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My opinions of the Internet and the World Wide Web are strong and divergent. Many web sites are full of gratuitous special effects and advertising, though there’s not much preventing people from publishing good, creative work on the Web. My web site serves as a permanent exhibition space which I can update as my work evolves. The Web offers another kind of democratization for publishing, as the advent of desktop publishing in the late 1980s offered.
The phrase “computer-generated art” implies going beyond the possibilities of photography, drawing and painting and film; mixing images and media, and generating images that are, in the realm of computers, “organic”, having never been touched by the human hand. While I admire these new possibilities, I take advantage of them rarely, only as an artistic diversion. I use computers to distribute my pictures in ways I couldn’t without computers, and to enhance my photographs in ways I never could in a darkroom. You can take a look at a before and after example of how I rescued a picture by editing it with Adobe Photoshop.
Naturally, the “digital” in digital photography means computers. Until the early 1990s people would give you a funny look if you suggested that computers might have something to do with photography. In the 1980s computers didn’t interest me at all because they were at best digital typewriters. Like it or not, the main interface is and will be for a long time the keyboard. Luckily I learned to touch type on electric typewriters in high school, and never forgot. The first computer I liked at all was the Mac Plus in 1989, because I saw that all kinds of neat things could be done on it, like word processing, graphic design and page layout, though working on pictures wasn’t possible because it had a strictly black and white screen, with no grey scale values.
A couple of years later I was scanning my black and white prints with flatbed scanners, and improving those scans in order to prepare them for printing in newsletters, magazines, books, etc. I vastly preferred removing dust and scratches with the mouse instead of the triple zero brush and Spotone™ inks, and saw that I was indeed able to make moderate brightness and contrast adjustments region by region.
In the mid-1990s I started to work in digital color, on scans of slides and negatives. At the time film scanners were too expensive, costing at least two or three thousand dollars, and affordable computers weren’t up to the task of handling high-resolution color images. This changed after the millennium; I bought an iMac and a Nikon Coolscan IV film scanner in February 2001. A few months later I sold my enlarger and all my darkroom equipment because I wasn’t using it any more.
Using a scanner and image editing software, I was able to make better prints than I ever could with an enlarger in a darkroom. Furthermore, computer technologies allow me to make my own color prints, something I had hardly ever done in a darkroom because of the time, patience and expense required. And digital photography has to be gentler on the environment than printing in a darkroom.
The first “reasonable” digital reflex cameras came out in 2003, with six megapixels of resolution and costing two or three thousand dollars. I regarded them as toys because my Nikon film scanner did 11 megapixels and cost half as much. Digital cameras had a long way to go before they could match the cost, ease of use and transportability of 35-millimeter color film.
Digital photography was coming out of its adolescent phase in 2005, there were cameras offering 12 megapixels of resolution, previously unavailable at any price, but they were still two or three times as expensive as my scanner. Digital cameras back then didn’t give nearly the exposure latitude that color negative film provides. I was afraid of being disappointed in getting a twelve-megapixel camera, when one spends thousands of dollars on equipment, it’s supposed to be in order to have better quality, not less as compared to what you already have.
People sometimes considered me a resolution/definition snob when I explained why I didn’t want a digital camera from 2004–2008. As it happens, 35-mm film is no great shakes to start with, until 1996 I had a Hasselblad, a 2¼ inch square (6x6 cm) camera that took pictures so sharp that 8x10 inch (20x30 cm) prints were disappointing, I generally wanted to print the Hasselblad’s pictures bigger to see all the detail.
Until the end of 2008, my way of doing digital photography was a “best of both worlds” hybrid, using traditional film cameras, and scanning my negatives with the Nikon film scanner, the first of which I bought in 2001. I’ll always keep such a scanner as it gives me access to my archives of negatives and slides I have taken over the decades.
I’ve been teaching photography almost every day since January 2006, which allowed me to get to know digital cameras very well, the Canon EOS 350 and the Nikon D70 at first, then the 400d and the D80 and D200, etc. People would send me pictures I’d taken with their cameras, and I was rarely impressed. Pictures taken with Nikon reflexes, seemed sharp enough, but my scanner still gave twice as much resolution, while Canon digital reflexes made images where the pixels quite frankly had a “children’s finger painting” look.
