My Camera Essay

Happily, I never faced such a dilemma. I was ready to wait till hell froze over before I'd spend upwards of five or six grand on a, harrumph, digital system. Remember: I'm the troglodyte who loves his all-manual, all mechanical Leica M6, Hasselblad 500CM and Zone VI 4x5 field camera–all of which run on finger power and film. (You remember film, don't you?)

Also, I was pretty happy with the digital camera I already had – a Canon PowerShot G1, a 3.34 megapixel point-and-shoot that once was top-of-the-line in Canon's impressive stable of digital P&S cameras. The G1 featured some cool bells and whistles, was pleasantly sturdy to hold, and was remarkably easy to use. It also could fit into a shirt pocket, provided the pocket was one of those billowy kind found on safari shirts. [Note: Canon has since upgraded and improved this terrific camera twice, in the PowerShot G2 and the current PowerShot G3.]

But even as I carried the G1 around my neck all through every wedding and event I covered over the past two years – to supplement my "real" film work with electronic images that could quickly be put up on the web or downloaded to CD – I always was aware of this camera's two biggest shortcomings.

The first, of course, was shutter lag – that awful eternity that plagues any consumer-grade digital. I swear in some shooting modes a good quarter-second would pass between pressing the shutter release and actually making the shot – great fun when you are trying to capture action on the fly or a fleeting expression.

But the worst drawback to this or any other digital P&S was the fact that, sophisticated internally as these cameras might have been, they still were fixed-lens cameras. I was stuck with the G1's 7-21mm zoom (the equivalent of roughly a 35-105 lens in 35mm), just as I was stuck with waiting for this lens to make its way slowly and methodically up and down whenever I wanted to zoom in or out.

In retrospect, given the way digital has blanketed the photography market, I am surprised that manufacturers took so long to offer consumers a high-quality mid-level digital SLR that would take multiple lenses, offer an enticing array of features, not require a degree in rocket science to use, and, most important, not bankrupt the photographer – at least not too much.

Nikon's D-100 and Fuji's Finepix S2 Pro are each wonderful cameras that debuted at roughly the same time, each garnering its share of good reviews. A comparison of the two cameras is inevitable since each is made from a Nikon N80 body – a lightweight (I think too lightweight) polycarbonate shell that houses impressive electronics and similar, though by no means identical, features.

Each camera will set you back about two thousand dollars – the Fuji costs several hundred dollars more and, I think, is worth it. List on the D-100 is just under $2,000; street roughly $1700. List on the S2 about $2400; street about $2,000.

[Note: I am old enough to think two grand is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on any camera system, much less any camera body. But given the astronomical prices asked for the really high-end digitals these days, these two cameras are in their own way bargains. Both the D-100 and the S2 offer features that just a few years ago were not even found in cameras triple their price.]

Now, as to specifics...

My own non-scientific observations of picture quality, as well as numerous published comparisons between the D-100 and S2, give the nod for picture quality to Fuji. In fairness, you may find virtually no difference between the two; the differences in many cases are that small. Though both cameras contain CCDs offering images of 6 megapixel-plus, the S2 claims the ability to produce "an image file with ...12.1 million recorded pixels for pictures with stunning color and detail that are sure to please even the most discerning photographer..."

However, the 12 megapixel magic apparently is achieved through post-production interpolation of data – a kind of computer magic to supersize the file. That also means that the "discerning photographer" may find he or she is dealing with a file so large that it is simply too unwieldy to deal with in most practical cases.

Bottom line: each camera takes a hell of a picture.

Where the Nikon has only one media slot, for a CompactFlash card or a Microdrive, the S2 has the nifty advantage of taking two separate media at the same time, if desired: CF card or Microdrive as well as the new, ultra-slim Smartmedia cards. If you choose to load the S2 with both media, you can switch between them with the push of a button.

I should note, though, that the S2 seems to push you toward the sometimes dubious choice of huge-capacity IBM microdrives (think of a CF card on steroids), noting in its manual that "Some CompactFlash cards may not work properly..." I found this out the hard way when a 256mb CF card I had just bought for this very camera sat in my S2 like a thick wad of chewing gum stuck in my throat. When I exchanged this first CF card for another, by a different manufacturer, the replacement worked just fine. Make sure to check beforehand.

[As to why a microdrive is a dubious choice, especially since I've happily been using one for my commercial and personal work for a number of years, let me explain. First, a microdrive's huge capacity – upwards of 750 images on one "card" – can make retrieval of images take forever, especially if you want to review or search for an image quickly. No fun while working; even less fun while on vacation. More important, these media are more delicate than CF cards because they actually contain ultra-tiny moving hard disks. This means that a microdrive too easily can become micro-toast if it is dropped or jostled too hard. As you might guess, I treat mine with care. Oh, and another thing, they ain't cheap. Mine cost me $350.My advice with each camera – stick with CF cards.]

For longtime Nikon users like me, lens compatibility was a major attraction with both cameras. Each features the legendary Nikon F lens mount, though the cameras work full-function only with the newer D and G series Nikkor lenses.

