Sunday, November 10, 2013

Where is photography going?

Back in the days of old or at least from the 1970s to the 1990s, when I was at the beginning of my photography interest, the commonly available formats were:

  • 35mm - used by many
  • 126 - same film as 35mm but 24x24 instead of 24x36 frame size
  • 120/220 - roll film
  • 127 - roll film 
  • 110 - cartridge film

In the 1990s 126 and 127 pretty much died out, being replaced by APS and disc film. Those flourished for a few years then by 1995 they were totally gone. Since then, digital imaging has come to the fore and nobody really thinks about film any more. Film has one glaring advantage over digital and that is in latitude. Film has much greater latitude than digital. Digital is good but film can capture a greater range of light and dark tones which even RAW digital cannot really capture.

Rolling on forward to the 2000s and we ended up with 3 main digital formats and a few oddball variations.

  • Medium format digital
  • 35mm format digital
  • Compact digital

Medium format sensors are not truly the same size as 120/220 film frames; they are smaller. They're still bigger than full sized 35mm sensors (36mm x 24mm) but they're still nowhere near the size of even 645 format film (60mm x 45mm)

35mm format sensors aren't really the same size as 35mm film as a general rule. They're smaller normally although there are increasingly 24x36 sensors available.

Compact digital sensors are very small indeed. There's a wide range of sizes.

What we have at the moment is an increasing variety of sensor sizes. This makes the end user's choice very difficult indeed because none of us really wants to invest in a camera - particularly if it's a system camera is it's likely to become legacy before very long as that makes the system components hard to find and hard to replace. Complicating that fact are the number of smaller format system cameras being released.

At the moment although the photography industry has always been trying new things since inception it seems a good idea to wait before buying into any new system. In the 1990s APS film came out and camera systems were designed around it. Now the film is not manufactured anymore and neither are the cameras. In fact the cameras only seemed to be around for a very few years before they vanished.

I am seeing is a general convergence. Digital 35mm formats are getting ever more megapixels and beginning to match the megapixels of medium format cameras. From what I saw recently, most digital medium format cameras are between 16 and 40 megapixels with a few at 60 megapixels and just one at 80 megapixels.

Given that perfectionists say that 300dpi is what you should aim for with digital prints, Nikon's 36 megapixel camera would produce an image 7360 pixels by 4912. This works out at a final print size of 24 inches by 16. Of course, it really doesn't work like that and I have never noticed a difference at 150dpi or 48 inches by 32. Once an image is printed to that size, it's possible to get by with less dpi because it's so big one has to step back to view it. This 35mm camera is pretty much on a par with medium format.

My prediction is that unless more megapixels are packed into medium format cameras, medium format will vanish from the camera scene fairly soon. Already the prices for medium format cameras prove how little market there is for medium format digital equipment.

As the quality and capacity of the smaller cameras improves, people seem to be moving away from the larger cameras. Does this perhaps mean that the introduction of the smaller format interchangeable lens cameras was right? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, as everybody with a cellphone now has a cellphone with a camera, are system cameras going to be that desired any more? More than that, as fewer and fewer people opt for prints, will the reason for people desiring high megapixel counts vanish? Already I see photographers porting iPads around to display their work without realising that the savvy potential client will realise that iPads are really quite low resolution and are thus very misleading in terms of final print quality - especially when prints are required.

The big question I'm beginning to ask is that since so much is now digitally displayed, are larger megapixel images really needed any more? If all people are going to do is to display on screens rather than on paper, I doubt they are. Even commercial images displayed on giant illuminated hoardings are not that high resolution. The highest I have seen is 10,000 pixels per square meter. A 20 megapixel camera would need 200 square meters of hoarding to display every pixel taken. I have yet to see a hoarding of greater than 30 square meters. At 10,000 pixels per square meter, a 3 megapixel camera would be adequate!
Perhaps we all need to stop and think for a moment where photography is headed. Are we going to get ever higher resolution displays or is there any point to higher resolution displays? Are we going to print anything ever again? I hear lots of people claiming to print to silly sizes but I don't have any prints on my walls. I don't know many people who do either. I had some framed prints but gave them away because I didn't want critters hiding behind them - this is the deep South, after all.

Are we headed away from physical prints and toward total digitisation? If so then are we also heading toward a new Dark Ages from when no records survive? If everything is digital then we are 100% dependent upon electricity and electricity is incredibly fragile. Where are we headed?

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