As I continue to add to my photography memoir, I have so far only spoken of my time with film photography. These days, I primarily use my digital cameras. So at some point, I made the transition. That point happened in 2007, in part because I wanted to explore digital. But a contributing factor was that life circumstances changed in a manner that afforded me the opportunity to switch.
In 2007, my professional world changed. After about 18 months of effort and after five separate exams, I had completed my Landscape Architecture Registration Exams (LARE). Like any professional licensure exam, the LARE took up a large portion of my life for several months where most of my free time was spent studying. The exam is comprised of five sections that I took separately over the course of 18 months (or maybe it was closer to two years…I tried to shut that part out of my mind). Mixed in there were other obligations as well: My first child was born, I took over management of my department at work and of course money grew tighter. In the world of photography, I didn’t get much spare time to shoot, but I still carried my camera everywhere. I just didn’t use as much film because it was getting expensive. Remember, by this time, digital photography was starting to take hold and film demand was dwindling. So the cost of film and development products and services were increasing, accordingly.
I wanted to switch to digital photography if only to reduce the demand for expensive and limited resources. Unfortunately, I did not have the startup costs. By this point, I had been using my permanently-borrowed Nikon N2000 for fifteen years. I never bought a new camera. If I were to stick with film only, I might have bought a newer Nikon F-series camera. They weren’t cheap, but they were about half the cost of comparable digital cameras. And let’s not forget that my 25-year-old lenses were not well suited for digital cameras. To get started in digital photography, I needed about $1000 to get some basic gear. That may not seem like a lot to some. But it was a lot to a thirty-year-old with a wife, child, new house and plans to expand the family.
My license, however, came with a nice bonus from my company that gave me the money to get started. It was unexpected, but I put that bonus to use right away. Always true to form: My wife supported my decision as well.
I had been dreaming of the switch to digital for a while, so the research was pretty simple. I already knew about a lot of the important details like the megapixels and the sensor types and so on. I considered a few different brands, specifically Pentax, Nikon, and Canon. Pentax didn’t seem to be very popular at the time. And Canon’s were nice, but the entry level cameras felt light, plasticy and the interface left something to be desired (read: it felt cheap). That debate was pretty short: I was pretty happy with my film lineup, so I decided to stick with Nikon. I couldn’t afford a pro-body. But I could at least afford something that was closer to my skill level.
There is a big difference between the interface of the traditional film SLRs and the Digital SLRs. With my film cameras, the aperture was usually controlled with a ring around the lens (it was actually part of the lens). Shutter speed was usually a dial on top of the camera. I grew pretty accustomed to working in manual mode, which gave me control of both the aperture and the shutter speed at the same time. I was even able to do so without taking the camera away from my eye. With the advent of digital cameras, the industry seemed to favor simpler lenses and the aperture ring was eliminated. On entry level cameras, Nikon only had one jog dial which adjusted both the aperture and shutter speed, but only one at a time depending on the mode you were in. If you were in manual mode, you had to adjust the aperture using a button-jog-dial combination. This was not a feature I liked. It was the primary reason I ended up choosing the Nikon D80: It was an intermediate camera that had two jog dials, each dedicated to aperture or shutter speed.
My first year with the D80 was a steep learning curve. My photography education was on hold temporarily while I simply learned the differences between digital and film. There were advantages of digital (aside from cost). For example, I was not used to blowing 100 images before having to change the “film”. I also wasn’t used to changing the ISO on the fly. There were other challenges to overcome. With my film cameras, you got a nice, even grain when you shot below the film (darker conditions than the film was designed for); but a long enough exposure still looked relatively clean. With digital, long exposures resulted in hot spots while the sensor overheated. So very long exposures (30 seconds or more) was not feasible. You could raise the ISO, but the resulting noise was not at all welcoming like the classic film grain. I also had to get over the sharpness factor. On film, you could get sharper images by using better film. With digital, you actually needed a better camera (which I could not afford). The D80, as good as it was for the era, was just not nearly as sharp as the N2000 with a good roll of film.
A challenge that was especially difficult for me to overcome was a lack of manual-focus feedback system. The D80 didn’t have one. In the film era, almost every camera had a feedback focusing screen, a screen you could see through the viewfinder that helped you focus. Both my N2000 and my Canon AE-1 had a split prism focusing screen which consisted of two concentric circles in the middle of the viewfinder. The middle circle was split in half and lines would appear split if the subject was not in focus. The ring around this would reveal a grid pattern when out of focus. The new digital camera had none of that. Furthermore, I couldn’t replace the focusing screen on the D80 without a risky and warranty-voiding procedure. On the other hand, I never had an auto-focus camera before. So I had to learn that system.
So the transition to digital was a challenge. My progress was almost hindered by my experience. Sometimes, I wonder if it would have been easier if I started with no knowledge or experience. On one hand, I feel like the 2007-2008 era was another hole in my photography life. I didn’t produce any photos – at least none that I was proud of – and I felt like my work had stagnated. On the other hand, it was a necessary journey that led me to where I am today. Changing formats is never easy. So I feel anyone would look at such a transition as a dark period in their life. In the end, I wouldn’t give it up.