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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 digital.
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 areexactlywhat 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 why.
I’m reminded of an article written byIssac Asimovin 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 Ã¢â‚¬â€ 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 aLeica M6orMamiya 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 be tested.
Other camera, the vast majority in fact, require various batteries, ranging from aCR123sizedLithiumto a half dozenAAbatteries. 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, theRollei 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 the review
to be continued…
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