The issue of whether to switch to a digital format is on the minds of nearly everyone who has not yet done it.
Is this a question you are now asking yourself, your friends or your clients? Well, you are not alone. The issue of whether to switch to a digital format is on the minds of nearly everyone who has not yet done it. Ultimately, it's a question only each individual can answer, but as more and more clients switch to digital media, the case for digital may become compelling.
If you have already answered the question in the affirmative, you will be faced with a bewildering array of digital cameras. Some cost $500, some $5,000. Some are suitable only for web use, while others deliver quality high enough to rival 35mm film. Some are designed for the photojournalist, while others are totally unsuitable for moving subjects. More than ever before, the task determines the tool. Digital photography offers even more choices than conventional photography. (Great. Why is it that greater freedom always seems to be accompanied by greater complexity?)
Consider some of the attributes that all digital cameras share, and how they differ from the virtues of conventional film cameras. First, digital cameras do not use film. Rather, they use flash cards, smart media or mini hard drives to store images electronically. By far the most popular of these media are flash cards, which are solid state (no moving parts), quick downloading, and relatively inexpensive, and offer capacities up to a gigabyte. So-called smart media are similar, but have a smaller maximum capacity. Sony products use a form of proprietary smart media called Memory Sticks that work only in their cameras. Mini hard drives are used primarily on high-end digital SLRs, but have lost favor among many photographers due to their delicate nature, especially in the field.
How is using no film an attribute? A flash card can be overwritten thousands of times. You buy it once, not every time you want to make photographs. There is no need for chemical processing, which reduces costs and environmental pollution. The cards are small, convenient and cannot be damaged by X-ray machines. Storing images becomes easier as well, since you no longer need proof sheets, negative pages or file cabinets.
With a digital camera, you don't need different types of film for different circumstances and lighting conditions. You can adjust the camera to balance tungsten, daylight or fluorescent light sources. The need for corrective filters also goes away. Though the full range of film's ASA ratings is not yet available for digital, it will be soon, allowing you to simply dial in the speed needed. The higher the speed, however, the more noise will be present in the electronic image, which leads to a grainy look, similar to high-ASA film. Digital cameras are smaller and lighter. With the exception of top-end SLR types, such as the Canon EOS1D and Nikon D1X/H, most digital cameras are petite in both size and weight compared to their conventional counterparts. The few exceptions are those that are designed to closely resemble their conventional film cousins, and use all their lenses and most accessories.
Quick bursts of multiple exposures, similar to motor drives, are also possible on most digital cameras. The advantage? No motors, and no heavy batteries to run the motors. Many can also expose short video clips, though this feature is of limited value to the serious still photographer.
Probably the most important attribute of digital cameras is what can be done to an image when it is formatted digitally. Not only can the photographer go into Photoshop and correct, improve, modify, sharpen, change perspective, etc.—so can anyone to whom you transmit the image, a feature that greatly aids in the preparation of photographs for publication. This attribute is also available to photographers who shoot conventional film but then scan their images. Many photojournalists have been operating this way for some time.
How about those awkward LCD screens? What a godsend! By nature, still photographers are drawn to the viewfinder, so at first they seemed in the way. But the LCD screen is really a great advantage. Consider only two of the screen's many virtues: the elimination of Polaroid tests and the ability to experiment freely. You can check your lighting, equipment and composition without having to shoot Polaroids for confirmation. You can also use the LCD to check out the effect of a filter or a change in lighting or composition without having to wait a day to get your film back. And don't forget the significant cost savings over conventional film processing.
So where do digital cameras fall short when compared to their conventional siblings? Optical viewfinders, for one. Only the most expensive digital SLRs have viewfinders comparable to those of film cameras. Of course, the manufacturers will argue that they have the LCD screen as well, which is true. However, most photographers I know would gladly pay the price for a genuine quality optical viewfinder.
Another disadvantage is time delay. Until recently, all digital cameras suffered from an inordinate delay between tripping the shutter and the actual exposure. This prohibited the cameras from being useful with action subjects—sports, fashion, wildlife, etc.—and created a great deal of frustration. But this situation is improving with the introduction of each new model and soon will no longer be an issue. In the meantime, you'll find that the cheaper the camera, the longer the delay. And speaking of delays, downloading of images to a storage device (digital wallet) or computer has also been a hassle until recently. However, with the advent of USB and 16X flash cards, this, too, will no longer be a concern. Currently the best cameras download faster than a photographer can rewind a roll of film.
