Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Digital Conversion

In 1998, I took up photography as a hobby. At that time, my friends and I commented that we didn't think we'd be shooting film in 5 years. Certainly, every roll of Fuji Velvia cost $10 (after processing), and I saw one film after another disappear into the obscurity. For instance, I won a $300 prize in Photo Technique UK in 1999 on Kodak Royal Gold 25, a film that disappeared right after my photo ran in the September 1999 issue. (The magazine itself seems to have disappeared or turned into a digital equivalent --- like cycling magazines, these magazines tend to repeat the same topics year after year, so you would subscribe to them for a year and then stop --- though the UK magazines do always showcase fantastic reader photographs!) Come 2003, I was still shooting slides on my EOS-3. I still thought that a digital conversion would happen in 5 years, but then again, I had been saying that for 5 years!

There were many reasons for my resistance --- most of which is the necessary work to deal with post-processing --- I sit in front of computers all day, and coming home to sit in front of the computer some more didn't quite appeal to me. Moreover, many of the consumer SLRs were small-sensor SLRs, turning my beloved 24mm lenses into 35mm lenses. Then in 2005, Google bought Picasa, and I bought my first digital camera and shot the 2005 Tour of the Alps with it. (That's right, the 2003 Tour of the Alps had us carrying 30 rolls of slide film in our panniers!)

Then this year, after looking at Phil's beautifully stitched photos from Rosenlaui, I realized that even a point and shoot was producing amazing results. So when the Canon 5D Mk II was announced and I had a trip to Australia impending in a month, I started looking for one. Despite a recession it seemed to be impossible to find one in stock, so I was beginning to resign myself to sticking with the G9.

But 2 days ago, the work mailing list told me that it was in stock at my favorite photo vendor, so I took a deep breath and bought it. It arrived yesterday, and I've put it through the paces as much as weather permitted. Oh yeah, digital has arrived. Here are the big changes:

  • With color balancing being available digitally, I don't have to carry special film, or 81B warming filters. I do, however, still have to carry a circular polarizer.
  • With Image-Stabilization (IS) lenses available (I got the kit with the 24-105/4L IS), I no longer have to fear hand-held shots as much. I'm still a fanatic about technique though, so will still carry a tripod whenever feasible. (And no, doing it on a walk across England would still be unfeasible --- I've learned that I'm just not fit enough for that, and I'd rather give up photos than stop enjoying the experience) The flip side of that is that I have to remember to keep IS turned off when the camera is on the tripod, since IS actually degrades picture quality if it's on the tripod!
  • I can potentially not use ND grad. filters (the one tool that distinguishes professionals from amateurs), and rely on a virtual ND grad. filter or a HDR merge, by shooting from a tripod. This has interesting implications but I suspect I'll still be carrying my ND grads and using them --- post-processing is not an adequate substitute for making a good photograph in the first place, and I'm still uncomfortable with this much digital darkroom work. Nevertheless, it might be that I'll convert.
  • Not shooting film saves about $10/roll. A typical 2 week trip used to cost me 30 rolls or $300. An 8 week trip would cost $1200! And of course, with film you can't shoot as much, so you tend to be a bit more conservative with your shots. Now, having to think before you shoot is still a good thing, so it'll be interesting to me to see how this works out for me.
  • Going all digital costs money! Sadly camera capabilities seem to be evenly matched to the power of desktop computers. My 2.5 year old Mac Mini with 2GB of RAM and Core Duo processors is woefully inadequate for running Adobe Lightroom. Unfortunately, Picasa doesn't support the Canon's RAW image format yet. And forget about my 5 year old copy of Photoshop 6.0! I guess my experiment with "quiet, always on" machines is over --- I'm going to have to get a big beefy desktop to go digital. When you're actually processing images and movies on the machine, you can't make do with small and quiet architectures. Good thing machines are cheaper than when I last saw them. A quad core machine with 8GB of RAM goes for $1300 nowadays. What amazes me though is how bad Lightroom is about resources --- what the heck is it doing that's so hungry for CPU power? Just panning around pegs both my cores at 100%. And it's not just my machine --- my brother's Core 2 Duo/4GB state-of-the-art-last-year also had both CPUs pegged! I guess while even Microsoft Office hasn't been able to chew up the latest multi-core chips, Adobe's been hard at work making sure Intel's customers upgrade every year to keep up!
  • Despite my color blindness, I better start color calibrating my monitors! Fortunately, there are (relatively) cheap tools for doing this. Again, I never considered this at all when I was shooting slides. Fuji Velvia comes with its own palette (and I know people who hate it and call it Disneychrome), but once you get used to how it renders the world you just don't tweak it any more (other than pushing the film once in a while). That is so not true when it comes to digital.

I guess it's time for this old dog to learn some new tricks! I remember when I attended the late Galen Rowell's workshop way back in 1999, and came back after 3 days with 100X better pictures then when I went into the workshop. Is there an equivalent for Photoshop and the digital darkroom? If so, let me know, because I'm going to be getting rid of all my film cameras in a hurry.

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