Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022
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Virtual Conversion

A die-hard slide photographer sees the digital light

The inevitability, and inescapability, of advancing technology makes its point in Louangphrabang, in off-the-beaten-track Laos. At dusk, young monks -- just boys, shaven-headed, wearing robes the colour of tangerines, wearing digital cameras -- make for the nearest Internet café.

I am no longer pooh-poohing the electronic image. I'm not saying I've crossed the floor, but I feel like some prehistoric critter thawed from a block of ice when the clerks at Kodak tell me Kodachrome -- my Kodachrome, the film I've been using for 45 years -- is so out-of-date, it can only be processed in Switzerland. Switzerland? Will the bloody film take six months and come back, like a Swiss cheese, with holes in it?

Okay, it's true enough that I'm a tad fed up with lugging 50 rolls of film in a heavy bag made of lead fabric to protect my pictures from the demon X-ray machines at airports. I'm fed up with battling security personnel over my right to a manual inspection of my film. And I fret about where I might have screwed up as my film goes to the lab.

A card-carrying photographic junky, I still hold that the most precious souvenirs we bring home from our travels are the pictures we take. What a marvellous alchemy photography is -- this miracle of plucking a moment from the rush of time and orchestrating it into something beautiful and powerful to look at. What an egalitarian form of self-expression, everyman's art.

It's just that everything else has changed. The word "photography" is as outmoded as me. The new word is imaging, to accommodate the onslaught of digital.

"The new digitals really do spell the end of photography as we know it," says Alex Hille, digital imaging specialist at Henry's, a leading Toronto retailer. "Look at cameras like the Kodak DCS Pro, jointly developed by Kodak and Nikon. It boasts a groundbreaking 13.5 megapixels -- that's 13.5 million pixels of information. It not only matches but surpasses photography as we know it. At full power, this camera can give you sharp images the size of a wall mural."

"Not only that," says Hille, "there's a qualitative difference between film and digital. In a photograph, grain makes up the image. With digital, there is no grain. Minus that veil, however slight it may be, you're seeing the reality of your subject with a distinct and unusual clarity."

Technology and its attendant gibberish scares me stiff. If I pick up a flyer for a camera sale, I start looking for the subtitles. On one hand, I like the idea of the small fortune to be saved on film and processing. On the other, there's a whole lot more than money to the biggest revolution in picture-taking since George Eastman came up with the box camera.

The choice of digitals in a camera store boggles. Some digitals -- the popular Kodak EasyShare my wife uses, for one -- come with a compact dock printer that bypasses the computer and turns out vibrant three by five-inch prints in seconds. It's impossible to overestimate the appeal of a camera that dances around computer migraines.

Road Test
"Normal" these days is a point-and-shoot, four-megapixel camera capable of producing good images up to 11 by 14, and professional quality prints up to five by seven inches. For email and most prints, it more than does the job. But I'm in pursuit of bigger game. I want to see for myself if digital can stack up to my 35mm Kodachrome images.

To get a grasp on the larger picture, literally, I went to Kodak, "Big Yellow," which has not wasted time in its plunge into the digital market. I negotiated a loaner on the aforementioned Kodak DCS Pro. This camera isn't cheap. It goes for $6600 at Henry's and that's only the camera body. But this is a camera that, as glitches are eliminated and prices plummet -- as they always do -- will shape the future of travel imaging. It became my close companion on a 10-week journey across Southeast Asia and China, a serious workout.

Before departure, I versed myself in some of the advantages of digital. No longer do I need to protect my images from X-ray, which now do no damage. Nor am I packing "bricks" of film when a memory card or two contain massive visual information. Now the airport demon is the metal detector: don't take a memory card through the machine unless you want it deep-fried.

Gone is the fear of running out of film. Diligent editing -- delete, delete, delete -- and carrying multiple memory cards means you never run out of "film." In my case, a laptop computer stores hundreds of hi-res images. It's a pain to drag around and transferring images takes a full hour every night, but ultimately, it's worth it.


