Olympus E-1 (2003). I'm still mystified why
Olympus never updated this design. Note how odd
the tiny viewing screen looks now.
Yesterday's post was certainly interesting and even sent me scurrying to eBay to look at certain old digital cameras. Several people waxed rhapsodic about the old Olympus E-1, and there are several available for less than $100.
But then I came to my senses. It's okay to say that cameras are just tools and it's the results that matter, but of course the tools influence the results...and in many cases enable them. I used to be fond of quoting a saying I heard during my days as a carpenter: "Carpentry is 25% skill, 25% experience, and 50% having the right tools." Try building a dining room table from rough-cut lumber using, I don't know, dental implements. Now fix a tooth with the tools in a sewing basket or a garden shed. Take the best-equipped kitchen in the world and use the tools you find there to test and fix a central air conditioner. You get the idea.
I thought it might be worthwhile to review a few of the issues that have been dealt with over the years in our digital tools. I've found it very interesting how various issues have arisen and then subsided again, to be replaced by new concerns.
• Resolution. The first and biggest, still an issue today. The first digital camera I used had 680,000 pixels, and was barely adequate for prints of any size; the first digital camera I really enjoyed using (the Nikon Coolpix 950 (2000), my brother's) had 2.1 mega- (or million) -pixels (MP). For a period of several years in the 1990s, it was generally accepted that 6 MP would be needed to equal the resolution of common 35mm films. Michael Reichmann of The Luminous Landscape made himself famous by declaring on the Internet that we were there with the 3-MP Canon D30 of Y2K. For several years, "uprezzing" apps were hot commodities and much discussed. Not so any more (but partly because they have been incorporated into may software editing programs). Now, it's difficult to buy a camera with a 4/3 sensor or larger that doesn't have at least 12 MP. At about the time of the Canon Powershot G11, in 2009, it began to be common knowledge that shoehorning too many pixels into too tiny a patch of real estate might actually be contributing to a lessening of quality, and "pixel pitch" (how big each pixels is) began to be talked about. In 2016 we have a FF camera that has 50 MP and a medium-format back that has 100 MP, and pixel count is starting to cool off as a driver for sales.
• High ISO (in newspeak this is pronounced "eye-so," which still sounds vaguely dumb to my ear; to be an acronym, an initialism needs to spell something comprehensible, doesn't it? Maybe not. It used to be pronounced "eye-ess-oh," and that's what I still find myself saying). I also had an early digital camera (Sony F-707, mid-2001, 5 MP) that at ISO 400 yielded heavy, bold digital "grain" in prints. During the time when "whether you were switching or not" (i.e., from film to digital) was a hot, hot topic, I heard many professionals say they wouldn't switch until digital could do "at least as well as film" at high ISOs. Digital has so greatly surpassed film in this regard now that the very framing of the issue sounds quaint. It's worthwhile remembering, though, that Canon's superiority in high ISOs for a long stretch of years right when it mattered most was a big contributor to its dominance as the leading digital camera maker. It's a position Canon hasn't bothered to maintain, but it hasn't hurt the company because it's no longer such a crucial issue.
• Throughput. The processors in early digital cameras choked if they were asked to store too many pictures in too short a time, and "buffer size"—how many pictures of various types could be taken at full speed before the camera's response slowed down—was an issue for a while. Less so now that many cameras have gotten so close to sufficiency for most purposes, but it's still a reason for some pros to buy big pro cameras.
• Speed. There are many factors grouped under the rubric of "speed," Autofocus speed, turn-on or power-up speed, shutter lag (the time between the shutter-press and the taking of the picture), frame rate or frames-per-second (FPS, usually written "fps" for some unknown reason), and so forth. With my first digital camera, a very expensive Olympus point-and-shoot, I once took a picture of a slow-moving tour boat on the Milwaukee River by framing the shot, holding the camera still, and pushing the shutter release when the boat was exactly in the middle of the frame. The picture that resulted showed the stern of the boat off to the left-hand side of the frame—! That's how slow the camera was. Professional film SLRs commonly had a shutter lag of about 60 milliseconds, long enough that pros could learn, sometimes almost subconsciously, to "lead" the action ever so slightly when shooting. And the gold standard for shutter lag, the Leica rangefinders, had shutter lag of only 18 milliseconds. Now, the fastest mirrorless cameras can autofocus in 60 milliseconds. The same early Olympus I had took about three very long seconds to power on from the off position. Might not sound like much, but it's an eternity if you're itching to take a shot of something that's happening fast. Cameras are getting better at these issues all the time, but you do tend to get what you pay for, still.
