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Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Digital Conversion

In 1998, I took up photography as a hobby. At that time, my friends and I commented that we didn't think we'd be shooting film in 5 years. Certainly, every roll of Fuji Velvia cost $10 (after processing), and I saw one film after another disappear into the obscurity. For instance, I won a $300 prize in Photo Technique UK in 1999 on Kodak Royal Gold 25, a film that disappeared right after my photo ran in the September 1999 issue. (The magazine itself seems to have disappeared or turned into a digital equivalent --- like cycling magazines, these magazines tend to repeat the same topics year after year, so you would subscribe to them for a year and then stop --- though the UK magazines do always showcase fantastic reader photographs!) Come 2003, I was still shooting slides on my EOS-3. I still thought that a digital conversion would happen in 5 years, but then again, I had been saying that for 5 years!

There were many reasons for my resistance --- most of which is the necessary work to deal with post-processing --- I sit in front of computers all day, and coming home to sit in front of the computer some more didn't quite appeal to me. Moreover, many of the consumer SLRs were small-sensor SLRs, turning my beloved 24mm lenses into 35mm lenses. Then in 2005, Google bought Picasa, and I bought my first digital camera and shot the 2005 Tour of the Alps with it. (That's right, the 2003 Tour of the Alps had us carrying 30 rolls of slide film in our panniers!)

Then this year, after looking at Phil's beautifully stitched photos from Rosenlaui, I realized that even a point and shoot was producing amazing results. So when the Canon 5D Mk II was announced and I had a trip to Australia impending in a month, I started looking for one. Despite a recession it seemed to be impossible to find one in stock, so I was beginning to resign myself to sticking with the G9.

But 2 days ago, the work mailing list told me that it was in stock at my favorite photo vendor, so I took a deep breath and bought it. It arrived yesterday, and I've put it through the paces as much as weather permitted. Oh yeah, digital has arrived. Here are the big changes:

  • With color balancing being available digitally, I don't have to carry special film, or 81B warming filters. I do, however, still have to carry a circular polarizer.
  • With Image-Stabilization (IS) lenses available (I got the kit with the 24-105/4L IS), I no longer have to fear hand-held shots as much. I'm still a fanatic about technique though, so will still carry a tripod whenever feasible. (And no, doing it on a walk across England would still be unfeasible --- I've learned that I'm just not fit enough for that, and I'd rather give up photos than stop enjoying the experience) The flip side of that is that I have to remember to keep IS turned off when the camera is on the tripod, since IS actually degrades picture quality if it's on the tripod!
  • I can potentially not use ND grad. filters (the one tool that distinguishes professionals from amateurs), and rely on a virtual ND grad. filter or a HDR merge, by shooting from a tripod. This has interesting implications but I suspect I'll still be carrying my ND grads and using them --- post-processing is not an adequate substitute for making a good photograph in the first place, and I'm still uncomfortable with this much digital darkroom work. Nevertheless, it might be that I'll convert.
  • Not shooting film saves about $10/roll. A typical 2 week trip used to cost me 30 rolls or $300. An 8 week trip would cost $1200! And of course, with film you can't shoot as much, so you tend to be a bit more conservative with your shots. Now, having to think before you shoot is still a good thing, so it'll be interesting to me to see how this works out for me.
  • Going all digital costs money! Sadly camera capabilities seem to be evenly matched to the power of desktop computers. My 2.5 year old Mac Mini with 2GB of RAM and Core Duo processors is woefully inadequate for running Adobe Lightroom. Unfortunately, Picasa doesn't support the Canon's RAW image format yet. And forget about my 5 year old copy of Photoshop 6.0! I guess my experiment with "quiet, always on" machines is over --- I'm going to have to get a big beefy desktop to go digital. When you're actually processing images and movies on the machine, you can't make do with small and quiet architectures. Good thing machines are cheaper than when I last saw them. A quad core machine with 8GB of RAM goes for $1300 nowadays. What amazes me though is how bad Lightroom is about resources --- what the heck is it doing that's so hungry for CPU power? Just panning around pegs both my cores at 100%. And it's not just my machine --- my brother's Core 2 Duo/4GB state-of-the-art-last-year also had both CPUs pegged! I guess while even Microsoft Office hasn't been able to chew up the latest multi-core chips, Adobe's been hard at work making sure Intel's customers upgrade every year to keep up!
  • Despite my color blindness, I better start color calibrating my monitors! Fortunately, there are (relatively) cheap tools for doing this. Again, I never considered this at all when I was shooting slides. Fuji Velvia comes with its own palette (and I know people who hate it and call it Disneychrome), but once you get used to how it renders the world you just don't tweak it any more (other than pushing the film once in a while). That is so not true when it comes to digital.

