The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts

by Bill Pierce

I have a terrible, awful confession to make. I sometimes use film cameras. I try not to do it in public or in front of small children, but sometimes I do. And then I am punished by being forced to spend hours processing and scanning film.

I'm not proud of what I do, but I am a little annoyed by the intolerance of some news shooters armed only with digital SLRs. The SLR is the most versatile of cameras and 99 percent of what we do can be done with an SLR. That was true when the SLR was loaded with 35mm film, and it's true now when the SLR is loaded with a digital sensor. But that doesn't mean that it can do absolutely everything or that it is the best choice for all shoots.

I do a lot of street or "candid" shooting. And I really don't like being hit by strangers. Even on some jobs where everybody is perfectly aware that I am taking their picture, it's a benefit to not constantly remind them of the fact. A small, quiet camera is a valuable tool. With film we can select from relatively small and quiet cameras like the Leica to even smaller and quieter cameras like the upscale point-and-push Minilux or Contax T3 (my favorites for shooting in the New York subways).

What about the digital point-and-pushes?

(1) Some are small. Quite a few are larger than the Minilux or Contax. And a surprising number are larger and more noticeable than the Leica. Certainly they are quiet.

(2) Unfortunately, all have relatively small sensors that show off the noise at higher effective "film" speeds. And most of them have relatively slow zoom lenses that compound the problem of shooting in low available light.

Still, load a film point-and-push with Fuji 1600 or Kodak P3200 and you have it all - a very small camera, a high film speed and the ability to make very large prints of top quality.

Is this changing? Will a greater variety of digital cameras appear? Of course. But digital camera manufacturers have to take care of their major markets first. First things first:

Number one: small automatic point-and-pushes that will make nice, but small, prints and e-mail images that will help people remember some of the important things in their lives. Don't knock the amateur snapshot. In the long run it may be just as important or, in some cases, more important that what we professionals leave behind.

Number two: the SLR, the most versatile, all-purpose tool for the pro.

Already manufacturers are beginning to increase the variety of digital working tools. Epson, in cooperation with Cosina, has introduced a relatively small digital rangefinder, similar to the Cosina Voigtlander film Bessas that accept their and Leica lenses. The bright-line viewfinder/rangefinder shows the effective fields-of-view for the 28, 35, and 50mm lenses (an approximate 1.5 increase in effective focal length because of the less than full-frame sensor). It has a relatively short rangefinder base length of 37mm, which puts limits on the focusing accuracy for wide-open use of high-speed lenses and which sends me back to the use of my old film Leicas for much of what I do. But as small digital cameras go, it is unique and a gem. The Luminous Landscape review will give you lots of additional information.

Small point-and-push, Fuju Neopan 1600 film - a good way to work on the NY subways without being hit by hostile riders.

Bill Pierce
Leitz has announced that in 2006 they will introduce a digital Leica rangefinder. In the old days, even the Leica employees would joke about the expected release date of new equipment. It would always be within the "Leitz," an extremely elastic unit of time that could stretch from weeks to years. The lack of a digital Leica is not the only problem Leitz faces. They are having to deal with the fact that lately business has recently not been what they hoped. Let's hope they solve that problem and realize it is, in part, because there is no digital Leica. Let's hope our wait is a relatively short "Leitz" for what could be an exceptionally useful tool. A relatively small, quiet camera with the ability to focus high-speed lenses in low light changed photojournalism. Such a tool is much to be desired by digital journalists. Until it arrives, I use film Leicas.

On the other side of the highly specialized coin is the world of editorial illustration - fashion, portraiture, architecture, science, food. In the film past it was often the world of big cameras and big lights. Now you can get a 22-megapixel back with a 645 format sensor (6x4.5 cm). A basic rig will cost you about $30,000 according to my calculations. With digital magazines, detachable image preview displays or a large computer monitor, these are cameras for controlled situations. If you are a digital journalist, I'd let the newspaper pay for it and set it up in their studio.

I don't use my medium- and large-format cameras for breaking news. So I can afford the extra time it takes to develop and scan the film. With a 6x7 color neg I get a 350 MB 16-bit file out of my old Imacon 646. That kind of eases the pain of having to develop film. New medium-format digital system vs. new car. It makes you respect the power of film.

I'm thinking about getting a flatbed scanner for my 8x10 negs so I can print them digitally. Should be fairly economical and produce some impressive prints. My friend Carl Weese has a flatbed that will handle his 12 x17-inch negatives. Obviously, there are not going to be any digital equivalents of film cameras this large. WRONG. I know of two cameras, one aerial and one view, that use multiple small sensors to create a large-format digital camera. And, guess what, their images are considered significantly superior in those departments that contribute to sharpness than those of their film counterparts.

So, as time passes, a greater variety of cameras become available in a digital form. And the digital cameras that are here already get better with each generation of production. Some of these will be of use to photojournalists. Already my film SLRs have been, for all practical purposes, replaced with digital SLRs, only, in turn, to have those digital SLRs be replaced by better digital SLRs.

What a pleasure it would be to replace the film point-and-push cameras with digital equivalents. I suspect digital cameras can be made as small, but they may not be able to get the same image quality at high "film" speeds until they are equipped with larger sensors. Will the manufacturers ever think there is a market for such a camera?

Even the "kids" who are wedded to the Leica are in their fifties. The Leica, a bunch of other small rangefinder cameras and Tri-X created a whole school of photography that was about fleeting moments as captured by photographers like Cartier-Bresson, Erwitt, McBride, Davidson and more. It would be nice if the digital version of those tools could be placed in the hands of some photographers who really were young. It would be a tragedy if that kind of photography were to die out - and it's starting to.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer