Category Archives: Ken Rockwell

Thoughts on ‘progress’ and loyalty and contemporary cameras

One of the (to my mind) coherent arguments against digital cameras is that in the longer-term they cost more than film cameras.  The idea behind this is that with a film camera, once you achieve a certain quality of body/lens, there is only limited additional quality that can be achieved by replacing the body.  So whilst it might make sense to buy new lenses periodically (that is another argument entirely that I will perhaps return to another time), there is generally little point in replacing a body unless you’re a professional who needs a faster autofocus, motorwinder or whatever.  But for most of us, we can buy a decent film camera body and be done with it, just spending our hard-earned money on occasional lenses.  Then we can direct our attention towards actually taking photographs with all this expensive stuff we’ve bought.

With digital, it’s been a whole other issue, as bodies have improved remarkably over time.  Ken Rockwell describes this rather memorably as ‘digital rot‘, and Bruce Percy and many others have also made similar points in the past: people who buy digital cameras will tend to want to buy new digital cameras when ‘the next model’ comes out.  In the longer-term, therefore, digital shooting costs more than film shooting, even taking into account developing and printing costs, because you buy new bodies every few years.  With digital cameras, the manufacturers keep telling us, there is a marked difference in newer models: better metering and white balancing to make sure the images are better exposed, Active-D Lighting to deal with light/dark differentials (which is what Nikon calls it, I’m sure Canon will offer an equivalent though I don’t know what it is called), more megapixels, greater dynamic range, and so on…

And yes, to be sure, there is a huge difference in Nikon’s early digital cameras and more modern ones (for example, the professional level D1H that was discontinued in 2006 had a 2.66 megapixel sensor, compared to the 12 in my D90).  However, I am increasingly unconvinced that all this is changing as rapidly in contemporary times as it did in the past.  I write this as the ‘replacement’ for the D90 is hitting the shops, Nikon’s D7000.  Yes, it looks very good, and I’m sure many people will buy it, and some of those people will make absolutely stunning images with it.  But is it really so-o-o-o much better than the D90 that I should feel the need to go out and buy one?

But… but… the pixel-counter-nutheads will say, how can you ask that?  Surely it’s newer, it’s better, it has more megapixels (16, as opposed to the D90’s 12… as if that really mattered! – see below), it can shot 6fps instead of ‘just’ 4.5fps, it puts the milk on your cornflakes for you and makes your tea… ok, probably not those last two.

For all practical purposes, in the DX camera range (Nikon’s cropped sensor cameras), the D90 has , until now, probably been Nikon’s most user-friendly digital camera producing better images than anything else in this price range.  It perhaps even surpasses the D300, as this is heavier (though made of metal and therefore sturdier), with less easily accessible options (though they do shoot a little faster and have one or two additional imaging features).  Unless you’re a professional taking hundreds of images every day, this is no better than the D90, as to all intents and purposes they use the same sensor and processor.

Now the D7000 has come along.  It is an improvement on the D90, but I don’t feel that it gives me that much more than the D90 has given me already.  To be sure, if I was now looking to upgrade from the D40 as I did a year ago (Nikon only list the D40x on their website – the D40 was much the same with a 6mp sensor), I would seriously consider a D7000 as well as the D90, but having the D90 now doesn’t make me want to move to the D7000.

I think we need to get away from the mentality that just because the camera manufacturers tell us that something is new and better, we believe them!  They cynically presume an inherent disloyalty to the products they themselves sell us: we are no longer supposed to feel so attached to our cameras, instead willing to give them up for something ‘better’ just because it fits their marketing cycles.  What we really have are fantastic machines that 10 years ago would have been way beyond anyone’s imagination, and I for one, feel I barely scratch the surface of what my camera can do.  I have taken about 10,000 shots with my D90, but know that I am continually learning how to use it better.  The early great photographers always said, ‘know your camera so that it becomes second-nature to use it’.  I’m quite happy to admit that only after the first 2-3,000 or so shots did I feel I was beginning to really understand what my camera was doing and what I could expect of it.  Getting to that point opens me up to using it more creatively, to experimenting with some of the capabilities that lie hidden in the menus or the way it interacts with particular lenses – and only once I’ve got all that sorted out, can I engage with it much more intuitively and create images that centre on the key themes of lighting, composition, visualisation and so on.  Buying a new camera gets in the way of that, at least for me – I found it initially quite difficult to move from the D40 to the D90, as certain things kept not happening that I was expecting to happen, and other things did happen that I hadn’t expected!

The only real upgrade at this time, I think, is in format.  If I was going to change from the D90, the DX sensor D7000 is not where I’d go.  If money was not an issue, I would be interested in the full-sized sensor D700 or D3x – but that would in turn necessitate other lenses…

So if you’re anything like me, don’t fall for the camera manufacturers’ hype.  If you have a great camera that you like (and most cameras can be great cameras in the hands of those who know how to use them properly), then stick with it – show it loyalty, and it’ll reward you with images that emerge from your intuitive abilities and interests.  And you’ll be doing the environment a favour too…!

