The Art Of Technobabble And The New Age Photographer
By: Gary Gray
I recently attended a Landscape Photography work-shop hosted by fairly renowned Colorado photographer, Kathleen Norris Cook. There were about a dozen or so other photographers in attendance but only two professionals, I being one,. Kathleen has worked primarily with Medium Format film throughout her career; however, most of the attendees including myself were using Digital SLR's. What struck me about this particular experience was the fact that she wasn't exceptionally knowledgeable about the use and application of the Digital Camera and spoke primarily from her perspective as a film photographer. Her knowledge and skill as a Landscape Photographer is without question, but she didn't seem prepared to assist her students with understanding the use of their particular equipment and how it is best used in Landscape Photography situations. Many students were struggling with their camera and as a result of their struggles, I found that many of them were gravitating to me for better understanding and knowledge of their particular camera during the three days we were in the field.
During our final critique session, Kathleen and I were having a brief discussion on the merits of Digital vs film and it was during this discussion that she made a well intended comment that I was a “gear-head.” Well, I know I'm a gear-head, but I've never really called myself a gear-head so I tried to understand her statement from a film photographers perspective. She's old-school You lug your film camera into the field, you load it with film, you study or pre-map your location and scene, you get set up, you wait for the light to be right and you take a half dozen shots. Afterwards, you spend days and days peering at the negatives on a light table, selecting the best shots and then painstakingly make the best possible enlargement prints you can get. You don't worry about megapixels, and sensor cleaning and frame rates and all the things us owners of Digital SLR's are accustomed to worrying about. From her perspective, I was too technically involved with photographic equipment to be concentrating on the actual art of photography. After thinking about it, I think she may have been right.
When I was much younger, my first camera was a Voightlander Vito III 35mm range-finder. It had a fixed 50mm lens, maximum shutter speed of 1/250th a second and was made of metal. The viewfinder was about the size of a pencil eraser. I never knew anything better existed, nor would I have cared if I did. I learned photography on my own and this is what I started with and I was happy.
I quickly discovered that I liked black & white. Color was the rage in the 60's, color television, color film...wow, color. Not for me. Black & white photographs had an edge to them, could convey mood and atmosphere that color couldn't approach.
Coming from 35mm SLR cameras, we had a slew of bodies to choose from and a slew of lenses to choose from, but there never seemed to be a big discussion centered on which brand was better. It was more a question of what type of film you liked to use. Kodachrome, Velvia, Provia, TMax, TriX, blah, blah, blah... Every film had its' own characteristic look, the color saturation, grain, acutance. This was our technobabble of the past. Myself, I simply went to the local drug store and picked up what ever film was on sale. I never got into the technobabble of the day and I was happy.
As the years moved past and I continued into adulthood, I remember with great enthusiasm the first “microprocessor” camera. The Canon AE-1. At the time of the release of the Canon AE-1, I was knee deep in my engineering studies and this new electronic marvel struck a chord in my photographic soul. We now had something to talk about other than the different types of film. We could now delve into the technical aspects of camera design and the benefits rendered thereof. Of course, our photographic skill wasn't improved by these modern manifestations of 35mm film photography, but living amongst other technically minded individuals, we could now have seriously technical discussions about cameras that were previously confined to the domain of “high-fidelity audio.” Our horizons had been broadened and we were happy.
Flash forward to 2008.
35mm film photography has been replaced by the march of technology. We now have the Digital SLR entering a stage of maturity and with a superior image quality to any film camera I've ever used. I didn't jump on the digital band-wagon immediately. I waited for a generation or two until the Digital SLR finally caught my attention. The last film camera I purchased was a Canon EOS-3, a semi-pro body with a microprocessor and custom function programability. Eye control focus system. Weather sealed body. It was the peak of technology for a 35mm SLR. I used it very little, but I was satisfied that I had about as good a camera as I'd ever need. It sat on a shelf for many years, my interest had waned, life taking other directions until this new digital camera technology permeated my thoughts sufficiently enough for me to venture forth into a brave new photographic world. In patience I watched as the first 1 megapixel cameras hit the market. The Kodak DCS series were the first I paid attention to. Basically, a Nikon film body modified for digital imaging with a 1.5 megapixel CCD sensor and a 2.6x crop factor. It was a monster.
