Chapter 1: Life on Planet Digital

Expensive bits and bytes.

Updated June 2006

Famous last words

"Digital? Yep, since the end of 2001 I've had an 3 megapixel point and shooter which has convinced me that eventually people will wonder why we stuck with film for so long. I'd love an 11mp Canon 1Ds digital SLR body, but I use this stuff too infrequently to justify it. Ha, I can't believe I just put that last comment in print. Maybe in a year or two when the prices come down..."

I wrote that in early 2002 and bit the bullet a year later after the prices came down (a little) as newer, cheaper models bought digital SLRs into the mainstream. 

A change in thinking

Digital photography is much more than a fancy new camera though... 

From trains all over, to horseracing in Ireland, Sumo wrestling in Japan, car racing in New York, a safari in Botswana, cricket in India, weddings and scenery from the Great Wall to Godzone... after thousands of pics with the DSLR, I'm not going back to film.

Instant replay 

The instant feedback of digital has dramatically changed how I take pictures, way more than I expected. It may not have made me a better photographer, but it has made me considerably more proficient at taking pictures. 

To make sure you have the basics right, you can take a test shot and view the image and its histogram on the back of the camera to check exposure and effect instantly. Coupled with the ability to tweak a picture in Photoshop, you can say goodbye to throwing badly exposed slides into the bin and finally nail those night shots. Once you have the basics, you can fire off a bunch of pictures if the situation warrants (at no extra cost!) and pick the one with the best focus or composition when taking long telephoto train shots, or pics of fast or unpredictably moving objects such as cars, birds or animals. 

A different film for every shot 

Rather than being stuck with that loaded roll of 100 ISO, digital cameras allow you to change ISO on the fly which can be a lifesaver if the light dulls. You also gain flexibility in shutter speed or aperture selection for that one shot that needs a little more by cranking up or down the ISO with little worry of a loss in quality.  As with film, higher ISO = more grain or digital 'noise', but the newer DSLR cameras don't suffer as much from these red, blue and green speckles visible when viewing a pic at 100% on your PC as the older editions. Most noise can be eliminated when converting RAW images or in Photoshop. 

The photographer inside 

I was lucky enough to be in NZ for a few days during the winter of 2004 but unfortunately the Midland line was experiencing a train drought, so I spent half an hour taking pictures of people sliding down the snowy Porters Pass hillside on rubber rings, sleds and plastic mats. I played with freezing the action, panning at slower speeds, silhouettes, front-lit, side-lit, zooming in to catch expressions, going wider to catch the mood - generally just playing around - and ended up with a bunch of great pics. I'm not intimate enough with my camera to snap off that perfect shot first time, so I check the exposure and the effect on the spot, if it's wrong, simply alter the settings and have another go.

To fuel your creativity, you can take as many pictures as you like without worrying about film costs or even running out of film, because you can immediately delete the shots you don't like. I take more shots than I did with slides: keep the best, hiff the rest. Not more shots machine-gun style, but more shots from more spots.

So it's cost effective then?

The biggest myth of digital photography is that once you have handed over the dosh for a camera and a few memory cards, it is all free running from there on. 

Well yes, it is free... but only if you don't want to view, process, store and print your pictures...

Firstly, out in the field, I can take a gig of train pics in a snap-happy day. And at a wedding, its easy to crank through a couple of gigs of large Jpegs. So if you're shooting trains over multiple days, unless you have an unlimited supply of memory cards, you'll need somewhere to download them. The digital wallets seem like a great idea that is 'almost' ready for prime time, but until then, I'll take a laptop along with me. Another thing to lug around, but it's the only way to see your pictures up-close.

Then if you want to process big extracted RAW files, you might need to update the processing power on that old dusty Commodore 64, and did I mention disk space? Those extracted TIFs can be 30-60mb. I have had a few light, slim, travel-sized, Japanese-issue laptops with plenty of built in CF readers that I can use for work and for train piccies on location. I store the pics (raw and processed) on a big hard drive on the home PC with two external USB hard drives (one at home, one at work) for backup. Once those RAW files are gone, they're gone!

If you want prints... well that's another story. And did I mention that there will be a better camera out next  year?

