Robin: This is Sally Wiener Grotta. She was a hotshot photographer back in film days, and she and her husband wrote the definitive early book on digital imaging. So she obviously moved into digital photography quite well. And that’s what we are going to talk about, the difference between film and digital photography. Sally, what is the difference?
Sally: The difference is the technology. It is like asking me, “What’s the difference between cooking on a gas stove or an electric stove?” You still need to be a darned good cook and you still need good ingredients to get a decent meal out of it. The technology does matter. Digital has made photography more accessible, more shareable – that is the big issue.
Photography is shared extensively. It isn’t just staying in a shoebox but the pictures of the kids are coming out on Facebook and on email and such. The one problem with digital that we do have and has not yet been solved is that the pictures are not going into a shoebox and therefore 20 years from now, we won’t know where these pictures are of the baby or the wedding or whatever.
But photography is photography whatever the device is. It requires good tools: digital camera, film camera, whatever, Photoshop or a dark room whatever – good tools are important. And digital tools are remarkable. I am able to get such details out of shadows, I am able to get into my pictures and really develop them beautifully. The lighting potential, the way my lights now communicate with my camera is superb. I used to have to carry enormous cases, I mean giant cases of light, now I can carry them on a backpack with a small shoulder bag with stands, and I don’t need assistance to carry them.
But that’s just the tools. Then you need the skill to use the tools. That requires a lot of practice, requires an understanding, an intimacy with your camera. I always say to somebody, “Don’t buy a new camera just before an important event, just before the wedding, or just before the vacation.” The camera needs to be a second nature to you. And that is part of the skill of knowing your camera.
But the other two elements has nothing to do with the capture, it has to do with talent and vision. And it is like having a computer to write or a typewriter to write. I find it easier to write with the computer. I find it easier to edit and perfect my work with the computer. But that has nothing to do with whether or not I can tell a good story with my camera, with my computer, and whether I have the vision to capture, to see the right image, to capture it just right, and present it just right. That is a very longwinded answer to your question.
Robin: Yes. And it is far from complete. We could go on about this. You teach classes that take days in length, do you not?
Sally: I teach master classes in my studio for up to four students that can be up to three days long. But they are very exhausting, for me and for the students. Because sometimes I will focus in on one day class on lighting, or a one-day class on how to use Adobe Lightroom, which by the way is one of my very favorite programs. I love Adobe Lightroom the way I used to love working in the chemical darkroom, except it’s without the smells. Are we getting lazy? That’s a big question. Yes, the very quick answer is yes as a general thing. We have convenience, I can imagine my great grandmother telling my grandmother she is being lazy because she is using an electric refrigerator and doesn’t have to go shopping every day.
Robin: Oh my.
Sally: I don’t know about you but in the freelance life for me, I put in 18-hour days perfecting a sentence, not a sentence but an article or a book or a picture preparing for an exhibit. There are certain things that are much easier now, changing the light on a picture is easier in software than it was in the darkroom, but the easiest thing is getting the light right initially with your capture.
Robin: Yes. Like you mentioned carrying them, I still have them up here on a shelf, the 50-lbs or 60-lbs worth of lighting equipment.
Sally: It doesn’t break your back. As we get older it is nice that our packages that we have to carry are lighter, although I am using a very large camera now, but that’s because I shoot medium format, I shoot a Pentax 645D, but then I print out on a very large 44-inch printer for my exhibition work.
Robin: So wait a minute. Is this a digital camera?
Sally: Yes, it is a very very beautiful medium format digital camera. What’s important about that is not the number of pixels which of course you do need the right amount of data, but the quality of the pixels, because you are dealing with an image sensor that is physically larger. So even if I had the same exact number of pixels on that larger image sensor, each of those pixels can be wider, deeper and further away from its neighbor, so you can end up with a better quality signal.
Robin: Okay, so let’s bring this down into the realm of practical everyday Slashdot reader stuff.
Robin: What kind of cameras should they buy? I mean obviously you have this huge medium format camera, they don’t generally need that. Let’s talk about somebody who’s going to do some product photography, and maybe some kids and sports and neighborhood stuff.