Leica Digilux 2 (2003)
• Sharpening. Another big issue that has evolved into a smaller issue. The fewer pixels, the more obvious moiré is; the more obvious moiré is, the heavier the anti-aliasing filtering has to be to counteract it; and the heavier the anti-aliasing filtering, the softer the picture looks and the more it benefits from sharpening in the editing program. The late Bruce Fraser made a big name for himself with his landmark book on sharpening, and a company (Nik, currently being killed off by its new corporate owner) was founded based on his ideas. Not such a big deal now that we have such a surfeit of pixels.
• Raw. Bruce also produced a wonderful book on raw conversion (the single best tech book on digital that ever influenced Yr. Hmbl. Ed.)—and it's something that's also been put to bed so to speak. Most cameras now create accessible raw files and most common editing programs have raw converters. There is still a lot of argument over which converter handles which files best, but this might be the sort of happy nitpickery that kept film aficionados busy discussing the merits of various film developer formulas back in the film days. Be that as it may, many early digital cameras didn't give us access to the raw files—remember when you had to decide whether to set the "white balance" yourself or rely on the camera's not-always-accurate auto setting to do so?
• "Noise." I'm sure everyone remembers. For a while, the amplification of signals at the threshold level of exposure resulted in anomalies called "noise"—speckling and blotching in dark areas in pictures. Shadow noise was so bad for while that it was widely tested when new cameras came out, heatedly (or should I say "noisily"?) discussed and argued, and fixed with various apps whose relative merits were also much discussed. Although it can still be detected and for a few photographers might still be an issue, especially those who routinely work with very high ISOs, for the most part it's been a solved problem in general shooting with the last few generations of sensors.
• Dynamic range. Properly "exposure range," the new term is now entrenched and established. This refers to the camera's ability to record shadow details (by the way, "the shadows" in photography is a generic term for the dark parts of any picture) when the picture is exposed properly for the highlights, or to retain highlight detail when the camera is exposed optimally for the shadow areas. This is the most recent technical issue to be addressed by the sensor- and cameramakers. They're certainly addressing it, however—the best cameras now have very good DR.
Anything I missed?
There have been some other basic issues along the way. For instance, one which affected me at one point was low-light focusing ability—a camera that focused fine in decent light lost its way in low light. Very frustrating.
The sum total of these changes over the years have basically meant that in a 20-odd-year period we've gone from cameras that amounted to exotic (and startlingly delightful*) parlor tricks to cameras that, at their best, see better than the human eye. It might not be every camera and maybe not in every instance, but pick the right camera and use it properly, and it might resolve more distant detail than you can with your naked eye, give the impression of greater edge sharpness than your eye is capable of, and, when the world is murky with darkness and your color perception barely has enough light to function, certain cameras with the right lenses can still extract decently exposed and reasonably colorful images. I'd probably argue that the eye/brain is capable of seeing/decoding greater DR than most cameras do, but that issue is certainly coming along.
That's not to say we have nowhere left to go. It's also not to say that cameras haven't also gotten worse in some respects as digital has progressed—but that's a different article for a different day. Mahn England reminded us of an old quote from Will Rogers: "Things ain't what they used to be and probably never was." Our fondness for older cameras and sensors is probably just nostalgia for who were were then, and for the pictures we took and remember with fondness. A lot of the ways cameras are better now make them actually...well, better.
Monday it is
TOP doesn't update on weekends now. This past week I was forced to work on Sunday, so I hope to get some work done on my book this weekend.
Hope you have a pleasant one. Take it easy, and stop to smell some roses. For me, it's housework then guests tomorrow, and writing on Sunday. On the good side, at least my A/C is working.
*Really, one of the best reasons to have been a longtime film user and darkroom worker was to experience the ease and freedom of early digital and truly appreciate the contrast. That sense early digital gave us of suddenly being uncaged and set free was a great and exciting thing to experience.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
David Sutton: "ISO is not an acronym. It's short for 'isos' meaning equal. You'll find an explanation here about halfway down the page. Mind you, some people who were at the founding of the International Organization for Standardization don't agree with the official story."
Mike replies: ...Probably because it's a back-formation. That "explanation" came along later as I remember it. But all right, I stand corrected.
MikeR: "'Eye-so?' I don't recall anyone ever saying 'ay'-sah' for ASA. It was always 'ay-es-ay.' Must be a spillover from us computer types, especially since cameras now are high-powered computers with lenses grafted on. Most of us with IBM hardware in our backgrounds pronounce their EBCDIC coding scheme 'eb'-sih-dick.'"