In 2007, 10-megapixel cameras became common and affordable: the Canon EOS 400, the Nikon D80, D200, etc. I sold my film scanner in April 2007, the same day I bought its successor, the Coolscan V which gives 20 megapixel scans.
In the spring of 2008 I noticed that 10-megapixel cameras were indeed capable of giving as much or more definition than a scan of a negative at 20 megapixels. I started wanting to buy one but was interested in an “extra boost” in technology and features before investing. That came along when “Live View” and better performance at high sensitivities became common.
I bought a Nikon D90 in December 2008 and felt like a Scientologist who had just had his appendix taken out. Naturally I did the film/digital comparison shortly after, taking exactly the same picture of a brick building façade with the same zoom lens, first with my Nikon F4 on ISO 160 Kodak Portra film (said to have the finest film grain of all time), then another zoomed back to get the same coverage on the D90’s smaller digital sensor. Not so surprisingly, the digital image is noticeably sharper than the negative I scanned at 4,000 dpi.
In December 2012 I bought a Nikon D600 after jealously watching advances in technology for four years. A new version of your camera will indeed be better, but not that much better: It’s better to skip generations. The D600 presents all kinds of advantages as compared to my previous camera: Naturally it has twice the resolution at 24 megapixels; image quality is surprising good at very high sensitivities, ISO 6400 looks better than ISO 1600 on the D90; it’s only a little bit bigger and heavier than the D90 (unlike the D800), which is important to me because I take many pictures and portraits with the flash off-camera; and above all, it has a full frame sensor! Rediscovering the 50 mm fixed focal length lens I bought sixteen years earlier was a pleasure because it frames like it always did with my film cameras, and my 12–24 mm zoom is that much wider. Over the four preceding years I had bought just one DX lens (usable with the APS-C sensor only), and that one I purchased only because it was on sale new at a ridiculously low price, new.
It used to irk me when people are so sure that digital photography means a digital camera. For me, the transition was gradual, from black and white with a flatbed scanner, to color with a film scanner, to the 100% digital process with a digital camera. Someone asked me one day, “How and why was Photoshop used before digital cameras came out?”. I said, “Oh, there are scanners…”, and a bored and uninterested look passed across his face. In 2002 and 2003, people would write asking if I had a digital camera, I’d write back saying, “No, I just know Photoshop pretty well.” A year or two later I imagine they just assumed I had a digital camera. To this day, at least 80% of the pictures on my web site are ones I took with film.
A digital camera is one in which the manufacturer has placed a scanner behind the lens, except that we usually refer to it as a sensor. Taking pictures with a digital camera is thus quite a bit like taking pictures with a scanner; many of the adjustments in a camera’s menus typically have their equivalents in scanning software: contrast, white balance, saturation, sharpening, gain (sensitivity), etc. Thus there was no mystery for me the first time I saw a digital camera in 2002, after all not much has changed in photography, ƒ8 will always be ƒ8, a 500th of a second will always be a 500th of a second, and ASA 100 is still ISO 100.
Until the end of 2008, my scanner was on my desktop, not inside the camera. For the better because I can make 16x20 inch (40x60 cm) prints without upsampling, with detail in the brightest of highlights and darkest of shadows without taking several pictures and resorting to “HDR”.
The 20 megapixels that my film scanner does can be considered “oversampling”, and my 12-megapixel Nikon captures more detail than a 20 megapixel scan of a 35-mm negative. So my D90 makes sharper pictures than my F4 with Kodak Portra and the same lens, that’s nice, it’s just that before I bought my D600, when I had a commission to take pictures for exceedingly huge prints, I’d be more likely to take the pictures with a film camera:
Take a look at a panorama of the Grand Foyer in the Paris Garnier Opera House, printed at 37x120 feet (11x36 meters) to see an example of a photo project I’d I wouldn’t have done before acquiring a 24-megapixel camera.
There are five great differences between film and digital photography:
Aside from these five points, there isn’t much difference between film and digital photography.
