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September 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Stop Chasing Digital Innovations

that next camera upgrade may get you nowhere

from the September, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Three years ago, Undercurrent invited me to write an article on underwater photography and digital technology. Nikon and Canon had just introduced the first digital cameras with “professional features,” which eliminated “shutter lag,” allowed the use of regular SLR changeable lenses, and boosted the resolution and mega-pixel ratings into an acceptable range for publication purposes. They also included a plethora of other features that convinced a lot of us underwater pros to transition to the new technology, albeit with some old-school trepidation. (See the 2005 July and August Undercurrent for the two-part feature.)

Digital imaging was controversial, and the critics were vocal. Legendary underwater photographer Chris Newbert denounced digital systems, noting that he had no objections to people using them, but he preferred they not call their results photography because so much of the craft was turned over to “auto” systems that led “mediocrity to a new level.” Newbert echoed the ethos of pure film professionals who prided themselves on the craft of photography and labored over manual focus, f-stop and shutter speed selections, the limits of a 35- frame film load, etc.

My own criticisms at the time were with the blatant and sometimes absurd manipulations in computer software programs like PhotoShop that were passed off for the real thing. The believability of images was left behind when pieces of several shots were combined into one, such as South Pacific species being dropped into Caribbean reef scenes. Some of the worst offenders were advertisers who believe that any alterations to reality were acceptable if it sold their products.

I saw advantages in the digital technology but still adhered to the philosophy of the film shooter who captured the image and presented it without alteration except for minor sharpening and color correcting. I concluded by saying that digital cameras were presenting new and valued advances if used with honesty. Newbert concluded that digital systems marked the death of photography, as it had been known historically. Actually, it turns out we were both right.

Then to Now

Today, new and improved camera models are introduced so quickly on the heels of their predecessors that state-of-the-art may last 30 days or so before another innovation is released. Is it worth chasing the new advances ad nauseam?

When I wrote the 2005 article, I had been shooting Nikon’s D100 for nine months. It was rated at six megapixels and entirely suitable for professional magazine use, for spreads up to 12 x 16 inches and larger prints. I invested more than $10,000 in a couple of D100 bodies, some new lenses, and a great underwater housing from Subal. I had owned the system for just a week when Nikon announced it had discontinued the D100 for a new D200 and upped the Meg-rating a bit. Of course, it also relocated half the camera body’s controls so it would not work in my pricey Subal housing. So I stuck with my D100 and was happy with its performance.

In 2007, I began lusting for more resolution and almost plunked down the cash for a D200 and new housing, but then went on a dive trip and when I got back, the D200 had disappeared as fast as my hairline, and a new D300 had rolled out. Now Subal had to engineer a new housing to accommodate yet another series of control function relocations. It appears that no camera manufacturer can resist the urge to reformat every new body that comes out. That’s no big deal to topside photographers but a colossal new cost for those of us who need to house the damn thing and take it underwater.

I learned several valuable lessons in the last three years. First, there will always be a new camera that purportedly renders your old one obsolete. Second, that new camera will always be released within days after you bought the earlier version -- and the $7,500 underwater housing you bought won’t work with the new one. Third, unless you have a professional assignment that requires massive image enlargements, your camera in the 6- to 8-megapixel range will do just fine, even for magazine work.

Enlargement Prints

You see, I had swallowed the myth that you could not make magazine-quality enlargements bigger than 11 x 14 inches from a 6-meg camera. Then, I happened into a friend’s portrait studio and was admiring his collection of 30 x 40 portrait shots. Turns out, he had made them with a D100 body. “Like you,” he said, “I was told these were limited to small prints when the D200 came out. But one day I burned a CD with some image copies converted to JPEGs and had a local camera store make huge prints from them. You tell me if you can see any flaws.”

I got a magnifier and couldn’t find flaws. The 30 x 40 images looked to be as good or better as any made from 35mm slides and even large format film negatives. Contrary to some articles I’ve read, a well-shot, sharply-focused, 6-meg image from a digital file will go even bigger than 30 x 40 inches.

Since then, I’ve sold dozens of 30 x 40 prints for up to $1,500 each, and all were derived from the “inferior” old D100 in its Subal housing. And for presentations via digital projectors to large groups, 6-Megs does just fine in KeyNote and other “slide dissolve” programs.

Will I eventually trade up? Yes. In fact, I already have. I longed for the portability and convenience of the “point-andshoot” cameras so ubiquitous these days, so I recently bought a Fuji 12-megapixel camera. It has an internal lens ranging from moderate wide-angle to telephoto, and is the size and weight of an I-Pod. It cost less than $400, including a 2-GB memory card that holds more than 800 images! I’ve already used it countless times for professional work topside, and I love it. I can use it in auto-mode or take manual control of it for different applications. There are so many “auto” settings embedded, that I can take advantage of ambient light situations never possible with film, and employ special effects only attainable with a film camera by carting along a bag of special-purpose filters.

So, if you think you need the latest stuff and can afford the financial outlay, then go for it. Your local underwater housing outfitter will love you, and no doubt you’ll benefit from features that I haven’t even discovered yet. But remember: digital cameras are pushing 30 megapixels in resolution. Why? And just how much do you want to spend?

An Unforeseen Benefit

Digital cameras are one of the biggest things keeping people interested in diving. Now divers can take damn good photos underwater without an apprenticeship lasting longer than astronaut training for a Mars voyage. Underwater photography used to be hard and unforgiving. Hand a Nikonos to the average diver and even with excellent class instruction and hands-on coaching, results were piss poor at best for most shooters. How many tedious slide shows did you have to sit through at friends’ houses or on dive trips? I’d rather be waterboarded than endure another session of “Fred’s Excellent Diving Adventure.”

Digital systems with their instant feedback underwater via the LCD screen and later review on a laptop allow amateurs to sometimes come back with better images than the pros. Digital cameras are more forgiving with exposures, especially in natural-light situations. Now I’ll gladly sit down and help a new photographer review his shots on the computer screen. They quickly learn to hit the delete button and hone the craft of composition. Style is still a fleeting mystery for some but the nuts and bolts of achieving a useful image are greatly enhanced.

The Bottom Line

Newbert was right: Photography as we knew it is dead. And it’s not coming back. Old film cameras now have so little value that it’s not even worth paying to ship them to a buyer. Almost all magazines and art designers want photo submissions now in digital formats.

And I still have no patience for artificially and fraudulently manipulated images derived through computer programs. That’s not art or photography any more than loading up Madden Football on your computer is like getting tackled for real in the NFL.

But a lot of changes are for the better. Great photography is no longer for an elite cadre of dedicated craftsmen. It’s within reach of all divers through innovations in digital cameras. It may not produce another Chris Newbert or David Doubilet, but it will enrich those divers’ lives and perhaps some others to find an appreciation for the underwater world that previously would have been missing.

I appreciate Newbert’s perspective as well as revere his incredible talent. I come from the same old-school experience of long-suffering hard knocks to achieve success. But just like I discarded my dive tables long ago for a modern diving computer, I’m willing to embrace digital imaging as a welcome innovation that deserves its place at the table.

But I won’t be buying the latest-model camera when it’s released on Monday. I’m still trying to read the 300-page manual from my last one.

Bret Gilliam began diving in 1959 and has been involved professionally in virtually every phase of diving since 1971. He was the publisher of Scuba Times and Fathoms magazines, and is the author or contributor to 38 books. He can be reached at

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