[Ed. Note: I suggest reading both of the following two comments. Together they say more than either one alone.]
mark I: "Actually that might have been your reaction to digital, mine was quite different. After printing for myself and others for 25 years my first thought was hell, I've got to start from scratch and learn photography technique all over. My second thought was that all those technical skills I'd learnt such as balancing colour for transparencies with gels and the like were all irrelevant and now any idiot with a camera could take a technically competent photo. I've become a pretty bloody good digital photographer but take no pleasure in it at all, I just do it for money. Every photo on my wall is a silver print and every monograph on my shelves is from a film photographer, which I've only just realized, it was not a deliberate choice. Quite frankly digital killed my love affair with photography and my favourite moments apart from interacting with people from behind the camera are still in the darkroom, I just love it, even film developing which I know you hated. For you to say we all felt uncaged and free is a terrible generalisation and quite the oppposite of my reaction. Just saying...."
Peter Croft: "Re '...one of the best reasons to have been a longtime film user and darkroom worker was to experience the ease and freedom of early digital and truly appreciate the contrast.' Yes indeed. When I traveled in the film days, the cost of K64 was about A$15 a roll (including processing). That was a lot in the 1980s! I used to take about 20 rolls, so the cost was substantial. Fuji Reala cost less initially, but processing and printing added around $300–$400 to a trip. Then there was the waiting for the return of your films, another week before you could see the results. Plus the measures to protect the film from heat and X-ray scanners and the sheer bulk and weight. Then when I started scanning my K64, the Nikon LS4000 cost me A$2,700. Now, I take a couple of 64GB UHS cards, shoot everything with perfect results, bracket like mad if I feel like it, never fear running out of 'film,' and see my results instantly. I never get caught fumbling while changing film rolls. I shoot beautiful 4K video in the same camera (Panasonic FZ1000). I have no fear of heat or X-rays and the cost is a tiny fraction of what I used to pay. Two SD cards fit in my wallet. It's hard to imagine how it could get better."
Greg Mironchuk: "Olympus E-1 files are nice enough (5-MP Kodak-designed sensor...you can output in ACR to 10 MP)...but the real charm is the ergonomics...in 40 years of using/buying/selling cameras, I never found another one that was Just Right, like the E-1. It Just Fit, and everything was Just Where It Ought To Be."
Ken: "Speaking of your comment in the NYT, you saw this quote from a TOP reader (with a link to your blog) in the New York Times Magazine, right? (Scroll down to the comment about Robert Frank)."
Mike replies: No I did not! Very cool. That's Geoff Wittig who wrote that. Thanks. I'll pass it along to him.
Bill Wheeler: "I must not spend another dime on film equipment, I must not spend another dime on film equipment, I must not spend another dime on film equipment. And the same goes for antiquated digital equipment. Not another dime."
Mike replies: How about a great deal on a sweet Rolleiflex 6008AF?
Bill adds: "No more watches, either. Thanks."
Dieter Hessel: "Has digital been a freeing experience in my photography? Yes. But to suggest it's much cheaper than the film days is a bit laughable.
"My old gear of Canon, 'Blad, Sinar etc. are as solid today as in the '80s. My Omega 4x5 enlarger would still work today with just an occasional bulb replacement.
"Now I'm on my fourth digital body (average $3,000) and on my fifth computer (average $2,000). I don't want to think of how many weeks of my life have been used up on endless system and software upgrades and dealing with digital issues (argh!!). I've been using the full suite of Adobe for many years—the initial purchase was $1,600 and upgrades about every 18 months were $800. Now I'm paying US$50 (CDN$70) every month. I've lost track of how many external drives I've bought to store all my files not to mention the boxes of cables, chargers, batteries, card-readers and never-ending digital-shite one absolutely needs to have. Oh yeah—I forgot printing—on my fifth Epson (a massive 9900) that I'm still paying for and filling with $150 ink cartridges. (I hope my wife doesn't see any of this or I've got some 'splainin' to do).
"To suggest digital living is cheaper just doesn't cut it with me. Example—in the '80s we had a phone at home ($20 a month) and cable TV ($25 a month). That was it for our high-tech existence. Most people pay more today for their phone then I used to pay in rent.
"OK, I think my old guy rant is over (I may have scared myself). But you know what—I love digital and I'm obviously willing to pay for it, and far more than I ever did in the film days."