So you can weigh all that versus the cost of processing, and add back the quantified benefits of digital, all discounted at an appropriate cost of capital and see if it's for you. Or you can just do it anyway. Sorry if your wallet doesn't want to hear this, but the benefits of digital will get to most people in the end.

Why not point-and-shoot?

Each to their own. There are some truly excellent snappers out there with decent imaging sensors and lenses, but most of the point and shoots I've used have tiny lenses and max apertures, haven't had great image quality, exhibited nasty shutter lag - the time between pressing the button and the image actually snapping - and have been a pain in the buttocks when it came to playing with the settings - give me shutter speed and exposure compensation now! On the plus side, they are certainly more compact and thus discreet, and of course are generally less pricey. 

Personally, I prefer the image sensor quality, durability, flexibility and (optional!) lens quality of a DSLR. The trade off, of course, is in size, weight and the weird looks you get when you pull a two foot long camera & lens out of your backpack at a quiet family gathering.

Can you ever have enough Megapixels?

Ah the megapixel race. They say (who the hell are 'they' anyway?) that 6-8 mp will give you a quality single magazine page print and 11-12mp a double-page spread size. Although the marketers would have you believe that megapixel-envy is everything, more pixels merely gets you bigger pictures, and how often do you print out wall-sized posters of your cat anyway? 

As with many things in life, this all boils down to the old quantity vs quality vs price equation, and the nasty side to the "more megapixels is better" mantra is that the more pixels they squeeze onto a sensor, the smaller they are; and bigger the pic, the more visible it's imperfections will be when inspected up-close. If you, or more likely your camera manufacturer, spends all its money on pixels, that might just leave less a decent quality imaging sensor or processor.

Yes, while looking at that 8mp pic at 100% on your PC, you may regret picking up that second hand 20-600mm f8 zoom in Bangkok last year: plenty has been written on the interweb about lenses that seemed fantastic in the film world, but under the cruel digital microscope are not as sharp as their owners had hoped. On point-and-shooters, beware of tiny lenses and tiny apertures that require slow shutter speeds and full time flash and leave blurry noisy images behind. 'They' have always said that you should spend your money on lenses, not bodies. Hard to believe, but they're right about that one. 

On a similar note, minor flaws in technique - focusing errors, speed blur, shallow depth of field and so on - that are invisible on those wee 6x4 prints are there in plain sight when you look at your digital images at 100% magnification. 

I'm so embarrassed. 

As you read this, the megapixel race has been won, but the runners keep on running. Credit-card sized cameras with 12mp? 25mp DSLRs? Why? so they can print billboards without having to upscale the pics???


Getting pictures in and out 

Most DSLRs give you the option of taking images in Jpeg or/and in 'RAW' format. To edit, view and print pictures, you usually need to end up with files in Jpeg or TIF format. 

Jpeg is an almost universally supported image format that is very popular because it compresses image data, giving a small file that can be downloaded quickly from the internet or stored in a small space, allowing more pictures to fit on your memory card or computer disk. You can set the 'compression' or 'quality' of saved Jpegs on your camera or as you save them from image editing programs. Note that Jpegs are preprocessed in the camera - they may be resized, the color balance and white balance may be adjusted or set by the camera, colours and tones may be clipped, they may be sharpened, compressed and so forth. 

Downsides of Jpegs? The compression usually introduces jagged 'compression artifacts' when you look at the image at 100% size and it usually has a smaller colour palate to work with. Remember the old 16 or 128 colour computer screens vs the photo quality millions of colours we have today?

RAW is a proprietary format that saves exactly what the imaging sensor sees at full bit depth with no adjustments whatsoever (it records the 'as shot' settings such as white balance, but does not apply them) - it is effectively the 'negative' of digital photography, whereas a Jpeg could be thought of as a print. As such, RAW is obviously the full monty when it comes to image quality.

I use RAW for important stuff and large Jpeg with no compression for snapshots with the DSLR. Then of course I go back to taking a train pic and find that I've forgotten to set the camera back to RAW. Dammit. As another aside, early Canon RAW files were saved with a .tif file extension just to confuse everyone.

