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Q&A
The Pixel Pro

In "The New Field Photography" in the June/July issue of Adventure, Jim Brandenburg shared his tips on capturing magical wildlife scenes and landscapes without the field standard—film. Undaunted by the challenges of new technology, the nature specialist used nothing but digital cameras to amass a book's worth of images from northern Minnesota's exquisite summer landscapes out his back door. His photographs are showcased in Looking for the Summer ($35, Creative Publishing International), which is excerpted in the June 2003 issue of National Geographic. Here, he parses the pros and cons of going digital.

When did you start using digital photography and why did you make the switch from film for certain projects?
 

I started fairly recently. With digital photography, there are two extreme ranges of people—those who embraced it early and became very enamored with it, and those who don't want to have anything to do with it.

But digital photography is our future, no question about it. Remember when vinyl records and tapes were up against CDs? Now you can hardly find a turntable or a tape player. Some people still prefer the sound of analog, and it will be the same with film. I predict that four years from now, you're going to see one-hour photo shops closing. Just last night a report said that Kodak stock is going down because of digital photography. Its organic nature and ease of use works into our culture and our publishing system [much better than film].

For instance, I live in Ely, Minnesota, at the Canadian border. One morning I went out at 6:30, got a picture of a heron in the fog, came back, made a 20-inch print on my high-end printer, put it in my gallery, and sold it by noon—and my gallery is 20 miles away. It's efficient, and the very latest [pro-quality] digital cameras are better than film cameras. Digital is more expensive, but the price will come down.

When I started shooting Looking for the Summer, I thought "What the heck, it's summer, let's use a digital camera." But in the winter, for the next part of the series I'm going back to the basics and using film. In some ways, the digital camera is a lot easier and so much more fun [to use]. But now I want to go out and get scared again, work hard, sweat it out, and process my own film.

 
What are some of the advantages of digital over film photography?
 

First, there is the simplicity of digital photos: You can look at your images instantly. And it's an original that will always be an original. Kodachrome duplicates never look the same. With digital [photography], you can make a perfect copy and send it off immediately.

The color is also more accurate because when you process film [there are a number of variables]. You can have bad processing chemicals, or the film could get damaged by heat while sitting in the FedEx truck.

And for portraits, my experience is that skin tones are more accurate, the shadow detail is better, and since you tend to take more pictures with digital cameras, you'll probably get a better [or more candid] expression.

Plus, digital cameras let you control the light better. Shooting northern lights is really hard; the exposure length is different every time because the lights are moving all over the sky. A digital camera is more sensitive to the light, so the exposure is half the time [of that of film], and you can see the image immediately to know if you need to adjust the settings.

Another huge advantage is that you can change the speed of the film. If I run into a wolf or a bear while on the trail, I need 400 or 800 film to get a picture of it. But if the sun comes up 20 minutes later, I would want 100 speed film. Instead of ripping out one roll for another, in a second I can set my digital camera from 100 ISO to 1600. The image quality on my high-end digital camera is even better at high speeds than my film cameras.

 
Are there any disadvantages to digital cameras?
 

There's no going back if you overexpose digital pictures. You can get away with it in film, but digital cameras are less forgiving. On the other hand, digital has far better shadow detail. I tend to underexpose slightly, just to be safe, because I can pull more out of the shadow.

The weakest point with digital technology right now might be the battery issue. Digital cameras just eat through batteries [whereas] film cameras can go forever on a lithium battery.

Another [potential problem] is that people will make a cheap print of an image at home [instead of using] archival ink or paper, and then delete the original file. In five years the digital print will be distorted. Prints from film last 40 to 50 years minimum. Negatives last at least that long.

Most people don't consider this. But think of the pictures you have of your grandparents and how important they are to you. If they were using the early digital technology that people are using right now, there's a chance you wouldn't have those pictures today.

There are some new digital printers that use archival ink and paper that are about as good as film. Pigmented ink, not dye-based paper, doesn't fade [as fast]. This problem will be solved, but it is something that people should think about.

You can shoot a lot more frames with a digital camera, and you can cover your mistakes, but people lose the digital files, or they don't know what to call them, or their hard drive blows up. For serious amateurs, you might lose something if you're not careful.

 
What about the cost of digital cameras?
 

I bought a professional digital camera two years ago for $5,000. The next year they were selling it at $2,500. They will become cheaper than film cameras when prices come down. [However] if you buy a $200, 2 to 3 mega-pixel digital camera, you'll be able to see the pixels in a 8x10 print. You can't compare the quality of prints from a point-and-shoot film camera for the same price. That's today. In two years, it will probably be different.

[And unlike] film—the most expensive part of film photography—the accessories [for digital cameras] are getting faster and cheaper. I bought a 1 gigabyte mircrodrive card for my digital camera two years ago for about $1,000, and that same card is on the market now for $189.

 
So what should the average photographer buy?
 

Right now it's a toss up. We have more momentum with film technology and more facilities for one-hour processing. Film works great 99% of the time—as long as you don't leave the prints in the back window of your car. But we've learned not to do that with film, and that's the kind of momentum I'm talking about. We're much lower in the learning curve with digital. For some people (like those who can't program their VCRs) storing the files isn't all that simple. But if you're astute, and you think through it, digital is better.

But if you're going on an adventure and you absolutely don't want to screw things up, take film. I've virtually never had a film camera break on me during all my years shooting for National Geographic—unlike my digital cameras, which sometimes break or surprise me with things that I don't know what to do about. For the serious adventure photographer, I'd take both.

If you're still in doubt, stick with film right now. In three to four years, the kinks in digital camera technology will be worked out.

 
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More Q&As

 

Related Web Site

Field Photography Guide
Check out our online field guide to National Geographic-quality adventure photography.

National Geographic Photography
Wallpaper, photo galleries, and more in National Geographic's online photo guide.

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June/July 2003



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