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Digital photography - an expensive hobby

A paean to the computer and to the CCD sensor

Fifty years ago, I was less than enthusiastic with the idea of using a computer. Then, there were only main frames, huge machines kept in hermetically-sealed rooms and which produced a never-ending stream of striped paper (pyjama paper I called it) containing columns of usually unintelligible numbers. There were no monitors. Everything needed to be programmed in advance (the DP Manager was king), until at one stage, some bright spark introduced a "Report Generator" and this handed some control back to the user. But it was not until the home computer came on the scene that we started to realise how we could wrest the initiative away from the nerds in their rarefied machine-room.

For me, first on the scene was the Sinclair ZX81 in 1981, really just a toy and it opened the door to simple games (remember ping-pong?), even if we needed to write them ourselves (in BASIC). Then came the Apple IIe with which one could load a word-processing package (from the stacked floppy Drive A with documents stored on floppy Drive B, there still being no hard Drive C).

A little later, a new-fangled approach to handling numeric calculations arrived: this was Visicalc, the first spreadsheet, probably one of the most important business developments. By this time, I had been won over to computers.

In the eighties, I upgraded and transferred to a PC platform (sorry Apple) with an Amstrad PC1640, the machine which made Sir Alan Sugar one of UK's leading retail traders. We were still using DOS in those days and it remained necessary still to be able to do a little programming or writing what were then called "macros". Subsequently, commercially-produced applications were so much more sophisticated in producing programmes that a tyro such as myself could not and did not need to compete. And then along came Windows. After that, we got the internet.

Over some forty years, the progress has been phenomenal and it has been a treat to observe as a contemporary how the combination of brilliant brains in Silicon Valley and elsewhere have given us what we now have today. I am an unashamed admirer of the IT revolution. My only reservation is the cost - the need to keep changing both hardware and software frequently (or so we are told). With the rate of development, any purchase comes with instant obsolescence!

A parallel revolution has come to photography, if occurring somewhat later. The CCD sensor was invented back in 1969 but this (followed by its cheaper cousin CMOS and the much later Foveon) did not appear in consumer cameras until the late 1990s. Over that period, the development of digital photography has been inspired and frenetic. From days when even a camera with a capacity of as many as 1 megapixels was a rarity, the sensor chip has been rapidly improved so that we are seeing "prosumer" cameras exceeding 20 megapixels for sale. When I first bought a digital camera, a Kodak DC210, in 1998, this sported a capacity of just 1Mp and it provided truly inadequate definition, but at the time, I thought it was great.

Technology is not just about the size of the chip (or the type of chip) but also involves complex mathematics and physics, and newer and better formulae are continually being introduced. Some of my betters used to opine that pushing beyond about 8 Mp was inadvisable, because the sensors could not properly cope - eg too much "noise". That was then, and that can largely be disregarded with increased optical sensitivity and the advent of ever better software. Anyway, when buying a camera, it is always best to concentrate on the quality of other aspects, particularly the lens.

I use just two cameras: a standard DSLR and a compact. My fine Canon EOS 40D with its 10 megapixels is quite elderly and although rather lacking in capacity is all that is needed. For my compact, I obtained a Sony RX100 Mark III which has a lot of punch and with 21 MP. Of course these have been overtaken by later models on the market but I refuse to change - that is as far as I need to go!

That brings me to a continuing disadvantage in keeping up with the state of the art, the same problem we have had with computers. It used to be the case that once we had purchased a film camera to our liking, this would serve us adequately year in and year out, for decades perhaps. Now, unfortunately, keeping up with the technology means replacing one's digital camera regularly, an expensive procedure.

I think the digital camera is the best advance since the photographic equivalent of sliced bread, and it has provided me with the means and enjoyment of processing an image, rather than my having to be satisfied with just a click of the shutter. Nevertheless, for some years it was still development in progress and digitals could not compete in terms of image resolution with their older film brethren. But that is no longer the case and virtually all erstwhile "film" buffs have long since thrown in the towel and converted to the new medium. Good thing too.

My having been an addict of digitals since the very early days, it has been enjoyable to observe and use the technology as it has developed. My only misgiving is that since the early eighties, the digital camera has changed from an esoteric novelty to the now ubiquitous plaything and it has lost a measure of its lustre as a result.

If you wish to share any thoughts on the subject, please let me know - by e-mail E-mail HMT.