Commentary # 15 ~ February 2008
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Tempted by the Fruit of Another New Camera Body

February 2008

- by Craig Wassel

I often wonder what it would have been like to be a photographer in the days when film was maturing and beginning to be taken seriously. Was it as exciting as it is to be witnessing the digital medium improve and mature? Within the last 18 months we have see the introduction of the Canon Mark III's, the Nikon D300 and D3, the Pentax K20, the Olympus E3, and several other improved bodies. It's very tempting to make the investment in one of them, but I'm holding back for now. It's particularly difficult to resist when we see so many ads, reviews, and websites telling us that some new body delivers photos that surpasses anything some company has ever made, or that company "A" has jumped ahead of company "B" with its latest offering.

My decision to wait was solidified by a test I did to compare what is coming out the bodies I currently shoot versus the comparable new model. Before I describe my test, I preface by saying I do not feel qualfied or equipped to be an equipment tester for anyone. I certainly do not have the desire to become a tester, either. I am, however, experienced, skilled, and knowlegeble enough to make comparisons that are meaningful to me, and that might be food for thought for others. Further, the test I did utilized my own long and carefully established processing workflow, and not someone else's.

WIth that out of the way, I downloaded two test images from a fairly well known photography site. The first image was made with the same body I currently shoot, and the second was made with its successor. I took the first image and, without trying to achieve any particular result, processed it the way I normally would based on the subject matter. In this case, the two test shots were of foliage and sky.

I was quite suprised at the results. They looked very similar, and I do mean VERY similar. There were some qualities in the photo from the new body that I preferred, but there were also some in my processed photo that I preferred slightly. I would post both here, but because of copyright and outright respect for the work of another photographer I cannot. When I get my hands on a loaner of this new body, I will demonstrate and post what I just described. For now, though, the photos you see on the right are examples of a processed and unprocessed image.

I won't presume to say what this may or may not mean to you. Photography is an artform and is subjective, and shooters' preferences, gear, workflow, and countless other things vary. I will say what it means to me for the time being. Primarily, an understanding of the digital medium and thorough experience with my current gear is allowing me to maximize what I can get into and out of an image. So, an investment in time for post-shoot processing and workflow is going to keep me using what I have for another generation or two of new bodies.

Someone out there will inevitably contact me and say, "Ah ha!! You are PhotoShopping your work !! That's cheating !!" I then inevitably ask, "Do your eyes show you the natural world in black and white the way an Ansel Adams print does? No, they don't. How much time did he spend in the darkroom working to produce his prints? Don't know? Read up on it". The point is not that I am on the level of Adams, but that there is a big difference between "Photo-Chopping" versus thoughtfully processing images with the same care that is used in the darkroom. I'm envisioning what I want the photograph to evoke, and paying close attention to color, contrast, dynamic range, and other key elements to try to acheive it. The digital format certainly given us a way to alter photos in ways that were difficult or impossible in the darkroom, but the serious photographers I know don't. They are using digital's flexibility to acheive their vision and not to deceive viewers. For example, I took the third photograph on the right in color, but immediately imagined that cyanotype tinting would perfectly suit the subject in her wintery attire.

As so often happens in my commentaries I have gotten a little off point, but it seems like every time I mention processing someone wants to rekindle the debate. So, to get back on point . . .

My decision to wait on investing in any new bodies does not mean they do not impress or excite me. On the contrary. Technology is advancing, the digital format is maturing, and the result is higher quality images coming straight from the camera that have greater dynamic range, lower noise, more accurate color rendition, etc. I guess what it boils down to for me is that at a minimum of $1,800.00 per body, the decision to buy a new one has to be for one of the right reasons, like:

  1. One of mine dies. Pretty simple.

  2. I am doing shooting on a regular basis where I can no longer afford to take the time to change lenses. In other words, a true business need.

  3. I can't get close to what my competition is doing who are shooting with newer bodies. In other words, I've outgrown what I am using.
Whenever I am tempted to buy a better body, I think about the highest price ever paid for a photograph: if you are not familiar with Edward Steichen's "The Pond - Moonlight", take a look at it here (link). Whatever Steichen used to capture this truly unique photograph (which was probably a large format view camera), I don't think a newer camera would added anything to the magic moment or results. This quickly brings me back to a place where it doesn't bother me to read a review that says some other manufacturer is making something that produces better than what I have, and where I don't get overly excited when the brand I shoot gets top ratings in lab tests.

What does excite me? To be a part of digital's coming of age, and I can't wait to see how far digital will leap in the next five years.

"In the very beginning, when the operator controls and regulates his time of exposure, when in the dark room the developer is mixed for detail, breath, flatness or contrast, faking has been resorted to. In fact every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability. "

~ Edward Steichen ~

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Treating Digital Like Film

"The Rialto"
- straight from the camera

" . . . Primarily, an understanding of the digital medium and thorough experience with my current gear is allowing me to maximize what I can get into and out of an image. So, an investment in time for post-shoot processing and workflow is going to keep me using what I have for another generation or two of new bodies . . . "

"The Rialto"
- processed using Capture NX

Cyanotype Tinting

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