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Photography has always been about technology. It was born out of the early
19th century's infatuation with and new-found mastery of chemistry.
Photography is currently at a new crossroads. Digital image processing has,
since the mid-90's, rapidly supplanted the chemical darkroom. Scanning and
ink-jet printing have displaced enlargers and trays of chemicals and processing
drums for the vast majority of fine art as well as commercial photographers, not
to mention hobbyists.
Digital image recording has moved at an equally rapid pace. In the consumer
marketplace digital cameras outsold film-based cameras in 2001 and there's no
looking back. As this is being written, in early 2002, digital SLRs are capable
of producing images equaling if not sometimes exceeding that from 35mm film. The
price of entry is still high, but falling rapidly.
For medium and large format photographers things are less clear. There are
digital backs that far surpass film in their ability to produce high quality
images, but they remain saddled with prices exceeding those of decent automobiles
and remain largely tethered to computers and external power supplies.
Advancement is happening here, but at a somewhat slower pace than with 35mm
I believe that along with the obvious benefits that digital imaging brings us
there is a tyranny that we need to beware of. But, before examining what I mean
by this lets examine digital photography's twin.
I, like many professionals and serious fine art photographers, have embraced
digital image processing. My darkroom was closed for good, my enlarger and
chemical processing gear given away (the used marketplace in this paraphernalia
disappeared as early as 1997), and the scanner and Photoshop software embraced
as the tools of choice for my work and my art.
And why not? Few who have experienced the flexibility and power of these new
tools would return to the smelly and toxic confines of a chemical darkroom. No
one who has produced an archival pigment-based inkjet print whose tonalities are
exactly what was visualized, and which can be subsequently reprinted with
absolute perfection at a some future date, can deny that technology has truly
advanced the photographic art. Luddites and non-believers remain, but their
numbers dwindle monthly.
My concern is with the image capture side of the equation. Let me tell you
I'm reminded of an article written by Issac Asimov in which he
describes that wonderful technology called "Book". Book, he
tells us, is a superior technology for delivering information. Relatively high
density storage of information is combined with ease of access — no batteries
or external power sources are required. Data stored is no-volatile and has been
shown to last for centuries with only moderate care to storage conditions.
Full random access capability is built in and images can be freely merged
with text. Book can be easily transported and stored and reproduced with readily
available technology, available most places on the planet.
Amusing, but there's a parallel to film that was not lost on my when I first
read the piece. Rather than belabor the analogy let's examine the ways in which
digital cameras, no matter how excellent the image quality they may produce, can
become a tyrannical partner and tool.
Few if any first-rate cameras are completely without reliance on batteries.
This has been the case for many years. In some cases, such as with a Leica M6
or Mamiya 7, only a small battery, good for hundreds of rolls, is
required to power the built-in lightmeter. If the batteries dies the camera is
still functional, though the photographer's skills at judging light levels will
Other camera, the vast majority in fact, require various batteries, ranging
from a CR123 sized Lithium to a half dozen AA batteries.
These last for dozens if not hundreds of rolls of film, and extras can be easily
carried even to remote locations.
The worst are the ones that use rechargeable batteries, like one of my
all-time favourites, the Rollei 6008. Find yourself away from an AC
outlet for too long, and no matter how many spares you have with you eventually
your picture taking days are over.
Almost all digital cameras suffer from this same affliction and for much of
the photography that I do this presents a serious limitation. I can't imagine
setting off an a week-long hiking or rafting trip with a digital camera, even
with spare batteries.
Even traveling where this is access to AC power presents additional hassles.
One needs to bring along a charger, and pay attention to the recharging of prime
and alternate batteries. Batteries in laptop computers, also a necessary toll
when working digitally, need to be regularly charged.
For most digital photographers a portable computer has become de-rigueur. Not
only do they provide a vast amount of download storage, but they also allow for
to be continued...
to be continued...
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