Thursday, January 27, 2005

Time for Digital Photography?

Brazilian Sunset


January 27, 2005

I own a digital point-and-shoot camera, and was looking to upgrade to a "nicer" camera for some more ambitious photography. But I was wondering if it makes sense to spend a lot on a digital camera, as it seemingly will be a bit archaic, if not outright obsolete, in a few years. E.g., old Leicas or even manual Nikons still fetch fair amounts on Ebay, while digital cameras a few years old sell for a fraction of their original value. I know digital cameras are supposed to making analog obsolete, but I'm just wondering about the obsolescence factor of digital. In other words, should I buy the new digital Leica or a vintage analog Leica? Any thoughts?

posted by jgballard at 12:52 PM PST


If I was buying a Leica, I would definitely get the film model. Putting a CF card into a Leica just seems wrong.

posted by trbrts at 1:00 PM PST on January 27


I agree, some things shouldn't be "improved". But that said, I'm a huge digital fan and have taken thousands more pictures because of the digital aspect. Obsolete is a matter of personal opinion in digital camera terms. I have been very happily using a mere 4 MP Canon S400 for a couple of years now and it still takes great pictures. Doesn't mean I don't want one of those sexy Sony T1's but I can wait a bit longer.

There will always be something newer, better, faster or whatever. Get what you are happy with and let the rest of the world worry about itself.

posted by fenriq at 1:11 PM PST on January 27

I found DP Review to be very helpful in my search for the right digital camera. From what I remember, the Leica digital was not rated particularly high for it's price.

posted by lobstah at 1:13 PM PST on January 27


I side with digital because I know personally the hassles of film would prevent me from actually doing the photography. I think you can gain experience much faster with digital where you're worrying about money spent on film and effort spent in a dark room. The freedom to snap away is what it's all about for me. (I'm not professional, and I am in the same state as you, snapping pics with a P&S camera.)

I'm sure some film enthusiasts will correct me shortly.

posted by knave at 1:14 PM PST on January 27


I paid $800 for a Canon G3 two years ago. Searching E-bay for closed auctions for them, they're averaging around $400. That's not too bad for consumer electronics. There will always be something newer, better, faster or whatever. Get what you are happy with and let the rest of the world worry about itself. Excellent advice.

posted by jperkins at 1:15 PM PST on January 27


An old Leica or manual Nikon has had thousands of dollars of film run through it by the time it's sold on ebay, whereas a digital might sell for much less on the used market, but it only ever required one or two thirty dollar CF cards during its lifetime. In terms of money, you still end up ahead with digital. In terms of photos, well, that's a more complicated decision. While a digital camera bought today might be "obsolete" in five years, current medium to higher end digital cameras take pictures of sufficient quality that I doubt you'd be limited by your equipment, even if a new model has more resolution or features.

posted by Nothing at 1:15 PM PST on January 27


Are you planning on selling this camera in a few years? It sounds to me like you're thinking more about the money than about the functionality. If you want a camera that'll take good photos now that you can easily store/manipulate on your computer, then get the digital. If you're more comfortable with non-digital, then go that direction. Obsolescence is in the eye of the beholder IMHO. I have an Olympus that I bought for $700 a few years ago that I probably couldn't sell for $100 now. I took lots of photos with it though, and had a blast. It was worth it to me. And though it may technically be obsolete today, I still use it and think it does the job just fine. Granted, I'd love a new Nikon D70, and my old non-digital Nikon still works and takes great photos. I value the digital aspect so much though that I never use the old Nikon anymore.

Sorry, that was kind of rambly. Oh and on preview - what fenriq said

posted by soplerfo at 1:15 PM PST on January 27


I went through a similar decision recently and I realized that I needed to figure out what sort of workflow I wanted and what I wanted to do with the pictures first, and then the digital / analog decision would come pretty naturally.

For me it didn't make sense to take a picture on film unless I was planning on making a photographic print to hang on the wall. I really like sharing pictures by email / web / electronic means and the workflow using film for that involves taking a picture, developing the roll, scanning the roll (frame by frame or slide by slide), making any adjustments in Photoshop, and then finally uploading the pictures.

With digital images this workflow becomes: take a picture, import the photo into iPhoto, make any edits / crops / adjustments in either iPhoto or Photoshop, and then use Photon to automatically upload the pictures to my blog. No wait, no muss, no fuss. And with the medium-high resolution of the D70 I can still make decently large prints.

posted by bshort at 1:19 PM PST on January 27


A Leica gearhound tells me that film cameras are devaluing, but I'm not sure I buy the rationale. I have bought good digitals since they were first released, and I am loving my D70 these days. It really does take excellent pix, even without a wizard behind the shutter. I have retired all of its predecessors and they are pretty much valueless these days (to me).

Looking at obsolesence, how much improvement over 6Mp do you need (yeah, 640kb should be enough for anyone). You can get more these days, but I've read that 6Mp is as good as film at the 4x6 point, and reasonably good up to a full sheet of letter or A4.

I have a Nikon F3 and too much glass, but I wouldn't sell it today. It was all bought used (by aforementioned gearhound) and probably is still worth what I paid. It's marginally compatible with the D70 (no metering on AI lenses) and it does something the D70 can't in producing the film negative. These days we put mostly B&W film in the F3 and use digital for our snaps. This is a pretty harmonious blend.

As for Leicas, my main question would be of value for money in their digital offering. If their CCD doesn't deal with the quality of the lenses, what's the point? There are good reviews (and forums) at sites like Steve's Digicams that tackle issues like the one you are raising.

posted by sagwalla at 1:31 PM PST on January 27


Not much on a digital camera is really going to go obsolete; they're too self-contained for that. Think of the parts of the camera: There's the internal, picture-taking part, that spits out jpegs or tiffs or raw files onto your memory card. *THIS* part will be obsolete soon, in the sense that there will be better camera cores next year, and better still the year after that. But so what? Even if there's better out there, that doesn't degrade the quality of what you have in the slightest. It will still take the perfectly-good pictures it took yesterday even when the Niko-Canon Super-Mega-Thingy 5000 that's nine billion terapixels and can see through wood is released next week.

