Building A Better Mousetrap
Is Digital Inevitable?

Digital Meets Daguerre: The daguerreotype is in the hands of photography collector Harvey Zucker, who happened to be showing it to Steve Rosenbaum, who happened to have a 2-megapixel digital point-and-shoot camera handy. The 8x10 print of this image is proof of digital capability and quality.
© 2003, Steve Rosenbaum, All Rights Reserved

I'll never forget what Jason Schneider said. It was the mid-80s, and Sony was holding another press introduction of another version of the Mavica. Back then when you said the words "digital imaging," you were talking about Mavica, but the Mavica wasn't really a digital camera. It recorded images onto a tiny disk of videotape. The Mavica was, in fact, a still video camera, which turned freeze frames into prints. And most of the prints, as I remember, looked like pointillism gone terribly wrong.

But Sony wasn't giving up on the concept of an electronic camera that didn't use film, so there we were, hearing all about a new and improved Mavica. "We" were the photo press, and we weren't buying "new" or "improved" that day, and it was as we sat down to lunch after the presentation that Jason, then editor of Modern Photography, said, "The trouble with still video is that it's still video." I laughed, enjoyed lunch and then, so smart and smug, went back to work in a world where film reigned supreme, and always would.

Move On: Steve Brown shot three rolls of film to make sure he got this shot. With digital, which he now shoots, he'd have known right away that he got it, and then he could have spent his time getting more pictures in the great sunrise light.
© 2003, Steve Brown, All Rights Reserved

Today Sony still has cameras called Mavicas that still record images onto disks, but these Mavicas are true digital cameras. And digital cameras are everywhere. Deservedly so, as they are capable of making great pictures. They also make photographers better photographers.

Better For Business, And For Creativity
I'd been thinking about this because several months ago Kodak released the results of a survey of professional photographers in which three of five pros said that digital cameras were creating new business opportunities for them. That's nice, I thought, but what I was hearing from pro photographers was how digital was creating new creative opportunities. Commercial, portrait, wedding, sports, nature, outdoor, news, and editorial photographers who were using digital cameras were saying that this new tool was making them better.

Southern Exposure: Pete Turner took this photograph with his digital SLR at the Westin Regina Resort Los Cabos, Baja California Sur, Mexico. For unlimited control of color, Pete starts with a digital camera, then explores the possibilities of Photoshop.
© 2003, Pete Turner, All Rights Reserved

There's no reason amateur photographers can't enjoy the same creative benefits. Simply, you can do more with digital--and that's why digital is inevitable. Not because it's the latest toy or it's hip to carry around or it comes with a bevy of buzzwords to make the tech heads happy. It's just better.

If you're a photographer who's shooting with digital, you're probably going to turn the page right about now and move on to the next story. You already know about digital's benefits and advantages. But if you're a photographer who thinks that digital photography is the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, you might want to stick around. Pro photographers, whose livelihoods depend on delivering the goods, don't agree with you. They're making better pictures with digital.

Quality And Longevity
If it's quality you're concerned with, on these pages you'll see a photograph that photographer Steve Rosenbaum took with a 2-megapixel point-and-shoot digital camera. The digital file of that image produced a gorgeous 8x10 print; trust me, it's on my bulletin board and I'm looking at it right now. Great results, rock-bottom megapixel count. Quality? Case closed.

Worried about the longevity of your digital prints? There are papers and inks billed as archival. Don't trust the manufacturers' definition of archival? Frame the print and hang it up anyway. In five or 10 or 20 years, if it looks like it might be fading, go to one of the hard drives where you keep your backed-up digital files and print out a brand-new edition of your masterpiece. Slip the old one out of the frame, put the new one in its place.

