Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2003/07/15

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Subject: [Leica] Leica vs. Digital: Our divided loyalties
From: Peter Klein <>
Date: Tue, 15 Jul 2003 20:07:27 -0700

I've been thinking a lot about the whole issue of film vs. digital.  And 
how it plays in our special little niche (or is it backwater?) in the 
photographic world.  Here are some of my thoughts--I invite others to chime in.

Let's leave the marketplace out of it for a moment.  The Defense stipulates 
that most pros have to shoot digital.  No choice.  Digital is good enough 
for the clients, they want it yesterday, and film doesn't happen fast 
enough.  Either digital or film is  good enough for the snapshooting 
consumers.  They will go the way of most convenience and least cost, and 
wherever the cleverest marketeer leads them.

But. . . Those of us who have bought into the whole Leica subculture have 
different desires than the masses, or the pros.  A lot of Leica people are 
into getting the best quality possible.  "Good enough" isn't good 
enough.  Some of us want transparencies we can blow up to gargantuan 
proportions and still see detail.  Some of us want to probe the fleeting 
dance of human interaction with a fleet-footed camera, and plumb the 
dimmest locales with a bright, clear eye.  Some of us feel a connection to 
the golden age of photoreportage, where film grain, shallow depth of field 
and the optical defects of wide-open lenses are part of the asthetic, and 
we are one with the basic controls of camera.  Leica cameras and lenses are 
beautifully suited to these tasks.

Digital is a funny beast.  It is *very* different from Leica M 
photography.  All those old jokes about programming a VCR apply.  Instead 
of three controls right under your fingers, you've got hundreds of 
parameters arranged into menus.  Instead of controlling the camera based on 
experience, you are programming a computer to (hopefully) make the camera 
do what you would do yourself if you were in control.

If you set things up correctly beforehand, you can shoot much faster than 
you could with the manual Leica.  But the dance of humanity is often more 
complex than the parameters you set up.  By the time you re-select the 
active focusing zone or change the metering from matrix to spot, the moment 
is gone.

Then there is the fact that silver halide molecules are smaller than 
man-made sensors.  Their "grid" is random, not fixed, and more 
forgiving.  It takes a lot of sensors and processing power, memory and disk 
space to equal what those molecules can do.  You can change film much more 
easily than change your sensor.  That Bayer pattern sensor is feeding 
software that guesstimates detail that may or may not be there.  But within 
the bounds of those fixed sensors, parameter tweaking can give you 
flexibility not dreamed of a few years ago.

Digital is a great learning tool.  Instant results, instant feedback, 
instant gratification.  It's also a trap--the lure of yet another software 
tool, yet another set of parameter tweaks, and you spend more time messing 
with bits and bytes than seeing and taking photographs.

Digital *looks* very different than film.  Film shooters are used to images 
that have a toe and a shoulder.  Digital hits zero or 255 and 
splat!  That's it.  You can't dodge it out or burn it in because it just 
isn't there.   Then there's the Megapixel madness.  Not all megapixels are 
created equal.  The shots Phong took of his family with the 3-megapixel D30 
run rings around my little Coolpix 990, with the same 3 
megapixels.   Noise, dynamic range, sensor interpolation, sharpening, 
compression.  All that stuff is part of the black box.  You think you've 
got it down, then you tweak one little parameter and everything changes.

Sometimes the results are exquisite.  But sometimes the results look like 
crap, and they get published anyway because digital is new, and new is 
supposedly better.  See the Lake County article in the June 2003 National 
Geographic for side-by-side examples of the best and worst of digital.

Digital is now in an exciting explosion of growth.  In a way it's like the 
1920s and 30s, with software and sensor alchemy substituting for 
chemistry.  But to get the most out of it, you have to buy a new camera 
every year.  Expensive.

The bottom line for me is that digital is something I want to know about 
and play with.  But right now it's more about the process than it is about 
seeing and taking pictures.  And there is something about it that seems at 
odds with the whole "decisive moment" philosophy of photography.  There's 
too much "stuff" between me and those fast-moving people.

And then again, this past weekend I took and posted more pictures in a day 
with the Coolpix than I ever did with film.  A few shots were decent, and 
they were fun to take.  Then I looked closely and saw the noise and the 
looming limits of 3 megapixel resolution.  And I found myself in the throes 
of megapixel envy and technological turpitude.

Hmm, I thought, the Olympus C-5050 prices are dropping.  There might be an 
improved Lumix Lika Leica out soon.  B.D. gets great results with his 
E-20.  I've seen superb pictures from that funny-shaped Sony F-717.  Used 
D30s are getting really cheap, and people ditching D60s for the 10D.  I've 
got a little angel on one shoulder telling me to shoot with the Leica, and 
a little devil on my other shoulder urging me to get deeper into 
digital.  I'm being seduced.  I sort of like it, and I sort of don't.

- --Peter Klein
Seattle, WA

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