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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Sun. Jun 25, 2006

The Digital Grail

A journey that I began just shy of six years ago has largely come to an end this week. When I bought my first digital camera in September, 2000 (a 3.3 megapixel Nikon 990), I knew it was a “training wheels” camera. When I upgraded to a 6 megapixel digital SLR in January, 2003, the larger sensor was a massive improvement, but still an intermediate step.

This week, I purchased the Holy Grail, a digital SLR with a full frame sensor. And I never dreamed these changes would happen so fast.

There have long been hints about the digital future of photography. You could see it even back around 1990 when the only digital option of any type was something called a Scitex machine. The setup cost a half million dollars, and it was $500 per hour for “retouching” a scan of your film. But even then, you could see which way the wind was beginning to blow.

In the fall of 2000, when I decided to take the digital plunge, I did it in the shallow end of the pool. The Nikon 990 I got was $1200, plenty expensive. But there was a far more expensive option I considered very briefly, the Canon D30, the first of their line of consumer/prosumer digital SLR’s. But it was clear digital cameras were in their infancy, and I decided it wasn’t quite time to drop three grand on one.

How about two grand? That’s essentially what I did a little over two years later in January, 2003, when I paid $2200 for the Canon D60. The technology had advanced, and the next step up in the Canon line was like $8000. You’ve reached a point in the lineup of digital cameras where the choices get pretty easy.

The D60 is a great camera, and I had only one in-warranty problem where the CF card holder shorted out. Two weeks in the shop, free of charge, good as new. But it was year old tech when I bought it, it’s now 4.5 year old tech, and now 6 months out of warranty.

Plus, I’ve decided after the year I’ve had, I’m going to do some things for me (and my business), and the first of them would be to upgrade the camera. I considered the Canon 30D, the nearest “direct” upgrade from what I’ve got now. But I decided that rather than making a moderate upgrade, I would go ahead and take that last step: drop three grand on the camera, The One I’ve Been Waiting For.

The Canon 5D.

The EOS 5D will likely be regarded as something of a landmark camera and shows how much digital technology has advanced in only a few years. The first “affordable” DSLR was the Canon EOS D30, a 3MP APS-C sensor camera which sold for $3000+ in October 2000 (Original price 380,000 yen). In only 5 years (October 2005) we now have a 12.7 MP full frame camera selling for about the same price ($3000).

Bob Atkins Photography: “Canon EOS 5D Review

It truly is remarkable, when you step back and look at the big picture. It’s also important to not judge the total you’ve spent on this process, some six grand (Doh!). I prefer to think of it this way. In September, 2000, I paid about $400 per megapixel for a small noisy image with color fringed highlights from a very tiny sensor. Now, I pay less than $240 per megapixel, for a huge smooth clean “better than film” image from a full frame sensor.

And it is largely the sensor size that makes a difference, just as film size used to make a difference (35mm, versus 120 film, versus 4×5 or 8×10 film). Here’s the progression of the size of the sensors in the cameras I’ve owned:

Sensor Sizes

Bigger is Better. Even the ladies say so. Each step in this progression has brought me not only increased resolution, but also less noise, smoother images, and improved dynamic range. Not to mention reduced shutter lag, increased frame rate, more professional features, etc.

So why do I call this the Holy Grail? Because I starting shooting film in the early 80’s, and I’ve now got a digital camera that’s better than film. In terms of simply file size, if you made a 3000 dpi scan of a 35mm slide, you’d get about the same size file as you get from the 5D. But … if you zoom both of them in to 100%, on the film scan, you see film grain. On the digital file, you see smooth silky goodness. That factor has always been a huge qualitative difference to my eye, even with the comparatively noisy images from the Nikon 990.

This “cleaner image” made me feel that my D60 was pretty darn close to 35mm film quality, in terms of effective output, i.e., print size. Properly prepared files from a D60 (slightly upsized) will easily print in the 13×19 or 16×20 range that has always been pretty much been the top end for prints from 35mm film.

And the 5D is a steep step up from that. Even less noise, even at higher ISO. And these huge lovely images. The truth is, for me, I don’t know where you go from here.

Oh, sure, there have always been ways you can spend five figures on some multi-megapixel monstrosity. You can spend a nice chunk on change on a medium format digital back that’s about 22 megapixels. Or you can buy a nice new car. They’re about the same price.

And I guess you could buy a decent used car for all the money I’ve spent on digital cameras (and we haven’t even mentioned the L series lenses these high resolution sensors require). But that’s OK. Because I think I’m done for quite a while.

And it sure feels good.


Peanut Gallery

1  John wrote:

No question about it, I’m suffering from pixel envy.

