bp default image

Digital Capture's Future

With film disappearing and digital cameras becoming more advanced, what happens to digital capture?

The progress in digital capture has been staggering over the last 15 years. We’ve gone from scanners that made funny grinding noises and bulky 1-megapixel cameras to relatively inexpensive desktop scanners with results that rival what used to require a color house and 10-megapixel compact cameras. It was never that good in the film-based world; the only advances we were treated to in the last 20 years of that product cycle were auto focus and T-grain film. So it’s been a whirlwind ride indeed.

How have the basic capture tools that we have always depended on changed? And where are they headed in the future? Let's take a look at these questions and others on the pages that follow.

The impact of film's fall

Kodak and Fuji claim that 70 percent of working professionals still use film, but in talking to the major film retailers it appears that film sales are way down from five years ago. That’s the big turning point: Many retailers report that their business has totally gone from a softgoods business to a hardware business-photographers who used to spend thousands on film, paper, Polaroid, and chemicals are now buying more digital cameras, software, and memory cards, and most professionals are not printing any major quantities of digital photos.

So who’s buying all the film these days? It has become three major groups: high-end professional photographers, entry-level consumers, and analog die-hards who just don’t want to give up shooting film. With deadlines constantly shrinking, most art directors want to walk out the door with a disc in hand, but the top agencies (possibly because of the age of their senior art directors) still are more comfortable with film. One told me that the reason film was still very attractive in a high-dollar campaign was 'because you can still hold a piece of film in your hand and re-scan it if everything else goes wrong." With SanDisc selling 12-GB Compact Flash cards for less than $100, however, I don’t know how long this will hold true.

Time is one of the biggest determining factors in whether a commercial shooter can afford to still use film. While the cost of film, processing, and Polaroids is still high, the time spent waiting for the lab to process the film and then for the service bureau to create good scans can be even more costly. The post-processing time involved with film images is also much greater than with digital capture, so that's another consideration.

Art directors working on extremely high-quality and/or high-budget print projects are also doing their part to keep film shooting alive. Much like the film director that still likes the tonality of film as opposed to video, film still gets a lot of style points in the industry for having a different look that digital doesn’t offer, even at the pinnacle of digital capture.

But perhaps the biggest surprise is how many schools and students are still buying a lot of film. It’s almost impossible to get a photographic education today without thinking digital, yet a lot of curriculums still include analog capture. A number of the pro photo retailers I talked to told me that their biggest film customers were students. Although it might seem counterintuitive to have beginning photographers (the ones most likely to make technological errors) use film instead of digital where they can just erase their mistakes, it teaches one very important aspect of photography: discipline. When you know that the image you are about to capture is going to cost time and money, it tends to make you ponder a bit more than if you know you can hit the delete button on your digital SLR.

As someone who grew up in the analog photography world, the time I spent in the darkroom was priceless from the sense of learning a craft. It also made learning Photoshop that much easier, because I already knew about tonal curves and gamma. Many of the experienced photographers I talked to in researching this article echoed this sentiment, while some of the current self-taught digital photographers were not that concerned. Photographers with more traditional analog experience also felt like they had a higher level of mastery of digital techniques.

Hardware maturity

Fortunately, digital capture has become a somewhat mature industry, and the need to constantly upgrade your tools is no longer as urgent as it once was. For many imaging professionals, the era of upgrading the minute the newest tool hits the market is now over. But that's not to say that 'new-camera frenzy' is dead-my local pro photo retailer, for instance, informs me that he had a waiting list this summer of 500 people who had already paid for the new Canon EOS-1D Mark III.

Five years ago, the cost of admission for a first-rate digital-imaging system was quite high. Today, however, hardware costs are plummeting and you can put together a reasonable system for $5000 to $10,000. A first-class imaging workstation is within reach of everyone. A recent perusal of the online outlets, for instance, reveals that 750-GB hard drives are now about $200 and 8 GB of RAM is well under $1000, so storage is no longer a bottleneck to your workflow or your checkbook. Even the 30-inch flat screen-once a rarity-has now become so ubiquitous that it’s not uncommon to see a pair of these on a desktop.

