Big Bubbles (no troubles)

What sucks, who sucks and you suck

Digital Ain't Black and White Part 1

I have great difficulty with point ‘n’ shoot cameras. Give me a chunky automatic SLR with lots of fiddly buttons and dials and a thick wodge of user manual to go, and I’ll happily figure out how to use all the functions and then run off some - arguably - acceptable pics. But pass me a little 35mm compact and say “Just push that button”, and we’re both likely to experience disappointment when the prints come back from the lab, as many foolish and trusting Japanese tourists have doubtless discovered. “Call yourself a photographer?!” (Erm…no. Sorry.)

I don’t like cameras that won’t let you do anything. “I’ll focus, don’t you worry about that. And I’ll sort out the exposure - something with maximum depth of field and a fast shutter speed because you can’t be trusted to hold me steady. You just push that button. No, I can’t tell you where to point me.” If I can’t bring some measure of my own interpretation to the picture, why bother? Of course, it’s up to me what picture to take, but having found a suitable scene, I’d like some input into its recording. It’s not like I’m asking for the moon; my favourite camera is my Nikon EM, an extremely simple SLR aimed at extremely simple users. It only lets you change one thing, the aperture (two if you want to fiddle with the ISO dial as well, and three if you brought another lens along). But changing the aperture is all you need to take the image away from the literal and mundane, because it lets you perform amazing tricks with extremely shallow DOF and selective focus. A P&S, needless to say, won’t even tell you what aperture it’s using, let alone change it. And anyway, its built-in wide angle lens is designed to maximise DOF for people who are trying to get both Granny and Blackpool Tower in focus at the same time, but will never understand “DOF”.

The other hangup I have about 35mm compacts is their generally shitty image quality. I own seven cameras, partly because I persisted in buying crappy consumer compacts for years instead of spending a little more on a proper camera (there’s a lesson there but it sounds like an expensive one so let’s not think about it). I still can’t talk about my APS experience. The prints I got back were always blurry, lacking contrast and with a colour rendition more suited to camouflage fatigues. After a while, this proves dispiriting. You can easily take a compact with you everywhere, but what’s the point if it spoils all your memories? In fact, poor image quality is actually a worse failing in a “snapshot” camera than a proper one: you’re in a rush, you’re not putting much effort into the shot and you’re unlikely to return to the location again soon, so the camera needs to get it right first time. The only exception to my catalogue of dross was the original Olympus Trip 35 that, as a teenager, I forced my Dad into buying over the Dixons own-brand autofocus job the salesman was pushing, by pulling a major sulk. I wanted to have a dial to turn; Dad thought it might prove too burdensome. But I was vindicated (not all teenage sulks turn out to be entirely pointless and embarrassing displays of attitude), because the Trip has an excellent Zuiko lens that turns out sharp images everytime. You still can’t change the aperture, but at least you get to choose the focus zone.

I left all these cameras in a drawer virtually the day I bought my first SLR, and after seeing the initial prints I was tempted to nail the drawer shut to protect others too. Today, my fondness is for moodily lit B&W pictorial renditions; give me a 50mm lens, a roll of HP5+ and some developer and I’m well contented. So why, three Nikon SLRs later, do I own a Canon Powershot A40 digicam as well? And more to the point, why, after a fairly subdued and uninterested start, have I begun to use it lately?

This isn’t (mostly) a digital vs. film rant. Go to your least favourite photo forum if you want those. What counts are the abilities of the tool and the results, and sometimes you need particular abilities for certain results. Simply put, digicams are point ‘n’ shoot cameras Done Right. It only took about thirty years but now the masses are liberated from rotten prints whose stark inadequacies are only matched by the lack of care that went into processing them. Furthermore, they have the potential to take shots of the calibre that “professional” camera users have been routinely producing for years (even better, they can delete the failed ones that the pros had to put up with). Because that old canard about “you can take great pictures with any camera” is simply wrong in my view. Sure, some cameras are so bad, they’re good (like the Holga), but consumer cameras were usually only bad enough to give disappointing results everytime. Even if you framed and shot the perfect scene, the final rendition would usually fall some way short of what you had visualised at the time.

Digital compacts successfully address the quality issues. They still have tiny, low quality lenses, but the small size of a CCD makes better use of these optics than the expanse of a 35mm frame that such a lens can never adequately cover. The captured image is vibrant and saturated - attributes that appeal to consumers - and sharp, because it’s been tarted up in-camera. It carries key meta-information that a modern digital minilab can use to maximise print quality. There’s no messy chemical process for the lab operator to screw up through ignorance or carelessness. They can’t scratch the source data or leave their greasy fingerprints on it; it’s a fully digital process end-to-end, hidden inside a tamperproof, black (or beige) box. And, because of all this, the processing costs less too.

The LCD and preview facilities in a digicam let the photographer check their results at the time of capture, and immediately delete the duds. This has an important psychological benefit; when you get the prints back, you’re much less likely to feel cruelly deflated by a “why did I take that??” sense of anticlimax.

My Glamorous Research Assistant and I recently went through the A40’s 128Mb card, which held snaps from two holidays. We filtered out the failures and I then burnt the remaining 54 images to a CD, which I took to a high street lab. Twenty four hours later, I had a set of perfect 6”x4” prints for slightly more than the cost of a standard 36 exposure roll of film. True, none of the Barcelona shots possessed the same beauty as the 35mm B&W SLR shots taken contemporaneously but that hadn’t been the intention. They were perfectly captured memories. There’s no way you’d get me back to a 35mm compact for taking snapshots now, on a value basis alone if nothing else.

But going beyond holiday snaps, digicams reintroduce the possibility of taking some measure of control into the picture-taking process. After all, it’s cheaper to implement variable settings in software than it is to add the necessary mechanical links and dials to a film camera. Studying the features of even the cheapest digicams, one gets the feeling that the manufacturers think, “Why not? It’s trivial to program and it’ll add another line to the spec sheet, which always helps sales.” The A40 not only has a (limited) fully manual mode, but even offers exposure compensation in one third stops - when was the last time you saw that on a low end SLR? When did you ever see such a feature on a compact??

Because of these features, digicams have enabled the growth of a new type of photographer who would probably never have picked up a film camera - the photoblogger. These people are taking “proper” photographs and publishing them immediately online (they can also sell you a decent 10”x8” print if you want). Look at the number of great sites built around the capabilities of the humble Canon G3/G5 alone. Frankly, I was inspired. I could conquer my P&S block. I could go out the door with one of these toy devices and still take some proper bloody pictures.

Other bubbles

  • Try Photoblogs for comprehensive listings.
  • Rafa Torcida has a great digital eye.
  • Chromasia is one of the top-rated sites on Photoblogs. David Nightingale is currently showcasing some beautiful shots taken along the prom near his new home in Blackpool; see this one in particular.
  • Dawn Mikulich documents Chicago Uncommon with a G3 (and sells the results online!) She’s also a Lomo fan.