Then, of course, there is the expense and complication that comes with computers, printers and other peripherals. Must you be a certified computer geek? No, but you must be competent, methodical and at least computer savvy. New technology also becomes obsolete quickly, so figure your usable digital camera life at one to two years, whereas a conventional film camera could last you 10 years or more. But don't be intimidated by digital. Classes can be helpful (especially for Photoshop) and a good way to get your feet wet.
The photographers who will benefit the most from going digital may be those who shoot for publication. The pre-press industry was the first to embrace the new technology, and the transition is nearly complete. Any photographers who publish their images are either already using digital or soon will be. The one caveat is that scanned images from film can accomplish the same results. Therefore, those of the old school who simply do not want to learn a new medium will still be able to earn a living. But while industry standards and convention may eventually force a photographer to go digital, I have not heard of any photographer regretting having made the change.
Stock shooters, editorial photographers, illustrative photographers, photojournalists and general commercial photographers can all benefit greatly from going digital. But not just any camera will do. If you are photographing a moving subject or any action, only the latest technology exhibited by cameras such as the Nikon D1X/H or the Canon EOS1D can provide both the shooting flexibility and the image quality required for reproduction. In the studio, scanning backs by Phase 1, Leaf, Kodak and Fuji provide the larger-format solution. Most of the advantages provided by digital 35mm-type cameras can also be achieved in larger formats with the latest single-pass digital backs.
Wedding and portrait photographers can also benefit, though digital is catching on much more slowly in this field. Digital retouching techniques are the main benefit of going digital. Many wedding shooters are choosing the middle ground—shooting on film and then scanning the images.
Wildlife and nature photographers (many shooting for publication) have embraced digital in the same way journalists have. Once again, top-end SLR types, such as the EOS1D or D1X, can provide the flexibility of a 35mm system as well as image quality suitable for reproduction.
Landscape, documentary and fine-art photographers can also benefit from digital, but only a few are likely to adopt it, since fine-art photographers have not traditionally had much desire to be on the leading edge of technology. Art photographers will no doubt still be arguing over digital in the year 2035, praising the virtues of film. They're still arguing now over the value of platinum printing.
At the lower end of digital camera development and cost are low-resolution cameras suited for snapshots or web use. These offer digital files, usually of 2 megabytes or less. As a rule of thumb, a 6MB file is required to equal 35mm film quality. Every manufacturer—even Magnavox and RCA—is selling cameras in this category. They can be found readily in most discount stores.
One of the most exciting categories in digital cameras is the $500 to $1,200 price range. Here, all the big guns are battling it out with innovations and resolution exceeding that of 35mm film. These cameras are the best way to go for photographers who want to experiment with digital without investing the $5,000 required for a top-end SLR. These cameras are simply amazing. The Canon G2, Olympus 4040 and Nikon Coolpix 5000 are probably the best, but their slightly lower-resolution siblings are also outstanding. These cameras don't have the flexibility of an SLR system, but they deliver outstanding image quality and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Highly recommended, and maybe a good way to get started in digital.
A few new designs, such as the Minolta Dimage and the E-series Olympus cameras, offer SLR viewing, but with a high-ratio fixed zoom lens. They fall somewhere between the fun cameras and the full-blown SLR systems. They are very popular among dentists, insurance brokers, investigators and other business professionals and are typically priced between $800 and $1,500. Last but not least are the top-end digital SLR cameras from Canon and Nikon. This latest generation is the first to eliminate all the shortcomings of previous-generation cameras and truly equal and exceed 35mm flexibility. Five years ago these cameras could not have been purchased at any price. Their poor-excuse ancestors sold for $20,000 to $25,000.
The digital revolution has already occurred in every aspect of our lives. It is a remarkable development that will continue to create new photographic possibilities we have not yet even imagined. Does it work for you? Is it time to go digital? Only you can answer that question.