Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2003/10/17

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Subject: Re: [Leica] Is digital photography necrophilia?
Date: Fri, 17 Oct 2003 16:27:08 -0500

Come on Guys!  Haven't we beat this subject into the ground enough


                      Dante Stella                                                                                                           
                      <>                   To:                                        
                      Sent by:                            cc:                                                                                
                      owner-leica-users@mejac.palo        Subject:  [Leica] Is digital photography necrophilia?                              
                      10/16/2003 07:57 PM                                                                                                    
                      Please respond to                                                                                                      

<Digital diatribe>

1.           The true nature of the paradigm shift

In the old days, your PJ could wander around with his Leicas and
whatnot.  A couple of years ago, American Photo did a layout of the
absolutely massive amount of equipment people were taking to Iraq - it
was something like two D1xs, battery chargers, inverters, microdrives,
laptop computers, and full chemical gear.  That makes an F3 with MD-4
look like a positive flyweight.  In the image processing arena, digital
is shifting much more of the burden from laboratories, which were
expected to be good at outputting and which could be expensed.  Digital
has pushed this "workflow" (what an absolutely offensive word) into the
lap of the photographer whose dayrate has climbed not one bit since the
1980s (if even that late).  But wait - now that they have art
directors, it doesn't take any skill in a photographer, so let's use
students and interns and get work for hire.

It's a little bit more egregious in the portraitist context, because
once a digital photo is emailed, it can be proliferated on an
exponential scale without any control over the future revenue stream.
A smart worker would calculate a present value for all future rights
and charge that, but for every smart one there are a hundred whores who
will try to reach a race to the bottom in rates based on a much
shorter-term business model.

In the amateur world, digital shifts the burdens of processing onto the
hobbyist who just doesn't have time to belt out 36 4x6 prints at a
shot, starting with downloading, resizing, sharpening (once reserved
for lousy film scanners and out of focus shots but now de rigeur) and
so forth.  Digital doesn't make it cost any less, with the outrageous
cost of inkjet refills and glossy paper.  Sure, there is instant
gratification, but in terms of more focused work, the convenience is
simply not there.

2.           The broken promises of digital

In the old days - and at least as late as my childhood, manufacturers
have always tried to make rank amateur formats easier.  The original
Kodak could not be opened by the end user.  The brownie format (120)
came about to help eliminate the need to deal with plates.  Then 126,
110, Disc, APS - well, you get the picture.  35mm film is rapidly
losing adherents in new cameras, but is it because its sales spiked
when they figured out how to make idiot-proof 35mm point and shoots?  I
tend to think that it only became as popular as it did because someone
figured out how to make a mass-market product for it in the 1980s and
1990s.  Digital is the same idea, different medium, but it has failed
to eliminate the need to go to the store to have film developed - now
you go to have your digicam shots printed.  Sort of defeats the
purpose.  If you do it at home, on a per-print basis with a color
printer, it ends up costing more and lasting shorter.  Wow.  Progress.

In the SLR world, the empty promises are even more egregious.  First,
manufacturers start belting out subframe DSLRs, touting their
compatibility with existing lenses.  Yeah, I guess.  It's not too much
fun to have your 105/2 AF-D DC Nikkor become a 150.  Totally defeats
the purpose.  But it's worse with wide lenses, where suddenly you have
to get reeeaalllly wide.  This benefits sports photogs, yes, but they
are a very small part of the DSLR market.  You would think that at
least as a consolation the viewfinder would have a larger magnification
- - but no.

Then the empty promise of smaller, faster cheaper lenses.  Where?  A
12-24mm Nikkor is one stop slower than an 20-35/2.8, not that much
smaller, and not much cheaper (is it even?).  And some DX lenses are
now sporting absolutely massive 77mm filter threads.  Not that cameras
are getting any smaller.

Then there are the chromatic aberration, moire, and noise issues
inherent to moving from an extremely thin organic medium with suspended
crystalline grain to a checkerboard CCD or CMOS chip.  Foveon is not
really a solution; their chips are absolutely tiny, and your sole
choice of camera is Sigma.

But the bigger question is why are manufacturers still designing DSLRs
that look like film bodies?  With Nikon, you have to guess that it is
capital investment.  It sure doesn't explain Canon.  The genius of the
new Olympus is that it is an SLR which doesn't feel like it has to look
like a 35mm SLR.  But is a 4/3 chip better?  Maybe from a cost
standpoint (35mm-full-frame chips have close to a 100% rejection rate,
which is what makes them so costly), but the smaller physical pixels
(which will only get smaller when the pitch increases) are fighting a
battle against higher s/n (since it takes a certain number of photons
to register a pixel).  Maybe the solution is not a 24x36 sensor, but
one that is even bigger?

3.           Message versus medium

The computer is a great equalizer of equipment, which is part of why
digital is so popular - it's "good enough."   This goes a long way
toward the advantage of good optics.  The flip side of the coin is that
on a computer screen, no one can tell how the image did originate,
making it a great equalizer in another way: the photographer's skill
becomes important.  Once it's on a computer, it's on a computer.  And
it may be better to be downsampling than interpolating, if you get my

Do people still ooh and ahh at Weston, Strand and Adams in real prints?

I think the point (getting a bit lost as the coffee wears off) is that
you shouldn't worry about what you are using; it is what you are going.

4.           Why digital?

Manuacturers need planned obsolescence to keep things moving.  TTL
metering, autowinding, and ultimately autofocus drove an upgrade path
in SLRs.  When the Nikon F5 came out (as well as its Canon
counterpart), there were simply no worlds left to conquer.  Film SLRs
from the 1970s were overbuilt quality-wise and still in service for
those who didn't want AF, and there was nothing new to sell people who
were into AF.  By contrast, digital is an immature technology with
plenty of room for improvements in sensors.  With far fewer mechanical
parts, digital is potentially cheaper to manufacture and assemble, and
with better and better image-processing (just like computers),
incremental improvements can be made.

This, of course, assumes that once the market saturates with DSLRs of
one resolution class (now 6MP), that there will be some breakthrough in
sensor technology to drive the obsolescence of the D1x, D100, S2, 10D,

5.           Upshot

Wait and see.

</Digital diatribe>
Dante Stella

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