My Year With Digital Cameras
It began on July 4th, 2004. I was by the East River photographing fireworks with my Elan 3, and nearby was a fellow with a big Canon digital SLR that he had just bought for $4500.
Sure it was a lot of money he said, but it paid for itself with a couple of photography assignment. Plus he liked showing people their shots immediately on the back of the camera as an ice-breaker.
It may have been the MK-1. He let me use it for a while with some very long lens and I think it was the first time I saw some potential in the new digital capture media.The next day, I went up to Best Buy and got a Powershot something - 4MB.
I had been using Photoshop for years to turn out small cards, or small prints; always trying to find a way out of the darkroom which was getting to me.
But now I took dive into Photoshop.
I began to learn the ins and outs of getting black and white prints from the 8-bit RGB jpgs. After experimenting with various Photoshop techniques, channel mixing, duotones, etc. I thought that someone must have already built a plug-in for this sort of thing. Downloaded Power ReTouche Studio and that did (still does) a good job of converting RGB to black and white.
Next, I had to get a RIP for my Epson 2200. It was impossible to get neutral black and white prints unless you a) had a RIP or b) switched to some monochrome ink system. I had experimented with various inks on other Epson printers - and sooner or later - they would clog or start spilling ink in places it wasn't supposed to be. I had a whole kit with tweezers and cotton balls for cleaning the rollers, ink pads. And so I decided to stay with Epson inks and use the IMAGEPrint RIP. Lots of profiles. Not the greatest of interfaces - but did the job.
Okay, I've added two things to the mix: the RIP ($450), and the Plug-in (don't remember the cost). So what, say I. Still light years ahead of where I was. I had gotten rid of my Zone VI enlarger a few weeks prior.
And then I began to think about backing up the jpgs. (I still didn't know the benefits of RAW). Not so bad with small jpgs. I backed them up to DVD. I did some reading and discovered that some DVDs were considered archival. Maybe - maybe not. I made dupes just in case. It bothered me that unlike a physical negatives - in digital world - your original negative was a file.
Shooting with the Powershot was fun in the beginning, but the lag time was substantial. You had to anticipate and press the shutter about a second before what you thought was going to happen happened or didn't happen. And wait a bit before the next shot. It had its' good points too. For street shooting, you fit right in with your Point and Shoot.
Still - I found it limiting and since I already had Canon lenses I picked up the Rebel I. There were some custom functions missing - but there was a Russian firmware hack. I applied it the first day I had the camera.
Somewhere around this time I discovered, or was told about the benefits of shooting RAW and so I went the RAW route. And now files sizes were getting bigger. I was doing more processing on them with various versions of the original file and suddenly no disk space left. Also the files were getting numerous and tough to keep going to DVDs with them.
I bought a One Touch Maxtor 120 GB drive. That, I thought should be enough to last me.
You know how digital photography goes. Next came the 20D (8 MB files). More CF cards.
As the files multiplied like rabbits - I realized the need for some good way of finding them. I used and tested a few programs and ended up with iView Media Pro (which I still use).
Then I didn't like that artificial smoothness of the prints and another plug-in makes a grand entrance: GrainSurgery (adds film grain to your files).
So what are we up to: IMAGEPrint RIP, Power ReTouche Plug-In, CF cards, External Drive, iView Media Pro, GrainSurgery (a couple of cameras, but I don't count that as it happens to you with film cameras - though maybe not at the same pace).
Lots of testing with various papers. And in order to get something archival, and to get rid of the "bronzing" effect - the prints (in those days) needed to be sprayed with a protective coating. Not that easy in an apartment. I used to do it on the fire-escape.
When I tell someone that I've switched from film to a digital camera, they usually say: Isn't it great. A lot easier, isn't it?
And I usually say: Yeah, it's a lot easier.
To make what Ansel might call an 'expressive' print, with the inkjet requires more, not less knowledge, than the darkroom print. It may be years from now, but at some point, masters of the digital print will be just as revered as old masters in any other craft.
I was able to make fairly good prints in the darkroom when I was about 15 years old, and some of them are still around on people's walls and in their scrapbooks to this day.
In the olden days , I studied the Zone System, experimented with various film / developer combinations, and settled on my paper and Dektol dilution .
Every once in a while there would be a hiccup for a few months while I experimented with another film. But compared to Photoshop - which is really your new digital darkroom - darkroom printing is fairly simple.
I taught photography to teenagers and you could take a 16 year old kid and show them in a couple of days how to develop film and make prints. I'm not saying the prints were great - but if the kid had an eye and some imagination - they could turn out good work.
Back to Photoshop. Although I had been using the unsharp mask, or the PowerRetouche sharpner - it took me a long time to really understand how it worked. In fact - I don't rely on the unsharp mask anymore but use another plug-in that creates non-destructive layer masks: PhotoKit Sharpener. (Add that to the list).
I am not going to list the techniques you need to understand to get good Photoshop Prints - maybe in another article. But for me - I am always discovering some new trick.
And so - I ran into another digital issue that irked me. I was using the Canon 20D and I always had trouble with burnt-out highlights. I was always looking at the histogram to see if I had lost any data with a spike at the right side. So eventually you find yourself shooting 1/3 or 2/3rds of a stop under, just to be on the safe side - though what you really want is to approach the edge of the histogram cliff without falling over.
Digital, in this way is the opposite of film in that you are shooting a positive image, and once the highlights are gone - they are gone. Well, you could say the same thing in reverse With negative film: once you've lost the shadows, i.e. the negative is clear - you've lost them.
Could just be a matter of taste: a nice black shadow - even without anything but the film grain - often adds something dramatic to a picture. A nice big blank highlight - I'm not sure. But something else: I don't know if this is true or not - but the dynamic range of a RAW image is less than that of a film negative.
I know there are ways of double processing a RAW image, or shooting it twice on a tripod - etc. but I've found that my negatives scan in and generally don't need much work at all, while the digital shots often require complex operations.
After a year - and after buying a 2nd external drive - I was getting disatisfied with: 1) the look of the digital prints, 2) how much effort it took in PS compared to a negative scan, 3) backup issues, and 4) the viewfinder of the 20D. I would longingly pick up my old Hexar Classic and look at the bright viewfinder - and say, that's important for me.
And so - almost exactly a year later - I began to dump my digital camera equipment, picked up a used Leica M3 with a used 50mm f2 and a Voigtlander Cosina 28mm f1.9 - and after a few weeks of experimenting again with film was using Tri-x and Ilford DD-X - and happy with the results. I don't have the headaches I had with digital exposures; even if my disk backup fails, I still have the negatives; and of course the viewfinder in the M3 is great.
Oh, somewhere in this story - I also bought the Epson 4800 printer and have been very happy with this hybrid setup: film to inkjet printer.
It's been a while now since I made the switchover and I'm still very happy with the following equipment:
Leica M3 / Leica M6
Leica 50mm f2.0, Leica 90mm f2.8, Voigtlander 28mm f1.9
I have no desire for anything else - well maybe the Leica 35mm - but
nothing urgent. (Of course by the time you read this I may have gone
back to digital.)