Many freelance photographers have drawn their line in the sand in favor of the DSLR, but for most of the remaining studios, things are as they were in the old days of analog photography: You use a 35mm camera for portability and a medium-format camera for ultimate quality. With digital, many photographers have simply traded the 35mm SLR for a DSLR, and their favorite medium-format camera now has a high-resolution digital back.

Even though you can buy the new 22-megapixel Canon EOS for less than $8000 (and it’s a fantastic tool for the price), it still doesn’t have the dynamic range that some of the most demanding studio work requires. The medium-format backs from Hasselblad, Phase One, Sinar and others still offer up images that are much less noisy and have more definition. This quality, however, comes at a healthy price-most of these systems are in the $15,000 to $40,000 range. If you have the volume to justify one, these are the ultimate capture solution, because in addition to a higher-quality capture, they offer a higher degree of control than what you get by just importing raw files into Photoshop.

Perhaps one of the biggest quandaries for prospective buyers of digital SLRs is whether to invest in a professional-level camera or simply go for an entry-level SLR or even a compact digital camera. The line between the types of cameras is continuing to blur.

For instance, although everyone is over the moon with 12-megapixel compact cameras, quite a few of these are now pushing the $500 price range and that’s right in the middle of the range of entry-level DSLRs with 8 to 10 megapixel sensors. What to do? Amazon.com offers the Canon Digital Rebel XT (8 megapixels) for $459 with a lens and the Rebel XTi (10 megapixels) for an even $600. The Nikon D40 (6 megapixels) is also available with a basic zoom for $469 and the Olympus E-410 (10 megapixels) for $529 with a lens.

Stepping up to a DSLR offers a lot more than just being able to switch lenses. The DSLRs also have larger image buffers, allowing you to shoot pictures in sequence a lot more easily, as well as larger battery capacity and a bigger range of accessories at your fingertips to widen your shooting possibilities (often sharing those accessories with the other pro cameras in their line). All of these features make trading up to a pro camera (whether you need it or not) a big enticement as your knowledge grows. What you also get with a DSLR that you don’t get yet with the compacts is picture quality, especially if you’re shooting in low-light situations. Nearly all of the compacts I’ve tested get noisy in a big hurry when you crank the ISO dial up past 400, but most entry-level DSLRs will produce very good results at ISO 800 and even a few at ISO 1600.

In the end, it boils down to the subjects you shoot and how much gear you want to haul around with you while taking pictures. As the compacts and the entry-level DSLRs keep getting better and less expensive, we’ll be able to continue this argument at least for the near future.

When it comes to film cameras, that game has changed dramatically as well. Konica Minolta has left the game entirely, while Canon and Olympus no longer make SLR cameras that use film at all. Nikon still produces its flagship F6 along with the entry-level FM10 for film lovers plus a full line of auto-focus lenses; the company still produces a very limited range of its manual-focus Nikkor lenses to go along with legacy bodies and the FM10. Leica still produces its R series of film SLRs and its M series rangefinder cameras and plans on supporting film "as long as film is still available." All the major manufacturers still make compact 35mm film cameras, but their ranks are dwindling-even two years ago, there was quite a selection available, but now only a few are left.

Also shrinking: the medium- and large-format camera worlds. While pro photographers are still buying medium- and large-format cameras these days, many of them are also adding a digital back to the mix. Perhaps the best example of this is Sinar’s P3 view camera-designed for use with a digital back, it retains all of the flexibility that the company's 4x5 cameras have become famous for, plus full film capability for the photographer who requires it.

Thinning the scanning ranks

Because today’s medium-format digital cameras are outstanding and even the better DSLRs are in the 12- to 22-megapixel range, the need for scanning has gone way down in the average workflow. While scanner sales among the remaining manufacturers are depressed, they appear to be somewhat steady, with current clients including stock agencies, museums, and art galleries, all of which tend to require the highest possible quality for archival purposes.