The rest of it is obsolescence-proof for a long time. Cameras spit out images onto memory cards; all of the formats are going to be around for a while, especially compact-flash. They communicate using USB, which isn't going away anytime soon. By the time they're a couple years old, they'll have had all the firmware updates they're ever likely to get or need.

As far as resale value goes, it's a consumer product, not an investment. I wouldn't consider resale value to be important on a camera any more than I would on a TV, unless you're considering blowing $10K on a big pro-level setup.

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:36 PM PST on January 27


I'm not saying you shouldn't go digital, I shoot with a Canon 20D right now. But, if you are going to go digital, I wouldn't get the Leica. You can get better quality and more features for less money. The digital Leica is just trying to replicate the analog camera for the digital age. Some things just can't be improved on.

posted by trbrts at 1:40 PM PST on January 27

Also, something to note - if you're buying a even a low range DSLR, you're also going to be buying a lot of other stuff - lenses, flashes, lights, what have you. All of that other stuff doesn't tend to devalue the same way digital cameras do, and you'll more than likely be able to move it all to your next body, even if it doesn't have all of the new bells and whistles.

posted by Caviar at 1:41 PM PST on January 27


Not sure about the Digilux 2, which has a hard-to-get-used to LCD viewfinder, but I have had a Digilux 1 for two and half years now and still adore it. Sure, it's relatively bulky and only 4Mp, but for ease of use it's hard to beat - everything is right to hand and the controls are amazingly intuitive, even on fully manual settings. It's also beautifully built and the 2.5" screen is still far better than most. Even so, I don't think the Digilux 1 would be the first choice of a professional photographer (you'd want more flexibility with lenses), but I have met a photographer who uses a Digilux 2 day to day.

posted by jonathanbell at 1:49 PM PST on January 27

If you want to collect cameras, get a Leica. If you want to take pictures, there are much less expensive options that you should consider.

(1) Soviet leica / zeiss clones. "Fed" and "Zorki" are worth looking at. These cameras are simplified copies of their german counterparts. At the top of the dot-com boom, they went for $100-$200 each. Now they often go for well under $100, with a lens. They take standard 35mm film, and are compatible with Leica screwmount lenses. These camers don't have built in light meters. Fully manual.

(2) Japanese "Voigtlander" cameras. Amazing wide angle lenses, mostly leica screw mount. Very decent camera bodies that generally include a light meter.

On the digital side, Panasonic makes Leica's digital cameras. You can get nearly the same camera for a much lower price by picking up the Panasonic version.

Unless you have tons of money to throw away, avoid the digital SLRs. The SLR design uses a mirror to allow the photographer to look through the taking lens before the photograph is made. But digital cameras provide an LCD-preview screen connected to the CMOS or CCD sensor. So the mirror and retrofocus lenses it requires are really unnecessary for digital cameras.

Digital camers with interchangeable lenses will eventually converge to rangefinder style camers like the Epson RD-1, and SLRs will slowly die out.

When considering the cost of digital vs. film, also consider the cost of processing. I typically take between 2 and 10 thousand digital pictures a year. At 36 frames per roll, and an average of $20 for film and development, that would be between $1111 and $5555 in film and development cost. Even though a new digicam will be obsolete in a few years, it will probably pay for itself in the first year you own it, unless you take very few pictures.

posted by b1tr0t at 1:49 PM PST on January 27


Faster digital cameras are currently extremely expensive and still much slower than film cameras. So if you need to take a series of shots quickly (e.g. sports photography) you'll probably want a film camera. Otherwise, for photos that are mostly only going to be used on a computer, digital is probably preferable. Film still produces the highest-quality images but on a computer the difference is will be negligible.

As far as resale value goes, it's a consumer product, not an investment.

Antique fountain pens can be worth thousands. You can't get anything for a used Bic is worthless even though in some situations a Bic pen is preferable (like filling out triplicate forms).

A film camera might be an investment because there is a degree of craftsmanship not present in digitals, which are essentially fungible. But someone could reasonably prefer to use a digital camera.

posted by TimeFactor at 2:02 PM PST on January 27


The difference between digital cameras and a quality slr: the lenses. Most digital cameras have at best medium quality lenses. With a 2 or 3 MP sensor I guess it doesn't matter that much, but now that higher resolution sensors are becoming affordable the next horizon will be the glass. To step up you will want to find good high speed lenses with high resolving ability, low flare and low aberrations. Right now those are found on digital SLRs and perhaps a very few fixed lens digital cameras. If you pick the right SLR system (this is hard and I have no answers) your investment in glass, flash accessories etc. will not become obsolete in the next couple of years the way the electronics probably will. I shoot both film and digital and each has its advantages, but I really like digital for the ability to shoot massive numbers of pictures at low cost. On the other hand, learning the art of picture making with a camera is probably still best done with a manual focus and exposure camera which forces you to think through each picture. If b1tr0t is right, and you choose well these lenses should still work on a viewfinder style digital camera.

posted by caddis at 2:15 PM PST on January 27


If you buy a digital SLR, your investment in the body will eventually be dwarfed by the amount you spend on lenses, just as it would be with a film SLR. You can upgrade your body when the next great thing comes out and typically lose only a few hundred dollars -- assuming you stay with the same manufacturer. Otherwise you have to buy all new lenses.

posted by kindall at 2:29 PM PST on January 27

Ask Metafilter about Digital Cameras

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