Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs

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Digital Outback Fine Art Photography Handbook

© Bettina & Uwe Steinmueller

4. Why digital?

4.1 What makes digital the same as film based photography?

4.2 What is different?

4.3 Not only the number of pixels count


It is out of question for us that we are in the transition period from film to digital and that we are still very much in the early phase. You might now hardly believe that we prefer LPs over CDs if the LPs are played on the best turntable available. Do we believe analog music is better than digital one? No. We just think that the format of 16bit CDs was an economical compromise which sacrificed music quality. The next format on DVD will give even the best analog system a run for the money.

The same principle rules in the digital world. It is a function of cost and state of technology how digital photography stands up.

Here is a bit of our life with photography. In 1973 we got our first Nikon camera and added soon many manual focus lenses, 2 Nikon F2 bodies, a Hasselblad, B&W darkroom and Cibachrome color processing. At that point we never thought of something better than the F2 and were fully concentrated on capturing better content. We even exhibited our work some smaller shows in Germany.

Eifel Lone Pine (Germany 1980)

The experience in the darkroom was twofold: It was fun (or frustration) to see the results but there was also the chemistry (ever smelled Cibrachome chemistry?) and the darkroom was "dark". But finally Uwe's job as a software engineer did not leave enough time for the darkroom and without own prints we did not really know why we should photograph at all.

So we had the very long break from 1982 to 1995 where we dreamed of photography but never did something meaningful towards new photos. In 1995 we got our first scrappy 640x480 digital camera and considered it an expensive graphics toy. At the same time Bettina started to paint on the PC with Painter (the first software which we found had very artistic roots).

Illustration from Bettina's unpublished Book

In 1996 we then started using video cameras and enjoyed it a lot. But all this video was kind of a compensation for photography. So even our videos were more photographs shot with a video camera.

End of 1997 we then moved from Germany to California's Silicon Valley where digital, web and multimedia was part of our daily life. Then in 1999 we bought from our IRS check a Coolpix 950. We would never see the Coolpix as a real photographers camera. Before you feel offended please consider that we still had our two F2s and just the the viewfinder on an F2 makes a world of difference compared to the Coolpix. But the Coolpix was very important as it proved for us that digital photography is here, is real and in our reach. In October we still called the new Nikon D1 a "Brick" but probably more to protect ourselves from buying such unknown, expensive camera.

The Coolpix brought back the desire to photograph in a more serious way. So we reactivated our F2s and scanned the slides. We learned a lot about scanning and Photoshop during that short period. But the whole process which needed a lab to develop the slides and a lot of work to scan the photos pushed us to get finally a Nikon D1. Nearly from the beginning we only used the Nikon RAW format NEF files. This was the right decision on the the long run. But going through the long evolution of Bibble, Qimage and Nikon Capture was close to a nightmare if you longed for quality.

To be honest we expected less from the D1 than we got, but then we longed for more and more and hit probably the limits of all today's digital SLRs. But then again we don't think we had expected the print results we can show today. Compared to our more ambitious goals this might not be enough but still there are some photos we probably can be proud of. And if you show these photos to other photographers they sometimes hardly believe it is "just" digital.

So how is working with digital photos? A lot of work. There is hardly that situation where you photograph and you are ready. Mostly taking the photo is just the beginning. Of course if you don't start with good material this cannot be fixed anywhere later. On the other hand RAW digital files can really be diamonds in the raw.

Star Fish in a Tide Pool near Moss Beach (CA)

This photo of a "Star Fish" would have been nearly deleted about a year ago. With our experience at that time and the NEF conversion tools at hand we could not get a decent photo from it. Now we think is shows what Bettina saw at that moment when she took the photo. We don't even claim that this might be the final version of it. But fact is that Nikon Capture 2 did a much better job this time than Nikon Capture 1 released a year ago.

Why digital? I think that if you work hard it is a good way to get fine art photos and it is a permanent challenge to improve. All people who wait have the advantage that the technology works in their favor. But they also have to master the transition and this phase is long over for us now and we can get into permanent improvement mode (demanding enough). This book is not about convincing someone to go digital, you have to convince yourself! But if you want to go the digital path we hope to help you on your way.

So is digital better? We don't care. Our message is that if you go digital then you have to try to make the best of it. In the end not film vs. digital is important, the photo and print count. Also in some way digital photography and film meet anyway as most quality prints today result from a digital print process. The question is more: To use a Digital camera or scan film.

4.1 What makes digital the same as film based photography?
For the final print the distinction digital or film does not matter. The resulting print has to convince the buyer or it does not. The subjects of your photography are the same, and the final goal of your artwork. All rules about light, composition and good practices of photography stay mostly the same. Digital is just a different tool to reach the same goals.
4.2 What is different?
  • Digital allows you to control exposure after each shot by using the LCD screen and tools like histograms (see later)
  • Digital cameras demand more battery power
  • Most digital cameras have a pretty narrow exposure latitude like slide film
  • If you are on a longer trip you have to care about enough storage capacity for all digital images
  • Be careful with your digital storage (CF cards or Microdrives) as they can fail and Microdrives can get damaged (we did not have too much trouble with Microdrives for our last 20000 pictures, except loosing a few images on our Nikon D1 which did not officially support them)
4.3 Not only the number of pixels count

People like to qualify things using numbers. It sounds obvious that 3 million pixels must be better than just 2 million ones. Right? But this would be only true if the 3 million pixels would be of the same quality than the 2 million ones. Here professional cameras and consumer cameras differ. The consumer cameras have smaller sensors with also smaller photo sites (how one calls the light capturing entities). Smaller photo sites have more noise (because of lesser light sensitivity) and higher crossover defects.

So be aware: Not only the number of pixels count

Michael Reichmann: "Counting Megapixels"
© Bettina & Uwe Steinmueller
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