Sally: It depends. If they want to do sports, then I’d say one of the new or even older used super zooms that gives you a large snout and you can get in closer. I like, even when people went autofocus, the focusing is fabulous, auto exposure, they’re wonderful, I would like to suggest that if you are doing product photography, that you learn about F-stops and shutter speeds, simply so that you can get the full depth of field, the full product in focus. It is a very easy concept and you can get it on a very inexpensive camera. It is a typical point-and-shoot that just allows you to go off automatic. You can get a darned good camera for $200 these days, darned good. I would stick with those companies that are known for their optics, but that’s my old film snobbery.
Robin: Oh yeah. What companies would those be?
Sally: Nikon, Canon, Pentax, I would say are my three favorites. I love Olympus so don’t get me wrong, it is just that those three are my favorite.
Robin: I’ve always had Olympus still cameras actually for many years. Now here’s another thing too, and how do we deal with it: What camera do we really all carry around with us? Our phones, our phones, yes. My everyday camera is an HTC Evo 4G.
Sally: I didn’t learn to use my phone as a camera till just a few months ago, I didn’t know how it worked. But it works. And it is very convenient. I have a hard time holding up that thing, I am not good at composing on a screen, I am used to having it against my eye, but it does a decent job. To me, any camera, like you said you like the Olympus cameras, for me the camera that works best for anybody is the one that they are comfortable with.
So if they are used to the way an Olympus camera works, they should stay with Olympus, because they understand the way those engineers are thinking. If they are used to using their phone, they should stick with their phone – just remember that they should get physically a little bit closer, they should make the subject fill a larger portion of their screens so they can get a decent picture.
Robin: Now I am going to tell you something that’s really amusing, amazing. After we are done here, I am going to go to BestBuy because they have on sale for $39 - $39 a cell phone from Kyocera that has a very well-reviewed camera. Forty bucks! Now I have a better one than that, but it is broken, the other day I dropped it, so I am going to buy this, I am getting a new one from Virgin Mobile, under warranty and all that, but I want to have this cheapie as a spare – think about it. A spare phone camera.
Sally: It is natural for you and me because we were used to carrying extra cameras just in case. I look forward to hearing what you think about Kyocera when you have it.
Robin: Well, I will surely review it in my cheap computing column, but I am always just looking for the minimum cost thing that will work well.
Sally: Unlike you, I don’t relate to video well at all. I am very much a still photographer. The frozen moment is where I can capture, and I can understand the image and the story I am trying to tell. Video is something I don’t respond to. However, my assistant Lori Ryan who is a very fine photographer does all my video for me, when we need a video of my lectures or slide show of my classes, and she will use her DSLR, she is a Canon shooter and she uses the video on her DSLR, and it is quite good.
Daniel sometimes has used big video on one of my point-and-shoot cameras. And I have a majority, I don’t remember what trend it is. And it turns out nice. YouTube doesn’t require that much. And that’s where we are all putting it. You and I probably can look at two prints and we see in a minute the difference between the quality of one and the lack of quality in the other. Most people cannot. We just have that training and that experience. And what’s more, they don’t care. I remember when desktop publishing first came out and I was having a conversation with a lithographer friend of mine, and he was just aghast that the lack of training, he was just and I said, “But it works and I can print it from my desk. And it is good enough.”
Robin: Good enough. I’ll tell you something, everybody I know, and I know quite a few people who are doing independent films and they are all going to DSLRs, and even though I am technically retired unless there is a huge technical advance, there is no real reason for me to buy new video equipment. What I have is very good. But if I buy anything else, it will be a DSLR with a separate sound recorder, an H2, or something, zoom sound recorder, and that’s what I will work with, and that’s what the Indy guys are all going to now. Like you said, $200 for a good camera?
Robin: And that weighs how much? It still fits in your pocket.
Sally: Yeah, it fits into a pair of tight jeans. That to me is fabulous. But again, what people have to understand is, it is not the camera that takes the picture, it is not the camera that takes the video, it is the human eye and mind, and it has to do with: Learn your camera, spend time reading the manual, now don’t read the whole darned manual, that’s boring, read one command at a time, and play with it, learn the command, find out how it affects your pictures or your video. Get a sense of it, make it part of who you are, and then go to the next one. Because it is the knowledge, the skills with the camera, and then combine it with your own personal vision, you’ll end up with pictures that are yours and not just same old same old pictures that everybody else has.