NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, December 2005
Digital Photography--What’s New This Year
by Bill Moeller, Vice President
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In a sense, 2005 has been a year of consolidation in Digital Photography. The technology has become mainstream, and significant improvements have been made in all areas—cameras, scanners, printers, paper, inks, software, projectors, you name it. In addition, the emphasis has shifted from the gee-whiz to the fundamentals of getting a good image and printing it.

The big news with cameras is that megapixel mania seems to be winding down. Just a few short years ago there were so few photosites on even the best sensors that image quality was, as a result, atrocious. With pixel count as the limiting factor, the great megapixel marketing wars began. While engineers and designers worked quietly in the background on all aspects of image quality, including pixel count, the marketing folk taught the buying public that pixel count was all that really mattered. This is now changing.

The big news in the darkroom is that the new ink jet printers are so good that black and white photography is experiencing a rebirth.

Just about any digital camera today boasts enough pixels to make very good drugstore-sized prints, and top-end consumer cameras can produce prints which would challenge traditional 35mm film photography as far as size is concerned. Pixel count is no longer an issue. This year, the emphasis has shifted to making those pixels better. Both digital SLRs and the “Advanced Digital Compact Cameras” are trending toward larger sensor sizes to reduce noise, extend the dynamic range of the image, and improve color rendition. Digital SLRs are beginning to feature “full size” (meaning the same size as a 35mm frame) sensors, and lenses designed specifically for digital photography; and ADCCs appear to be headed toward using the larger sensor currently used by many SLRs. Both are increasingly offering image stabilization, which reduces the effect of camera movement and allows sharp photographs to be taken at slower shutter speeds. This is particularly important for “supertelephoto” lenses which are beginning to appear on some ADCCs.

One trend, which I predict will be short lived because it is self-defeating, is providing an extended menu of scene modes which invoke preset values of ISO, focus, f-stop, and shutter speed when selected. At some point it becomes simpler to learn how to choose the appropriate values for these basic controls than to select the appropriate scene mode. Some cameras have, in my opinion, already reached that point.

Other trends, which I predict will last, are larger and brighter LCD displays on the camera backs, vastly improved electronic viewfinders, and RAW as an image file option.

In the darkroom, exciting things are happening. Seven years ago, when I first started scanning film and making digital prints, print longevity was laughable, and print quality not much better. This year, one manufacturer is offering a paper/ink combination with a projected life of 200 years, and print quality has reached the point where, for some professional photographers, the question has become not whether digital prints will ever equal traditional prints, but how much better the digital prints are right now—even in black and white. “The Perfect Print,” the holy grail of photography, may yet lie on the digital horizon. With major printer manufacturers turning their attention to the needs of serious photographers in this area, we are poised to resume the quest.

Today it is possible to buy a high quality dedicated photo printer for $100 to $200, and performance equal to the best that a traditional darkroom had to offer can be had for $500 to $2000 depending on how good you were in the traditional darkroom. If you are not too demanding, you can select modestly priced printers which connect directly to your camera or accept your camera’s memory card for printing, and some even have small preview screens and some photo image correction capability. If you are extremely demanding, the Epson R4800, at $1995, will produce extraordinary 17 inch wide prints using eight of Epson’s K3 inks, at $70 per cartridge.

But equipment is only one aspect of the darkroom; another is the software we use to work with the image before we print it; yet another is how we use that software. Last year’s trend of integrating image processing with other functions such as image organization, storage, retrieval, and display appears to be gaining wide acceptance. (I question whether this will last for the same reasons that few TV/VCR combination units are sold, and that computer magazines recommend assembling your own package of security software rather than buying a security suite.) Corel is putting its stamp on the latest version of Paint Shop Pro by adding more “point and click” photo fix capabilities, backing these up with an extensive tutorial and hand holding capability to lead the inexperienced user through the process of using the more advanced tools when necessary, and adding more serious color management capability--a move long awaited by many users. Adobe, the acknowledged leader in digital imaging software, continues to improve its products with features like automatic redeye correction, and an advanced background (of the photo) selection and modification capability. (Unfortunately, Adobe is also modifying its flagship product Photoshop to place more emphasis on the graphic arts, raising an objection I have long had regarding Paint Shop Pro.) Many products now include RAW processing, and the leading products now offer 16 bit processing.

Finally, this year the spectrum of quality magazines dealing with digital photography is better than ever. Traditional magazines such as Shutterbug and Popular Photography have staff members and editors specializing in digital photography, and some newer magazines such as Digital Photo Pro are dedicated to serious digital photography. These valuable sources of information about both the art and the craft of this developing field are a great resource for that photographer in search of the perfect print.

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