Certainly one of the beauties of the Pro and others of its generation is the 35mm-style body and acceptance of the Nikon zoom and wide-angle lenses I already have. The similarity between the Pro and my Nikon camera makes for a comfortable fit and much less anxious transition. Its exposure system operates in shutter speeds and f-stops, just the way a conventional camera does. It is this crossover technology -- the chance to go digital while staying with your expensive lenses -- that's created a boom in 35mm-style digitals for market giants Nikon, Canon and Minolta.

To me, the most amazing aspect of digital is that ISO speeds and resolutions can be set for each image. In other words, every image behaves like a different roll of film tailored to your subject. With the Pro, I can set my ISO speed from 100 to 1600 to deal with lighting situations from misty mornings to purple dusks.

I can also change my resolution from four to a whopping 13.5 megapixels. If all I want is an email image, I use minimal memory. If I want a sweeping riverscape on the Mekong or a tableau among the ruins of Angkor, I can go full-boogie for images bigger than me.

Shooting my way through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and China's Sichuan Province, I loved digital's forgiving nature. The viewing screen on the camera allows me an instant review of every image. I deleted my catastrophes, which were many. I had the luxury of shooting until I got it right. Second chances had never come so cheap.

I was free to capture Mekong riverscapes, markets, village life, temples, festivals, ruins, monuments. I shot the great Delta at sunrise. In Laos, in Luang Prabang, a parade of 300 Buddhist monks in single-file passed my hotel every morning at 6:05am, and I was there waiting. The joy of archeological photography was never more intense than atop Angkor's Bayon Temple at dusk. At an elephant camp in Thailand, my wife Carol trained as a mahout -- hosing, scrubbing, cuddling and riding her elephant. In China's Sichuan Province, giant pandas mugged for the camera. Dazzling new architecture scraped the skies over Shanghai and Hong Kong. The camera devoured the lot.

The replay screen became a social facilitator. I've always loved shooting people-pictures, but it calls for the utmost diplomacy. Now, day after day, in village after village, people spellbound by seeing themselves pop up on the back of a camera, were volunteering. Suddenly, it was all smiles and laughter -- as it was among the long-necked Padaung tribe on a day trip into Burma's corner of the Golden Triangle. Make no mistake, digital is a party animal.

Light my Wire
Am I astride the digital learning curve? Nah, more like a novice rodeo rider on a bucking bronco. A Kodak expert warned me that a freshly shot image is really just a starting point in this technology. One evening, we were racing across Vientiane to catch a stupa at dusk. We missed the good light by 60 seconds. With film, it would be over. Not so with digital. A few moves of the cursor and there it is, the stupa bathing in the golden hues of last light.

This brave new imaging world sends me into spasms of longing for the old days when transparencies and a light board where all I needed. Now the software takes over, allowing you to crop, brighten, darken, alter contrast, tinker with colour balance, eliminate obtrusive detail, even fine-tune slightly out-of-focus images. You find you're making some of the biggest decisions after you shoot the picture. It gobbles up a whack of time. Does anybody have a whack of time these days?

You ask, can digital be worth it? Well, count the ways of making the most of your best. I go back to the era of the Kodak Carousel projector and slideshow, which went the way of the dodo when transparencies committed the profoundly modern sin of being inconvenient. A happy consequence of digital is the rebirth of the slide show. You can transfer your images to CD disks and play them back on a large TV monitor.

The computer itself becomes a kind of image centre, enhancing and refining images and formatting them for email or disk or prints. Email sees images flying back and forth via computer. For displaying prints, the photo album is giving ground to playful refrigerator galleries and enlargements in all manner of inventive frames and photo walls sold even in hardware stores.

A super-high-resolution camera like the Pro proves its mettle with enlargements for home and office. I'm working with Silvano Color Lab on an exhibition of 24 by 36-inch prints on the Mekong River as it passes through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and China. My eye tells me these images are as sharp and bright as what I'd been getting from my 35mm SLR system. I guess I'm sold. Now I wait for the fine-tuning of technology and the drastic lowering of prices.

Does anything not change in the bullish new world of imaging? Yes, a certain comforting tradition. Every image is, even with computer cunning, a triumph not of technology but of a creative process that begins with the human eye and may end with the human heart. George Eastman, who started us on the imaging road almost 120 years ago, is not exactly whirling in his grave.


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