Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Going Digital

A professional photographer explains why he made the shift from film.

Article and photography by Michael Furtman

The first time I saw my digital images printed on paper came almost three years ago, when I was examining the proofs for a gift book. As I paged through, I couldn’t help but notice that in almost every case, the photographs I had shot with a digital camera reproduced better than those I had shot on film. A sunset on a remote Canadian lake was captured in glorious orange, a fiery ball sinking beneath dark spires of pine. In another, the backlit, lacy seed-heads of native big bluestem shone sharply. Page after page, the images matched not only what was in my photographer’s mind, but matched, and even exceeded, the detail, saturation and clarity of the film images sharing the pages.

I was stunned, not just because they looked so good, but also because these images had been taken with a consumer-level, point-and-shoot digital camera that some experts said produced images far inferior to those on film.

I fell in love with digital photography, but as good as those images were, I knew that point-and-shoot cameras limit creativity. If only, I thought, camera manufacturers would come out with a digital single-lens reflex (SLR) camera with interchangeable lenses, then many serious photographers would make the switch. But that seemed impossibly far in the future.

Boy, was I wrong. The future is here, and for many of us, it’s digital.

Photography, more than many technologies, has gone relatively unchanged during the past century. Sure, there have been great advances in cameras and lenses and improvements in film. But the basic process for creating images hadn’t changed. Film is made of a thin, light-sensitive emulsion containing silver halides, all coating a flexible acetate base. When a silver halide crystal is struck by a photon of light, a tiny speck of solid silver is formed. A scene’s dark areas produce few of these silver specks and light areas produce more, resulting in a latent image that, when doused in a chemical bath, becomes the photographic negative familiar to us all.

With the advent of digital photography, the very core of the process changed. Though digital cameras look and handle much like film cameras, the similarity ends there. Light, now falling on an electronic sensor that sits where film formerly resided, is transformed into a set of numbers that are assigned an average tone, and these tonal areas are called picture elements, or pixels. This information is stored in the camera and later downloaded to a viewing device, generally a computer. At this point, the image can be treated much as we’d treat a film negative: it can be printed, cropped, enhanced and so on.

But just as most photographers really don’t know or care just how film’s chemical reactions work, most probably won’t give a hoot how digital cameras work. Judgments will be based on the quality of the photographs.

“People think that digital photography is just now approaching the quality of film,” says Montana-based professional nature photographer Daniel J. Cox, “but the truth is, it has been the equal of 35mm for some time now.”

Cox, a National Geographic contributor who has won international recognition for his animal portraits, is one of the many recent converts among professional photographers. Other nature photographers cling to their film cameras like a capsize victim clutches a flotation device. The debate within the industry hasn’t gone unnoticed by serious amateur photographers.

“I just got back from a polar bear shoot,” says Cox. “Back at the lodge, when downloading my digital images to my laptop, I could barely get any work done because the amateur photographers were so interested in seeing the quality of digital images.”

Time to Make the Switch?

It seems that either you are in love with digital photography, or you are in love with film and are reluctant to make the switch.

I can relate to that. But my first experience with digital photography, using a Nikon 880 point-and-shoot camera, led to my conversion. Though “just” a 3.4-megapixel camera, the photos shot at its highest resolution were spectacular.

The key to sharpness is in the number of pixels. The greater the number of pixels, the more information stored, and at a finer level. Digital cameras that have 5 million pixels or more (a million pixels is called a “megapixel”) are the current state of the art. Think of low-pixel cameras as the equivalent of the old 110 format film — small and suitable only for small prints. Five-plus megapixel cameras are the counterparts of 35mm film. And with the advent of a few extremely expensive 12-megapixel cameras, digital enthusiasts now even have the equivalent of medium-format film cameras.

While five-megapixel cameras have been around a few years, they were essentially glorified point-and-shoot cameras, leaving much to be desired. What has pushed professional and serious amateur photographers into the digital realm has been the arrival in the last year of affordable SLR digital cameras.