Sensitivity range for both cameras is wide, 100-1600 for the S2; 200-1600 with the D-100. The differences, I feel are negligible. Nikon also offers the option of shooting in two "Hi" modes, equivalent to 3200 and 6400 film ISO, but warns up front that the images will be full of "noise," or electronic grain.

In both cameras, the dreaded shutter lag dragon has pretty much been slain. Though neither camera sounds or feels like a panther-like Leica, or a top-of-the-line D1x, there is blessedly little disconnect between button-push and image-making.

So, far, anyway, the S2 and the D-100 have been pretty much equal.

However, Fuji does pull away bigtime from the D-100 in two important areas.

First, the S2 again offers redundancy, this time in the means by which one can download data. It offers not only USB interface (as does the D-100) but also Firewire, which can be a boon when speed is important (as, frankly, it always is.)

Finally, the old studio and location shooter in me loves the fact that the S2 comes with a PC connector for external strobes. The D-100 does not, unless you buy an adapter, and this little bit of cost-cutting gets my goat. Granted, each camera comes with a TTL on-camera pop-up flash, but sooner or later a little bird will fly up to you and chirp in your ear: "You mean to tell me you paid nearly two grand for your camera and you can't connect it with your strobelights right out of the box?!"

A little thing, but as the song says, little things mean a lot.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

On the third of July 1839 François Arago stood in the Chamber of Deputies, France, in order to persuade the French government to purchase Louis Daguerre’s patents for the revolutionary Daguerreotype photographic process. Arago was keen to emphasise the scientific applications of this new apparatus. (1) Persuaded by this argument, the government bought the patents. Arago’s stance at the founding moment of photography was one that widely persists today: the camera is considered to be fundamentally an instrument of science, not of art. Before anyone had even conceived the notion of documentary photography, the seeds of conflict had been planted.

By the 1870s cameras and printing presses were being used to discover and disseminate scientific knowledge that could not have been attained previously. Pioneering motion studies, such as Eadweard Muybridge’s horse sequences were sealing the reputation of the camera as an instrument that operated without inflection. The photograph was thought to be the visual analogue of the written factual record (‘the camera never lies’). However John Taylor observes in his examination of 1930s documentary realism that this is a common misconception. (2)

The belief in photography as factual record persisted into and throughout the twentieth century, largely due to the insurmountable influence of the newspaper. In addition to the technical constraints of the printing press, editors imposed formal constraints on the medium to pander to the public perception of what constituted an accurate observation. Taylor notes: (3) The camera’s ability to produce sharp images had become its limiting factor. People considered a sufficiently in-focus photograph to be an accurate factual record, as if ‘the truth’ was inherent in the clarity of the image. Accepted without question by the public, the photograph became (4) The further the written word moved from the reality portrayed in an accompanying photograph, the more subjective and the less accurate the written word was considered.

An exception to this rule are Robert Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landings, taken when he joined the first wave of troops to land on the Normandy beaches in June 1944. His photographs have been printed accompanied by a personal written account of the experience from Capa:

“I didn’t dare to take my eyes off the finder of my Contax and frantically shot frame after frame. Half a minute later, my camera jammed – my roll was finished. I reached in my bag for a new roll, and my wet, shaking hands ruined the roll before I could insert it in the camera.” (5)

Capa’s account is subjective and emotional, yet his images do not lessen the perceived accuracy of his words. His photographs of the landing - smeared, grainy and slightly out of focus - actually validate the drama of his written account. Famously, when his film rolls were received for developing at the London press office an over-zealous darkroom technician turned the heat too high in the dryer and melted the emulsions. Out of 106 pictures, only 8 were salvaged (6) and even these few were almost destroyed. The damage makes the images even more startling: the smear of the action is enhanced, the detail lost, and the pattern of the sprocket holes on the negative has spilled visibly into the frame. One of the 8 photographs made the cover of TIME magazine. These images are uniquely interesting among contemporary reportage photography because they acknowledge the possibility of subjective reality in the photographic record. Capa’s photographs could not claim to be the truth in the accepted sense but they could claim to be ‘a truth’ - they were true to his experience.

This illustrates a conflict in representation that is ongoing today. On one side, the belief that reality is totally subjective, that every representation is constructed and interpreted. On the other side is the belief that the only problem reality poses is (7) By the 1960s the horizons of documentary filmmaking were about to be significantly widened, and the documentary film drawn to the centre of the conflict. Richard Leacock, a documentary filmmaker and soon to be key figure, had talked about the (8) and his ideas were about to be realised.