PS The difference in the D7000’s 16 megapixels and the D90’s 12 is as follows:
D7000: 4,928 x 3,264 – D90: 4,288 x 2,848
This means 640 x 416 pixels more, crammed into the same sized sensor (which brings its own problems, as I understand it…) – if my maths is right, this is about a 13% increase in image size.  In practical terms, unless printing huge advertising hoardings, this is totally irrelevant.  In fact, even for advertising hoardings, it’s probably irrelevant since you’d never look at the image closely enough to see the individual dots that make up the image.  If you want proof of this, the next time you see an advertisement for shampoo at a bus stop, go right up to the image and look very closely at the model’s face and hair to see all the little pixels that make up her ‘smooth’ skin and even ‘smoother’ hair – they are anything but smooth when viewed closeup!  But we don’t normally do that, and that is what makes these small differences so unimportant in large prints.  Get over the megapixel mania and think about how you produce sharper images using the light you have and the lenses you use – it’s about art, not pixel-counts!

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More Ken Rockwell guides…

If you use a Nikon D300 or D700, you might want to look at new guides that have been produced by Ken Rockwell for the iPod touch/iPhone; you may know that I have used both the D40 and the D90 guides he wrote, and they are excellent (and far more useful than the manuals that come with the cameras!).  The full roundup:

If you don’t have an iPod touch/iPhone, then the full texts contained in these applications are all available on his website; start here.

Photography or image capture?

I’ve just been at a seminar led by David Rodowick of Harvard University on historicising virtual images in a cinematic context.  Whilst most of this is way beyond my own academic field and most definitely not something I’d want to pursue in any meaningful way, I had a brief conversation with him afterwards about photography.  He doesn’t talk about movies that are digital as ‘films’, arguing that there is something essentially chemical about film which is not present in digital imaging using a digital video camera, for example.

In a similar way, he said he doesn’t talk about ‘digital photography’, but about ‘image capture’, because ‘photography’ involves a chemical process, whereas digital cameras are recording data.  The data is manipulated and eventually turned into something analogue, otherwise we couldn’t see it (a screen is, after all, an analogue device).  Film, once treated in the appropriate chemicals, can be held up to the light and the image can be seen without this kind of manipulation (though of course, how the chemicals are applied, in what concentration, temperature and for how long has a profound impact on the resulting image).

Is it important to make this differentiation?  It is if we are thinking about how we visualise what we photograph and then compare it to how we see the end result.  In Torridon Bruce Percy described his workflow from taking the photograph on his film camera: he develops his film, and then scans it in on a high quality scanner, producing very large digital files which he can then manipulate in Photoshop.  These files essentially become his negatives, he said.  Thinking about Rodowick’s comments makes me wonder about the way they become his ‘negatives’ – after all, the tangible pieces of film are still the ‘real’ negatives (which I presume he keeps somewhere very safe!), and all there is on the computer is a collection of data – zeros and ones that can be re-converted into an analogue form in the right circumstances.

Half Dome, Blowing Snow - by Ansel Adams

Half Dome, Blowing Snow – © Ansel Adams

Ken Rockwell talks about ‘Real Raw’, meaning film, and if we think of the ways in which some of the great photographers have used film, we know that this is qualitatively different to digital image capture.  For example, we know that Ansel Adams used film, and so this famous image by him (‘Half Dome, Blowing Snow’ – click it to go to the Ansel Adams site where you can buy a print), is a digital scan of a piece of tangible film – the very same piece of film that was actually at the scene where this image was taken, in Adams’ camera. In a very real sense, the film ’saw’ this scene, which we couldn’t say about digital cameras!  The conversion of the analogue image to digital loses something… and many people feel this also happens with digital cameras, which is why so many people – myself included – still like film so much.

We can see this more obviously in the cinematic context: I recently bought a DVD of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ – originally shot on film, of course.  However, it has now been scanned into a computer in order to make a DVD – a digital method of reproducing a film (or perhaps I should say: a film-like experience!).  As digital technology improves, the archived film strip will be scanned again and again to obtain ever higher resolution and improved sound… but the ‘negative’, if you like, is still a tangible analogue substance – ‘Real Raw’.

Although for day-to-day photography thinking about all this is perhaps largely irrelevant, I think it is important to always remember that images coming from a digital camera (especially so-called ‘raw files’) are like a negative, but are not the same as a negative, which is a different kind of process and a different way of recording images.  So David Rodowick is right, I think, to talk about ‘image capture’ rather than ‘digital photography’ in contrast to film photography.  But for all practical purposes, it is perhaps simply something to be aware of when choosing the medium for capturing a particular scene (‘how will this work best?’), rather than necessarily employing this language in the everyday context of creating images.

P.S. None of this is to say that image capture on a digital camera isn’t a form of art – it’s just a different way of doing it than happens with a film camera.

P.P.S. I think I now realise more acutely why I dislike Adobe’s use of the word ‘negative’ in the name for their archival format for the raw files generated by digital cameras: DNG, for ‘digital negative’.  Of course, I still use DNG for my digital images…!