In 1999 the state of the art digital camera on the market was a Canon Pro70. I don’t know how much it cost but if I had to guess I’d say well over $1000. And that $1000 would have bought you a 1.7 megapixel sensor (only barely big enough for a 5X7 print) that only went up to ISO 200. Frankly it was kind of a joke. Around that time I had my eyes on an Elan7 film camera (which I, sadly, never got) for a trip across Canada.
A few short years later you could buy a Canon 10D which represented the point in which digital definitively surpassed the quality of film. You’ll find a lot of debate over this, but most of it is wishful thinking from film fans, in reality the 6 megapixel DSLR was the turning point, it had roughly the same resolution as 35mm film, but with dramatically lower noise or “grain” in film terms, the apparent resolution was higher. ISO 3200 on the Canon 10D, though not particularly great by today’s standards was miles beyond anything possible with ISO 3200 film. Still at $2000 it didn’t exactly come cheap. It was also a tad bulky.
Well fast forward to today when I am the proud owner of a new Panasonic GH1. It has twice as many pixels as that Canon 10D, at least a stop better as far as noise is concerned, came with a fantastic 14-140mm lens (the equivalent of a 28-280 lens in 35mm terms), and is not only capable of taking stunning photos, but professional, cinema quality high-definition video as well. And I got it all for a lot less that $2000 dollars. My how times have changed. Plus it’s pretty tiny considering what’s packed into the thing.
And so have people’s attitudes. Never in history have we been so spoiled by technology, and never in history have people’s expectations been so outrageous and unreasonable. Hard to believe but a lot of people seem to think that ISO 3200, or even ISO 1600 are unusable on this camera. I’m sorry? Unusable for what? You can get better photos at ISO 3200 on modern large sensor cameras that you could with any ISO 800 film, and even some ISO 400 films. Seriously. That’s the truth folks. But this glorious age of the internet we have spawned a new breed of photographer. The measurebaters. I believe Ken Rockwell coined that term.
Now Ken Rockwell has a reputation as a bit of a kook, and indeed he spouts a lot of nonsense, mostly in order to create controversy which in turn drives traffic to his website. Rather brilliant actually, and as I understand it the man makes a rather nice living from said website. But I digress, whatever you can say about Mr. Rockwell, he is right about the measurebators.
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Of the dozens of websites dedicated to digital cameras, I know of not one that has anything to say about photography. It’s all about measuring pixels and noise and charts and graphs and a hell of a lot of pointless bullshit to be quite frank. The only website that talks about digital photography in real world terms and an absence of hyperbole is The Luminous Landscape, and it didn’t start out as being about digital at all, which is no co-incidence.
You might be wondering what the heck this has to do with Living in The Limelight. Well, nothing really, but it’s my site and I’ll write about what I want, damn it. So let’s get something straight: We live in amazing times. In ten years digital cameras have come from being nothing but expensive novelties, to being so far beyond film it’s not even funny. Here’s another truth: The image quality of every digital camera out there is good enough to make stunning 8X10 prints, and most are good enough for 11X14. If you never print larger than that, or you only ever view your images on a computer screen, then you really have no need to ever read a camera review. Seriously. Just stop. Go out and take some god damn pictures already.
That said, if you are an enthusiast, by all means, read the reviews, just don’t get caught up in the small differences, if you’re buying a large sensor digital camera of any kind, you are getting a camera that is miles beyond 35mm film in image quality no matter how you slice it.