These first incarnations of the Digital SLR were firmly based on the latest film 35mm SLR technology of the time (early-mid 1990's) and while most of us born before 1985 understood 35mm film photography, the new breed of photographer would grow up with a whole new perspective on the SLR camera. I didn't know it at the time, but the new technobabble was also introduced with this camera.
For certain, the digital SLR functions and behaves in most ways the same as the older film cameras. Heck, the newest SLR's are merely a manifestation of the natural technological advancement of all things analog towards a digital replacement. For the most part, the photographic rules of exposure, lighting & composition haven't changed as a result of the Digital Revolution. What has changed is the terminology. megapixels, CCD, CMOS, digital sensor, crop factor. Common everyday terminology for the modern photographer. Other phrases, once unheard of, are now part of our vocabulary. Post-processing, work-flow, pixel density just to name a few. With the new age of digital photography one must also drift away from the darkroom full of chemicals, enlargers and papers and towards the Desktop Computer and Inkjet printers. I see now why so many of my contemporaries have given up on photography. The monetary investment of acquiring the new knowledge and new equipment is a daunting prospect. Many old-timers simply can't come to grips with the computer age and still cling to their film cameras and negatives, and amazingly enough, are still making great photographs. What would take the old-timers days and weeks to accomplish can now be done in a matter of hours. I'm one of the old-timers who was lucky enough to cut my teeth in the digital world during its' infancy. I worked in Graphic Arts professionally for The Wall Street Journal as an Engineer, working on digital film scanners and image reproduction equipment. The late 70's and early 80's were an amazing time. I watched the film and digital world slowly blend into one coherent technology and I watched as the personal computer slowly replaced the dark-room. What I haven't come to grasp with, and perhaps this is a sign of old age, is the current vocabulary of the new-age photographer. With my tongue now firmly planted in my cheek, I'm going to attempt explain this phenomena from this old-timers perspective.
A little speck of material on the digital sensor that captures light. The consumer market is driven more by this word than any other word in the digital vocabulary.
“How many megapixels does your camera have?” is the question I'm most often asked by the casual gawker.
“All of them.” is my usual response, usually coupled with a wry smile as I slowly turn away.
In the old days, we looked at the grain of the film and most technical arguments centered on the relative (or perceived) improvements in film technology. There is no pixel “grain.” It's simply a matter of how many pixels are crammed into the sensor of your camera. We also have the derivative terminology from the word Pixel. This includes megapixels, Pixel Sharpness, Pixel Density and distant cousins, Bayer or Foveon sensor (which is a theory on how to arrange and utilize those pixels.) Throw in a few good marketing monikers such as “X3”, or “MKIII” and you have what must be an advertising coup in the digital camera sales world. My new EOS-1DSMKIV 30 megapixel X4 Foveon Sensor camera that will shoot at 25 frames per second in 16 bit mode at ISO 120,000 will take a better photo of my 1 year old grandson's cake smeared face than my 8 month old 27 megapixel camera at 14 bits and ISO 60,000 at 16 frames per second. See how those pixels add up and make your camera sound better. Bigger numbers when coupled with alphanumerics and added to the camera name, you can't go wrong. Just pick a camera with the longest name and most/highest digits and of course...the most megapixels. I can't wait until the megapixel becomes obsolete and is replaced by the word “Giga-Pixel”, followed some 10 years later with “Tera-Pixel” and ultimately ending with “Google-Pixel.” Maybe, someday, we'll drop the word pixel all together. The Pixel will some day be obsolete, replaced by some bio-sensor with resolution down to a molecular level, capable of being grown in your basement or kitchen window. It can be maintained by imbedded nanobots. You'll never experience another dead pixel. A self healing camera sensor. Don't laugh, it will probably happen some day. I'll be dead of course, but today's photographer can look forward to the day when technology has left them behind and the new age photographers of that distant future will look upon them as from the "pixel era" and as the dinosaur. Becoming a dinosaur is a condition we should all look forward to experiencing. The alternative is to die young.