Northern Exposure: Daniel J. Cox's digital SLR had no trouble capturing the northern lights and the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba, not to mention a quick grabshot of a reminder of just how cold it was up there.
© 2003, Daniel J. Cox, All Rights Reserved

New Look At Old Trees
Wildlife and nature photographer Jim Balog once commented on his role at a digital photography workshop by saying, "I'm there as a creative inspiration. I'm the one who says, `Hey, here's what we can do with these cameras that's unique and transcendent from other forms of photography.'" One of the things Jim did with his digital SLR was document the oldest and tallest trees in America. He didn't stand on the ground and look up--he made a series of startling images by climbing up into the trees, rappelling, and shooting overlapping exposures on the way down. Then he loaded the images into his computer and assembled up to 200 individual frames of each tree into a portrait. The digital files produced incredibly detailed images that Jim has printed out as 8-foot-long prints. By using digital, Jim saw what he got as soon as he got it, and he didn't need to scan any pictures. Check out the results of his efforts at his website,

Quick Review
The great sailboat at sunrise photo that Steve Brown made on Chesapeake Bay was done with a film camera. Today he'd shoot it with his digital SLR. He took the photo by fitting his camera to a monopod, turning the rig upside down and holding it over the side of the boat, making his exposures with a cable release, all the time wondering what the heck he was getting. "I burned through three rolls of film," Steve says. "When you're trying for a shot like this, you keep shooting just to make sure." Today, he'd know what he got simply by looking at the back of his camera. The point is not that digital is going to make us lazy; rather, it's going to free up time so we can move on and make more pictures because we'll know we've got this one nailed.

All The Options
How'd you like to have every color film ever made, available to you in your camera, all at the same time? You've got it--it's the digital white balance control. When you're shooting film, your color results are going to be dependent to a large extent on the film you choose. A digital camera, color master Pete Turner has said, "completely turns color control over to the photographer."

Standing Up To The Challenges
The durability of digital cameras? Photojournalist Kevin T. Gilbert takes digital SLRs to photograph Eco-Challenge races. He's been to Argentina, Fiji, Borneo, New Zealand, and a couple of places I can't spell. He's shot digital in fog and rain and mud, from rafts and canoes and helicopters. He's crawled through bat caves and fought off leeches and come back with the pictures. Well, actually, he didn't have to come back with them--he transmitted them to his client within hours of capturing them.

About a year ago Daniel J. Cox headed to Churchill, Manitoba, to photograph polar bears, only to find it was so cold the bears wouldn't come out of their dens. While waiting for things to warm up, he photographed the northern lights at minus 46Þ Fahrenheit. Eventually the bears showed up and Dan photographed them at minus 35Þ on a day his tripod-mounted digital SLR was out in the open for six hours. He protected the batteries in his pocket, but the cold soaked camera got no special treatment. Since there was nofilm to advance, he didn't have to worry about it getting brittle and breaking. Neither did he worry about static electricity, or his fingers freezing when he changed film. One memory card was all the storage space he needed.

Jim Jordan took this photo for Mervyn's stores catalog with his digital SLR. Digital, Jim says, turns models into partners. "It brings the energy level up when they see me react to the image on the back of the camera, and they know what I'm going for in the picture."
© 2003, Jim Jordan, All Rights Reserved

Model Partners
Advertising and editorial photographer Jim Jordan says that digital turns his models into his partners. "Digital brings up the energy level...when people see me react to the image on the back of the camera. I walk right over and show the models the picture and say, `Look what we got!' It builds everyone up. And if anything isn't working, we know right away and can fix it." Chances are you aren't taking pictures for the covers of magazines or for clothing ads and catalogs, but you can surely use digital's instant feedback to help you make better pictures of family and friends.

The Cost Factor
There is one hesitancy to digital, and that's cost. Not for digital point-and-shoot cameras; if you consider the features packed into those small wonders, they're terrific values. But what you're probably interested in is the digital SLR, and those cameras range from "Gee, that's a little pricey" to "My first new car cost less than that." While you can get a terrific digital SLR for under $2000, what a lot of us are waiting for is the under $1000 model. No one thinks we're going to have to wait very long.

Put away the garlic and the silver cross. Digital photography is a whole new world of creativity, opportunity, satisfaction, and fun. Explore it.