Pixel shock

There were a lot of things that the digital revolution made easier in the photography world. I’ve been taking pictures long enough that I can remember using Polaroid backs to evaluate exposure with studio strobes, and fighting to get the exposure and compensation just right on the Polaroid before changing magazines and doing it all over again for the real shot. The instant feedback of a digital camera is awfully nice to make sure you got what you wanted, though the sluggishness of a lot of early generation DSLRs at processing the files meant that it probably slowed your workflow down. I’ve also noticed that I seem to spend a lot of time reviewing what I just took, rather than looking at the scene again to see if there’s anything else worth taking a picture of. With film you never knew what you got until you came back from the lab, so you’d never spend any time thinking about it; I see way too many people continually evaluating the results of their latest shutter press rather than looking around outside, and I’m just as guilty of this as the next guy.

One thing that digital decidedly did not make easier was picking a new camera. Used to be that you could simply evaluate the camera, particularly a point and shoot, in the context of its lens and how it felt in your hand, and be reasonably assured of getting a reasonable product and good results once you shoved some film in the thing. The limitations were really with your own creativity; I took some staggeringly good pictures with absurdly cheap cameras when I was a kid, and you can still have this kind of fun with something like a Lomo if you’re willing to put up with the crappy lens. (This is how things like the Yashica T4 turned out to be such brilliant deals — great lens + compact form + right film = woo!)

Now, however, it isn’t enough to evaluate the lens and the form factor. You have to have some understanding of noise reduction algorithms and methods. You need to know whether a camera has an anti-aliasing filter (and, indeed, what an anti-aliasing filter is). How does the white balance work? What’s the sensitivity at the various ISO levels (which aren’t really ISO levels at all)? If someone had tried to buy a film camera and had to make decisions about not just the camera and lens but also the film, the lab, the printer, and probably the framer at the time of purchase I think that person probably would have gone nuts. It would have been a frigging miracle if anyone had actually managed to buy anything.

It reminds me a little of trying to buy medium format gear; you have to, before you can even think about lenses or bodies, decide — sometimes with basically no background information — what size you want your originals to be. Of course, there actually is a correct answer here (6×6), but I remember the heat and light that these discussions used to generate on photo.net and rec.photo.* — it was intense. But medium format, like all film photography, could in some senses be saved by film choices; if you got a crummy slow lens you could play around, find the right aperture, park it on a tripod, and get the finest grained film you could find, and generally figure out how to salvage your work. With a digital camera, though, you’re stuck with the same film, the same lab, and the same printer, as well as the actual hardware. Forever. (Well, maybe not: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the CHDK project, which is interesting and probably useful if you’re trying to push the limits of what the small-sensor Canons can do.)

And then you get the yahoos for whom cameras are gadgets, and for whom pixel peeping is the end-all, be-all of photographic quality… oh, it’s really irritating. I suppose this is why people use shorthands: “Buy the top-end Canon and don’t worry about it too much.” OK. I did this twice and it worked all right; what are the odds it works the third time, too?