I bought my second SLR in 1982 the moment I could afford $200 for a Nikon FM, and I purchased two lenses in the four following years. These are the kind of choices that dictates one’s purchasing decisions for years and decades thereafter. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s I ignored the other manufacturers because after all, in film photography, the most important component is the lens; film is film no matter what camera you put it in, and Nikon makes great lenses.
|I AM||A NIKON MAN|
Before 2007 I was truly unimpressed with Canon’s digital cameras. The EOS 5d was a fantastic camera in its first version, on the other hand their cameras before the EOS 450d (Rebel XSi) and 50d were honestly disappointing, with a muddy image rendition and rarely taking sharp pictures. Canon has solved these problems with image quality with their EOS 500d (Rebel T1i), 60d and subsequent cameras, and above all, the EOS 5d Mark II and Mark III.
While image quality is no longer the deciding factor, there remains the question of user interface, and there, Nikon has them all beat by a wide margin. I could easily rattle off almost a dozen examples of how Nikon cameras are easier to use, and behave more like a photographer’s creative instrument, instead of how some engineer thinks the ergonomics of a camera should be designed.
Pentax cameras display their images with a truly weird, twisted, over-saturated rendition of color. Perhaps the pictures are not actually like that, though even if this was true, I’d never choose or recommend a camera that couldn’t display its pictures accurately.
Sony has made some fantastic technological advances since they bought Minolta’s photographic division at the end of 2005, and after all, they make most of the sensors in today’s cameras. Their latest reflexes are extremely impressive, though once again, it’s against my religion, and buying one would mean replacing all my lenses and flashes.
As for the other brands, Olympus, Fujifilm, Lumix, Samsung, etc… it has to be said all of them are fine cameras and any entry-level reflex is perfectly capable of taking pictures of professional quality today. All of Nikon’s cameras do 24 and 36 megapixels except for the D5 and Df, and there aren’t many SLRs with resolution of less than 18 megapixels any more. Quality is no longer an issue, the deciding factor now is the user interface, how much you like the camera.
Actually, not as much as that. Allow me to tell a joke: A photographer is invited to a dinner party by a New York socialite. On arriving he shows the hostess some of his pictures. She is highly impressed, lavishes all kinds of compliments on him, and says, “You must have a very good camera!” He’s a bit embarrassed and doesn’t know what to say. All the guests at the soirée then sit down for a glorious gourmet dinner that everyone agrees is majestic. The photographer also agrees, and says, “Indeed, that was a magnificent tour de force of fine cuisine, you must have a very good oven!”
That said, good quality cameras and lenses have always been expensive, and before the 1990s I was always chronically underfunded. I remember the Diana camera in the mid-1970s and being thoroughly unimpressed with the vignetting, chromatic aberration, distortion and lack of sharpness of its horrible plastic lens, light leaks on the film because of its cheap plastic body, because I already had a Kodak X15 Instamatic that took better pictures. All I wanted back then was a reflex, if not a Nikon SLR. Thus the current trendy popularity of cameras like the Lomo, Holga and other toy cameras, or even software and “apps” that replicate their image quality/rendition does nothing for me.
Better is a relative term, digital cameras have surpassed film with regard to definition, however that extra resolution takes on a camcorder/portable phone look when enlarged beyond 24x36 inches (60x90 cm), unless the camera takes pictures at 24 megapixels or more:
A friend of mine showed me a test print at 185 cm (72 inches) wide of a picture he took with his 12-megapixel Nikon D3. The photo includes a Ferris wheel, and the digital image, upsampled that much, describes the Ferris wheel circle as jaggy stair steps, something film grain would never do, whether printed with an enlarger, or scanned at 4,000 dpi and upsampled like all get out. Film grain would never be seen rendered as pixelized jaggy stair steps in a huge enlargement.
Digital cameras don’t seem to offer the exposure latitude that color negative film provides, one has the impression there’s less of a chance of getting detail back in windows in pictures of interiors, in the flames in photos of fire eaters, until you master the Raw file format well. Another thing that bugs me about digital photography is highlights in nighttime photos; there’s a harsh drop-off transition from the light/medium grey to pure white in the street lights and other light sources, sometimes there’s even a darker edge around the pure white.
That said, I’ve been quite happy with my digital reflexes since the beginning of 2009, and my D90 certainly tided me over until Nikon came out with a 24-megapixel camera of reasonable size, weight and price. What’s for certain is that in a few years we won’t say “digital photography” any more, we’ll just say “photography”, and within ten years we’ll be taking pictures at 48, 64 who knows, 128 megapixels in true 32-bit color!
All images are © 2017, David Henry, all rights reserved. Written permission is required for any use.