2  Noah wrote:

Congrats! We’ve followed a very similar path with our cameras (990 to D60 to 5D) at roughly the same times – with all my previous cameras, there was always an “I love this, but can’t wait to get something better someday” feeling sinking in after awhile, but a year after getting my 5D I’ve had no such feeling… it’s probably the first camera I’ve ever had (out of over a dozen) where I can honestly say that, if it’s what I’m stuck with the rest of my life, I wouldn’t mind a bit.

Besides, we do need a car…

3  Reid wrote:

John, I’ve spent much of the past six years (like, all but the couple of months immediately following each camera purchase) suffering from pixel envy myself. Trust me, it is not a permanent condition, just an expensive one to cure.

In fact, Noah, you have been the most recent source of that pixel envy. Though I didn’t realize we’d made the exact same progression of cameras over the years (with you always a few months ahead of me), I certainly have been aware you got the 5D not long after it was announced last August. And I’ve been watching the results.

So we’re even again. Other than the fact you live in a far more picturesque place than I. But I might even get to (temporarily) fix that, as it looks like there’s a trip to England coming my way sometime next year.

Yes, I’m hoping the 5D will be a well travelled camera.

I honestly haven’t had the time or opportunity to do much with it yet, other than about 200 test frames of one type or another. But Susan and I are going to make a long delayed trip to the Georgia Aquarium next Thursday, a wonderous photo op.

And the first big technical test of the camera will come later today. High ISO, fast AI focus, and high frame rates will be required for this difficult subject: my niece, Caroli.

And she’s gonna love the larger LCD so she can see herself on the back of the camera. To her, it’s a $3000 freeze frame mirror.

4  Noah wrote:

If you ever find yourself in Dublin, let me know… I’d love to meet you if we’re ever in the same neck of the global woods.

5  emcee fleshy wrote:

wow, now I even want one. Which would be like a Maserati owned by a trout.

“But you don’t understand, this is a really really cool Maserati!” he said plaintively to Mrs. Trout.

6  Reid wrote:

emcee: “...he said plaintively to Mrs. Trout

You should have heard me rationalizing to Mrs. PhotoDude … “but you don’t understand, there’s a $300 rebate if I buy before July 15. That’s ten percent off! I can’t afford not to get this camera, right now

But she’s a smart woman. I got a look, but no guff. She knows to pick her spots. However, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk from her about Hawaii all of a sudden…

7  garret wrote:

“I want one too! I want one too!”

All joking aside, I really would like to upgrade to the 5D for one specific purpose … the local shop has a 24mm tilt/shift for dead cheap rental cost. Another step up for my interior architectural shots; Santa Fe interiors are small and dark. 1.6x crop factor of the 20D makes the 24 nearly worthless for this type of work.

Best of luck with the new cam. I’ll be watching your latest work, as usual.

8  Reid wrote:

1.6x crop factor of the 20D makes the 24 nearly worthless for this type of work.

That’s one thing I forget to mention. Gawd, I love having my 17mm lens be a 17mm lens again! I love havin’ my wide back.

As for “latest work,” I haven’t made time to do much with it of note (we’ve had rain for days), but it has survived the first test with perhaps its most movable subject. And I look forward to seeing what it can do at the Georgia Aquarium Thursday.

9  LadyNiniane wrote:

So why do I call this the Holy Grail? Because I starting shooting film in the early 80’s, and I’ve now got a digital camera that’s better than film.

Okay, it is now offical canon (pun is intentional) – film is dead. It’s come down from the high mountain; I’ve heard it from the great Photodude himself.

Having saved a very old e-mail from you when I asked about digital vs. film cameras years ago (and you said that film was still the best), I can now assert this.

Makes my little Canon IXY Digital (5.0 mPixels) look cheap. (Well, actually it was, relatively speaking – I bought it in Japan last summer to replace an earlier IXY that did not survive a drop to the concrete the previous year.) But I still love it.

However, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk from her about Hawaii all of a sudden…

Go to the Big Island and take many pictures of Kilauea (the volcano). You can test your night shots by driving down the Chain of Craters Road in the evening until the lava cuts you off, then follow whatever trail the park rangers have marked (take a flashlight, wear hiking shoes, not tennis shoes, and do not leave the marked trail). You will be able to see the lava plume with any luck (it’s obscured by steam during the day), and can also try some pictures of the Southern Cross (which is visible there).

Oh, and drive up the shore road north of Hilo – great rainforest and waterfall shots there.

Just sayin’

10  Reid wrote:

film is dead. It’s come down from the high mountain; I’ve heard it from the great Photodude himself.

Pshaw. As usual, my pronouncements don’t move the market. The economic handwriting is on the wall, as has been for a while. Nikon and Canon have all but stopped developing film cameras. I think their offerings will eventually decay to a few $49 point and shoot 35mm models, and professional level 35mm models like the F5 and EOS 3.

