Shooting digitally, in a nutshell

 ... Second in a series: Why go digital?

by Don Norris

Available light with digital cameras provides rich, full color, although shots such as this are susceptible to movement of the camera as well as movement of the subjects. This was taken at one-quarter second during a rehearsal at Melrose middle school.

In a nutshell, here are the pros and cons of adding digital capabilities to your photographic skills:

First, forget digital if you are not a computer buff. One needs the computer to see and enjoy the photos you have just shot -- I mean, you can see your work as soon as you can get back to your computer. I admit, however, that some digital cameras have a way of hooking up to a television set.

But you need a computer. And the knowledge to run one -- which, in spite of common fear -- is quite easy. It just takes a little while to get accustomed to it. Our SilverStringers average 76 years of age, and 75 percent of us own one computer or another.

The cost of a new digital camera has come way down, so you can buy one for as little as $69. Of course, I wouldn't advise such a cheapie, but for, say $350 to $500, you can get a decent digital camera. Add a hundred bucks for a couple of memory cards and you're in business.

Now that we've disposed of the negatives, what will a digital camera do for you?

First, immediacy. Flick your memory card out of the camera, slip it into a small, low-cost reader on your computer, and there are your pictures. No waiting, no developing charge. Whiz, bang, beautiful pictures, ready to be edited.

Second, forget the cost of developing -- about ten dollars for a roll of 24 shots, plus the cost of film. We just saved about $15 -- because your memory cards last virtually forever. Well, my cards are guaranteed for 1000 uses. In other words, the memory card will probably live longer than I do.

A little shaky, and the singers moved, but the photo was artificially sharpened, reduced, and cropped. The scene is a Polymnia Choral Society concert at Memorial Hall in Melrose.

Third, editing. Anybody can edit pictures. Remove double chins and blemishes, lighten under-exposed shots, improve color, saturate, blow-up, reduce, crop, change colors, blur the background, make cloudy days sunny. Suddenly you can be a magician with photos -- as long as you have a computer and any one of dozens of editing programs, some as cheap as $30, some as cheap as $750..

Fourth, if you're on the internet, send your photos by email to the whole clan. Post them on your family's website. Show Grandpa in Sun City what his grandkids are doing in the snow. All at no cost, except for being on-line.

Fifth, versatility. I don't know why, but I can hand-hold my Nikon Coolpix at a quarter of a second - usually. It has something to do with the way the chips absorb light, I suppose. Normally, with a film camera, I can go as slow as one fifteenth. Furthermore, the digital camera has (it appears to me) better ability to see in the darkness, or where there is not enough light. It is amazing.

The flashgun is good for only ten feet, but this early model Nikon is terrible for red-eye on straight shots. It takes one click to reduce the photo to black-and-white. The models here are Priscilla Simm of Hillsborough, NH, and Lorry Norris of Melrose, at Filene's basement, downtown Boston.

For example, right now I could duck under my computer table where the only light I can see is the little green "on" light on the top of my woofer. I press the exposure button half-down to allow for focusing and exposure adjustment. Now I watch the two-inch screen on the rear of the Coolpix, and suddenly the image goes from darkness to a nice, normal available-light picture. The electronics have the ability to compensate, and it will shoot my woofer at one-thirtieth.

Two seconds later I get the exposed picture projected on my camera's viewing screen. It looks great. All those yellow and blue wires, the brown oak floor, the little green light and the black woofer, all nicely presented.

Next thought: In place of a roll of film, I use a memory card, about one-eighth inch thick, maybe one and a quarter square. They come in various capacities, and cost about a buck a megabyte. I have five Flash Cards (memory cards), ranging from eight megs to 64 megs. That latter one cost me $50, on sale.

At intermission at a recent Polymnia concert; I probably shot six or seven photos to get one that is publishable -- with available light.

So, each picture you take is stored on this removable memory card. You can preset your camera for the quality you require -- like my 950 Coolpix has a capacity of shooting one picture at a resolution of 2.1 megabytes -- which is advertising quality. So I don't need that, since most of what I produce goes either in the scrapbook or on the internet. So I have set the quality at "Normal", which gives me a picture that is roughly two feet wide, 18 inches high.

It is so big that I can only see a quarter of it on my monitor! So I reduce it to fit the screen  -- then the fun begins: the editing. Remove the telephone pole and those unsightly wires, fill in the garden greenery, punch up the color, blur the background ....

At this "normal" setting, I get a very high quality picture, but I also get larger quantity. At this setting, my two foot picture uses almost one-half of a megabyte. Therefore my new 64-meg Flash will store a minimum of 128 pictures, and probably more -- depending on the complexity of what I'm shooting.

We're going to France sometime soon, for a week. So my five Flash Cards, which take less space that one roll of film, will give me a minimum of 256 shots, as much as 300. That's roughly a dozen rolls of film, which costs (film and developing) roughly $180. I paid much less than that for my Flash Cards, which are each guaranteed 1000 uses.

Of course, your film-pictures are presented to you all nicely printed. That could be good, or it could be bad. But let's say you want something a little better. With the digital shots, your editing is free, and it's a fun job. It's a new toy.

Printing of digital pictures is not hard. You can put four scrapbook size photos on a single 8.5x11 piece of glossy, heavy, stock, which costs about a dollar. This I consider a rip-off, but apparently there aren't as many trees left anymore. You can use cheaper paper, or buy it on sale.

Waiting for the train at North Station subway station. Practically no editing for this shot.

Another sore point in printing color pictures: ink cartridges are expensive. Theoretically one $30 color cartridge should last maybe a hundred sheets of 8.5x11 paper -- but that's stretching it. And you need both a color AND black cartridge. Double-trouble!

In the end, a picture could cost you fifty cents, maybe a buck. But then, you are not going to print everything you shoot. Maybe a half, maybe a quarter, sometimes only ten percent.

Digital cameras are, for the most part, compact. Yes, some of the pro models recently developed have melded 35mm bodies to digital electronics -- adding the versatility of all your extra lenses, but most of them are small giants. Digitals are handy, they are light, they are easy to use.

Which brings up my final point today. With digital, you can shoot and shoot and shoot. No film to pay for. No developing costs. Just the electricity to run your computer. You can go crazy shooting, depending on how many Flash Cards you own.

As for the practicality of digital, one very early summer morning, last year, I walked all the way around Ell Pond, shooting in the early light. And when I used up my available Flash Cards, I went back to the car, fired up my laptop computer, downloaded all those early shots, then went back to shooting with the very same cards.

Digital will never totally replace film cameras, simply because the film is continuous-tone while digital provides (in essence) a fine half-tone image. Nevertheless, digital is here to stay. And I will never be without my Nikon 70 and its battery of beautiful zoom lenses, but I guarantee you I'll shoot ten times as many digital photos.

December 7, 2001

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