By Dave Etchells
We've seen the demise of film-based photography coming for a long time. At least we've known that digital photography would some day overtake film. For me though, there's always been enough of a gap between the image quality attainable with film, and that which could be achieved with digital, that I've been reluctant to give up film entirely. There was always that nagging thought in the back of my mind that I might someday want to make a high-magnification enlargement of a photo, or even a wall-sized print. Then too, there's the amazing dynamic range of color negative film, with its incredible ability to provide at least some usable image information, regardless of how far off you are on the exposure (well, within limitations anyway). So, for the last few years, while I've always shot at least some digital pictures on my vacations, I've also lugged along my trusty Nikon 6006 and a full kit of lenses.
For me, the ultimate "acid test" of filmless photography would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska last month to visit my brother. Our boys are both teenagers, and well into the age at which doing things with their parents is no longer cool, so this might very well be the last true "family" vacation we were likely to have.
The stakes were high. Would digital be up to it? Would we regret not having a film camera along to capture those "special" shots? We took the plunge and set off on the trip with four digital cameras in tow -- a high-end consumer model, two prosumer models, and a professional digital SLR -- ranging in price from $900 to $5,000. This is the story of our experience, including a report of how well each piece of equipment performed, and what -- if anything -- we'd do differently.
(A number of readers have asked to see photos from our expedition. - I hope to put together a more complete photo essay about it, but that's a ways in the future, given our current review load. In the meantime, I've sprinkled photos throughout the article, to give a bit of a flavor of the trip. - Dave E.)
OK, we probably went a little overboard. Any rational person wouldn't bring nearly the assortment of gear and gadgets that we did, but apart from the (absurd?) variety of cameras, all of it would be very useful, if not essential, on any long-term photo outing.
The photo above shows the full complement of cameras and supporting gear we packed for the expedition. Here's a brief listing:
D1x - The "big bopper," with a 5.47-megapixel CCD and whopping
3,008 x 1,960-pixel image files! This was the camera that ultimately convinced
me that film was no longer necessary (provided of course, that your budget can
accommodate the $5,000 price tag of the camera, plus a thousand or so for a
lens worthy of it.) Nikon generously loaned us a D1x and one of its excellent
24-85mm Nikkor zoom lenses. The company also included one of its excellent SB-28DX
Speedlights, although the sort of shooting we ended up doing really didn't call
Dimage 7 - This is probably the second-most impressive camera I've tested
in the last year, after the D1x. Its 5-megapixel resolution puts it into the
"nearly film-level resolution" category, and I was very impressed
with the quality of its 7x zoom lens and fine-grained color and tonal adjustments.
At less than a quarter the cost of a D1x (less than a fifth, if you include
the cost of a decent Nikkor zoom lens), it was much closer to the price range
that someone like me could reasonably afford for a personal camera ($1,500 list).
Overall image quality in our laboratory tests was very high, and the limited
amount of "real world" shooting I'd done with it gave impressive results
Coolpix 995 - I brought this one along largely at the urging of Nikon's
PR firm (a bit of payback for the hustle they exerted to get a D1x into my hands
in time for our departure), but it proved very useful on a kayaking expedition,
where neither the D1x nor the Dimage 7 would have fit well into the available
space. It also delivered consistently high-quality images, thanks in part to
its very sure-footed exposure system. List price for the 995 is just under $1,000.
FinePix 6800 - This is my wife Marti's camera. It has excellent (!)
color and very good resolution as well. It's more of an advanced point-and-shoot
style of camera, lacking the advanced exposure control of the units I packed
for my own use, but it was well-suited for the sort of photographs Marti likes
to take. It also makes a great "travel camera," thanks to its compact
form, telescoping lens, and automatic lens cover. List price: $899.
High-capacity image storage is a major concern for any extended digital photography outing. With the complement of cameras we were packing and the 10-day duration of our trip, storage was of particular importance, and we didn't want to trust any single device with our precious pictures. So, we actually brought along two different storage solutions.
