Am I Ready for Digital?

Digital photography has been around for a long time. In Michael Crichton’s book Congo, published back in 1980, he describes digital photography as used by Earth Resources Technology Services.

Photography was a nineteenth-century chemical system for recording information using light-sensitive silver salts. ERTS utilized a twentieth-century electronic system for recording information, analogous to chemical photographs, but very different. Instead of cameras, ERTS used multi-spectral scanners; instead of film, they used CCTs – computer compatible tapes. In fact, ERTS did not bother with “pictures” as they were ordinarily understood from old-fashioned photographic technology. ERTS bought “data scans” which they converted to “data displays,” as the need arose.
Since the ERTS images were just electrical signals recorded on magnetic tape, a great variety of electrical image manipulation was possible. ERTS had 837 computer programs to alter imagery: to enhance it, to eliminate unwanted elements, to bring out details.

When I was in high school I remember hearing that the New York Times had just assigned two digital cameras to its photographers and how that meant the photographers could send the images they captured to the editor almost immediately without having to develop the film, print the photos and mail them off. Then throughout the 90s, digital photography slowly became more accessible to the average shutterbug. By the time I came to Japan in 1999 there were quite a few people I knew who were shooting with digital and friends lent me photography magazines that first had digital sections and later were committed solely to digital photography. Even the local camera clubs included more and more digital photographs in their exhibitions.

I recognized the convenience of digital photography but I didn’t like the quality. Prints captured by digital cameras were easy to spot from even a metre and a half away. Dark areas had red spots; the edges of objects were pixilated, colour contrasts were unrealistic with whites and light colours often washing out. It also seemed that everyone who shot with digital had a good computer with PhotoShop running on it. I had money for neither computer nor expensive programs, and the memory cards were rather expensive too. I didn’t have the patience to sit in front of a computer for hours tweaking and altering my photographs. I was of the old school of slide photography that said the photograph is finished once the shutter closes. On top of the quality issues I had with digital photography I also felt that there was a border line somewhere that, once crossed, made a digitally captured and manipulated image no longer a reasonable representation of nature. One woman summed this up for me when I saw her take a photo of a mountain in poor light and I commented that the light was better only a few minutes before. She replied, “That’s what PhotoShop is for.”

In addition to all this, I felt digital cameras were making people lazy. Since they could get good photographs just by snapping freely people were filling their computer memory with hundreds of vacation snaps, but only the most serious photographers were really trying to improve their actual photography. When I returned to Canada in 2005 and visited some camera clubs I was pleased to hear that people were glad to know I was still using film. And in fact, the initial rush to digital has somewhat subsided. Many film photographers are going back to shooting with film more again, or at least bringing both film and digital cameras along with them.

Recently, I admit the quality of digitally captured photographs has improved and caught up to film. Though I still tend to spot the digitally captured photos at exhibitions, I have seen some images that fooled me into thinking they were film photos. The landscape photography market in Japan leans heavily towards medium and large format film photography and so I find I am using my 35mm less and less, despite that it is easier to use than the slow and bulky larger equipment and cheaper too. The magazine market still uses a lot of 35mm photography but there are more and more digital images appearing, and in magazines in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. I have noticed more people are shooting with digital cameras. Now that you can get a 10 mega-pixel camera for the same price as a 35mm film camera, or for a little more money a 12 mega-pixal camera, there seems to be little need to think about ever buying a new 35mm film camera. For submitting images to magazines abroad it is also easier to be able to do it all on disk and not worry about my original slides being possibly damaged or lost.

Basically, I began to feel the day that I would purchase a digital SLR was coming near. I knew I didn’t need PhotoShop if I put the same care into capturing images with digital as I do with film. Memory is now much cheaper and memory cards have come down in price greatly. The other week I bought 640 gigs of HD memory for around 12,000 yen. But what has really made me feel the time has come is that my financial situation has almost bottomed out for now. In 2009 I will be slowly recovering from the expenses of 2008, and as a result I will have little money for film. Now that I have a car I only need cash for gas which has almost become so much cheaper than before. Gas prices here are now what they were about 6 years ago. So I don’t need to worry about train and bus fares or car rental costs, and I can avoid the expressways and drive by local highways at night in order to save on highway tolls. But if I want to go out this weekend I have to buy film. If I had a digital SLR I wouldn’t have to worry about that at all. Just hop in the car and get out and shoot.

So I think once my finances have steadied and I am back into a comfortable zone I will think about picking up a digital SLR. At least I can go out and not miss the seasonal changes because I don’t have money for film. Maybe by the end of next summer…


8 responses to “Am I Ready for Digital?

  1. Please get yourself a Nikon cam!!! Than you can use my lenses or I can use your lenses.
    Nice site BTW!!!!


  2. I think you’ll be fine with a DSLR given the care and attention you give to your film shots. And as you say, not being tied to film gives you a lot of flexibility.

    Have you looked at as an alternative to Photoshop? It’s free –

  3. Chris, thank you for reading and commenting. Before purchasing a digital SLR I will certainly give it careful thought. Currently I have Gimp, another free program, in my computer but I have used it only twice. Are you familiar with it? Is getpaint better?

  4. And, Basti, yes, I know we talked about it. I’ll look into it for sure once I can think about affording a camera.

  5. I prefer (I hated the interface on GIMP). It’s free like GIMP, so there’s no cost to trying them both and seeing which one you prefer..

  6. Thanks, Chris. I am very much a novice to almost anykind of photo works program and haven’t even used gimp much. I am hoping that if I shoot in digital as I do with film my results will hopefully be good enough to avoid having to alter much other than a speck of dust or a stray dragonfly.

    Btw, I loved your recent photos from Utsugi.

  7. I’ve wondered whether or not I’ll go to digital, but never seriously. I’m pretty certain I’ll stick with film. Why? Because, believe it or not, I like all the waiting. With film I have to be more deliberate and careful, something that’s helped me learn at a slower and more enriching pace.

    Great blog, by the way.


  8. Thank you for reading, Chris. Yes, I still love film. Though I still haven’t got the hang of it 100% even after 20 years, I see using digital as a whole new learning curve.

    Last week I watched a TV drama in Japan where a photographer had died. He had never embraced the digital phenomenon and at the end an exhibition of his works was organized. One of the main characters looked at his photos and said, “Film is actually really good. The colours are so beautifully realistic,” or something to that effect.

    Still, I have to admit, I would sooner purchase a used Hasselblad or used Pentax 645NII than a digital SLR. But I can’t afford anything right now so I’ll have to wait and see.

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