Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


Dude! Where’s the Ansel Adams Button?

By Pete Myers


Joe’s Rock Shop


Alas, the First Wave of the digital photographic era is over. And we begin again with the Second Wave—this Photokina 2006.

The First Wave was about the promise of the digital photographic era. The promise was that we would be able to take better pictures because the images would not be recorded to film. This single promise has been the industry’s wild goose chase for the past decade.

Many of us have suffered through the growing pains of the First Wave and can report back that such promise was only partially fulfilled in the opening decade of the digital photographic era. Certainly, there have been dramatic results with digital photography, but now our lives contain greater complexity and new phrases such as:

  • monitor calibration
  • printer calibration
  • image archiving
  • memory cards
  • color gamut
  • inkjet printers paper and ink
  • banding
  • battery life
  • digital postproduction (Photoshop and variants)
  • chromatic aberrations
  • RAW file formats and conversion
  • firmware version xx.x
  • upgrade costs of computer, printer, and camera
  • obsolesces and out-of-business vendors

The First Wave was about getting any of this technology to work at all. The Second Wave will be about building tools for digital photography that work correctly and with lasting value to the photographer.

Market tracking on the consumer side is showing a slowdown in the growth of digital camera sales. Simply put, the market is already beginning to fully saturate with “point and squirt” cameras. The market is chuck-full of digital cameras, each capable of reasonable image quality so that grandma and grandpa can see the grandchildren via email, eBayers can sell their goods online, and we can all bore each other silly with our vacation photos. As it stands, current digital camera technologies are likely good enough to get the job done for most people. Take the memory card to your local WallyWorld, and drive home with beautiful hard-copy photo prints of your images for pennies on the dollar.

On the professional side, the news is more about who is still in business, rather than what we get to shoot. Professional cameras and lenses have always been a narrow market segment. And when it became difficult and expensive for them to chase technology development during the First Wave of the digital photographic era, many of the original players left the professional camera market rather than suffer through each and every painful bump in the development path.

During the Second Wave, I see development patterns of professional cameras slowing down. Given the requirements of a decent signal to noise ratio for the camera, there is a limit to how many pixels can be pushed onto an image sensor of fixed size. We have about reached those limits based on Bayer Matrix technology. I see little progress in any attempt at breaking away from Bayer and towards three-chip solutions, as the prospects of lens re-design are daunting and expensive.

Delivering technically sound and reliable products will be the challenge to manufacturers of professional equipment in the Second Wave. Professionals are tired of paying for cameras that have firmware issues out of the box; cameras that cannot be fixed or maintained properly, and do not stand the test of time. The technology for today’s professional digital cameras is getting good enough wherein conditions of reliability need to be met before a product ever ships—and to do so takes long development times and thorough quality-assurance testing.

The biggest shift I see in semi-pro and pro gear is that there will be fewer buyers. That is not to say that the market will collapse. It will simply prune down to the level of semi-pro and professional activity before the First Wave ever hit. Why? Because there is no “Ansel Adams Button” on the backs of digital cameras.

The “Ansel Adams Button” was the theoretical promise that was sold to the semi-pros during the First Wave. The false hope was the suggestion that one could record with a digital camera an image that rivaled what Adams produced from his big 8”x10” negatives during the golden era of film—and if so, then certainly the average Joe could take images that were just as exciting as what Adams used to make.

What legions of photographers have once again discovered the hard way is that their cameras do not contain the fabled “Ansel Adams Button”, nor his mojo. Today’s digital photographic medium has proven just as hard to use in making great images as was true in Adams’ time, and with film. As I have written about extensively in "Making Images—Not Taking Images", and "Long Road Down: The Making of a Fine Art Photograph", once again it is the hard work of the photographer in post production that yields rich results—and making an image is a function of the artist, not the camera technology.

As the chimera of the “Ansel Adams Button” proves false from the trials of the First Wave, many photographers will fade away to try other hobby activities. This can already be seen in the site statistics of popular online photography magazines, which slowly are showing smaller, but more sophisticated, audiences. The refined audience is more inquisitive in regard to questions of what techniques and technology really work and how to obtain lasting value for one’s money. But further, many are beginning to push on towards an understanding that technology is not enough to make an art form. Many photographers are asking the harder questions in terms of how to go beyond technology when making their own images.

As Photokina 2006 hits the calendar, it’s time to look towards the Second Wave and find the bedrock for our industry in lasting value from our digital photographic technologies. Certainly, technology will keep advancing, as it always has done so—and that is good for the industry. But technology is not where the Second Wave hangs its hat—It will be in the establishment of lasting value from technology that actually creates meaningful photographs year-in and year-out without being burdensome to the photographer.

Joe’s Rock Shop-Detail

Images © 2006, Peter H. Myers.


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