Digital beats film in many ways, but has its dark side

July 18, 2002|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

When a friend's camera died after 20 years of service, he came to me with a question I'm hearing a lot these days: Should he replace Old Faithful with another film camera, or go digital?

I wish there were an unequivocal answer. Digital photography has become much cheaper and more convenient over the past three years, and the quality of digital cameras aimed at the sub-$500 consumer market is so good today that it's hard to tell a digital print from an image recorded on film.

Digital cameras are still more expensive than equivalent film equipment, but digital imaging has one great cost advantage over the long run - there's no film or traditional processing involved.

A digital camera stores photos on a flash memory card. Once you transfer the photos to your PC, you can erase the images from the card and use it again. A 128-megabyte memory card, available for as little as $60, can store 100 or more high-quality photos.

Finally, because you can preview and retouch every photo before printing, you never pay for a bad shot. Of course, you don't have to make your own prints at all. Millions happily exchange photos by e-mail or set up Web-based albums for friends and family. Millions more are using online services that make excellent photographic prints from uploaded digital images for as little as a quarter apiece.

Digital photography is also much easier than it was a few years ago. You don't need a doctorate from Geek U. to snap photos and turn them into prints or PC-based images for e-mailing. It's also great fun - even a simple photo-editing program gives you more control over your photos, and more ways to present them - than the best traditional darkroom can.

So it's not surprising that digital photography is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy technology market. Last year, between 5.5 million and 6.5 million digital cameras were sold (depending on which trade group does the estimating). This year, the prognosticators say, sales will increase to between 7.5 million and 9.5 million units. By the end of the holiday season, up to 20 percent of American homes will have digital cameras.

But digital photography does require a willingness to assimilate a little technical knowledge. It's certainly not as simple as buying a disposable camera at the drugstore, snapping your photos and picking up the prints a day later. If you only shoot an occasional roll, it's probably not worth the hassle. And if all you want are digital versions of family snapshots that that you can e-mail to Aunt Rhoda, you can get them without buying a digital camera. More about that later.

A more serious issue - and one that few digital photography enthusiasts discuss openly - is the permanence of digital images. Photos do capture moments in time (cue the Kodak music), and one of the reasons we take them is to preserve memories that will be available to our ourselves, our children, our grandchildren and later generations.

Film is a remarkably long-lived medium. The baby photos of our own kids, snapped two decades ago and stored in albums, are still vivid today. Kodachrome slides of the family that my father snapped more than 50 years ago are still in excellent shape. In fact, it's still possible to make prints from plates and negatives from the dawn of photography, more than a century ago.

Theoretically, digital images should be even more permanent. They don't depend on a particular physical medium - they exist as digital ones and zeros. You can store a digital photo on a hard disk, on a CD, DVD, digital tape or even a floppy disk. All you need is software to convert the data into an image you can view and print.

Unfortunately, the media we use to store digital information are far less permanent than film. Hard drives crash. Removable magnetic media, such as disks and tape, degrade over the years, even under the best conditions. Even compact discs may not be reliable for more than a decade.

Moreover, media are constantly evolving. Suppose, for example, that digital photography had gotten its start 20 years ago and you suddenly inherited a photo collection stored on 8-inch floppy disks. Do you know anyone with an 8-inch floppy drive? Maybe you can find one in a museum. Likewise, the formats used to store digital information change over the years, and so does the software that creates them.

Maintaining a digital photo collection over the years will require more continuing work than putting prints into albums or filing negatives in a safe place. You'll have to back up the data onto new media from time to time and, as software changes, you may want to convert the images to new formats. There's no reason to assume that computers running Windows 2075 will be able to read disks created by Windows 98.

For these reasons, surveys show that most serious photographers haven't given up on film altogether. They often shoot both film and digital images on occasions they want to preserve for posterity. I still use both and back up my digital images on a second computer and on CD. I hope I'll have the perseverance to make sure they're available when my kids want to see them in 30 or 40 years.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to give digital imaging a try without buying a camera, have your photofinisher scan the next roll of film you drop off and deliver the pictures to you over the Internet or on CD. All major finishers offer this service - look for a digital checkbox on the film envelope. Most charge a couple of dollars extra for online delivery and $4 to $10 for a CD.

Some photofinishers will even put your images online free of charge, hoping you'll order extra prints or photo-emblazoned gift items. Give it a try; it's a cheap and easy entree to digital photography.

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