- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

If the reader will permit: a small measure of awe from an old photographer brought face to face with today’s technology.

Recently, after several years of shooting with a shirt-pocket camera, I felt the need to upgrade. The little ones are marvels but so limited.

I went to Penn Camera in Northern Virginia, because their salespeople actually know their products, and bought a Canon EOS 20D digital SLR (single-lens reflex) with the 17-85 mm zoom lens, a 50 mm lens and some other things. At $2,300 in all, it wasn’t a stocking stuffer. But it is a real camera.

Now, when you follow technology you get blase. Everything is five times as fast every six months, ho-hum.

But it made me reflect on the changes in cameras since I came aboard The Washington Times as defense writer in the early eighties. If you had described the 20D to me then, I’d have said you needed medication.

It’s a lovely, well-designed machine: Fast quiet autofocus that seldom fails, intelligent autoexposure that usually cures backlighting by itself, variable sensitivity to light (analogous to choosing different film speeds), resolution changeable on the fly, all the portrait and nightscape modes that have become common, with manual operation if you want it, and an on-camera flash that sets exposure according to the distance to the focused subject.

We are used to all of this now. We think it’s reasonable. But on military stories I used to put film of different speeds in different cameras in case I went from sunlight to inside a bunker.

Now, set the film speed for the particular shot. On a story in Angola I carried 200 rolls of film instead of a few multigigabyte Lexar storage cards in a shirt pocket. Back then you missed shots because you couldn’t focus fast enough on, say, soldiers running toward you. The Canon will track-focus them.

But the truly astonishing change has been the advent of digital photo processing. The fairly young may think Adobe’s Photoshop and its brothers and cousins are just, you know, software. No. They are magic. To see this you have to remember how things were not very long ago.

On a shoot in some forsaken war zone or somewhere, you would take 10 shots of everything, bracketing like crazy, because you couldn’t be sure that the subject hadn’t blinked at the wrong moment. Touching up photos, especially in color, was tricky, time-consuming, and real expensive. Many kinds of film were not very forgiving of poor exposure. And of course you had to get the film to the newspaper instead of e-mailing images from a hotel room.

Today, I use ACDSee 8.0 to fix mistakes. (Photoshop is the industry standard, but it’s hard to use and not necessary for most things.) Cropping takes 20 seconds. You can correct exposure — highlights, shadows, midrange tones — with the histogram and sliders. Used to be, just fixing red-eye took a lab with trained technicians instead of a couple of clicks. Should you want to get creative, changing backgrounds and using all sorts of special effects is now easy. What it amounts to is having a fully equipped photo lab on a disk. It’s wild.

Further, and I’ll get disagreement, I’m not sure that a high-resolution computer screen isn’t superior to paper for looking at photographs. Paper gives better detail. On the other hand, it doesn’t emit light. Especially with nightscapes and flowers and such, the glowing screen produces a much preferable picture. I know a fair number of people who simply don’t print their photos. And, of course, by the time you print a lot of 8-by-10s on a good printer with special paper, it stops being cheap.

It’s a different world, and a glorious one.

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