“Most point-and-shoot cameras are very frustrating due to a lengthy lag between the time the shutter button is pressed and when the camera actually takes the photo,” says Cox. “If you are just interested in still photos, such as wildflowers or landscapes, a point-and-shoot may be sufficient. But for moving subjects, a digital SLR is the only way to go.”

While Sigma, Kodak and Fuji all have introduced digital SLRs, the real competition seems to be between perennial rivals Canon and Nikon. Both offer digital SLRs in the six-megapixel range that cost approximately $1,500. They also accept the full range of lenses that Canon or Nikon 35mm film camera owners already possess. At the time of this writing, the two were in a price war, with Canon introducing its EOS 10D and dropping the price $700 from the cost of its immediate predecessor, the D60. Nikon followed suit and dropped the price of its D100. This competition bodes well for consumers.

These six-megapixel SLRs deliver photos that have a native print size of about 17 inches by 12 inches, or 3,072 pixels by 2,048 pixels. This is generally far larger than most amateurs will ever print, and even large enough for the professionals, since a photo of that size would easily cover a two-page spread in this magazine.

Consumers familiar with print size may be confounded by the common unit of measurement in digital photography: pixels per inch. Think of pixels as the grain of film. Traditional photographic prints are nothing more than ink dots on paper, and the photos you see in this magazine are printed at about 300 dots per inch. Digital images follow similar rules. Measured in pixels per inch instead of dots per inch, an image produced by a low-pixel digital camera will blur quickly if enlarged beyond snapshot size. Because high-pixel digital photos have a large number of pixels per inch, they can be cropped and enlarged significantly before the individual pixels begin to distort the image.

But Can It Handle Action?

Last year, as duck season began and my first digital SLR — a Canon D60 — arrived, I decided to take a risk. I put away my film bodies and began shooting nothing but digital images. Shooting photos of retrievers and later, of a group of ducks wintering near my home, gave me a chance to really test this new photographic format.

One of the more common criticisms of digital photography is that the write time — the time it takes the camera’s computer to store the digital image — is too slow for action photography. Yet I was well aware that sports photographers whose work appears in daily papers and magazines had made the switch to digital long ago. There seemed no reason I couldn’t capture a mallard drake on the wing as easily as someone else could grab a Michael Jordan jump shot.

And I did. Although the D60 isn’t noted for its speed, it does shoot at three frames per second in bursts of up to eight shots before the camera momentarily pauses to write to memory. As you’ll note by the accompanying photos, that was fast enough to put a mid-air stop to ducks. In addition, I found that I actually obtained more good action shots than I ever did in 20 years of shooting film simply because I could shoot for free. No more film costs!

That’s because digital cameras store their images to a removable memory card. The cards are relatively inexpensive and can be reused an almost unlimited number of times. Freed from the expense of film and processing, I found myself taking photographic risks that I’d never dreamed of before.

Beyond that, I found that digital SLRs have another significant advantage over their film counterparts: immediate feedback. All digital cameras have a small, liquid-crystal display monitor on their backs. Photographers instantly know, by reviewing their photos on site, whether exposure and focus were correct. This feedback is an invaluable tool for improving your photography, allowing you to adjust settings to correct problems instantly.

The second criticism of digital images is that they still don’t produce an image as “fine” as 35mm film — that the images can’t be cropped and enlarged. But with a six-megapixel camera, I argue that this simply isn’t true. You be the judge.

Accompanying this article are images of a mallard and a black Lab shown at a normal aspect ratio and an enlarged, cropped version. Note the detail in the duck’s eye and the ice crystals on the dog’s whiskers. I think you’ll agree that the amount of fine detail these new cameras can record is amazing.

The Downside?

If there are downsides to digital imaging, they are few. The first, some would argue, is the expense of the camera. As mentioned earlier, digital SLRs run about $1,500.