This product ended up being more of a "belt and suspenders" backup in case our primary method failed. The Minds@Work Digital Wallet provides 6GB of very portable storage space, with a built-in card reader, rechargeable battery, USB interface, and self-contained processor and operating system. It worked pretty well as a storage system, although it refused to read the FinePix 6800's SmartMedia cards in the only PC Card adapter we had for them. It seemed to do a fine job with the CompactFlash cards though. We also had some problems getting the drivers to store on the Sony PictureBook (see the next item below), so we ended up using it only as a one-way storage device. (The drivers installed OK on an older Compaq laptop at home, but caused problems on the PictureBook.) At $599 list, the Digital Wallet isn't cheap, but it does offer tremendous storage capacity for extended trips. We'd be very hesitant to depend on a single device to store our entire collection of vacation pictures, but given its Windows directory structure, there's probably little that could happen to it that would prevent the data from being recovered by one means or another.
The Sony PCG-C1 "PictureBook" Palmtop Computer
(The Ultimate Digicam Accessory?)
This was our main digicam storage solution, also providing us full "remote workstation" capabilities. (In fact, most of this article was written on it.) This is an incredibly tiny, full-featured Windows laptop (Palmtop) computer, with a powerful CPU, 64MB memory, a 6GB hard disk, extended-capacity battery pack, PC Card slot, and full Windows 98 capability, among myriad other functions. The model we brought on the trip was one generation back in Sony's lineup. The latest model sports increased memory and hard disk capacity, along with greatly extended battery life. (Time permitting, we hope to do a review of the latest PictureBook soon.)
Our first reaction to the PictureBook when we saw it at Comdex a year or so ago, was that it was cute, but not terribly practical. We're touch-typists and the very small keyboard didn't seem like it would be practical for extended use. Once we actually started using one however, we found our fingers became accustomed to it fairly quickly. In the end, we couldn't type as fast as we could with a full-size keyboard (only about 70 percent of normal speed), but that wasn't bad given the exceptional portability the PictureBook offered. The "touch" of the keys is quite good, particularly considering its small size, and its compact outline made it a much easier fit in cramped airline seats. (In fact, we strongly suspect we typed faster on the plane with the PictureBook than with our normal-sized laptop, since we usually end up having to put a full-sized laptop at a severe angle just to get the keyboard and screen to fit between our torso and the seat in front of us.)
The one negative we found with the PictureBook (and it'll be a significant one for some people) is that text on its screen is real tiny. If you have anything less than 20-20 vision, be sure to bring your reading glasses! We managed to read it OK, but it could get tiring for extended work sessions.
Being a full-fledged Windows machine, we were able to load both CompuPic and Photoshop onto the PictureBook, giving us all the image viewing and manipulation capability we could ask for. We didn't bring any of the camera software with us, but that would have been a cinch too. All in all, we're really enthusiastic about the PictureBook, and the power and flexibility it offers the traveling photographer. If you can afford the stiff cost (somewhat north of $2,000), a PictureBook is truly the ultimate accessory for long-range digicam use! Very highly recommended! (It's not always true that the most expensive gadget works the best for any given application, but that certainly proved to be the case on this trip when it came to storage/computing devices.)
If there's one thing we're paranoid of, it's running out of memory card space in the middle of a shoot. (That said, our card usage is still less voracious than some photographers we know.) For the Alaska trip, we brought along about 600MB in memory card storage, as detailed below:
For most of the trip, we left the 256MB Lexar card loaded in the Nikon D1x, one of the 96MB cards loaded in the Dimage 7, the 64MB card in the Coolpix 995, and we held the second 96MB CF card in reserve for use in whichever CF-equipped camera needed it. We kept the 32MB SmartMedia card in the Fujifilm 6800, swapping it with one of the 16MBs as needed when we ran out of space. We would have needed a lot more storage, were it not for our nightly dumping of all the cards onto the Digital Wallet and PictureBook. (We copied the card contents onto both devices in the event that a catastrophe should befall the PictureBook.)
To help keep track of things, we followed IR News editor Mike Pasini's recommended practice of keying folder names to the date. Since we had multiple cameras to keep track of, we elected to organize first by camera type (this made it easier gathering all the photos from each camera for common processing later), and then by date within each camera's folder on the PictureBook's hard drive.
All the cameras except the Dimage 7 used proprietary Li-Ion or NiMH battery packs. The D1x's battery had such exceptional capacity that we really didn't worry about running out of power, even on our heaviest shooting days which is a good thing, since we didn't bother packing a second battery for it. (A "heavy" day for us might be a couple of hundred exposures. Pros might well need a second battery.) We made sure we brought along spare batteries for both the Coolpix 995 and FinePix 6800, however, and were quite glad we did in the case of the Coolpix, which saw heavy use on our day-long kayak outing.
