Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Advent of Digital Photography

Waiting for digital cameras to grow up

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, March 25, 1998 -- [Image]
Like the ugly duckling with latent swan
potential, digital cameras were awkward in their first
generation. Initial designs bore some formal resemblance
to 35mm cameras, but the true beauty of this new, digital
breed of camera still hasn't fully emerged.

The digital camera I had while working on a website in
Rome last year was one of the clumsiest devices I've ever
used. After I pressed the main button (to take the
picture) on top of the large, boxy casing, the camera
chirped a confirming beep about a second later. In many
situations, a second may seem like a short time, but when
you've been spoiled by the satisfying feedback of a
traditional shutter release, it's infuriating. On top of
the frustration of miss-timed shots, the camera took a
few seconds to warm up for consecutive photos, so the
whole situation often added up to one giant misfire.

Most digital camera designs show few innovations over the
traditional layout of a 35mm camera. Models with
attached, revolving lens sections (a la Sharp ViewCam)
are useful, but don't take full advantage of one of the
inherent wonders of the digital camera: the fact that the
lens can be separate from the viewfinder so that the
exposed part of the camera is tiny and easily held, or
hidden (providing great paparazzi potential).

Poor resolution and data-storage hassles (often requiring
lugging around a laptop or returning to the "mother
station" to download) have been other thorns in the sides
of first-generation digital camera users. Ideally,
storage will become one of the digital camera's strong
points, since storage media can be smaller than
traditional film. [I love the Sony Mavicas unveiled last
summer, which store pix on regular 3.5-inch floppy disks.
-- Ed.] And resolution has continued to improve.

Digital "negatives" are fine, but some people may find
comfort in the sheer bulk of storing traditional
photographs. The stacks of photo envelopes and stuffed
albums (despite their problems of crumpling, warping, or
fading under plastic album sheets) serve as a tactile
timeline. Someone may not be organized enough to file the
photos in an album, yet may be able to know, consciously
or not, that the first two envelopes on the bottom of the
pile contain photographs from the trip to Mexico two
years ago, and the ones on top are from this past holiday
season. Digital storage techniques and two-dimensional
representations of a "pile" of photos -- as an icon on a
screen, perhaps -- may not offer the same opportunities
in terms of passively keeping track of our memories. Of
course, printed outputs of digital photos can provide the
best of both worlds.

On the other hand, our desire to hold paper may simply be
a fetish, like vinyl versus CD. A decade from now we may
be more comfortable dispensing with the tangible, and
will feel content to view photos on a screen. A picture
frame, instead of being a bulky combination of paper,
glass, and cardboard backing, could simply be a screen
attached to some digital storage device that brings up a
new photo with the turn of a dial.

Formats will change once we're not restricted to the
sizes offered for typical 35mm and we get accustomed to
looking at pictures on a large screen or monitor. The way
we formulate our memories could change so that otherwise
overlooked details such as the features on your
grandmother's face (or details in your first home, or the
fabric of your favorite shirt) will become crystallized
in a memory that's been reinforced by the digital photo
as opposed to a small, hand-held four-by-six.

At best, today's digital cameras represent this product
at the clumsy adolescent stage, but the flexibility of
digital photography holds promise for the emergence of a
sophisticated grown-up.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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