The relative decline in analog image capture has led to a thinning of the ranks when it comes to scanners. The demand for new equipment simply isn’t what it used to be. But most folks turn to a flatbed scanner, and there's still a large selection of these available, many that will perform double duty as a film scanner. These days, $300 to $400 will buy a pretty good flatbed that can serve up good basic scans. (Gone are the days of getting a copy of Photoshop thrown in with the scanner, though.) On the high end, flatbeds typically max out at around $900, but the Epson Expression 10000XL-Photo has a suggested price point of $3000.

The modestly priced dedicated desktop film-scanner game has come down to just a few major players: Nikon, with its line of SuperCoolscan scanners (the CoolScan V and the SuperCoolscan 5000-the latter offering faster scan times and a greater dynamic range-and the SuperCoolscan 9000 for medium-format film), and Microtek, with its ArtixScan 120tf [although the latter may be being phased out]. Yes, there are also a few less-expensive dedicated film scanners still on the market, but these are generally geared toward the consumer or hobbyist market, not the professional arena.

If your workflow still uses large-format film, or you have a large library of existing images, consider a drum scanner or one of the Hasselblad Flextight (formerly Imacon) CCD scanners. Fifteen years ago, a drum scanner was the size of a Mini Cooper, cost half a million dollars, and required a highly skilled operator. Today drum scanners are much smaller (usually fitting on a tabletop) and top out around $50,000. Experience remains a big plus to achieve optimum quality scans with these units. As the population of older drum scanners can no longer be repaired, many of them are being replaced with desktop scanners or scans are being farmed out to the remaining service bureaus that still have these capabilities. Beyond that-much like the selection of film cameras-Elvis has left the building here, too. A bit of research turns up a number of products from now defunct manufacturers, but once the spare parts are gone, you’re out of luck, so this is a risk that you may not want to take to save money in the short term. If you decide on this option, make sure you can get a service contract and the vendor in question has competent tech-support staff and spare parts on hand. Failing to take this advice may leave you in possession of a very expensive boat anchor.

Finally, large-format scanners, those that can handle originals up to 24-inches wide and wider: Not much new has happened in this niche in the past 12 months. The most recent hardware introduction took place about a year ago when Colortrac introduced its new 42-inch SmartLF Gx 42, designed for images requiring a wide color gamut and high dynamic range-such as graphic art and photographs. The company reports that a 54-inch version of the SmartLF Gx scanner will be available sometime in the second quarter of 2008.

Elsewhere in this market segment, Bowe Bell + Howell (BBH) entered the market by introducing a line of wide-format sheetfed scanners and then announced late last year that it would partner with Visioneer to integrate BBH hardware with Visioneer OneTouch scanning technology. And, in July of last year, Contex-which comprises Contex and Vidar large-format scanners as well as Z 3D scanners-announced that it had been purchased by Ratos AB, a private-equity firm based in Sweden.

An evolutionary trend

Image-capture performance has reached a bit of a plateau for now, with recent improvements being more evolutionary than revolutionary. My guess is this trend will continue until the point where today’s current medium-format backs become as reasonably priced as today’s digital SLRs.

With such a huge installed base of images captured on film, and quite a few photographers young enough to stick around for a while, film will probably just fade away gently into the sunset and probably never die completely. If for no other reason, there will always be a dedicated group of photographers that will have a passion for this form of image capture.

The good news is that, now that the tools have become so reasonably priced, there are very few roadblocks to capturing awesome images. So get cracking-the possibilities have never been more endless.

Jeff Dorgay, based in the Pacific Northwest, is a photographer and writer who has been involved in the digital-capture market for more than 25 years. He currently publishes ToneAudio (www.tonepublications.com), an online magazine that covers analog and digital sound.

View more from this Big Picture issue