The downside to the proprietary format RAW files, and of course every manufacturer has their own RAW format, is that you can't really do much with them until they are processed into a more useful file format that you then play with in Photoshop or some other tool. This process is called 'RAW conversion' and can be done with software from the camera manufacturer or in some of the high end imaging programs such as Photoshop's Camera RAW. Most conversions can give you a TIF file, which is 'lossless' (not compressed at all) and can be quite large... And as an aside, the more 'bits' (8 bit vs 16 bit etc) the better, as this gives you more tone levels in your image. Think of the old computer screens again with a few colours vs the millions that we have today. Admittedly, not all programs and printers can handle 16 bit yet, but in the future... 

They ('them' again) say the sensible thing to do is to to convert your RAW files to DNG files, that's a non-proprietary digital negative format that will be supported in future. Probably makes sense, as Canon has already been through .TIF, .CR1 and .CR2 RAW formats. 

Anyway... during RAW conversion (I used to use the freebies - Canon File Viewer and DPP but now Photoshop ACR)  you can adjust many parameters to correct white/color balance (that's quite important as we will see in a minute), exposure (you may expose to minimize clipping and then want to reset for overall viewing pleasure) and so forth, but you'll have to read elsewhere about fancy stuff like that as I'm just starting on my journey. Still, you have to start somewhere so take this with a grain of salt, this is simply what I'm doing at the moment (rightly or wrongly) ... 

Camera settings - I've been using ISO 200 for most shots. Color matrix is set to high chroma slide film (default is too 'green' for me for trains and cars, although pumpkin orange looks a bit electric under high chroma), sharpening =0 ('they' say you should sharpen in Photoshop). Note that most of those settings only apply to saved Jpeg files - if you are saving RAW, you make those tweaks in Photoshop.

The most important thing I've found is the importance of getting the white balance right, as those crazy colour casts can be a little annoying to correct in Photoshop. Taking a pic of a suitable grey card that you can use as a control when doing RAW conversion seems to do the trick nicely. If you have a good eye, you can use that to do your own adjustments in RAW conversion.

As can be seen, viewing and processing the big RAW files is a fairly slow process with a small laptop, so if you are 'in the field' (another cool photography term), saving RAW + small Jpeg lets you quickly determine sharpness by opening up the jpeg on a laptop.  

Skill wanted

The black art of image editing is a skill you will want to pick up. I recently bought a 'Beginner's Guide to Photoshop' magazine and was amazed at what I learnt in a few minutes of flicking through the pages despite having played around with Photoshop for amore than 10 years.  

I now use the full blown CS4 version of Photoshop running on a supercomputer. It's way better than the Photoshop Limited Edition that I got for free with a flatbed scanner in 1998... Bridge! ACR! 16 bit processing! History! Adjustment layers! Healing brushes! Lab colour! Save for web! Smart sharpen! Magic.

Although as it costs multitudes more, is it better value? You'd be surprised at how good LE or Elements is.

I import cards of images into the PC via bridge, saving a DNG format image. Pic the best images, open them in Adobe Camera Raw, making adjustments to white balance, exposure/brightness, noise reduction etc etc. 

Open in PS adjust rotation and clean up dust spots (the healing brush is magic), adjust curves, final cropping, resize, clone away if you need to clean up anything (digital sensor dust, scratches on slides, litter), dodge & burn if you need to brighten or darken  areas, sharpen with smart sharpen or unsharp mask, 'save for web and devices' quality 7.

If you have an older version, work in 16 bit as much as possible (curves levels etc) before switching down to 8 bit.

There are a ton of web resources on PS techniques if you hunt around for them. Google is your friend.

Why do my web images look like crap?

You might notice that a lot of the older images on this website look dark and weird. This is because for the first 5 years (other than not knowing what the hell I was doing, but that still holds true today) I was processing images that looked ok on my monitor at home, but nowhere else... Bugger.

Yes, my monitor wasn't calibrated correctly. If you are serious about looking at the pics you take, and why wouldn't you be, calibrate your monitor. You can have a go with some of the freebie tools on the web, or buy one of the USB devices that you put on your screen and they'll build a proper monitor profile for you.

The ...end?

Circa 2003: the digital pioneers say that film is dead - I agree with them. There is no doubt one foot is in the grave already - the wired younger folks and many professional photographers have already cast their votes - and as costs continue to fall, the convenience, constantly improving quality, and desire for instant gratification will send film to wherever LP records, lead paint, golf ball typewriters, Beta VCRs and the Bee Gees went. I'm not looking back.