The Dimage 7 uses conventional AA batteries, so we brought several high-capacity sets of rechargeable NiMH cells for it (Maha 1700s, and GP 1800s), along with a Maha C-204 battery charger. On a couple of occasions, we had to swap-out a second set of batteries for the Dimage 7, but overall we were surprised by how much run-time we could get by using it judiciously and turning off the power promptly after each use. (The Dimage 7 is one of the more power-hungry cameras we've used, but the high-capacity Maha and GP cells did an excellent job of keeping it running. The GP 1800's edged the Maha 1700's slightly in run-time, but the Mahas will probably be the better deal, particularly if you buy them in a bundle with Maha's excellent little C-204 charger.)
The rental RV we traveled in came equipped with a generator, so we didn't worry about bringing a DC-AC (cigarette lighter) inverter to plug in our battery chargers and AC adapters. In hindsight, we should have. For whatever reason, the motorhome had no inverter of its own, so the only option for AC power was to run the generator or plug into an external electrical service. By the very nature of the trip, AC sources were few and far between, which led to the ludicrous situation of running a 4 KW generator for a couple of hours at a time, just to charge a few watt-hours of rechargeable batteries. Take it from us, buy the smallest DC-AC inverter you can find, and routinely pack it along on trips of this sort. Inverter capacity is a non-issue, as nothing you're likely to plug into it (battery chargers, laptops, AC adapters, etc) will take more than a few watts. (Having an inverter along on any trip that involves an automobile can come in handy, as we often find that we spend much more time in the car than next to an AC socket.)
Camera Report: Nikon D1x
So how did all this technology perform? We'll talk about each camera in turn, leading off with the D1x, simply because it was the best by a wide margin. This is perhaps no surprise, given its premium price relative to everything else we had along, but it was tremendously impressive, even allowing for that.
Earlier this year, while testing the D1x for our review of it, I for the first time had the experience of shooting a digital camera with no regrets that I wasn't using film, an experience that was repeated in our week and a half of field shooting with it. Sure, just the right film emulsion might give us a little bit more detail or tonal range, but the bottom line was that the photos we brought back with the D1x were more than adequate for any application we might have. More than that though, using the D1x was like having a whole bagful of different film emulsions at our disposal, ranging from an ultra-fine grain ISO100 to a super-fast 3200, and everything in between. Overall, film comes in a poor second.
As a camera, the D1x's exposure system is phenomenally accurate, to the point that we literally had no bad exposures out of the several hundred images we shot, even under widely varying conditions. Image quality was exceptional as well, with excellent color, tremendous resolution, and the widely noted lack of image noise. Beyond its obvious digital capabilities, we were also very impressed with how smooth and easy it was to use. Nikon makes a big deal about "cameraness" in its marketing and PR literature, and it's easy to see why after using the D1x in the field for a few days. Its controls are so natural and logically arranged that making camera adjustments quickly became second nature. All in all, it's a superb photographic device. If you can afford one, buy it, you'll have no regrets.
Lest this be seen as a mindless paean to Nikon photography, we should point out its less than ideal characteristics, particularly as a travelling companion. There are two immediately apparent problems: size and weight. The D1x is built to pro specs, with a professional body design very similar to that of the F5 and F100. The result is an incredibly rugged camera, but one that also weighs in at a couple of pounds, making it a substantial handful. Apart from its substantial cost, its size and heft led to its being left ashore when we went off on a kayak expedition. (We brought along the Coolpix 995 for that trip, as it fit easily into the "dry bag" wedged between our knees in the kayak.) Even if it had fit, there was no way we were about to bring $6K or so (camera plus lens) of photo equipment on a wobbly kayak! (Another obvious disadvantage for non-pro users who might want to take it into less than ideal travel situations.)
Camera Report: Minolta Dimage 7
As the first 5-megapixel prosumer digicam we'd tested, the Dimage 7 made a big impression on us back when we first reviewed it this May (2001). Apart from its ultra-high-resolution sensor, we were also struck by the high-quality lens (very sharp from corner to corner, with very low chromatic aberration), great image quality, and the extremely fine control it offered over exposure, contrast, and color saturation. We were eager to see how it stood up to the much higher-priced D1x under actual field conditions, as well as how it felt as a camera in its own right.
