NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, June 2005
Digital Photography: The Killer App of this Generation
by Rick Altman
First in a two-part series about the impact of digital photography.

It’s rare in our culture that we are able to identify a phenomenon as it is taking place, instead of just in retrospect. Mobile phones were mostly a curiosity until they, almost overnight, became commonplace. Same with the iPod. Same with most fashion statements. Same with most everything.

Digital photography is different. Its rise has not been meteoric, but rather sure and steady. And month by month, season by season, holiday by holiday, more and more households have bought into it. Today, most of us view a digital camera as novel but necessary, and only a matter of time before we buy our first one or our next one. It is happening as we watch.

And this could not be a better time to watch, with models becoming better and cheaper on a monthly basis, and print services almost as accessible as service stations for your autos.

Unless you have been living under a rock since 1996, you are familiar with the persistent virtues of going digital with your photos:

It’s Way Cheaper: Even though the initial buy-in is a bit higher, your cost for consumables drops through the floor. You will never buy film again, storing photos on media that you can buy online from $25. Equal to the point, you will never pay for a print of a bad photo.

You Take Better Photos: When it costs you nothing to push the shutter, you do it more often. You know the story about a thousand monkeys pounding on a thousand typewriters and the work of Shakespeare being the result? Dumb luck also prevails over digital photography, as any of us hacks and amateurs can take a decent photo of a scene when we give ourselves a dozen chances.

You Become A Better Photographer: As a decent commercial-grade photographer, I have been taking photos for over two decades. But I never really developed a feel for composition or a solid understanding of the science of photography until five years ago. No matter how many notes I took, I just could not connect what I did five days ago with what I was looking at when the film came back from the lab.

But the immediacy of digital is the best photography teacher you could ever hope for. You see in five seconds, not five days, what happens if you move your subject off-center, how it looks to shift the light source to another angle, how depth of field changes when you change the lens aperture, how shutter speed affects the entire energy flow of a scene that involves motion.

Your Subjects Become Better Models: An unexpected benefit of the digital age is a result of the attention span of the people you photograph. It used to be easy to sit for a photo—smile broadly through one or two shots and they would be done. Now, it is commonplace for a photo to be more like a photo session, with multiple photos taken from several angles. Most people can’t paste a smile for that long and some will even begin to ignore the photographer. And that is when the really good photos are taken. After the requisite pasted-on-smile shots, when they tire of having their photo taken, expect the best results.

Photos Anywhere
Perhaps the most important development in digital photography is the explosion of outlets that will print your images. We stopped counting at 250 the number of online services available (our favorite is the Kodak Picture Center), and today you can take your little compact flash card or jump drive to Rite-Aid, Longs, Walgreens, Walmart, Costco...and dozens others.

This is significant because the real price savings occur not from your printing photos yourself, but from your sending them out. It is wonderful to be able to make your own prints, no doubt, and you can pick up a good photo printer for next to nothing (or literally nothing if you watch for the incentives offered by Dell, Best Buy, and the other big retailers). But you’ll get eaten alive by the cost of the ink and paper if you use your own printer exclusively. You cannot beat the estimated 35 cents you’ll pay for a single 4x6 print (and as low as 15 cents for quantity or promotional offers).

Skeptics look at the ritual of sending digital images out and awaiting the arrival of prints as being nothing different than the tedium they were hoping to escape with film processing. But there is one huge difference: With digital, you only order prints of the good images, not all of them. You already know if you’ve taken a winner, and chances are good that you have already emailed it to friends and loved ones, uploaded it to a website, and organized it in your online photo album.

The Cameras are Incredible
The biggest risk with digital photography is that you will go overboard and buy more camera than you need and more cameras than you need.

What a fantastic problem to have!
Today’s buy-in for a good all-purpose digital camera is barely $250. The top-of-the-line model that cost $800 two years ago can be found for about $350 today, and digital versions of professional-style single lens reflex models (SLRs, “real” cameras with detachable lenses) are showing up with regularity under $1,000. We are watching closely the emergence of the “super-zoom” category—cameras that boast 10x and 12x optical zoom ranges. This is the equivalent of a 35 to 400mm zoom lens, all in a standard camera chassis.

These cameras feature the good kind of zoom (optical zoom, not worthless “digital zoom” that is a marketeer’s dream and consumer’s nightmare) along with special image stabilization technology to help against camera shake. As those prices dip into the mid-$400s, we expect them to be gobbled up by vacationers who want to be able to shoot close-ups and landscapes without having to add or swap lenses.

Fix Your Boo-Boos
And then there is the holy grail of digital photography for those adept with image-editing software: the ability to fix, modify, and enhance a photo. We wish that everyone started practicing with an image editor, if for no other reason than to eliminate for good the obnoxious anti-red-eye flash options that turn cameras into migraine-creation machines.

Beyond that, of course, is a treasure trove of opportunity to alter reality for the better, and few have it better than users of Corel software. For one low buy-in, you get graphic-drawing and image-editing applications with CorelDraw, or an incredibly-priced image editor in Paint Shop Pro.

Similarly, creative PowerPoint users will love being able to effortlessly incorporate their own photos into presentations, be it for business or for pleasure—refine a sales pitch that was formerly a collection of boring bullet slides or creating a family keepsake of images, set to music.

The One Blight on the Horizon
We look upon the emergence of mobile phones with built-in cameras with fear, loathing, and blatant snobbery. First off, the cameras are pathetic little toys, capable of producing images no better than first-generation cameras from 1996. Those who form their first impression of digital photography from what they see on their phones are doomed to harbor misconceptions for years.

Worse is the specter of what might happen to the mobile phone industry if camera phones become more common. There are numerous institutions and destinations at which photography is prohibited (court houses, military bases, many airports, museums) and other places where it is morally reprehensible, such as restrooms and locker rooms. If authorities cannot tell the difference between a mobile phone and a camera, they may have no choice but to prohibit them all. Madison Avenue might want to think twice about creating commercials that show someone taking a photo and immediately sending it out via email, all with the same device. They might be killing their golden goose.

All in all, this is a grand time to be a photographer and a digital designer, with technology ready to explode onto the scene, competition among manufacturers driving prices down, and entries forming at so many different price points.

Watch for 2005 to be a banner year for the revolution that we are watching unfold right now.

Copyright 2005, All rights reserved. R. Altman & Associates. http://www.altman.com.

Article reproduction coordinated by Steve Bass, a Contributing Editor with PC World and 23 year veteran of PIBMUG. He’s also the author of the second edition of PC Annoyances: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things about Your Personal Computer, O’Reilly Press. Check out a sample chapter at http://snurl.com/sample_annoyed2. It’s available on Amazon at http://snurl.com/annoyed2.

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