Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

June 2002

Question of the Month

So, what do I really think about digital photography?

For over a year I've been shooting a Canon D30 camera, off-and-on, when I could borrow a camera from Canon and where my packing allowed me to take the extra weight of a duplicate system, computer, etc. Two months ago I bought my first digital camera, again, the Canon D30. Why did I do this when Canon now has two better models -- the pro version Canon 1D and the Canon D60, the big brother to the Canon D30?

Let's answer the last question first, as this received extremely serious thought. First off, my digital needs are not that great (as I'll explain later). Since a digital camera was going to be my pinch hitter in very special circumstances, or my glorified 'Polaroid back' for test shots, I didn't need the newest, high end camera. Secondly, within weeks of the release of the D30 there were rumors (and just that, mind you) that a D90 was in the works, and that the D60's tenure as top nature camera would be short. I've no idea when a D90, or D120, or whatever, will come out, but I'm sure that one will to upgrade and replace the current model. With computers and software, you know there's always something better, faster, and cheaper on the horizon, and, at least with computers, if you wait a month you'll always get a better deal. Trouble is, how long can you wait?

Caption: This eared grebe was filmed from the window of our rental car. Mary drove, and kept pace with the swimming grebe. I was using 1,280mm of lens, supported solely by the window sill and my well-braced hands and arms supporting the back of the camera. ISO was set at 200 or 400 (I forget!). This 72dpi may not look sharp, but the original is. As I wrote this I printed an 8x11 print -- it was sharp, and I'd venture to guess that at half that image size (4x5.5 or so) it would have been indistinguishable from a slide image when published in a book or magazine.

There has been some discussion about the technologies Canon now offers -- the CCD of the 1D and the CMOS of the D30 and D60. The CCD is a Charge Coupling Device and, with a charge, the CCD apparently can generate static electricity and attract dust, thereby creating some problems with keeping the CCD clean. The Luminesce Landscape website had a great analysis of this. CMOS technology doesn't generate the static, and apparently does not attract dust, and that has certainly proved true to my very unscientific observations. It's been postulated, and prayed for, that Canon might eventually release a pro version of the 1D in a CMOS mode, even being tentatively christened the 1C by the hopeful. Also on the horizon, however, is the new Foveon chip, which uses a chip where each pixel is sensitive to three colors of the spectrum, not one. This is similar to how film works, and, at least in theory, would imply that a chip with X number of pixels is really 3X more sensitive, or sharp, or accurate, however you want to define definition in a digital image. Sigma has a camera incorporating the Foveon chip (the SD-9), and you can read more about that on their website (

So, things are changing, to be sure, and who knows what will be offered in a year or so. If the Foveon chip becomes 'the chip,' I'd suspect Canon will incorporate it (or they'll design something along those lines, themselves). For that reason, my decision to buy a D30 was a bit biased. However, there were other reasons as well.

Perhaps the biggest reason is this -- Mary and I are still film shooters, not digital photographers. As professional photographers most of our markets still want to see slides, although a very few are now taking CD submissions, and many are accepting low res jpegs as 'proofs' to look at before asking for the originals. Right now, the market is still with slides, and if that should change (and I really think it will, soon) and digital files are requested, I feel that I still have an advantage in shooting slides because I can scan a slide and produce a larger file size than I can presently produce with any digital 35mm camera.

Granted, there have been arguments made that a digital camera's image has greater latitude, or at least the capacity for greater latitude, than does film, and that might be an advantage in high contrast exposure situations. Also, there's been arguments made that those presently shooting digital will have the edge over film shooters when (or IF) the marketplace switches to digital. I don't buy that, because except for the inconvenience and time involved in scanning slides, I feel my scanned images will have an equal footing with digital images in the marketplace.

A friend of mine recently commented that although I shot some digital, I was the exception in still preferring film when both mediums were available to me. As this person pointed out, digital photography is extremely seductive. There is immediate feedback and satisfaction, and confirmation that the image is great, or clarification that more work needs to be done. Several digital shooters have said that they're better photographers now because digital photography gives them confidence: they can shoot something differently, see the results, and, if they like it, expound upon that theme and go further. My own digital tests with TTL wireless flash certainly confirms this, as it made me a believer in the Canon wireless flash and in the 24EX twin light macro flash system.

But for the most part, I don't need the immediate feedback that digital provides. It's nice, and I use it occasionally, but when the shooting is really good or the subject matter is unique, I get back to my film cameras. With digital, too, there is the very real concern of image management. Images have to be downloaded, categorized into files, and then burnt to a CD. On trips this takes time, but it must be done unless you have an unlimited number of CF cards or storage devices. Besides, if you wait until after a trip there's that much more work to do.