Although that’s a lot of cash, consider that you’ll never again have to buy film. A serious photographer on a weekend outing, shooting Texas landscapes, wildflowers or wildlife can burn up a lot of film. With color transparency film running about $8 per roll, and processing at least another $4, a 10-roll weekend outing would run a minimum of $120. It’s clear that it wouldn’t take long before a serious photographer would recoup the investment in a new digital camera.

“The amount of money I save is massive,” says Cox. “No more shooting dozens of images as in-camera dupes to send to my agents. No more money spent on high-quality duplicates of one-and-only originals that I don’t want to risk in the mail. No more worrying about the lab screwing up your great shots. And no more huge piles of plastic and cardboard waste from the individual packaging of film cassettes.”

The second possible downside, Cox points out, is that becoming a digital photographer does mean having a modicum of computer skills and, of course, a computer. A computer becomes your digital darkroom and also your photo album. However, since a computer is already found in most homes today, it is likely that anyone making the switch to digital already has the needed equipment, and most cameras come bundled with necessary software.

Learning More

It is a given that between the time I write this and when you read it, new advances in digital photography will take place. Because making the switch to digital involves some serious money, consumers should do some research before plunging in. Much good information can be found on the Internet (see sidebar).

Once you own a digital camera, you’ll enjoy learning how to shoot a bit differently. After all, the “film” is free. Burn and learn!

“Digital photography has eliminated the absolute need to be so technically adept with a camera,” says Cox. “When shooting with slide film, it was always very important to keep an eye on your exposure meter within the camera. It’s still necessary to pay attention, but even a fairly major change in lighting is not as much of a problem. Digital also gives you the ability to quickly change ‘film’ ISO when necessary — shoot in bright daylight at ISO 200 one frame and 1,600 on the next when the clouds roll in.”

So is this the end of film? Hardly. There will always be those in love with acetate photography. Should you switch? Only you can decide that. I’m sold. So are Cox and a growing number of his peers.

I can tell you this — if you’ve held off making the switch because you believed digital image quality was substandard, now is the time to take a second look.

Digital photography has come of age.

Quick Look at Digital Advantages

  • Huge savings in film and processing.
  • Instant feedback on exposure, focus, etc.
  • More frames per storage card than a roll of film.
  • Edit photos immediately in camera or on computer. No printing costs of unwanted images.
  • Most new digital SLRs have additional magnification of about 1.5, giving increased telephoto range to lenses.
  • Airline travel/security concerns are eliminated since flash cards and micro drives are not affected by security X-rays.
  • No need to turn over your precious memories to a one-hour lab for possible destruction or loss.
  • Ability to change “film” ISO on each image.
  • Photographic experimentation and learning are enhanced because of immediate feedback and the low cost of shooting as many images as you’d like.

Sharing Your Digital Photos

You can share your digital photos the traditional way — as prints — but you have several options.

First, you can take your digital images to a photo lab for printing. Depending upon the quality of your home printer, this may yield the best results. But digital images can also be printed on inexpensive home inkjet printers with amazing results.

Here are some tips for making the best prints:

Start with a good photo. You can’t blame your printer when your source image is poor.

Use a good printer. You’ll want a printer with at least four colors and 600-dpi resolution.

Use the right paper. Different papers produce different results because they react differently with inks. Generally, you’ll get the best results if you use paper specifically designed for your printer. Buy small quantities of paper until you find the right one.

Use your printer correctly. Use the most current version of the printer driver, then set the printer’s preferences to the highest quality. Set resolution output to 300 dpi for top-quality photos. Set the printer’s paper settings correctly, e.g., “Photo Paper.”

You can also share your photos via e-mail. Be sure to reduce the image size when sending via e-mail, in consideration of the time your friends will spend downloading your image file.

For More Information

Some sites you should visit before making a digital camera purchase, or for learning techniques, are:

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