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Why I don't like using a digital camera in my personal life.

I am often asked whether I think digital cameras are better than film cameras.  And the simple answer is "yes and no".
I don't want to re-enter the usual image quality debate, because it is quite well understood how a digital SLR shines at high ISO sensitivities (and how consumer digital cameras don't), and how scanned film is the cheapest way to very high pixel counts.  I also don't want to discuss the economic issues, because we all now how expensive a high pixel count digital SLR is, and we all know how much film and processing costs (by the way, film and processing is much cheaper here in Hong Kong).

What I want to throw into the discussion is a comment about the difference in 'the user experience'.

For personal photography, I hate using a digital camera.  Why? Because it interferes with my life.  Let me explain.  When I'm out hiking or on holiday, I often see something worthy of a photo -because it's beautiful or interesting.

With a film camera, I just take the picture and about three seconds later (the time it takes to put my film camera back in the bag) I am immediately back into the holiday, looking at the scenery again, smelling the atmosphere again, feeling the breeze on my skin and sharing the place with my companion again - and no longer thinking about that photograph that I just took.  Rather, I'm immediately looking for the next photograph.  With a digital camera, it takes at least 30 seconds to get back into the holiday because of the irresistable need to review the image, check the histogram, zoom in to see if it is really focussed well or not (and too often it isn't) and then more often than not, I'll take another picture of the same thing because I might not be totally satisfied with the one I just reviewed - or I'm just not sure if I am - it's hard to really judge an image on a tiny LCD in the bright outdoors.  During that 30 seconds or so, I am no longer 'in the moment' of the holiday or the outing.  My attention has been taken completely off the environment while I was reviewing the image on the digital camera.  I resent that.  And I really resent that the LCD monitor on the digital camera is so darn hard to view in the bright outdoors.

I have tried using a digital camera for personal work during outings or travel, and I have really grown to dislike the fact that it interrupted my holiday experience too much.  I especially resent the time I have to spend in the hotel room every night transferring the images from the memory card to the laptop computer, reviewing the images yet again during the transfer process, and setting up the battery charger for the evening. To me, it's a heavy cost in terms of 'time out' from the holiday or outing itself.  The digital camera gets in the way.

A film camera on the other hand, allows me to capture slices of time as I go along, without intruding in the moment.  As soon as I take the camera away from my eye I am immediately back in the moment.  I spend no time in the evenings except perhaps to clean the lens and blow out some dust - which is also required with a digital camera.  In fact a digital SLR camera might also require the regular removal of dust from the sensor - a tedious task that I don't enjoy.

There's also a warm and fuzzy feeling to enjoy when I see the positive film slides on a light box some time after the holiday.  JPEG files straight out of the camera, viewed on a computer screen, just don't look as good.  It takes time and effort to make that JPEG or RAW file really "shine", whereas a colour slide on a light box is already the ultimate in image quality.  Everything I do with the image after that is downhill from there.  And the slide is already a relatively safe archival medium for the image.  As long as I keep it dry, cool and protected in a box, I am confident it will last for many years.  A couple of years ago my cousin found a box of Kodachrome slides of me and my siblings that his father (my uncle) took when I was five years old.

That's me on the right.  I wonder about the likelihood of jpeg and tiff files still being around in 50 years time.  It takes a lot of time and care to make sure digital files are backed up safely.  And then the backups have to be backed up every few years.  And who among my nephews, nieces, or future children is likely to spend the many hours that will be needed to look through the MILLIONS of digital image files that I'll have accumulated by the time I die?

I get the most pleasure from my photography when I use a very simple camera.  My Hasselblad and my Fuji medium format rangefinders and my Contax AX are the most enjoyable of all. Over the past few years of teaching my workshops, when I have to help beginners learn how to use their new electronic SLR (film or digital) I have come to resent the complexity of the user interface on modern Nikon and Canon SLRs.  Setting apertures, shutter speeds, compensation values and metering modes with thumbwheels and a tiny LCD monitor can be cumbersome and slow.  My Contax SLRs are a relative joy to use because there's a dial that you just directly operate to immediately get what you want.  Exposure compensation? - just turn the knob.  Aperture? - just twist the ring.  Bracketing? - just turn the switch.  Exposure lock? - just push the switch - and it stays locked until you switch it off - regardless of how many pictures you take - and there's a very obvious warning in the viewfinder that you are in AEL mode.

So the purpose of all my ranting and raving here is to say that digital cameras do not give me a satisfying user experience.  I get the most satisfaction from a simple camera loaded with colour slide film.  I enjoy reviewing those colour slides on a light box AFTER the holiday or the outing. Reviewing a captured slice of time is far more meaningful when that slice of time is well behind you. 

But most of all, a digital camera steals too much time from the holiday. Reviewing images (with your hand cupped around the LCD in a futile attempt to block the sun), downloading to the computer, cleaning the sensor, charging the battery - I have grown to dislike those things.

I'm not saying that digital cameras have no merits.  They do. That's why I own several of them - and use them frequently in my professional work. But for my personal work, the demerits are unacceptable and have become intolerable.  I just don't enjoy using a modern digital camera in the way that I still enjoy using a simple film camera.

There!  I've said it!

Thank you for listening.

Craig Norris.  September 30, 2004 (and updated from time to time)

Copyright 2008 Craig Norris.  All rights reserved.

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