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Digital Girl

Reflections on the Power of the Image

By Tamia Nelson

July 3, 2007

I started taking pictures back in the days when the only electronic circuits in many cameras were found in the flash unit, and when one-hour developing was an impossible dream unless you had a key to a darkroom. As a would-be professional photographer, I spent long hours mastering the interplay of aperture, shutter speed, and film, while also studying the elements of composition and the chemistry of color. It payed off. Before long, I could coax properly exposed shots from my camera under nearly all conditions of light and shade, and I was as proud of this skill as I was of my ability to place my canoe exactly where it needed to be in the midst of the swirling chaos of a fast-moving river.

That being the case, it's not surprising that I didn't exactly shout for joy when the first all-electronic, point-and-shoot cameras came along. They were just too easy to use. I didn't want the hours I'd spent puzzling over f-stops and ASA (now ISO) numbers to be wasted, did I? Certainly not. In time, however, convenience won out over control, and practicality trumped pride. I bought a compact, water-resistant 35mm Olympus Stylus®. Soon my manual SLR and its battery of bulky lenses were gathering dust on a shelf, while my little Olympus accompanied me everywhere I went in the backcountry. If I missed the hands-on involvement that my SLR demanded — and I did, at least at first — I also missed fewer shots. I grumbled a bit when the camera's exposure settings weren't what I'd have chosen, of course, but I was pretty happy with the trade-off. Still, my rapture was somewhat modified. I didn't have access to a darkroom to do my own developing and printing, and I couldn't find a local photo lab that gave me consistently good results. There was always cost to consider, too. Film and processing took quite a bite out of my budget.

Sometime around then …

The Digital Age Dawned

At first, it was no more than a faint glow on the eastern horizon, but I was quick to see the potential benefits of digital photography, nonetheless — especially for documentary work. This really meant something to me then. I was shooting scores of rolls of 35mm film on the job, recording archaeological sites and historic structures, and I longed to break free of the fetters of film and photo processing. (I can still remember what it felt like to learn that an entire week's worth of film had been lost by the lab.) But the cost of professional-grade digital equipment was too high, and the cheaper stuff was, well, too cheap. So I waited for prices to come down.

And while I was waiting, I explored new interests. Away from the job, I turned to painting and drawing. I still carried the Stylus® along on paddling and cycling trips, but now it, too, gathered dust in my pack. A little later, I retired my Marshalltown trowel (an archaeologist's best friend and constant companion) and took to the keyboard full-time. Words were now my tools of choice, and I lost all interest in digital photography. Years passed, during which I often went for months on end without snapping a single picture. Then Farwell dropped a bombshell. He'd never been a photographer himself, but while working on a public relations campaign he'd had a chance to see a modern digital camera in action, and he sung the praises of the new technology. This came as quite a shock. Farwell would be the first to admit that he's something of a retrogrouch. Of course, he'd just started a passionate affair with a GPS. Maybe that's what turned his head. In any case, Farwell's enthusiasm was infectious. Soon I was the owner of a Canon PowerShot A550. Once again, I was …

In the Frame

It wasn't long before I, too, had fallen under the digital spell. The little silver camera fits easily in my palm and weighs almost nothing. Moreover, it's capable, sturdy, and easy to use. Is there no downside to digital photography? Sure there is. Every silver lining comes wrapped in a cloud, after all. But to my mind, the downside seems minor.

Let's take a closer look. The upside first:

Digital Pluses

  • Freedom from the costly tyranny of film and photo-processing
  • Compact size (if it were any smaller, it would be too small!)
  • Ease of use: you can point and shoot with confidence
  • Versatility (my little camera also shoots decent video — with sound)
  • Control over the final product, both before and after the shot

There's more. With my PowerShot, as with many other digital cameras, you can eat your cake and have it too. Out of the box, you only need to point and shoot. But if you crave total control over shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, you can set the camera to Manual and get it. Moreover, you can zoom between 35mm and 140mm (digital magic can push this to 560mm, though with considerable loss in image quality), and the built-in flash can be toggled on or off. And the whole bag of tricks is powered by standard AA cells. You can "refuel" at just about any crossroads' ser-sta-gro. Are you shooting hundreds of shots a day? Readily available SD™ cards give you all the memory you need — and they're a lot less bulky than film canisters.

