What About Digital, Mike? (updated)

Gordon Gulch – 2005
Originally uploaded by mjm1138.

Ah yes, what about digital. It’s certainly easier to deal with than film. And I suppose digital photography is far more ecologically friendly than film. I mean, I probably waste 20 gallons or more of water every time I develop two rolls of film. That along with the chemicals I use and discard, film photography is really kind of an environmental nightmare. It’s just that digital photography is so…digital.

I like to think back to the analogous time in music. It was the mid 1980’s. Synth pop was a fully established force in music. Then came the advent of digital synthesizers. They were cheaper, more reliable and easier to use than their analogue ancestors. Suddenly analogue synths were begging on the market (I remember seeing micromoogs in music shops for $100) as everyone jettisoned their old gear for the new. Then, pop music died, and its putrescent corpse became what we remember as the music of the late 80’s and 90’s. In case you didn’t know, that’s what happened. Everyone in the world started to sound exactly the same since, as it turns out, the digital synthesizers of the time had a far less organic and creative feel. Most of the sounds from them were pre-programmed at the factory. Music has recovered somewhat. Nowadays, three things are happening: vintage analogue synthesizers are commanding ridiculous prices on eBay and at music shops, manufacturers are actually re-introducing 25-year-old models to the market, often with few refinements over the original, and the current generation of digital synthesizers are prized for their ability to accurately emulate old analogue gear.

And so with photography. Is digital photography today of sufficient quality to supplant film with no disadvantages? I mean, I don’t print on photographic paper anymore, so any darkroom tricks have long since moved to the computer. The answer though, at least at the price range us mere mortals get to play in, is no.

The image above was taken yesterday on my Sony DSC-P9 “CyberShot” digital camera. It’s a little 4 megapixel point-and-shoot that my employer gave out as a holiday bonus a few years ago. It does a fine job, especially considering it’s a few years old, but as a consumer camera it produces images that wouldn’t stand up to real close scrutiny. Zoom in all the way and you can see the artifacts of image compression and detect the limits of color contrast (that is, the ability to differentiate shades of color). It’s great for snapshots and the like, but is not quite there for serious shooting.

It also bothers me, the comment I made in the paragraph above: “especially considering it’s a few years old”. A fine camera should last indefinitely, and I don’t cotton well to the notion that your camera should join the ever growing list of “stuff you have to replace every three years because it’s obsolete”. I mean, I guess film formats have come and gone, but within the standard set of formats (35mm, 120/220, 4×5, 8×10), your 1930 camera should be as usable today as it was the day it was made, if you’ve taken care of it.

We’re just not quite there yet. My guess is, as with the music industry, the photo industry will be entirely digital (i.e. no new film cameras being made, except in niche markets) before the technology is really ready, and then it will catch up a few years later. Here’s hoping Ilford, Fuji and Kodak keep making their emulsions and chemicals in the mean time. Kodak recently announced that they’re no longer making black-and-white photographic paper, so I guess I wouldn’t bet on it.

Update:Well, okay so I’m on the digital bandwagon now. There are still some very real limitations of shooting digital, and here’s hoping I actually advance to the level where I’m encountering those limitations, I guess.


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