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The Ever Changing Digital Landscape

2015 September 17

[Note: this piece was first published in the September/October 2015 Outdoor Writers of Canada newsletter, Inside Outdoors.]

Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

It’s amazing how things have changed over my career in this business. When I started back in the 1970s, I wrote in longhand on foolscap and typed my later drafts on a heavy, manual, desk typewriter that I soon replaced with a portable electric model. I slowly learned to type my first drafts on the typewriter. Of course, in those days when you got an edited manuscript back from a publisher, you had to retype the whole thing when you revised it—risking the inevitable typographic errors. And once your manuscript was accepted, a typesetter had to retype the whole thing yet again. So, you were provided a proof to edit to ensure your manuscript was entered correctly. It was a lot of work for all parties that you just accepted as the way things were done.

Of course, personal computers and word processing changed all that. I was an early adopter, purchasing an Apple II+ back in 1981 with the proceeds of a contract. Although word processing speeded the editing and revising process, I still had to print my drafts and send them by postal mail to publishers, most of whom in those days were reluctant to adopt the new digital technology for economic reasons—retooling being a large capital investment.

But adopt they eventually did, and then along came the Internet and e-mail in the 1990s. In a few short years the way we communicated with each other changed. No longer did we have to wait for postal mail to return a physical manuscript. Its digital version could be delivered right to the machine on which it was written in the first place. Also gone was having to completely retype each draft.

Nikon F1

The Nikon F1 was one of the first cameras to have “through-the-lens” light metering.

Digital photography came along a little more slowly. Back in the 1970s I was using a Nikon F1 Single Lens Reflex (SLR) film camera with an assortment of lenses that I had acquired over the years. The big advantage of this camera over older models was that it had a through-the-lens light metre system that allowed you to adjust exposure while you looked at the light-metre needle in the viewfinder (instead of looking at a external light metre and adjusting exposure before raising the camera). The camera took great photos, but of course you didn’t know how good they were until the film returned from the developer. Over the years, I upgraded the camera as new electronic features came along, such as auto-focusing and auto-exposure.

Then in the early 1990s I attended a photographic workshop in Edmonton sponsored by some major players in the industry. Film was still the way things were done but the workshop had a session on how some publishers were digitizing film images to enhance the printing process. Fujifilm, however, demonstrated a 35 mm SLR camera that had been outfitted with a digital sensor, bypassing the film stage all together and displaying the camera’s image on a TV screen. The Fujifilm representative stated that despite its name, his company had decided to hasten the obsolescence of film, as they believed digital would soon rule the photographic world. Although everyone was amazed with what they saw, most of us did not realize how fast digital was indeed coming. Within a few years, digital cameras flooded the market. Most of the early versions were point-and-shoots, but the SLR camera quickly caught up.

Seeing the writing on the wall, I jumped when I found Nikon had a digital SLR (or DSLR) model within my price range that would accept my film camera lenses. However, once again, publishers were slow to catch up. At an OWC regional meeting I attended in Edmonton, I remember someone asking a publisher how he wished photographers to send him images. He stated he would not accept digital, that he would only accept traditional color slides as he always had. He felt digital still had a long way to go to compete with film. I looked around the room and saw many people shaking their heads, knowing the publisher’s position was retrograde. But I also realized the publisher was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He had a significant investment in the old technology, and didn’t want to risk the acquisition of something new that might not be that great. Indeed, early digital images were inferior to those on film, not matching film’s color subtlety or detail. But what this particular publisher did not realize was that digital had already caught up and was passing film in quality and versatility. Soon all photographers and publishers had adopted the new technology in order to keep pace with each other.

And of course, the race to digital didn’t stop there. Nowadays, smart phones and tablets have word processing abilities and cameras that can take both stills and video. Indeed, the cameras and screens in these devices have improved with each new version, making it possible to take some quality photos and videos with a device that can be carried in a shirt pocket. The popularity and portability of these devices have put them into the hands of just about everyone, and that has changed the landscape of who and how photos and videos are taken, published, viewed and paid for.

Recently I replaced my aging and battered DSLR with an Olympus E-M5 model. It is hard to call this camera single-lens-reflex anymore. What made SLRs and DSLRs “reflex” cameras was the internal mirror that reflexed (i.e., reflected) the lens image up to the viewfinder prior to exposure so the operator could see the image exactly as it would appear in the photo. As the shutter button was pressed the mirror flipped up so the image would be cast on the film or sensor. In the M5 the mirror is gone. What you see in the viewfinder is the electronic image the sensor “sees”. Of course some digital point-and-shoots and camcorders have been doing this for a few years, but again SLRs are catching up or indeed reinventing themselves.

Another feature that sold me on this camera was its image-stabilization system based in the camera body. Most other such systems in DSLRs are placed in individual lenses, greatly increasing their costs. This is the first I have used a stabilization system and I am totally sold on it. I have made some hand-held photographs of birds at some distance using a 300 mm (film equivalent) telephoto lens and the images have been razor sharp—a condition I could only obtain previously using a tripod.

Among the other new features in this digital camera is its use of Wi-Fi to access the Internet. Yes, I can send photos directly from the camera to my smartphone, tablet or indeed my home computer, where I can view in detail and show friends. That’s about as far away from having to wait for the photos to be returned from a film developer as you can get.

Yes, the digital landscape is constantly changing and it can be a challenge to keep up with it all, especially for old guys like me who tend to appreciate old things that work well for a long time. However, if we want to take advantage of the new business opportunities this technology is providing, we need to at least keep abreast of what is happening, and be prepared to take leaps of faith when they feel appropriate. For now, I’ll keep climbing the steep learning curves ahead of me.

Comments are always welcome (below).

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