That sounds pretty good already, right? But digital technology really shines when it's time to process your shots. A USB cable links your camera and computer. (You can also download directly to a printer, if you want.) And once you've got your images on your hard drive, previewing and editing are a snap. Tricks that were once the closely guarded secrets of a darkroom priesthood are now available to anyone, with just a couple of clicks of a mouse. You can easily alter brightness and contrast, generate grayscale or sepia-toned images at will, eliminate clutter, crop, sharpen edges, and soften focus. You can even pare down beautiful (but bloated) images to make them lean enough to load quickly on slow browsers.

But nothing's perfect, is it? Let's explore the downside:

Digital Minuses

  • Electronic cameras don't work if the batteries die (better bring plenty of spares!)
  • The LCD eats batteries, and …
  • It's not easy to see in bright sunlight
  • But the way-kool platinum-finish body is, and the shiny surface is perfect for throwing a scare into any wary wildlife

Electronics need batteries. No surprise here. There's no such thing as a free lunch, and a lot of film cameras also go belly-up when the batteries die. A black body would be nice to have, too. But I can cope. I've even learned how to decode the colored-light semaphore in the viewfinder. So I only need to power up the LCD when I'm using the digital zoom. (The PowerShot has a viewfinder as well as an LCD. Not all digital cameras do.)


Bottom line? I'm now a digital girl, and I'm rediscovering some of the excitement I once felt for photography. Better yet, I'm now free from the tyranny of film. Of course, it helps to know a few …

Tricks of the Trade

With a digital camera you can make mistakes without paying for them. Learning by trial-and-error is easy, in other words. And there's nearly instant feedback. Here are a few of the things I've picked up along the way …

Steady As She Goes  The PowerShot's small size and light weight make it difficult to avoid the shakes when stalking busy beavers, leery loons, or wily warblers. Although editing software can sharpen the resulting blurry edges, you can't expect miracles. That's why it pays to know how to hold 'em. Steady your camera hand against something solid, adopt a triangulated shooting stance (pistol shots will find this easy), or mount your camera on a tripod. And use your viewfinder rather than the LCD whenever possible. Then you can brace your camera against your face, just like you did back in the Age of Film.

Plan Ahead  Digital cameras are a little slower off the mark than most film cameras, and you can easily lose a shot while you wait for your camera to wake up. So turn it on while you're bringing it up to your eye. Then it will be ready when you are. Digital cameras also need time to recover from one shot and get ready for the next, especially if you're using the flash. The remedy? Plan ahead. And shut off the flash except when it's really needed. That way you'll avoid startling shy birds and animals.

Get a Grip  Although the PowerShot has a molded grip, it's still a slippery customer. So I keep the strap around my neck at all times. (The only exception? When I wrap it around my right hand.) The neck strap can also be used to steady a camera whenever you have to hold it away from your body in order to focus through the LCD. It's the same principle as using a rifle sling.

Keep it Clean!  Dust and grit are any camera's worst enemies (after water, that is), and digital cameras are no exception. The LCD is particularly vulnerable. That's why I left the manufacturer's protective film in place. I suppose it's a little like keeping your living-room furniture wrapped in plastic, but I do it anyway. How long will the clingy film stay put? I don't know, but I'll do my best to keep it in place until I can figure out a better way to protect the display.

Shooting the Past
An old hand reflects on the future

It took a little prodding to get me to take the leap, but now that I've jumped into the digital world with both feet I have no regrets. My new camera lets me shoot the kinds of pictures I most enjoy, free from the tyranny of film and the curse of shoddy processing. What about you? Are you still a slave to celluloid? What are you waiting for? Join the digital revolution. A little reflection will convince you that you've nothing to lose but your chains.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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