Image retrieval is an issue as well. Right now, if you called me and had an image request I could go to my file drawers, find the subject matter, pull out the hanging folder with the appropriate slide sheets, peruse the sheets and pick out the requested image in just a few minutes. With images saved on a CD I'd have to fish through my CD library (right now I'm exploring the possibility of a thumb nail image file for each CD stored in a binder), then load the CD and confirm that's the image I want, then do something with it. With a slide I can mail that off. With a CD stored image I'll either be writing a CD to send or sending a jpeg, if the file size does not need to be too large. Granted, I'd much rather send an electronic image and keep my original (Hey, I could do that by scanning the slide and sending a scan, can't I?), which the digital file will allow. But at this time, my file of digital images is not retrieval friendly. Want to make a million? Design a photographer friendly retrieval system for stored images.

All of these images were shot at 1,280mm. After getting some 'record' shots of the yellow-headed blackbird, I switched to film and shot the bird at 800mm, and, by moving closer, obtained a similar image size. The Harlequin duck is cropped from the original digital file. The Barrow's Goldeneye (below) was shot the same way. I was intrigued at the depth of field -- I shot at f5.6, but both birds (even enlarged) are reasonably sharp.


So, why did I buy a digital camera in the first place? Here's my reasons:

1. They (digital cameras) are fun and convenient to use. For my website they are indispensable. If I need a product shot or if I need to illustrate something, I can do so in minutes and not have to worry about the delay of sending my film off for processing.

2. They are an excellent learning tool. I can confirm flash exposures, set ups, etc. before switching to film. They are wonderful for trips where I can illustrate what we've been shooting, especially if we have several groups back-to-back.

3. When conditions are poor for film shooting, digital saves the day. My D30 (as does the D60 and all of Nikon's digital cameras) has a 1.6X magnification factor. My 400mm F2.8 lens becomes a 640mm F2.8 when mounted on my D30, and if I need more light I can quickly and easily raise the ISO to 200, 400, or 800, if need be.

4. For digital projection (via PowerPoint or other programs) an original digital file should be just as good as a scanned slide file, since the required dpi and file size is relatively small. For a bird program I'm presently working on I'm shooting a lot of digital, since I have flexibility not possible with my film camera. Recently, for example, I photographed harlequin ducks in Glacier National Park that would have been specks on film, but with the D30 and my 400mm F2.8 with a 2X converter, my 800mm lens became a 1,280mm f5.6 lens, and the images looked great! In Yellowstone I shot Barrow's goldeneye ducks out our car window, resting this same lens combination on the window frame and hand-holding the back of the camera (bracing carefully, mind you), and produced great results -- certainly good enough for a slide program and, I'd bet, good enough for a magazine field guide shot of 4x5 inches or so.

5. Specifically, I bought the D30 because the price was right. When the D30 first came out, prices were around $2,500-2,700, I believe. The D60, a far, far better camera, sells for $2,000-2,200. The 1D goes for twice that and then some, and although it is a pretty camera -- packed with features, word on the street seems to be that it is great for news and sports but not for nature. Since the introduction of the D60 the price of a D30 has fallen, and some owners of D30s are trading their cameras in for D60s. I figured that would happen, and working with a good camera store I knew I could get a 'mint' D30 if I just got the word out. I did, and at a great price.

Regarding the above, please don't take this as a negative view on digital cameras and photography. It is not. In fact, this year in Africa I plan on shooting my D30 quite a bit with birds. Having a 1,280mm F5.6 lens will be great for shooting birds I could only have enjoyed with binoculars before. And, when the light is poor and a leopard is stalking an impala, I'll have my 640mm F2.8 lens at the ready! I'll be using my digital camera as a tool to capture subjects I can't with film, and that'll be quite useful. However, when my subjects are within film range, I'll be using that medium. It's just going to be a matter of choice -- choosing the right tool for the subject and conditions at hand. And now, with a variety of tools available, I'll be able to document even more of the natural world!

So, what do I think of digital photography? Well, I love it! However, I am using it as a tool to all my photography, and, at present, digital is not going to replace my film shooting. I'll use digital when I need to, especially when I'm trying to capture images my 35mm (at lower ISOs and smaller image sizes) can't obtain.

Do YOU have a Question you'd like addressed? If so, please forward your question to our email address, below, and title the subject of your email (in the Subject field) 'Proposed Question of the Month. Can't promise you we'll address your particular question but we'll do the best we can do.

Previous Questions of the Month

How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites?   What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?
 Why should you know Manual Mode?  Flash and Tele-flash Techniques
 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?
 How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?
What is the Best Composition?  The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?
 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?   How do you shoot silhouettes?
 How would you meter these challenging images?  Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?
 What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales? What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?
 How Easy is Whale Photography?  Is NANPA for you?
 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?
 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?  How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 Reciprocity Failure  Hyperfocal Distance

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