It probably shouldn't be any surprise that we found ourselves gravitating to the D1x in most situations, as it offered greater flexibility, image quality, and capability in virtually every parameter. The D7 did quite well though, to the extent that we wouldn't hesitate to rely upon it as our sole picture-taking device in a trimmed-down "filmless" odyssey. Given the price differential between it and the D1x, we felt it turned in an exceptional performance. We did find several quirks in its operation that bear noting, however, that we had to learn to compensate for in our shooting.
The first issue was the Dimage's electronic viewfinder (EVF), since it has no optical viewfinder option. (A virtually universal characteristic of digicams equipped with long-ratio zoom lenses.) While we like the D7's EVF better than any other we've used to date, it still comes in a distant second to the image clarity of a true optical viewfinder. Compared to the brilliant clarity of the D1x's viewfinder, we often felt that the D7 was offering us just an approximation of what the camera was viewing, almost like a schematic diagram instead of the actual subject. Besides the reduced EVF resolution, we found that it had a tendency to lose detail in the highlights of the subject. In situations where we were trying to frame sky details such as clouds, this posed a significant problem. We eventually learned to live with the D7's EVF. If something could be done about the loss of highlight detail, our most serious objection would be eliminated.
also found the D7's exposure system routinely overexposed highlights. This appeared
to be a combination of higher than optimum default contrast (in our opinion),
and a slight tendency toward overexposure in its multi-point metering system.
Fortunately, the D7's very fine control system could be used to overcome both
of these tendencies to a large extent. By the end of the trip, we'd learned
to leave the D7 set with its exposure compensation adjustment at -0.3 to -0.7EV,
and its contrast dialed-down two notches. The result were darker, somewhat flatter
images, but ones which preserved detail much better than those shot with the
default settings. (The unusually fine contrast and color-saturation controls
on the D7 were features we called particular attention to in our review of the
camera. We really like the idea of photographers being able to customize a camera
to their specific shooting preferences.)
The last issue was that we also ended up with a few out-of-focus shots with the D7, until we caught on to what was causing them. Like most zoom-equipped digicams, the zoom lens in the D7 is not technically a "zoom" lens, but rather it's a "variable focal length" design. The difference has to do with whether or not the lens holds focus as it is racked through its zoom range. True zoom lenses maintain their focus as they're zoomed to different focal length settings. Variable focal length lenses shift their focus as the focal length is changed. In most digicams, this is a non-issue, as the camera electronics are set up to prevent you from changing the focal length once the shutter button is half-pressed to set the focus. On the D7, the zoom is under direct manual control (one of our favorite, actually), so there's nothing to prevent you from changing the zoom setting after the camera has determined focus. In practice, we found that we tended to make fine zoom adjustments after we'd already half-pressed the shutter button, resulting in blurred images. Once we caught onto what we were doing, it was a small thing to make sure we didn't press the shutter button until we were done messing with the zoom control. (We did still find ourselves wishing the D7's autofocus was a bit faster though. We wouldn't recommend it for fast-paced action unless you could prefocus and wait for the action to come to you.)
Overall, the Dimage 7 turned in a fine performance, particularly once we learned its idiosyncrasies and adjusted its contrast and exposure settings to suit our preferences. While not in the same class as the D1x, it is clearly up to the "filmless" challenge.
Camera Report: Nikon Coolpix 995
As we noted earlier, the Nikon Coolpix 995 was a bit of a fallback camera, brought along more as a favor to Nikon's PR folks than out of a perceived need. As it turned out though, it had a couple of very valuable characteristics/features that made it indispensable for at least a portion of our trip. One of our major excursions was a kayak expedition (that term used loosely, it was really just a day-trip) to the foot of the Shoup Glacier, just outside of Valdez. The two-man sea kayaks we were in had very limited space for close-at-hand photo equipment, and also struck us as a little precarious vis-à-vis, when it came to keeping the salt water and camera electronics separate from each other. Both factors argued against bringing either the D7 (a little bulky for the "dry bag" used to hold our gear) or the D1x (no way were we willing to take the risk of such high-cost, high-tech electronics coming that close to the briny blue). The 995 was therefore appointed as the digicam of choice for the kayak trip.
