April 25, 2019

.comment: Coming Kicking and Screaming Into Digital Photography

Making Pictures

  • June 13, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Photography has always been among my passions. When, nearly 35 years ago, my father was in the hospital (dying, though I didn't know it), I took the pictures to illustrate his outdoor conservation page in the Sunday newspaper. And when he did die, I took refuge in the newspaper's darkroom, processing everybody's film and printing the pictures for the day's paper. Nobody asked what a 13-year-old kid was doing there instead of being in school for those few days; everybody knew. The Columbia Daily Tribune had a sense of community, of family, in those days. The photographers there, from the young hotshots who were studying photojournalism at the University of Missouri to the longtime pros, were all eager to impart their knowledge and skill to this kid who stuck around even after his dad's formal relationship with the paper had ended.

As a result, I ended up with a lot of knowledge of silver-based photography. I've made pictures that have won awards and that have appeared in all sorts of national publications. Taking pictures is delightful, but, especially in black and white, the artistry takes place in the darkroom, which has always been a place of refuge to me anyway. I have a well-worn copy of David Vestal's "The Craft of Photography," and the familiar phrase about prying something out of one's cold, dead fingers applies to it and me.

For the longest time, I took a dim view of digital photography. This was easy at first, because it was either not very good or very expensive -- have you priced Kodak's digital back for a Nikon? -- so it wasn't really worth considering, and besides, it was sacrilege. Instead of the artistry of the print, there was now the sleight-of-hand of removing unwanted power lines, of altering the image to produce the desired effect. (Yes, there has always been photo manipulation, but digital photography makes it easy to change the actual content of a picture.) Seeing was no longer believing.

Recently, though, practical considerations have, as practical considerations will, altered my view a little. My wife's chief passion is horses, particularly horses that travel courses jumping over various obstacles, with her aboard. The potential for very dramatic photographs of this is obvious. So is the cost of 10 rolls of film plus processing-related expenses, for a typical weekend. Added to this is the fact that she likes (I do, too) to send the results to friends and family via email. There are ways of doing this with silver-based photography, adding a scanner to the increasingly lengthy path from click of shutter to delivered image, but it seemed as if I was now deliberately choosing the longest distance between two points, going to Newark from New York via Sydney.

Just as I achieved this realization, a local outfit had a really good sale on the Sony Mavica MVC-FD95, which offers single-lens-reflexish viewing, a decent zoom lens, and, most important, writes its images to floppy. Having heard horror stories from friends who have had a hard time getting their pictures out of USB cameras and into the computer, I very much liked the idea of a camera that writes jpegs to a floppy -- it's compatible with everything. In anticipation of the summer horse show season, I got one, figuring that within a month I will have more than recouped the cost, compared to camera-and-film photography.

I gave it its first sea trial last month, when my sister-in-law was married. There would be a professional wedding photographer there, so there was no real pressure to produce great pictures. And those that did come out nicely could be sent around via email, instantly.

Some notes on the camera: It takes a little getting used to. I still haven't mastered the arcana of the shutter release, such that it will capture the moment and not the aftermath. It can apparently be done, and I'll have to learn how (otherwise, I'll have the world's largest collection of pictures of horses that have just jumped over a rail), but it's not obvious. It takes a little longer to write to floppy than I'd like -- if Sony had utilized the built-in memory a little better, it would be possible to do a nice sequence at, say, eight frames per second. As it is, it's three seconds per picture (and, oddly, longer if a memory stick and floppy adapter are used, which is why I purchased neither of these expensive accessories). The flash is all but useless, and while there's an accessory shoe it's not a hot shoe and the cable connector is nonstandard. And if you haven't taken a picture for three minutes, the camera turns itself off -- a nice power-conservation feature that ought to be user defeatable.

On the other hand, you can fit about 30 640x480 images on a floppy, changing "film" is really quick, and the medium is both cheap and reusable. There are several resolutions available, from 1600x1200 (which can be printed as actual photographs, but you can fit only four of 'em on a floppy), to 1024x768, to 640x480, which for computer display is just about right. It's a nifty gadget, and I expect to learn a lot more about what it can do as the summer unfolds. And, because it uses 52mm accessories, all my Nikon filters will work with it (though I discovered that I needed to use a wide-angle lens hood to avoid vignetting; I always use lens hoods, the solid, screw-in kind, because they're a lot cheaper to replace than is a lens -- my pristine 85mm f2 Nikkor would be in rough shape if it hadn't been the hood that took the beating when I climbed the tower at the Northeast Gate in Guantanamo while on an assignment a few years ago).

At the end of the festivities I had 10 floppies full of images (I'd packed 50). Now, what to do with them?

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