By April, its fraternal twin, the SLR/c—with a different body and Canon mount, but same imaging system—was helping to make the new paradigm possible at a price mom-and-pops could afford.

Then came photokina with a new 1Ds, the 1Ds Mark II, and a new entry for the Guinness book: 16.7 megapixels.

Compared to the outlook at the turn of this century—four years ago, when 4MP was state-of-the-art—a 16.7MP imager suggests a paradigm change.

At photokina time, two opposite events highlighted the push-pull for the medium-format paradigm. Hasselblad introduced a dashing new electronic camera in the model of the traditional rollfilm camera. But Bronica [SLRs] in the U.S. was discontinued, citing loss of sales to digital cameras.

The model in this case still needs to harden, but whatever its exact shape, the medium-format paradigm is different than before.