Meanwhile, DSLR manufacturers are targetting $500 as their new entry level price point, lowering $300 a few years down the line. And the leap in technology and quality over the past five years is pretty stunning.

I remember nearly a decade ago I spent about $1500 on film and processing for Red Rock Road Trip ... on top of the cost of travel itself. And had to have about 100 rolls of film hand checked through airport security, buy a cooler for it at my destination, and worry about its general state the whole trip.

The film and processing from one trip was half the cost of the Canon 5D. And today I can hold an equal number of images (of better quality) in the palm of my hand … on CF cards.

Only a totally stubborn curmudgeon wouldn’t have completely given it up by now.

Oh, and trust me, I get all the Hawaii Hype I could ever need from my better half. Gotta pay off the camera first…

11  Jan wrote:

Dude, I am so sorry for your loss. The necessary upgrades you face must be such a burden. Your CF cards are now a mere shadow of their former selves. And your disc drives must feel so inadequate now. And we shall not mention the new computer requirements to deal with the larger files. The necessary upgrades must be stupendous. E tu, progress. :-)

I am truly happy to see you sporting new toys ^h^h^h^h tools. Enjoy.

I am resolved to be happy with my new, 10.2 megapixels and APS’ish sensor. For the foreseeable future, it is a better camera than I am a photographer. At least the birds seem closer…

Comment by Jan · 07/07/2006 12:08 PM
12  Reid wrote:

Jan: “Dude, I am so sorry for your loss. The necessary upgrades you face must be such a burden.

You mock me, sir, but there is so much truth at the center of your mockery. The trickle down effect is significant.

I had not found enough compelling new features to make me spring for the upgrade from Photoshop CS to CS2. Until I required a version of Camera Raw to handle the 5D files that could only be found in CS2. $180.

Moving from an APS-sized sensor to a full frame sensor shifts your whole lens set. What had been a great mid range zoom on the D60, my 17-40mm, is now once again a wonderful wide zoom. So, even though I don’t shoot this “middle range” much (mainly Miss Caroli), I had to buy a 28-75mm zoom. $360.

And, yes, my previously sufficient collection of CF cards was suddenly half as competent. Another 2GB, another $90.

The above trickle down equals nearly 25% of the final camera cost.

For the foreseeable future, it is a better camera than I am a photographer.

I’m not ready to give in on that. But I think it’s going to put up a good fight.

13  Jan wrote:

I mock you in genuine loving kindness.

The bill for me has been staggering. A new dual G5, but that really was for work. No, really, it was. And a pair of monitors to go with it. Seriously, those are for work. That they are around when it is time to play is not a bad thing. I had a few 1G CF cards already, but what held hundreds of images from my CP990 holds less than 40 from my D200. This was my big leap into digital and autofocus. The one new AF lens, a 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR is astonshingly better than I expected it to be, but there are so many other AF-S lenses calling me now. I broke down and finally purchased Photoshop. The motivating factor there was I found a deal where if I bought a Wacom tablet, something I had wanted for ages just because it seems like a really cool thing, I could get a discount on Photoshop that essentially meant that I got the Wacom and Photoshop for the going street price for Photoshop alone. So… what now? I have no idea. I think I have a decent eye, but then what? I am so busy, free time and leaning digital darkroom from zero sounds like a job for young dogs with more time on their hands than me.

But enough about me. I am truly glad to hear you have a new toy and a fresh outlook to play with it. Life is short. Try to leave it with no regrets.

Comment by Jan · 07/09/2006 08:59 AM
14  Reid wrote:

I am so busy, free time and leaning digital darkroom from zero sounds like a job for young dogs with more time on their hands than me.

Would it take less time than learning analog darkroom skills from zero? No. Less, I would argue, because of your base computer skills (unless you were also a chemist).

You know the deal. We make time for the things we really want to do. The fact you’ve invested the money in a DSLR tells me you’ve already made the choice. You’re just whining about the time it takes to have fun.

In all seriousness, if you want a book to learn digital darkroom skills, get this CS2 book (or, this version for CS). Alternately, you may know someone local to you willing to offer some help.

15  Joe Deegan wrote:

I’ve gone a different direction,i.e. small and light.I don’t do much printing, but do like a detailed image on my computer screen My idea, after using a 35mm with interchangeable lenses for about 20 years, is to get what I need in the smallest possible package so that the likelihood of my having it with me at any given time is much higher. I like non-posed pictures, so having the camera when a good opportunity comes is important.

I have both a DV Camcorder and a still camera. I plan to upgrade whenever I can. On a recent trip to Mendocino California I took 1100 pictures and my wife did the same number in 6 days. Digital makes things like this possible. It’s great.
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