Digital imaging has turned out to be a mixed blessing for the art of photography. On one hand, it has created a huge group of people who snap away with abandon, but little else, and then inflict the results on innocent acquaintances in a new form of spam that you can’t really be honest about, because it’s Aunt Millie’s cat. On the other, it has brought image manipulation and all its possibilities out of expensive, time-consuming, and less capable darkrooms into the world of the PC, where it is now accessible to everyone and even more is possible. Top line cameras and lenses are still out of the hobbyist’s price range – at least this hobbyist’s – but the intermediate and upper-level consumer grade equipment is now capable of the same quality imaging that professional equipment could accomplish just a couple of years ago.

In digital as well as film cameras, you get what you pay for. As one who has, over the years, spent the equivalent of at least one luxury automobile on Japanese and German optical stuff, I can attest to that having been the case in the past, too. There have been changes, however. Cameras are now constructed of titanium and thermoplastic, instead of heavy bronze. Lenses are thinner, lighter, and far less expensive because of computer-controlled glass and crystal manufacture, along with laser cutting and polishing that does away with much of the labor-intensive hand work. Thinner and lighter lenses mean less weight in the lens barrel from less massive fittings, and smaller dimensions. The ability to laser-machine those parts helps cut costs and weight, too. Improvements in coatings and computer-designed and manufactured lens clusters allow zoom ranges and image quality unheard of ten years ago.

The many hours I spent lugging around three camera bodies, four or five lenses, a dozen rolls of film, a tripod, cleaning equipment, filters, flashes (two or three, plus slaves, and their tripods), batteries and battery packs, and the other impedimenta of “serious” photography are over, for all but the really picky pros. Ditto the hours in the darkroom applying filters, burning and holding back, experimenting with different chemicals and papers to get a particular effect, and so forth. Digital is so versatile that much of that stuff is now unnecessary, and we can work on the art, rather than the body- and character-building aspects of our photography.

More powerful batteries and electronics the size of a postage stamp have reduced the sizes of cameras and accessories to a point of truly diminishing returns. Many of the new digital cameras are so small that they are difficult to hold steady, and controls are so designed that, unless you understand well the tricks of braced holding and button-pushing, the quality of the images is bound to suffer. Much of the multi-megapixel abilities of this smaller equipment is lost to poor ergonomics that encourage shakiness. Beyond a certain point, when it comes to optical equipment, smaller and lighter is not better.

But, oh! The good points. My Minolta with 12x optical zoom weighs less than one of the Nikon bodies I used to haul around. Its electro-mechanical anti-shake mechanism renders a tripod unnecessary for most casual shooting. If I am willing to restrict myself to daylight, and improvise the occasional reflector, its built-in flash (admittedly anemic) is sufficient for fill, and the optics and sensors are quite up to the job of producing good images – more so, probably, than I.

When I get home, my PC is all the darkroom I need. No more rashes from chemicals. I can correct, crop, and otherwise process a photograph in a couple of minutes, instead of hours. I can get up and walk away, have dinner, watch a movie, and take up later where I left off, my work none the worse for having resided on the drive a bit longer. There are no more chemical-flavored sandwiches eaten from darkroom counters in dim red light, or sometimes – when doing large color prints – no light at all. I can do things with my software that I never imagined were possible, then print the results instantly and correct as needed. Once everything is fined down and ready, I can laser print the final image, or send a CD out to a lab for really large stuff, or if I want a true photographic print, laser burned by another computer.

If you don’t count the PC, which I’d have anyway, my total investment in equipment is far less than the cost of one of the Nikkon lenses I used back in the day. (Sure wish I still had them now, though; they’d fit one of those new Nikon digital bodies just fine. Ah well… )

So. The equipment is up to the job. Are you? Here are a few sites to check out. Kodak’s Beginnings of Photographic Composition is a good place to start, since that seems to be the weak spot in most of the amateur photos I see. Free Serif Software is a great place to pick up some photo manipulation software, as is FastStone. Then you can, if you like, move on to my snapshot album at SmugMug. Finally, if you want to test yourself in a tough arena, sign up and participate at TrekLens. See how good your peers think you are, have your work critiqued, and learn a lot about the fine points of digital imaging.

But above all… have fun! Life’s too short to be making work out of play.

[tags]kodak,nikon,digital photography,darkroom,modern photography,light camera,snapshot[/tags]