Digital Camera Chronicles
19 -- There is more to a good image than Adobe Photoshop
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
When we started Digital Camera Magazine as the first all-digital photography and imaging publication three years ago, even I didn't expect the technology to go mainstream as quickly as it has. Yet, what no one thought possible has happened: digital cameras are seemingly everywhere and they are grabbing a significant share of the overall photography market. With things happening so quickly, it's been a turbulent three years for us here at DCM, and we're forced to constantly reassess the situation.
Myself, I have gone through a number of phases in look at digital imaging.
Initially, I was just blown away by this new technology. The first "real" digital cameras produced results that were much better than I expected. For example, we found that pictures taken with one of the earliest consumer models, the Olympus D-300L, were good enough to be used in our sister publication, Pen Computing Magazine. We've never looked back, and today virtually all photography that appears in our publications is digital. It's hard for me to believe that only two and a half years ago, I wondered if it was prudent to rely on a digital camera for once-in-a-lifetime shots on a trip to Japan.
Next I went through a phase where I became increasingly outraged with what I saw as blatant opportunism by a good part of the industry. Seemingly overnight, we were inundated with "digital cameras" that were little more than standard film cameras with a digital engine grafted into them. They were overpriced, underpowered, had terrible user interfaces, and drained batteries at record pace. The fact that they were usually obsolete and discontinued by the time they reached retail stores was both a curse and a blessing. A curse because guinea-pig consumers were stuck with them. A blessing because they were quickly replaced with improved models.
My next phase was genuine admiration at how the industry overcame the early problems, one by one. Digital cameras are still battery hogs, but the situation is nowhere near as bad as it used to be. Today, going on a photo shoot with just a set of fresh alkalines--while not recommended--is no longer a surefire recipe for disaster, and having a camera loaded with freshly charged NiMH batteries and a spare set in your pocket guarantees peace of mind. Likewise, I no longer have to worry about running out of storage space on memory cards with minuscule capacity. Despite the higher resolution of today's digicams, a 64 or 128MB card will go a long way. And speaking of resolution, the 3.3 megapixel standard we've been living with for well over a year means that you generally have enough pixels even for large prints. Finally, thanks to the proliferation of inexpensive memory card readers, USB connection cables, and software designed to work with digital cameras, getting your pictures from the camera into a PC has become much easier as well.
That's not to say there isn't substantial room for improvement. Manufacturers still tend to treat digital cameras as film cameras (in an earlier column I compared them to the "horseless carriages" produced by car manufacturers in the early days of the automobile) with a CCD where the film used to be instead of stepping outside the box and taking full advantage of an entirely new image capture paradigm. Most LCD screens are still unreadable outdoors, and "user interfaces" consisting of a baffling array of rings, discs, buttons, switches and screen menus are hardly optimal. But by and large a lot of progress was made in a surprisingly short time, and the industry is to be commended for that.
Which brought on the next phase in my worldview of digital cameras: first impatience and then annoyance with old-school photographers who dissed digital imaging without ever checking it out. It's one thing to be cautious about new technologies, and another to close your mind and ridicule them as new-fangled inventions that will never amount to anything. The whole situation reminded me of the desktop publishing revolution that began in the mid 1980s. Graphic artists and assorted other graphics and printing professionals snickered at PageMaker and Quark XPress and dismissed them as toys for amateurs. I saw a lot of the same hidebound thinking in those who dismissed digital cameras as just toys. And I wondered how they were so unable to realize that the world of photography as they knew it had changed. That wasting a lot of time to get just the right light and just the right background and just the right framing no longer made sense because with a digital camera, the picture you capture is just raw material--part of an integrated process that includes a camera, software, and a printer. Imaging software can easily take care of power cords dangling in the background, exposure corrections, color casts, sharpness, and numerous other aspects of a picture.
I now have entered yet another phase in my views on digital cameras, and photography in general. Just as owning a copy of Quark, some Adobe fonts, and a PowerMac G4 do not guarantee good design, neither do a Nikon 990, a 256MB memory card, and Photoshop guarantee a good picture. Just as it requires studying and a degree of talent to create a good-looking, tastefully done page, it takes studying, practice, experience, and a degree of talent to create a great image. Command of Photoshop or some of the other imaging software tools can only do so much to fix the basic problems of a picture. I realized all that the other day when I looked at the images brought back from a trip by two individuals. They both covered the same locales and the same event, and they both used roughly the same photographic equipment. Yet, one set was great and the other was awful. One photographer always caught the right poses, the right expressions, the right light, the right backgrounds. Each picture told a story. The other got it all wrong and made every mistake in the book. No degree of Photoshopping could have saved those pictures.
The lesson? Some things do not change. We need to be open to new technology, but experience and talent will always matter.