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Should you buy a Digital Camera?
2006 KenRockwell.com

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About these reviews

(I'd buy mine at Adorama.com)

INTRODUCTION

I started this site in 1999 and wrote this page back in 2002.

Back in those early days decent digital cameras cost many thousands of dollars. This was a significant question, just like buying a CD player was back in 1984.

In 2006 of course you should buy a digital camera. Even the cheaper ones can make great images, even at big enlargements. I use film for very serious fine art work, and for 99% of everything everyone shoots, digital cameras tend to be better than film unless you're making your own prints by hand.

Please consider the rest of this article as an historical time capsule.


HISTORICAL INFORMATION

You probably shouldn't buy a digital camera if you want to create big prints of the sort of art you see on my site. You definately should if you want to have more fun that you ever thought possible in photography.

Film and digital are completely different media. Neither is better; each is best for its intended purpose. Personally I use both, and prefer the look I get on film, but love the spontaneity and pure fun I can have with digital. With digital I can email my friends stupid photos immediately. Unfortunately, if I have to hang a gallery show, I would really wish I had shot it on film. See also "Film vs. Digital."

Most of the art you see see on this site, except for small technical illustrations, was shot on film and scanned.

Most digital cameras are still too primitive in 2003 to give exquisite images for printing bigger than about 5x7." Also their image structure leaves a lot to be desired after you compress the files for storage and use the standard limited color spaces for which most are designed. Of course you can pull swell 13 x 19" prints off an EPSON from a Nikon D1, just that if you worry about such things an image from film can be better. It's all relative and all linear. Only you can be the judge: try it and see for yourself before you belive what you read on the internet. Everyones' tastes are different.

State of the art 6 megapixel cameras still don't replace 35mm film for applications that require very high levels of image quality, like large prints. In fact, even a single-CCD 6 megapixel camera does not have enough pixels for a full 300DPI 8x10" print. Single-CCD 6 megapixel cameras like the Canon D60 and Nikon D100 still cost $2,000. (A year ago it cost $4,000 and two years ago it cost $7,000.) The cameras at $1,000 have half this real resolution and make a lot of phony pixels to imitate poorly the larger images. See here for more information about phony pixels. Digital SLRs hit 6 megapixels, but to replace 35mm film I have seen that I need about 25 megapixels. Of course to replace 120 or 4x5 film for serious use you need exponentially more on top of that. See my resolution page here.

You can see this for yourself in the August 2001 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine. It is devoted to landscape photography, and has a lot of great information in it. Unfortunately, if you look at the token images made with digital cameras you can see immediately (at least I did) that they lack the sharpness, clarity and depth of the images from film cameras. The large images just don't have the sharpness they need because the cameras don't have the resolution required for anything bigger than about a 4x5" image on paper. There are more complex reasons they lack the clarity of film, like color aliasing, which I won't explain here. Of course remember that many of the outdoor landscape images you see are really from 4x5" film, and 35mm film looks pretty sloppy compared to that, too.

Worse, the standard sRGB color space in which most digital cameras operate limits the range of colors to a smaller range than you get with film. Only professional cameras like the Nikon D1x and D1H allow use of slightly wider color ranges like Adobe RGB 1998, which still are restricted compared to film.

So why are digital cameras so popular? Simple: they are a ton of fun, and are great if you want snapshots to email your friends, store on your computer for easy reference and only want an occasional print to hang up or mail a friend. For normal print sizes they can give better results than color negative film since the colors of digital prints are more likely to be correct than automated prints from C-41 negatives.

I dumped my cheap digital camera in early 2002 and bought a $4,000 Nikon D1H just for fun and I love it. I shoot 1,000 images a week on it, and still blow $1,000 in a week on film if have have something interesting to photograph. I prefer its convenience for making snapshots of friends and family. I have not shot print or polaroid film for 4 years since I got my first digital camera.

If you want delicious looking nature images in the form of large gallery prints or for publishing on paper you want a film camera.

Digital cameras are pushed in camera stores and magazines simply because they make a lot of money for the people who want to sell them to you. You can get a much better film camera for the same price.

If you want great images with digital you have to learn not only everything you need to know in regular photography, but you also have to learn all about pixels, image and file resolutions, color sync, color profiling, monitor calibrations, color spaces, file formats, bit depths, resampling algorithms and a ton of other technical gobbledygook.

So get one of each and have fun!

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