In the early 1960s the Eclair hand-held camera and the Nagra sound recorder appeared, making portable recording with synchronised sound possible for the first time in the history of cinema. These technical advances allowed for a revolution in documentary filmmaking practices, and filmmakers made uncompromising claims for the technology. They believed they were finally able to (9) Almost immediately the filmmakers deployed the new technology to this end, developing new ethics of non-intervention to chase the elusive ideals of objectivity and of the film as evidence. So the cinéma-vérité or ‘direct cinema’ movement was formed. Leacock and Al Maysles made the groundbreaking film, Primary, and others followed soon after. The vérité filmmakers talked of a purely observational mode of documentary. 120 years after François Arago had first claimed the camera for science, they were reasserting that claim. Their attitude, argues Brian Winston, was that the camera was (10)

However, many of the conventions of cinéma-vérité can be easily recognised - despite its attempts to hide the processes of its creation, they still exist. (11) had all become stylistic quirks that pandered to the audience’s expectations. In the 1940s Capa’s famous D-Day photographs had altered the public perception of reportage photography, and in due course the new look he pioneered became the convention: (12) In the 1960s Jean-Luc Godard proved that audiences were making similar associations with cinéma-vérité techniques when he used those same techniques to bring a sense of immediacy and authenticity to his fiction films. Even if, as was claimed, the purely observational documentary could be achieved using the latest technology, still it would not attain the status of a factual record of events. Non-interventionism is no guarantor of factual accuracy because the act of observation is subjective. As Colin MacCabe rightly insists, (13)

Many critics have concluded that the conventional modes of representation are reliant on a passive audience willing to accept the filmmaker’s portrayal of reality without question. The claim that the indisputable truth could be captured in the recorded image implied that (14) In response to this claim some critics argued for a (15) According to Bill Nichols: (16) Chris Marker is one such filmmaker, and his desire to make his audience aware of the complexity of representation is a defining characteristic of his film, Sunless.

In his analysis of Sunless, Jon Kear observes that (17) From the first sequence this is at work. We watch serene silent footage of three children walking in an Icelandic landscape, which has the (18) of a home movie, after which a length of black leader runs. says the narrator, as the black leader is interrupted by acquired footage of an American warplane descending into an aircraft carrier, creating a skilfully constructed association (contrary to the narrator’s assertion) between the innocence of childhood and the horror of war that entirely alters our perception of the images. The narrator continues: Of course, Marker knows that we perceive a lot more than that.

Throughout Sunless Marker is openly searching for a method of representation that is analogous to human consciousness. Recurring icons and themes – animals, cultural nuance, history/memory – are the subject matter for his film experiment. Each time a theme is revisited, our perception of it is altered as we infer new meaning from the ever-changing context of everything that has come before. The film considers the past to be in a constant state of transformation; history repeats itself as previous and future events touch in the spiral of time. Marker employs montage extensively, constructing complex sequences that allude to our remembering and forgetting, using intricate patterns of association and dissociation to mimic the scattered nature of our memory recall. Sunless overwhelms the viewer with its philosophical postcards narrated from a dreamscape of rapid and dislocated picture edits. Is the camera filming the traveller’s tangled thoughts and memories, or the narrator’s, or is the camera itself dreaming? At one point the narrator describes an idea the traveller has had for a future project to be called ‘Sunless’, implying that Marker considers the version of the film we are viewing to be only one of many possible solutions to this representational puzzle. The most radical of the film’s experiments in representation, ‘The Zone’, is interesting if considered in this context.

The Zone is a process of electronically transforming images into an abstract and barely recognisable form, intended to reveal to us the unsatisfactory nature of all forms of representation. In The Zone, Marker shows us transformed archive images, television pictures, and excerpts from Sunless itself. Of the transformed television images, the narrator comments that after transformation they are more truthful: The presence of excerpts from Sunless in The Zone is a reminder that they too are no more or less constructed and interpreted than any form of representation.

As filmmaking moves into the digital age, the relevance of Marker’s argument becomes ever more apparent. The Zone’s crude transformations may be obvious to us, but with modern digital technology, an image can be subtly or radically altered by processes that are undetectable. Brian Winston claims that (19) The implications of this statement are troubling: if digital imagery is untrustworthy as a document of anything but its own creation, the observational mode of documentary cannot exist in the digital age, and the position of the self-reflexive mode must be complete scepticism.

In fact observational documentary filmmakers have embraced small lightweight digital camcorders as an advance towards the ideal of non-interventionism. If digitalisation is not destroying observational documentary, then the issue of realism is more complex than both cinéma-vérité’s proponents and critics would have us believe. The danger of the self-reflexive mode of documentary, a danger apparent in Sunless, is that it (20) as it seeks to challenge the observational mode and in so doing becomes hopelessly entangled in the search for alternative forms of representation.

Dana Polan has instead argued for a revised approach to theories of representation in order to avoid these pitfalls. She argues for approaching representation not as a process of controlling a submissive audience, but as a contract in which the audience (21) Within the structure of a contract we can see audiences’ changing perceptions of what constitutes realism and truth as a natural process, an ever-evolving language of codes. Each new technique that the filmmaker deploys only temporarily attains new heights of realism in the minds of an audience, until the language evolves again.

Within this structure the theory of realism as being contained in the image must be set aside. The filmmaker manipulates the audience’s perception of realism by using what is a mutually understood and agreed-upon language of code and convention. Self-reflexivity becomes an invaluable tool for filmmakers to make audiences aware of the language, and so ensure its continued evolution. Photography’s claim to the ideal of the factual record may finally be destroyed by the digital age, but the debate on realism will continue for as long as there are filmmakers and audiences.

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