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 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:
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.