Digital Photography - Part I

Can you remember what things were like before everyone had computers at home and at work? Computers have affected nearly every aspect of our lives. In the fire service, we have computer aided dispatch along with computers on the apparatus that show the address to which we are responding and hazards associated with that address. (At least I have heard that some departments do.) Most departments have computers in the firehouse to do reports and possibly surf the Internet. Photography is similar to the fire service in that, with very few exceptions, over the last century very little has changed. Technology has allowed the equipment to get better but the bottom line is the same, it still takes a knowledgeable operator to get results. The newer, digital cameras are phasing film out of photography just as leather boots seem to be phasing rubber boots out of the fire service. Just as many seasoned firefighters refuse to wear a hood because they like using their ears as heat detectors, many veteran photographers are resisting the change to digital because film is their old standby. The change from film to digital will not be overnight. Many of the film and camera makers have seen the light and have turned much of their research and development to digital.

Digital cameras work much different than film cameras but the end result is the same, a properly exposed photo. Instead of light striking a light sensitive emulsion, the film, digital cameras use small sensors, CCD or CMOS that measure light as an electrical charge. When converted to a tone or color, that charge becomes a pixel. Digital cameras are measured in the amount of resolution they produce. Resolution is how much detail a sensor can capture and then how large a photo can be reproduced. Resolution is measured in Mega Pixels, the more pixels the better. A photo taken by a 1.0 Mega Pixel camera can be enlarged to a maximum of 5x7inches. A 2.0 Mega Pixel camera will produce an 8x10 and a 3.0 Mega Pixel camera an 11x14in. photo. A pixel is the smallest unit of a digital image. They are small, square screen dots that carry a specific tone and color. When first produced, cameras had 1 mega pixel sensors and those with 2 or 3.1 mega pixel sensors were considered very advanced. Today, camera manufacturers are producing 9 and 15 mega pixel cameras. But with greater resolution comes a greater price. One mega pixel cameras can be purchased for less that $200 but the higher resolution, SLR cameras run in the thousands of dollars. Digital cameras are also available in styles similar to film cameras. They range from point and shoot to professional SLR cameras.

Unlike film photography where all you need is a camera and film, digital photography requires a few other accessories. You will need a memory card and if you plan on doing any editing or printing at home, you will need a computer, photo paper and a high quality printer. Digital cameras take the pictures and then save them to memory cards. There are two common types of memory cards: Compact Flash and Smart Media. Most cameras use either one or both of these. Sony has created the Memory Stick for use in their cameras. Memory cards can range in size from 8 Megabyte to 1 Gigabyte micro drives. Digital cameras come with either USB cords or Fire Wire to download the photos from the camera onto the computer. One of the downsides of digital cameras is that they use batteries at a much greater rate than film cameras. Downloading photos directly from the camera to the computer requires you to leave the camera's power on. If you want to conserve battery power while downloading, it is recommended that you buy a Memory Card Reader. You simply remove the memory card from the camera and plug it into the reader. The reader is connected to the computer through a USB port.

Digital cameras have some settings that film cameras do not. The first setting is "White Balance." White balance is the name of the color correction system that deals with different lighting conditions. The camera will try to find the "white point", (where white objects look white), and correct other colors cast by the same light. Most cameras have automatic white balance and will attempt to calculate the best setting. The sensor can be fooled by overly bright or cloudy days. The white balance can be manually set by holding a sheet of white paper in front of the camera and making adjustments. Another setting that digital cameras have is resolution with choices such as fine, normal and high. The setting will determine the number of pixels in the photo and the greater the number of pixels, the more space the photo will take on the memory card.

There are pro's and con's to everything. Some of the negatives of digital cameras are:

  • Batteries- Digital cameras require more power and expend more batteries.
  • Price- Digital cameras and the accessories are more expensive than film but the prices are dropping.
  • Shutter Lag- On older and lower MP cameras there is a noticeable delay from the time the shutter release button is pressed and the time the photo is actually taken.
  • Some professional photographers do not believe that the picture quality can match a photo developed from a film camera.

On the positive side:

  • No need to buy and get film developed.
  • No need for a scanner.
  • Ability to adjust and then print your own shots.
  • Cameras have LCD screens to view photos.
  • Can erase any photos that you do not like and then re-shoot.

I began the switch to digital last summer. I was using my digital during the day and my film camera at night because I didn't have a flash for my digital camera. I have now bought a flash and will be using my film camera as a back-up camera only. My favorite thing about the digital camera is the ability to view the photo right then and there. There have been many times that I have taken shots with the film camera and thought that they would be great but was disappointed after development because there were wires in the shot or smoke obscured the subject. I can now take the photo, flip a button on the camera and look at the photo on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. If the shot didn't come out as hoped, that photo can be deleted and another one taken. I can make sure the photo is focused properly and the proper exposure settings were used. If the photo needs to be lighter or darker, adjustments can be made to either the aperture or shutter speed.

Finally, all of the news agencies in my area, and I am sure yours, have switched to digital. In the past, if I thought that I had a photo the newspaper could use, I could bring the roll of film to the newsroom and they would develop it right there and use what they wanted. They no longer have the equipment to develop photos, so if I ever wanted to have any photos published again, I had to make the switch. With digital cameras, photographers can walk away from a scene, download their photos to a laptop and send the photos to their editors, magazines or friends before they even start the car. I have been told that another photographer took virtually the same shot of the brothers raising the flag at the WTC as the one taken by Thomas Franklin of the Bergen Record. Franklin got the photo out first and as they say, the rest is history. The images being produced by digital cameras rival those from film and will only get better. The next article will deal with digital editing.

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