Ronno Tramper Photography

What Did Digital Photography Bring Us?

Turn back the time or count our blessings?
Ronno Tramper, May 2009


Let me start by pointing out that this article is not meant as a side by side comparison under controlled circumstances of different media for capturing photographic images. If that were the case I would have bought a second hand Nikon F100 and a couple of rolls of Fuji Velvia and simply compared that combination with my Nikon D300 using the same lens. Others have done that or something similar. I did no such thing and I do not intend to either. I have a very strong intuition that the Nikon F100 doesn't stand a chance under all but the most unrealistic circumstances (and I will tell you why in a moment), but I am not going to try and prove it.


Nostalgia

I do sympathize with, and even to a certain extent share, the nostalgia of some photographers for the “days of film” when in the eyes of many people photography was still both an art and a craft. Nowadays twelve megapixel “auto everything” digital cameras are sold for 250 dollars on every street corner, people share their images online and suddenly everybody is a photographer. Or at least, that's the general perception. The consequences of this are well known to those of us who were earning a mayor part of their income with stock photography. I think that to a large extent these developments are the origin of the nostalgia. People who don't know the difference between a slide and a negative have entered our ranks. They have never heard of the relation between aperture and depth of field and could not care less because their 250 dollar cameras with a very small sensor have almost unlimited depth of field anyway. It is as if nobody, including art directors, has the ability anymore to distinguish a well made photographic image from a tourist's snapshot. No matter how hard you try to distinguish yourself with craftsmanship, patience and a vision of your own, there is always a tourist out there on Flickr who just got lucky and made a better photo than you did. Digital was supposed to make our lives easier, but it is giving us a hard time instead. We are caught between a rock and a hard place. Tourists with 250 dollar cameras are pushing us from the market and bringing the prices down while at the same time camera manufacturers are “forcing” us to buy a new 5000 dollar plus camera every 18 months or so.


A leap in the dark

To be fair, the rights managed stock photography market is collapsing, but as for the rest of it I think this is all terribly exaggerated. The reality is that digital photography has brought us a lot of new possibilities and in many ways did make our lives easier. Early in 2003 I put aside my Nikon F3 and the two Nikon F100s I owned, went to a camera store and bought myself a Nikon D100 for the then outrageously high amount of 2000 euros. I started using it and simply never looked back. I even sold the remaining 30 Fuji Velvia slide films that were still in the fridge to a fellow photographer. He thought I had gone crazy.

I had not gone crazy. But, with hindsight, I think he was at least partially right. What on earth was I thinking when I took that step? A “leap in the dark” is probably a more appropriate word for it. Only six megapixels in an overhaul of a plastic Nikon F80-body and no decent wide angle lens available for the DX format sensor! I had to buy a Sigma 15-30 zoom just to have something (actually it is not such a bad lens at all). I can only give you one explanation. The image quality, clean and sharp compared to my slide scans, convinced me. And it must have convinced many others.

There were more things that convinced me. I can still remember the sensation I felt when I made my first macro images in the field. A base ISO of 200, two stops faster than Fuji Velvia and in addition to that more depth of field with the same aperture. I found myself shooting macro images in the field using f8 and 1/125 sec. instead of f11 and 1/15 sec. or slower. A slight breeze causing just a little subject movement could no longer visibly affect my images. My 180mm macro had effectively become a 270mm macro giving me much more working distance with shy subjects. With film I hardly ever achieved the sharpness that Fuji Velvia and the macro lens I used were theoretically capable of. Mind you, I used a Gitzo 1325 Mk2, Arca Swiss ballhead and a cable release after raising the mirror in advance. But with film there was always some softness in the images, although my agency was perfectly happy with it at the time. The D100 NEF images on the other hand were just sharp all the way to the point where the sensor was no longer capable of resolving detail.


The point I am trying to make

I have added a few images and crops to illustrate the point made in the previous paragraph. As I said, this is not meant as a side by side comparison under controlled circumstances. The images were made years apart in time and are difficult to compare. The point of the previous paragraph was that in the field there are all kinds of circumstances that cannot be controlled that influence image quality to a much larger extent than the theoretical ability of a film or sensor to resolve detail. Often you don't need a camera with a surplus of resolving power, you need a camera that makes the best of the circumstances that cannot be controlled. Speed and flexibility are generally underestimated, resolution power is far overestimated. The only resolution that counts is resolution that can be realized.

The images

Four Spotted Chaser, 2001
Nikon F100, Sigma AF 3.5/180mm Apo Macro at f11, tripod, Fuji Sensia 100 slide film

Four Spotted Chaser, 2005
Nikon D100, Sigma AF 3.5/180mm Apo Macro at f8, tripod

Four Spotted Chaser, 2009
Nikon D300, Sigma AF 3.5/180mm Apo Macro at f5.6, tripod


The crops

The images below are approximately 100% crops (+/- 10%) from the three images above after resizing them to the dimensions of the D300. So the F100 Fuji Sensia 4000dpi slide scan was down sampled to 4300 pixels (giving it an advantage), the D100 image was up sampled (giving it a disadvantage). I did everything I could to make each image look as good as possible (sharpening as needed, noise reduction etc.). The images were not treated equally! I just tried to make the most of them. I know it's all not very scientific, but this article is about what can be achieved in real life, not about what is theoretically possible. Before you start comparing them, it is perhaps good to realize that all three images are technically good enough for a sharp 13 x 19 inch inkjet print! And the winner is ...? Well, I have my thoughts, but I'll leave that to you.

Nikon F100, Fuji Sensia, 2001

Nikon F100, Fuji Sensia, 2001

Nikon D100, 2005

Nikon D100, 2005

Nikon D300, 2009

Nikon D300, 2009


Another Example

Only as short ago as yesterday morning I encountered another situation that illustrates my point. It is an image of young Barnacle Geese leaving the nest while their parents are guarding them. The photo was made from a relatively small tripod using a Nikon D300, 80-400 VR at 310mm (470mm effectively), f8, ISO 400 and a shutterspeed of just 1/100. The image is very sharp (at 100% you can see the individual dew drops on the grass) and practically free of noise. To make a similar photo with a Nikon F100 and Fuji Sensia 100, I would have needed a Nikkor 4.0/500mm wide open to get the same shutterspeed. I would then have to accept a depth of field at least twice as shallow. Stopping down and accepting slower shutterspeeds is not an option in cases like this because of subject movement. Not to mention the fact that the resulting camera-lens combination is twice as heavy and much bulkier, which in the circumstances (rough and wet terrain) is a serious handicap.

Barnacle Geese
Nikon D300, Nikkor AF 80-400 VR at 310mm, f8, 1/100 sec., ISO 400, tripod


Final Remarks

Since 2003 RAW conversion software has come a long way. The Bibblepro software that I use effectively removes chromatic aberration, distortion and vignetting even from the D100 images I made in 2003. And the 2020 RAW conversion software will possibly improve those images even more. Camera technology also has come a long way since 2003. For less money the D300 is a much better camera than the “flimsy” D100. And, as good as they were at the time, an F100 and even an F5 are no match for todays (or is it yesterdays by now) D300. And when it comes to my good old nikon F3hp that I used for almost 15 years, there is of course the undeniable nostalgia, the appealing simplicity and the functionality of the design, but let us at least be fair: We cannot blame the industry for making products that are so good that even clueless photographers, using bad lenses and sloppy techniques make a good photo every once in a while. And we are being inconsistent if we blame the industry for that and then, in the same breath, claim that everything was better in the old days.