5.15.2012

Haven't digital cameras just gotten good in the last five years?


I buy into the hype as often as everyone else.  I get convinced that a camera like the D800 or the newest Canon is an amazing leap forward and that I'll need to rush right out and get one or my competitors will trample me into a puddle of non-commercially dysfunctional goo and my career will grind to a bitter halt.  I'll be the Willy Lohman of photography.

I guess this insecurity with our cameras comes from many of us regarding them as little computers, bound intractably by Moore's Law.  That every 18 months the value, speed, coolness and everything else about new cameras will be double what it was before.  And that may be true of some of the processors inside, but.....

So there I was this morning, walking into the Austin Kipp School campus with my latest and greatest cameras getting ready to set the world on fire with 24 megapixels of hyperventilating coolness when I was stopped in my tracks.  Just kinda paralyzed in place by a visual smack on the head.

You see, I'd done a job for them about seven years ago and they'd printed it large.  How large?  The smallest image was about four feet by five feet.  The images were printed on a Lightjet printer by one of the best labs in the country and mounted on one inch thick GatorFoam.  And the school hung the images all through the entryway and lobby of the school.  They were stunning.  Incredibly sharp.  No obvious noise (especially at the viewing distance required by such big prints..) and tonality to die for.

My ability to process files that well is non-existent, I'd sent the lab raw files back then, knowing that their lab software, costing thousands of dollars, would do a much better job on the images then me running them through PhotoShop or a similar, consumer raw processor.  (which makes me think the raw conversion software has improved a lot more than the cameras....).

It took me a moment to remember which camera I used to shoot the images up on the walls.  Judging from the prints I imagined it might have been a medium format camera with a Leaf back I used to use from time to time, in the past.  Then I remembered.  They'd all been shot with a Kodak DCS 760C camera.  A whopping six megapixels on an APS-H sensor.   I'd given the camera as much of a head start as I could.  I used the lowest ISO which was 80.  I used a tripod for every shot.  I used a Nikon 105mm f2 DC lens at it's optimum aperture range (f4-5.6) and I used Profoto Electronic flash equipment in a big softbox.  No issues with subject or camera movement, etc.

I also did my set up tests tethered to a computer in order to make sure the exposure was right on the money.  The camera's rear LCD screens at the time were almost useless for fine tuning exposure...

When I walked into the school today I walked right up to one of the big prints.  It's of an African American teenager holding a microscope and staring into the camera with calm self-confidence.  I can't think of a better way to make that image today, even with "better" gear.  It's as perfect as I think I could make it.

In light of this I have to laugh at myself, my friends and all the people on the web who create so much self-inflicted anxiety in their quest for the latest and greatest cameras.  Yes, the new Canon 5D3 will shoot better in lower light but we needed the lighting not for the photons but for the direction and style and look.  The light from the ceiling mounted fluorescent bulbs wouldn't have the same feel.  Yes, the Nikon D4 would smoke the AF of the DCS 760 but then my subjects were all standing still in the glow of my modeling lights and focus just wasn't an issue.  The fact of the matter is that manufacturers have made shooting easier but not necessarily better.  Let me explain that for engineers and their surrounding Umpa Lumpas of high tech.  The camera makers made all the stuff you could measure "better" but they aren't in charge of manufacturing the art.  We add that.  And in the end, once you've crossed a certain line of quality or have the discipline to work in the sweet spot of the tools, all the mechanical and electronic stuff melts away and it comes down to how well you can direct, light and motivate your subject. The camera, in many ways, becomes nothing but an afterthought.

If you see the camera work before the art then the photograph has already failed and all the extra pixels in the world won't make a difference.  When Joe McNally shot a spread for Nat. Geo. with a Nikon D1x (5 megs.) he broke the acceptance of digital barrier for everyone else working in print. Since then countless great images have been done with 6 megapixel cameras and, at the 2000 Olympics, most of the shooters were using 4 megapixel Canons and 2.7 megapixel Nikons.  The pictures were stunning.  The world gasped.  No one asked for more.  The artists had done their work...

This post is partially to answer a reader who asked if the Nikon D2X was really such a good camera or, only good for the time.  Yes.