Digicams are the success story of the decade. The world is taking more pictures than ever, thanks to convenience and low cost (never buy film again!). Photo sharing site Flickr has passed the two billion picture mark, every cellphone carries a camera and in my tourist-honeypot hometown, vacationers tote DSLRs. But while film is almost dead, there are still some things that the old school does better.
For landscape photography, this doesn’t matter, but for anything that requires (literal) split second timing, even a tiny delay means the difference between a perfect smile and a grimace, a touchdown and a heap of sweaty men. Digital cameras have delay built in at every step: Out of the box you have focus assist lamps, redeye-reducing bursts of flash, slow startup times and shutter lag.
DSLRs do better, but compacts – even Canon’s top-end G9 – has woolly feeling gap between pressing the shutter and taking a picture. Result? Frustration and missed pictures. There’s a reason Henri Cartier-Bresson called it the “Decisive Moment”. And that’s why he used a Leica.
Everything runs on batteries these days, even film cameras, but digicams eat them like Mr. Wimpy goes through hamburgers. Big LCDs, motorized zoom lenses, image stabilizers and CCDs (the first C stands for charged, remember?) mean that you need to be near mains power for frequent recharges, or carry a backpack full of spares. Don McCullin toured war zones with a couple of Nikon Fs in a canvas bag. Today’s photojournalist probably carries more kit than the soldiers he’s tailing.
Three inches of LCD action on the back panel makes for easy reviewing of images, but sucks for actually taking pictures. Real photographers use a viewfinder, to block out unwanted distractions and to see what is really going on, and also because holding the camera to your head means less shaking, which can blur images.
But digital cameras have viewfinders, right? Yes, but they’re the kind of thing you’d find on a plastic dime-store kaleidoscope, not a precision optical device. If you manage to squint into it, you’ll only see a part of the image anyway, with some cams only showing a paltry 80% of the image area. Congratulations: Your 12 megapixel box just became a 9.6 megapixel box.
Again, DSLRs do better here, but you’ll still never see the actual moment committed to pixels: Everything blacks out when the mirror flips up. The only thing that does this properly is a rangefinder, which has a big, bright image and even shows you what is going on outside the imaging area, and if you want a digital rangefinder, start saving. Leica’s M8 will cost you $6,000 before you even look at lenses.
I still have a few film cameras around the place, some of them old. Forgetting about the Kodak Disc and APS, pretty much any camera bought since the original Leica can still be used today, and it’ll probably turn out better results than when it was new, thanks to advances in film technology. The thing is, camera makers are now responsible for the whole bundle – the box and the image recording medium – so the only way to upgrade is to buy a whole new camera.
Still using that old 4 megapixel EOS 1D? How’s that working out for you?