The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts

by Bill Pierce

September 2006

As we move towards the end of the year, there will be new digital cameras introduced at a variety of trade shows, primarily Photokina. Anybody who predicts what these new cameras will be like will often be wrong and look like an idiot. Let's not let that stop us.

There will be the much-awaited digital Leica rangefinder, the M8. Those who have seen pre-release versions say it looks like an M Leica, but, when you turn the little key latch on the baseplate to change film, you open a compartment that holds the battery and the memory card. That's going to produce a strong negative (pun intended) response among a lot of Leicaphiles and a sigh of relief from a lot of photojournalists.

While rumors and speculation abound (Leica users tend to band together in cults), there does seem to be general agreement that we will look at a 10.5 megapixel sensor with a 1.33 crop factor. The shutter will be similar to the R9 metal focal plane. There will be a 2.5-inch LCD on the back of the camera. No thumb wind (good news for left-eyed shooters). No anti-alias filter. The black body leather will be that rather slick artificial leather that helps you drop a $5,000 camera. The official announcement will be Sept. 15; the camera will then be shown at Photokina; the feeding frenzy will begin in October.

What we don't know is how many frames per second you can get in raw, how accurate the rangefinder will be with what will become high-speed long lenses (a 90 mm, f/2 lens will become, effectively, a 120 mm lens) or what the image quality will be at the high "film" speeds that some Leica users find imperative.

What we do know is that we are looking at a professional level digital camera that is not modeled after a 35 mm SLR. The versatility of that SLR, and, now, its digital counterpart, has made it the most popular camera type for the photojournalist. But we should not live in a one-tool world. We should have the option of the smaller rangefinder with a focusing system that loves dim light and high-speed wide-angles. We should have sneaky little point-and-push cameras that don't attract attention but deliver good image quality. And, because most photojournalists don't make enough money to both own a house and send their kids to college, there should be affordable medium formats that let them do well-paying commercial jobs and photograph landscapes if they ever get to take a vacation.

I suspect that players such as Panasonic and Sony, who don't have a background in still cameras, will produce cameras that do not reflect the traditions of film still cameras. We already see the digital still cameras that, like professional TV cameras, primarily depend on one high-performance zoom lens.

I'm looking forward to to the day that a journalist's camera, through built-in cell phone, satellite phone or wireless Internet lets the photographer transmit pictures back to the main office directly from his camera. One of the biggest complaints I hear these days is that photographers who have spent all day photographing wars now have to spend hours back at the hotel transmitting pictures. It's not the kind of assignment that you want if you are not getting enough sleep.

In truth, the trends, the forward progress, is more interesting than any specific new gear introduced at a trade show. While I'm in the minority, I think the size of digital picture files will grow. I started on an Osborne portable computer and moved to a 128 Mac. Almost everybody was happy except the folks that designed computers. They wanted bigger, in part, because it was more fun. And when the bigger computers were there, programs got dreamed up that needed bigger computers (try Photoshop). Don't you think there are some folks at Panasonic, Sony, Canon and Nikon that are rubbing their hands together and chanting, "Bigger is Better!!!"?

Of course, bigger is often slower, especially if you are only talking megapixels, raw files and conversions to big Tiff files. And that's not always good, and probably not even necessary, for photojournalists. But it's a feature you can always turn off or avoid.

But there is one bigger that is clearly better in my book - and that's bigger bits. Right now, there are a lot of "12 bit pretending to be 16 bit" cameras out there. You really have to move to medium format to see anything that is genuinely bigger than 16 bit. But, why can't cameras that are more appropriate for journalism have 32 bits or even more? Yes, you would have all the problems of bigger file sizes. But you would get greater exposure latitude, brightness range - whatever you wanted to call it. That's a good thing if you're a quick-working journalist; it's a good thing if you're a serious photographer trying to make beautiful images.

I would love to be able to use the 32 bit features of Photoshop without pasting together a lot of 16 bit brackets shot on a tripod. I would love to shoot 32 bit football with running backs whose faces are invariably tilted down into the shade. I would love to shoot 32 bits in fast-breaking news scenes that push the limits of accurate autoexposure. And when I'm shooting 32 bits, I'll start whining for 64 bits or until digital has the same latitude as the old Verichrome that made so many memorable images in America's box cameras.

I think there will be one other improvement in digital cameras that will be harder to put your thumb on. When you see how images can be changed in programs like Photoshop, you realize that the software in cameras can also affect image quality. While you can use that to compensate for a specific fault in a lens like vignetting, I imagine the camera manufacturers are using software to chase down a far more elusive quality – "sharpness."

When you are testing a lens or a film, there is no test for "sharpness." There are tests for resolution at different contrasts; there are tests for acutance; there are modulation transfer tests. But there are no tests for "Geez, that's sharp" because "Geez, that's sharp." is an emotional reaction to a large number of factors. From what I can tell looking at a number of superficially similar images from a couple of different cameras at high magnifications, camera manufacturers are doing a lot of tweaking, and a great deal of it in the software, to obtain the elusive "Geez" factor.

While, in the past, lens designers designed lenses and emulsion chemists designed films, I have a feeling that sensor, software and lens designers will be spending much more time together. While, again, this puts me in the minority, I think I will be able to walk into a trade show in the near future and see a digital camera whose "Geez" factor will eliminate my purchase of 4x5 film.

It will not eliminate my 8x10 film camera because

(1) I'm a masochist.

(2) The 8x10 camera really impresses girls.

(3) You can scan 8x10 negatives with a really cheap scanner.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer