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Digital discontent, or, I bitch about Canon

Posted 24 September, 2006 in Op-Ed

A friend and I went shooting yesterday at a local park. The group behind the park are applying for a grant and wanted some photos for the application, so we grabbed a Canon 20D and a few lenses and set off, thinking that digital’s convenience would be a clear win in terms of delivery speed, and that the camera’s automation would allow them some frustration-free shooting. In short: I hated it.

I don’t shoot a lot of landscapes, and when I do, I usually use a toy camera with film. I’ve probably taken less than 25 landscape shots on the 20D in the year or so I’ve had it, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

I usually only use the DSLR when I really need the strengths of digital, which for me, with this camera, are the ability to shoot a lot without changing recording media very often, speed of getting a digitized image into a computer, ability to shoot a lot without increased cost (with digital, the more you shoot, the lower your per-frame cost is, which is kind of weird), and the ability to make an unlimited number of perfect copies. For me it’s for non-artistic, utility work shooting like events and products, which I normally do indoors with controllable lighting or where there’s a dominant subject.

One thing that really pisses me off about DSLRs in general—I won’t say digital as a whole because I don’t really use digicams and have never even seen a digital medium or large format back—is that they’re still metering for film. Digital is not film, and this ends up being a real problem. Digital needs to be "exposed to the right" to get non-crappy shadows, and this isn’t some hair-splitting, pixel-peeping bullshit, it makes a difference in actual photography. The problem is that the metering on all DSLRs I’ve ever handled or read about don’t take this into account. The result is that if you want a decent image, you have to make an exposure, check your histogram, and re-shoot until it’s right.

LCDs are useless for judging exposure by inspecting the image (which is why I don’t really care about larger screens, I only use them for the menus (ugh) and histograms, and I don’t need more of a battery suck to do it). This means that you have to go by histograms to see what you really have. On the 20D you only get a luminance histogram, which means that you could be clipping one of the color channels and not know. Yes, you do get RGB histograms on the higher-end bodies, but it astounds me that you can pay $1,500 for a digital camera that gives you no way to actually know what you’ve got. To me, this is about 1/3 of the whole point of digital: knowing what you’ve got. You don’t get that on the 20D, you get to wait until you’ve applied another field-unfriendly process to what you’ve captured… just like film. $1,500 in and Polaroids are still the best option.

Right. So, shoot, examine misleading histogram, guess, and re-shoot. Lovely. On top of that, Canon’s matrix metering was utterly atrocious. I had to apply plus or minus two whole stops of exposure compensation to get decent-looking histograms, depending on the lighting conditions. Most of the first exposures of a given scene—the ones shot as metered by the camera—were unusable. Maybe when you shoot JPG instead of RAW, the camera does some fancy processing that fudges it, but I can’t imagine anyone shooting landscapes as metered and not returning the camera immediately.

Bottom line: I got a lot of aggravation, a heap of extra images to wade through, missed lighting while checking histograms, and less predictable and accurate exposures than I do shooting slide film using the sunny 16 rule.

Next time I guess I’ll have to set the camera to bracket as much as it allows and machine gun it. That’s kind of OK for landscape photography in static light. But what about the vast majority of other types of shooting, where you don’t have that luxury? This is progress? This shit doesn’t work for what it’s supposed to do.

Side gripe: I invite anyone at Canon to take a 20D, 30D, or 5D, put a 70-200 2.8L IS lens on it, and frame a handheld shot. With me? Good. Now [attempt to] press the depth of field preview button. I can’t imagine what it must be like with a longer lens. The button really needs to be moved to the grip, under the middle or ring finger. To say nothing of the sustained and at this point literally unbelievable lack of an MLU button.

Comments

paul

don’t hold back, now: tell us how you really feel.

this makes me jones just a bit less for a DSLR. I have had a few digicams over the years, apostate that I am, and they’re really an expensive Instamatic, I realize now. snapshots, grab shots, “instant memories” are fine, but something beyond the centered, evenly lit subject is a waste of effort. still have more success — and fun — with my converted 50 year old folder or a Holga.

Nicolai

Believe it or not, this was a model of self-restraint!

Clearly a lot of people are happy with the results they’re getting with DSLRs, it may just be me (though I’m confident in saying that the matrix metering sucks donkey balls). Yes, I’m used to a certain way of shooting, but to quote MC Hawking, I aint Thomas Dolby, science doesn’t blind me. I’ve been programming computers for over a decade and am not prone to writing things off because they’re "new-fangled" and use The Technology. But the point of automation is to make things easier so you can concentrate on the image you’re making rather than throwing up additional roadblocks, and every DSLR I’ve handled is an abject failure in that regard.

This is why I’m interested in the Ricoh GR-Digital and Leica’s new M8 digital rangefinder: they appear to be designed to actually be used as a cameras. (Except for the Ricoh’s 13-second delay between RAW shots.)

I think your last sentence gets to the heart of the matter: DSLRs work for a lot of people, but not for me—not yet, anyway.

I have to keep reminding myself that these companies aren’t in the business of making good cameras, they’re in the business of making cameras that people will buy.

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