I guess it's time for this old dog to learn some new tricks! I remember when I attended the late Galen Rowell's workshop way back in 1999, and came back after 3 days with 100X better pictures then when I went into the workshop. Is there an equivalent for Photoshop and the digital darkroom? If so, let me know, because I'm going to be getting rid of all my film cameras in a hurry.


Unknown said...

Adobe certifies instructors for Photoshop boot camps, but most of the Photoshop users I know are self-taught. If you've figured out how to set the manual white balance, that's half the battle anyway.

I don't know about the uber-high-end Canon cameras, but most digital cameras that I've tried have trouble distinguishing between certain shades of blue and purple when colors from the warm end of the spectrum aren't present. However, if you're not trying to photograph yarn for sale, you probably won't run into this problem. :)

Enjoy the new camera! And merry Christmas!

DWallach said...

I first went digital in 2000 when Canon came out with the three megapixel G1, later upgrading to the four megapixel G3. That was good times. Now I'm shooting with a Nikon D700 and the stunning but far too heavy 24-70 f/2.8.

I'm running Lightroom on my Mac Mini at home, which is pretty much the same as your Mac Mini. Memory usage is clearly out of hand. Lightroom generates beautiful results, but it needs a performance-obsessive uber-hacker to work it over properly.

Frankly, I don't understand complaints that digital takes all this time in front of the computer. Compared to all the time I used to spend in the darkroom, monkeying around with photo-chemistry, any of the digital tools are just staggeringly efficient.

I pretty much just picked up Lightroom, watched a few of the cheesy Adobe training videos, and just started using it. Lightroom 2.0 adds the "Adjustment Brush" and "Graduated Filter" which let you do things that you used to have to give up and do in Photoshop, but neither tool is as fast or flexible as the Photoshop adjustment-layers equivalent.

If you don't already have one, probably the greatest and simplest tool you can get yourself is a grey color reference card like a WhiBal. You then use the eye-dropper gizmo, click on it, and you pictures are properly color balanced.

Of all the gadgets in Lightroom, probably my favorite one is the "HSL / Color / Greyscale" panel. I'll click "HSL" then "Saturation", and then up can crank up or dial down individual colors. Want to make that dull blue sky have some life to it? Crank up its saturation with one slider.

I've got two pages of wishlist that I've been editing, on and off, which I'll eventually post somewhere the Adobe people can see it and ignore it.

(Maybe I should have instead gone with Aperture, but everybody said that Aperture was even more of a CPU pig than Lightroom. Another attractive option is Bibble. I met the the guy who writes it; he is a serious performance nut, both for his code and for his car racing.

Piaw Na said...

Dan, I never did spend much time in the darkroom, because when you shoot color-slides, dark room work literally doesn't matter. And yes, your MacMini is likely the same as mine, but the Canon D5 Mk II generates twice as many pixels as the D700, so my MacMini is having to push around twice as many pixels as yours.

I already have a gray card. Have carried one for ages as part of my photography kit.

For better or for worse, I'm a Windows person, having never gotten along with Mac OS X.

Thanks for your comments, Scarlet! One thing that I've learned over the years is that the difference between someone who gets good results and someone who gets outstanding results is that the guy who got outstanding results simply does more work. I did extra work during my slide film days and got to be really good at it. If I go all digital (and I've already sold my EOS-3), then yes, I'm going to have to put in some serious work in the digital world as well.

DWallach said...

I did a bunch of color negative darkroom work as well. You could also make prints from slides with expensive processes like cibachrome. I never had access to that stuff, but the results are stunning.

Getting color balance right was such a massive pain. You had all these colored gels that you'd hold over your prints and each was labeled with adjustments for what you'd dial into the enlarger. It could take hours to do what takes seconds in Lightroom.

Anyway, before you go out and drop big coin on a new computer, check out Bibble. It's PC/Mac/Linux and comes with a fully functional free trial. If you buy a Bibble 4 license, you get a free upgrade to Bibble 5 when it's done. I read over their feature list and compared it to my Lightroom gripe list. Bibble 4 addresses pretty much every one of my gripes. It's missing a handful of features that may or may not show up in Bibble 5.

The only thing that really sucks about Bibble is that they don't play nicely with converted DNG files. They'll happily digest original DNG files, as written by some cameras like a Leica, but they don't want to monkey around with Adobe-converted DNG files, and they have some reasonable arguments along these lines. Still, I've been converting everything to DNG for the past year and tossing the original NEF files, which means that Bibble can't digest any of that material. (In effect, I locked myself into Lightroom without recognizing it.) I'm toying with leaving everything in NEF, but I'd give up the spectacular (lossless) compression, which makes a real difference when traveling. Grumble.

DWallach said...

Just checked... Bibble 4 doesn't support the Canon 5D Mark II, so you'd have to wait for the Bibble 5 release, at some undetermined but hopefully soon time. To keep yourself portable, keep your original CRW files -- don't convert to DNG.