As it turned out, the 995 had at least one other key capability that came in handy for some of our kayak photography. In our reviews of the Coolpix series, we've routinely called attention to their unusual "Best Shot Selector" function. It's actually a pretty simple-to-implement camera function once you understand how it works; the genius was in dreaming it up in the first place. What the Best Shot Selector (BSS for short) does is to snap up to 5 shots in rapid succession, as long as you hold down the shutter button. Once the frames are captured, the camera examines them to determine which is the sharpest, and saves only the sharpest image to the memory card. (Lest this sound too much like magic, we'll point out that the size of a JPEG-compressed image correlates pretty strongly with the amount of fine detail present. Since the camera has to JPEG the images anyway, it's a simple matter of selecting the one with the largest file size to save to the memory card.) Regardless of how clever the BSS function is, it's amazingly useful for capturing sharp images in a high-motion shooting situation. Even on this highly unstable shooting platform, the BSS helped ensure sharp images for a number of shots where we were shooting at the maximum 4x telephoto.
(We also found that we routinely captured sharp images when handholding the camera in land-based low-light situations, even with shutter speeds on the order of 1/4 to 1/2 of a second.)
Apart from its more compact form factor and unique BSS function, the 995 was a very able performer. Its exposure system seemed quite accurate, and color and detail are both excellent. We missed the ability to fine-tune the camera's color and tonal behavior, as we did with the D7, but we truly found less need to do so - The exposure system seemed more accurate in the first place. Probably our biggest gripe in "live" usage was that we found the zoom lens quite slow to react, taking several seconds to rack from one end of its range to the other. It probably isn't much slower than the zoom control on most other prosumer-level digicams, but it suffered by comparison to the manually-actuated zoom controls on the D7 and D1x.
Overall, we'd rate the 995 as an adequate film-replacement digicam, but felt that both the D7 and D1x edged it out in resolution and versatility. (The D7 by a little, the D1x by a lot.) That said though, we'd still feel pretty comfortable taking the 995 on a vacation, and leaving our beloved Nikon film SLR at home.
Camera Report: Fuji FinePix 6800Zoom
The Fujifilm FinePix 6800 Zoom is Marti's camera, who's neither a camera nut nor a gadget fanatic. As such, she's probably pretty representative of a lot of people buying digicams these days. The 6800 was an ideal camera for her needs, producing excellent image quality, in a very compact, easy to use package. The 6800 is first and foremost a point-and-shoot camera, with the camera making most of the exposure decisions, and relatively few adjustments made available to the photographer. It does, however, take very nice pictures -- with really beautiful color -- that require little or no tweaking after the fact.
In the context of this trip, as well as Marti's own preferences, its compact size was a huge plus. It's small enough to fit into a coat pocket or purse, and the telescoping lens and automatic lens cover make for secure portability. All in all, a nice little package, apparently what it took to (finally) ease Marti into digital photography. The real proof of the pudding was that in some cases, we chose Marti's shots of a place or event over my own, taken with much higher-end equipment. Most significantly, looking at the prints we made (as large as 8 x 10 inches), we felt no regrets in choosing a photo from the "point-and-shoot" camera to enlarge. In my own shooting, I'd have been frustrated by the 6800's lack of manual controls, but for users like Marti, it's hard to imagine a better solution while traveling.
The Aftermath - LOTS of photos!
When we returned home, reality set in. Even deleting obviously unsuitable photos from the memory cards as we went along, we still ended up with something on the order of 600 photos. (And at that, I felt I was being criminally lazy about not taking more advantage of the unique shooting opportunities Alaska had to offer.) The dose of reality came in trying to deal with all those !@#! photos. Slogging through the hundreds of images, it's easy to see why so many digital photos end up never being printed!
The first step was to make thumbnail indexes of everything we'd shot. I did this using CompuPic by PhotoDex, since I'm primarily a Mac user, and my other favorite, ThumbsPlus, is only available for the PC platform. After each day's shooting, we were careful to organize the shots by date and camera on the PictureBook, so at least it was easy to locate photos by the day they were shot and which camera we used.
