Digital Photograph is Dead. Long Live Digital Photography

I'm writing this from an airport lounge on my way back from D.C., so it may be a bit "stream-of-consciousness", but I felt I needed to comment on a recent article declaring the impending death of digital photography. The crux of the argument is that digital cameras have become good enough for almost everyone, and that innovation has largely stagnated among the major manufacturers.

I agree completely.

Here's the problem, as I see it: digital photography was an evolution of film photography, insofar as the process and equipment are concerned. You could have shot with a Canon EOS 1V at a wedding one week, and the next week shot with an EOS 1D, and the experience would have been largely the same. This was a good decision on the part of the camera manufacturers; it ensured almost complete compatibility in the experience, and allowed pro photographers to smoothly transition into digital.

Unfortunately, digital photography is, in reality, a completely different process than film photography was (and is), particularly in the current era of mirrorless cameras and dynamic ranges of 14+ stops. But the camera manufacturers have held steadfast to decisions - in both form and function - made years ago which no longer make logical sense.

Take one example: exposure metering.

Traditional in-camera metering takes one of three basic forms: spot, centre-weighted, or average. This suited film photography very well; use spot metering for high contrast scenes and average for relatively low contrast scenes. Negative film has such great highlight retention that it didn't matter if you were a bit over, so metering could be a little bit off and you'd still end up with usable images. For reversal film, you generally used spot metering (or, even better, incident metering, which is often inappropriate for negative film).  Early digital cameras had such low dynamic range (only slightly better than reversal film), that spot metering was generally preferred, though improvements in average metering (e.g. matrix metering and others) were quickly made, leading to improved results.

But the issue here is that digital cameras don't need to use any of these types of metering.  At all.  Consider this image:

Thomas Jefferson.  Big guy.

Thomas Jefferson.  Big guy.

This is a very high contrast scene; perhaps 8-10 stops between the bright sunshine and the shadow side of the statue. For negative film, this would not be an issue; expose for the shadows and the highlights will still be ok.  But for digital, this is a challenge. Exposing the same way as negative film would result in massively overexposed highlights.

"So what?", you say. "Just expose for the highlights and then pull the shadows up in post." I agree.  But why can't my camera do this automatically?

This gets to my point: the optimal *exposure* for any digital camera is the exposure that puts the highlights as far to the right as possible, without clipping. Note that this is not the optimal *final product*, but rather the optimal *exposure*; post-processing is required (as it was/is for negative film).  But this expose-to-the-right process maximizes the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and thus provides maximal malleability to the raw image.

Digital cameras should do this automatically.  Modern digital cameras contain powerful CPUs that are easily capable of assessing a scene in a tiny fraction of a second, and determining - within a user-set tolerance - where to place the highlights in order to maximize the SNR. Ideally, this would be accomplished by automatic manipulation of ISO (modern cameras are mostly ISO-invariant anyway)

And yet, no current digital camera does this.  This is, in my view, largely to do with the vestigial nature of current digital cameras; spot, centre-weighted, and average metering worked years ago, and they still do.  But none of them are optimal, given the actual computing capacity of current digital cameras.

There are many other examples of this type of clinging to old ways of thinking (And designing. And operating.) amongst digital camera makers. Even Fujifilm, which largely "gets it", is guilty of this. The rotating ISO dial on the X-Pro2?  Why, Fuji?  Why?  There's retro, and then there's blatant skeumorphism.

So no, digital photography is not dying.  But it certainly is sick.  The first manufacturer to step up and completely rethink things will reap the benefits and will, hopefully, completely revolutionize a sector that has not seen a revolution in quite some time.