Digital Class

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

The Way We Were

Most of us believe that our societies are essentially classless. While true, to some extent money does create an unavoidable class structure. As but one example, there are those that drive BMWs and Mercedes, and those that drive Fords and Volkswagens.

Most of us don’t fret over this all that much. We drive what we can afford and we don’t lose a lot of sleep over the fact that aPorsche 911that we admire or even covet is beyond our reach. If we see one drive by we smile, momentarily fantasize what it would be like to have one, and then move on.

Until recently the photographic world has been mostly similar. But things are rapidly changing. Let’s see how and why.

Steamed Moose‚ Algonquin, 2002

Digital Envy

In theBDepoch, (Before Digital), the cost equation for cameras was fairly straightforward. A decent 35mm SLR cost somewhere between $500 and $1,000. You could pay less and get a plastic wonder, or somewhat more and get aCanon 1VorNikon F5. But lenses aside, about a thousand dollars was what it took to buy a good quality 35mm camera body. This number hasn’t changed much over the past 50 years in terms of absolute dollars (accounting for inflation).

But during the last two years there has been a dramatic change in this equation. Base level DSLRs like theNikon D100,Canon D60andFuji S2are now between $2,000 and $2,500 (All prices are in $ U.S.) This is a doubling or more over the price of comparable film-based camera bodies. High-end digital SLRs like theNikon D1and theCanon 1Dfamilies are priced between $5,000 and $6,000, triple what their film-based brethren cost. (The newEOS 1Dsis almost $9,000!) These prices have created a high anxiety level among photographers.

One only has to read the various discussion boards around the Net to get a feel for the confusion and anxiety that exists. Photographers read about new 11MB or 14MB cameras and their pulses race. They want to have one. They need to have one. How can they continue without one? That 6 Megapixel camera bought last month now seems old-hat, and the 3MP camera from last year is positively a relic.I want one ‚ they cry.

But, then the reality of a $4,000, $6,000 or $9,000 price tag hits,andtheVisacard is already maxed-out.

Does any of this make sense, and if not, what can be done about it?

Dividing The Class

Let’s divide the world into two classes‚ amateurs and professional photographers. In the amateur category I include everyone whodoesn’tmake their living from photography, and in the professional category I include everyone that does.

For the professional photographer a $5,000 digital camera is simply a tool. It will be used to generate income and as such can be depreciated over a period of time and the capital cost deducted.

A digital camera like this also will quickly pay for itself. Assuming for a moment that a busy photographer shoots 10 rolls on a one day shoot, and shoots three days a week, that’s about 1,500 rolls a year. At $10 a roll for film and processing that’s a saving of $15,000 by switching to digital. Even assuming the need for other compensating expenditures, the payback for buying a $5,000 digital SLR is measured in just months. This doesn’t even take into account the increase in productivity.

The amateur (and I include fine-art photographers in this group) doesn’t have such a clear-cut economic case. Even if he or she sells their work from time to time, photography is a hobby, an art, a craft or a passion‚ but not a major source of revenue. Rather it is an income consumer.

That’s fine, for most. We do what we do because we want to do it, and if we can afford it who is to nay say?

The problem as I see it is that the siren call of bigger and better is causing otherwise rational people to lose sight of financial reality. (One would like to think they’re rational‚ though reading what some yobos write on various discussion forums causes one to doubtthis).

Does it makes sense for a non-professional photographer to buy a $5,000 DSLR? If they can afford it, of course it does. But many can’t‚ and therein lies the problem.

These new cameras are priced the way they are because they represent cutting edge technology. Development costs are high and manufacturers need to recoup these over relatively small production runs. It used to be that a top-of-the-line camera like today’sNikon F5orCanon EOS 1Vwould have production life of between five and eight years. Now, new high-end digital camera are appearing every 12 months.

For the working pro this isn’t an issue. When a new model comes along that does a better job its purchase can be rationalized. The previous model becomes a back-up and the one before that is sold off. For the amateur, unless money is simply not an issue, $3,000 to $5,000 every year or two for a new camera body is just out of the question.

Shadows & Moon‚ White Sands

When Will Things Settle Down?

There is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s still a ways off, but itisthere. Today (September, 2002) we are seeing the emergence of 10-15 Megapixel cameras. These will start to ship before year’s end. Six months ago the benchmark was 6 megapixels, and 6 months before that it was 3 megapixels. Using this math we will be shooting with cameras that record more megapixels than there are atoms in the universe before the decade is out.

Clearly there are limiting factors. Nothing continues to grow at such a furious rate. (Remember the .COM bubble?) An 11 Megapixel camera will produce roughly a 33 megabyte file. A 14 megapixel camera a 42 megabyte file. That’s in 8 bit mode. Import it in 12, 14 or 16 bit mode and even the largest and fastest of today’s computers are going to start to choke.

Are we going to see 20MB cameras. How about 25MB? (I’m talking 35mm, not medium or large format). I think not. To get higher resolution means putting more photosites into the same space (remember that these new chips are now full-frame). Below a certain size we run into the law of diminishing returns, and while resolution may increase noise and other deleterious effects increase.

Also, an 11 Megapixel camera like theCanon 1Dscan produce an 11 X 17" print at 240 ppi. Sure, a larger file size will permit bigger prints (and an improved ability to crop without losing too much quality), but I do believe that something south of 20 Megapixels is likely the upper limit that we’ll see in 35mm format cameras.

Of course there will be advances in other aspects of digital imaging technology beside resolution (which already matches or exceeds that of film). High-end digital already has less noise than film, but can still offer some improvement. Artifacting can be reduced and colour purity enhanced. Certainly frame rates and throughput can be increased, though cameras like theEOS 1Dalready match or exceed film camera bodies in this regard.

If you think about these issues it starts to become clear that while we are now in the heart of the storm, things will settle down‚ likely within another couple of years. We will then start to see a leveling off at the high end and for some of the top-of-the-line features to migrate downwards, and for prices to continue dropping. After that my crystal ball gets cloudy.

What To Do?

Everyone’s situation is different. If you’re a working pro you know what your needs are and don’t need a lot of advise from me. If you have deep pockets then this is mostly irrelevant. Buy what you want and enjoy.

But if you’re like most people, and lust after the latest and greatest but have limited means, don’t despair. Don’t look at every new wonder camera as a must-have purchase, just as you don’t seriously plan on buying that hotFerrarithat drove past this morning. You may admire it, may enjoy reading about it, and might on a whim drop into the showroom, but you’re not really going to buy it, so get over it.

Treat the continuing flow of new high-end digital cameras in the same way. Enjoy the fact that they’re out there. Read the reviews and be glad that they exist, because next year and the year after their features and advances will trickle down into camera that youcanafford.

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Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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