Now, this one is amazingly simple to me. Anyone who never picked up a film SLR though, is not going to understand this until they've become a more seasoned photographer. What I mean by being more seasoned is they have been subjected to enough ridicule from old-timers like me for not understanding their photographic heritage. The crop sensor is simply smaller than a standard 35mm film frame sized sensor. What makes it better is that it is cheaper than a full frame sensor. In my opinion, a smaller imaging surface is not better when it comes to photography, but try to explain that to the new-age photographer. The new age photographer sees it as an advantage. “The Crop Sensor Advantage”, another marketing term, grasped upon and clung too by the ill-advised and naïve. The new-age photographer uses his crop sensor advantage to be a better tele-photographer. They can now take a 500mm telephoto-zoom lens and magically turn it into a 800mm telephoto-zoom lens. This crop-sensor advantage allows them to take that pulitzer-prize winning photograph of a common sparrow from 30 more feet away. Never mind everything else, he's convinced that this advantage is the result of higher pixel density. It enables the "focal length challenged" photographer.
Focal Length Challenged is another one of those technobabble phrases associated with digital photography.
Basically it means "I can't afford a better telephoto lens." But, having a camera with higher pixel density will solve the problem. You thought I was through with the pixel thing didn't you? No chance. Everything in digital photography revolves around the pixel, don't forget this.
What the heck is “Pixel Density” anyway? Pixel density is cramming more pixels into a smaller surface area. Ten million pixels in a sensor with 2/3 the surface area is better than 12 million pixels on something larger. I haven't figured it out yet. I still go for the 12 million on a larger sensor. Photographically, it's technobabble, nothing more. The only advantage is to the bank account.
Cousin terminology related to Crop Sensors and Pixel Density are phrases such as Sensor Well, Signal-to-noise Ratios, Sensor Read Noise, Dynamic Range, Sensor Unity Gain, and the list continues to grow. People actually go to college, study engineering and write their Masters Thesis on subjects such as these. The new-age photographer must learn this terminology if they are to be conversant on the subject of Digital Cameras. One simply can't make a proper and informed purchase decision unless they have analyzed the Signal-to-noise Ratio of every sensor in every body on the market and calculated the effect of Sensor Well photon capture ratios in relationship to the dynamic range of the sensor at Unity Gain. If you don't understand the significance of these vital relationships, you simply can't make an informed buying decision when it comes to purchasing the very best Digital SLR and if you buy the wrong DSLR, you are really in for big trouble, because the true "New-Age Photographer" would never buy the wrong DSLR.
So, having pondered this entire digital revolution for about 10 years and having realized that what I learned from film still applies to digital photography and in ways that are no less important, is this. Return to the roots of photography. Understand what it takes to make a good photograph, not what it takes to make a good camera. The best photographs come from the best photographers, not from the best cameras. Let go of your inner consumer, forget the megapixels and signal-to-noise ratios. Don't worry if your camera will shoot at 5 or 10 frames per second or at ISO-64,000. Your results will be judged more on what you see than what the camera doesn't.
At this point in the game, there are only two basic things to worry about if you want to be a good photographer.
Can you be there when it happens?
Do you have the ability to see it when it happens?
If you can't answer yes to those two questions, you are wasting your time and money. Every digital SLR camera on the market is capable of making the image.
It's not about the camera, it's about you and your skill as a photographer. Never lose sight of this.
Just my opinion, but I'm sticking to it.
(Originally published, Jan 16, 2008)