Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I loathe the modern DSLR...

These days, if you shoot any type of commercial job you are stuck with the "I want it yesterday" mantra and delivering your images digitally. If one was to shoot analogue film, this would require processing the film then scanning it to digital files for delivery. Since the modern world has zero patience this is nearly impossible to do if one wants to "stay in the game". Not to mention, conventional labs are all but gone these days.
Recently I photographed a high profile Arts event in Vermont which included our governor, Peter Shumlin. A nice guy and effective politician I might ad. Because of the distances one needs for telephotos, so as not to be intrusive, and flash requirements for low light dark hole environments, an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) is generally the way to go. Sooo...I pulled out the Nikon DSLRs, the appropriate flash and diffusion and went to work. I've never felt so frustrated during and after a job in my life. Let me point out that the photos came out terrific and that everyone was very pleased. However....the frustration and absurdity:

First of all, there are at least a dozen switches and buttons on the modern DSLR (this is by no means my first one so back off digi-geeks) and IMHO the most idiotic design of turning dials on the front and back with your forefinger and thumb to adjust various settings. This loosens your grip on the camera when you roll them back and forth, something I am not too thrilled about. Then there are a myriad of buttons one pushes to access "menus" for various settings and you have to go several layers more into those menus to adjust the settings to your preference. This is supposed to save time?!? Then there is the viewfinder and displays. It seems that manufacturers have done their best to stuff as much "information" as possible into these displays, rendering everything readable only with a microscope. They've done the same thing with the viewfinder and your eye can spend waaay too much time looking for anything relevant. Instead of a split prism or the like, there's a tiny dot in the bottom corner to tell you when your "in focus" or at least when the "camera" thinks so. Basically, these modern DSLRs are computers with glass that attaches as lenses but if so, why do I have to tell this computer every single bit of information for it to take a bloody photo?!? Aren't computers supposed to be smart? For instance, when I am using the same manufacturers compatible flash with the camera why did I have to tell the camera whether the batteries in the flash are alkaline or lithium?!? Hmmmmm?!? That seems absurd and just the time I love to waste when working. And the frickin batteries...sheesh, there's so many damn batteries and chargers and cables one can barely keep track of them. Which leads me to the setting of "sharpening" on modern DSLRs and computer programs. Sharpening?!? I know what it is and what it does, but WHY?!? Do I really want my photos not to be "sharp"?!?  While we're at it, who was the rocket scientist that decided DOF scales (Depth of Field) were no longer "needed" on lenses?!?Which leads me back to "the frustration and absurdity":

Besides having to deal with all the buttons, settings, flash bull, batteries, and everything else....I have never felt so insecure on whether the photos were "good" or "correct" to my standards. Even when I was "chimping" a photograph or two on the cameras monitor afterwards. I simply did NOT trust the cameras or flash. I also worry that because it's a computer and the files are stored on computer cards, those will crash or fail at any moment and were all out of luck. You're on a computer reading this so you know what I mean...
I haven't even mentioned taking the photos into post processing on another computer for delivery. That's another 25 processes, programs, settings and what have you (there's our "friend" sharpness AGAIN) and of course burning it onto CDs, etc etc etc. This is supposed to be "quick and easy"?!? And I am well versed in computers and graphics and have been since day one.

Let me tell you about the good ole days, maybe if your older then 30 you might understand. Let's say I'm doing the same job 20 odd years ago, or I'll use an example of when I used to shoot some 80's rock concerts like Bowie, Devo, or Iggy Pop (yes, I'm that old-and weird). Fist you pick out the appropriate film stock for the job/venue/lighting. Grab a few rolls and stick em in your bag. Maybe load a camera body or two beforehand. Stick a few AA batteries in the motor drive and flash you can get at ANY store. I'll be damn, the camera body itself can even work WITHOUT any batteries! Imagine that. Grab your trusty sharp telephoto and the classic Vivitar 285 flash and stick them on the camera. At the venue, you meter the stage through the camera's viewfinder where there is a nice little up and down easy to read needle on the side of your viewfinder which is quite easy to read-quickly. There are two other readings, an F stop and shutter speed setting which is all you need anyway. Speaking of those, there is a little dial on top of the camera you turn with marvelous indents to get that shutter speed and the F Stop is on the lens where it belongs. Why? Cause ergonomically it is quick and easy to set while supporting the lens where your hand should be. If I want to over or underexpose a shot for some particular effect, I do it right there. Not by pushing four different buttons. I focus the lens myself exactly where I want it in the bright easy to read viewfinder, and I don't have to go peering around for some microscopic dot. Let's say I want to use the flash for just a little fill. Turn it on and turn a simple well laid out dial on the front for how much I want, bingo, there it is. I don't worry the shots won't turn out cause I trust the camera and the film. I can drop the camera on the floor (and have-concrete no less), pick it up, dust it off and keep going. Try doing that with one of these plastic DSLR monstrosities.
Then there's the post. We take the film to the pro lab, MAYBE clip a few frames from one roll just to check, and wait a few hours for the slides to come out. Off we go to drink martinis, and experiment with view cameras with weird lighting in the studio. All that time, having that wonderful, excited, anticipation of getting the slides back when they are done in the soup. I can't emphasize that enough. The anticipation of knowing they will be terrific just the way you planned. That same feeling you had when your dad was gonna take you down to the bike shop to see that new scooter at the end of his work week. Youthful bliss.

Now for the analogue post. You get the slides back and spread them out on the lightbox. You've opened a box of Godiva chocolates right there. Grab your loop and go through them, stopping now and then to fling one into the trash cause somebody blinked or scratched their privates on the frame. You go back and forth, extolling glee cause one or the other is very "cool" for a particular reason. Maybe you put a red check on one or three cause you particularly like it. Box them back up, courier off to the client. DONE.

Progress with DSLRs? Ease? I just do NOT think so. That's just me. The camera manufacturers have gone completely nuts with buttons, bells and whistles and incompatibility that is an absolute pain in the ass. That simple, which is what it should be. There a couple manufacturers who luckily have not jumped on that cliff wagon and kept there "interfaces" simple, Leica, and in one respect Fuji. I own the digital Leica and love it because it is like an analogue film camera. It has a simple interface and relies on the photographer to make a great shot-NOT what the camera/computer thinks one is-or isn't. Unfortunately, rangefinder based cameras are not particularly well suited to telephoto or long lenses like an SLR is. That being said, MANY, if not most, of the great historic photos were shot with rangefinders.

Obviously, I miss the days of analogue film acquisition and delivery, and ultimately I still prefer to do just that. It's soon to be 2012 however, and we are stuck in this digital world we have created for better or worse. I still the think the jury is out on that one. I have one final point to make to Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Pentax, and the like: Try building me a REAL camera instead of a robot.