After printing thumbnails, Marti and I went over the sheets to pick out photos we liked and wanted to make prints from. That done, I organized the "keepers" into folders by activity and camera. All the Dimage 7 shots were processed through Minolta's Dimage Viewer program, to convert them to the sRGB color space that the printer expected. (See our update to our Dimage 7 review for a discussion of the Dimage 7's color space, to be posted by about 8/15/2001.) We then set up some "Genotypes" in PhotoGenetics, our favorite image-tweaking program. The Genotypes we created for each camera made tweaking all our images a matter of just a few mouse clicks each, and in the best case, we could batch-correct large groups of shots taken under similar conditions. (Given the weather we had, our "Cloudy" Genotypes got a real workout. ;-)
The final stage was to scale all the photos to 4 inches wide for making 4 x 6 prints. We did this in Photoshop with an Action, since we are familiar with it, and it works on our Mac. As we came back from Alaska, our main Windows workstation was in extremely fragile health, to the point that it wouldn't tolerate loading the drivers for the Epson Stylus Photo 785EPX printer we used. (After dozens of programs being installed and removed, it needed to have a completely fresh install of Windows.) If we were able to get the 785EPX running on the PC, we'd probably have used Mike Chaney's excellent Qimage Pro printing application to run the photos out, or possibly Epson's own Film Factory. The reason we were set on using the Epson 785EPX for the 4 x 6-inch prints was that it has a roll-paper attachment, and prints edge-to-edge (truly borderless printing) on 4-inch wide paper. This meant that we could just set it running with a huge batch of photos and let them spool out, cutting them apart when they were done.
While the 785EPX was grinding away, we printed the 8 x 10s on a Canon S800 Color Bubble Jet Photo Printer. We like the Canon for its quiet operation, the ultra-glossy Canon Photo Paper Pro, and its budget-friendly separate ink tanks. Canon also makes its Photo Paper Pro available in snap-apart sheets that let you print and then snap off the borders to end up with 4 x 6 photos. (For what it's worth, we liked the idea of printing on a roll all in one go, and then slicing the photos apart on our paper cutter. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other, perhaps, we suspect different users will have different preferences in this regard - The snap-off borders are really a very minor inconvenience.)
As I write this, we're still only partway through this post-trip photo-printing workflow. All I can say is it's a good thing Marti made me promise that these photos wouldn't be lost in the infamous black hole of my computer (where many of my digital photos end up). The memories they hold are great, but it's been a lot (!) of work to get them all printed. Truthfully, it'd all have been a lot easier if I weren't so much of a perfectionist. If I didn't worry about tweaking every (last, blasted) photo, we'd have been done a lot quicker, and the results would still have been better than typical drugstore prints. Even with all the tweaking, if we had only one camera (instead of four) to deal with, the process would have been much faster. (As my son likes to say though, "No pain, no gain!")
Lessons We Learned
In any major undertaking of this sort, you end up learning things by the end that you wish you'd known at the beginning. Here's a few that may save you some pain down the road when you take your own filmless vacation.
Besides the (literally) mind-blowing beauty of Alaska, our filmless photo expedition left us with a couple of strong impressions. For better or worse, here they are:
No Film, No Regrets. With this trip, I finally had the experience of shooting completely digital with no regrets. Sure, the right film emulsion might have given me a little bit more detail or tonal range, but the bottom line was that the photos I brought back with the D1x were more than adequate for any application I might have. Really, all the cameras we packed along did a superb job. Bottom line, this trip convinced us that there's really no good reason to shoot with film anymore, at least for the sort of photography we like to do. (And we think we're typical of a lot of "enthusiast" users.) "Happy Snappers" are likely to use film for a long time to come, and single-use cameras will proliferate for years, but serious folks will be converting to digital in droves within the next year or so.
Photography isn't the same as being there. It may seem trivially obvious, but this was unquestionably the biggest surprise of all on the trip. We'd all seen tons of photos of Alaska before we left on the trip, both from family members as well as many professionally shot photo editorials, so we thought we knew pretty well what to expect. We were wrong. Alaska completely blew our minds on the first day, and continued to do so every day we were there. Short of billion-pixel, full-surround-sound, virtual reality, there's simply no way to convey the sheer scale of the environment in 2-D pictures, regardless of the skill of the photographer. What all our hundreds of digitally-captured photos will do for us though, is to call back to mind the experience of being there, and the fun we had together. Remember, "They're not photos, they're memories."