Myths, Misinformation & Misunderstandings

True, you can learn things about digital cameras and photography everywhere-your local newspaper, newsmagazines, prestigious financial papers and much more. Digital photography has become so popular that everyone is getting into the act. Yet the quality and accuracy of that information isn’t always what it could be. I’ve I’ve read articles about equipment or technology PCPhoto has covered and scratch my head. Are they talking about the same things we are?
Admittedly, one problem is that digital today is still evolving. What was absolutely true a few years ago can be totally wrong today. That’s a price we pay for rapidly changing technology. On the other hand, there’s an awful lot of material in books, magazines, newspapers and on the Web that’s inaccurate, misleading and sometimes so far off that you wonder if the reporter couldn’t fill a gap in the story and just made things up.

There are some common misconceptions and misrepresented information about digital photography that PCPhoto would like clear up (knowing that it also will make us targets of the “yes, butâ?¦” folks). Everything you see on these pages came from a specific and credible source, but we’re not quoting them because some of them are bigger than we are and might come calling.

Those Lying, Cheating Megapixels
I’ve overheard salespeople at retailers comment on how much better a
certain camera is because of the megapixels. Round-up articles about digital cameras in newspapers tend to overemphasize megapixel numbers. Over the years, manufacturers and retailers have hyped megapixels as a critical factor in buying a digital camera. No wonder this is so confusing!

A few years ago, megapixels were a defining characteristic of a digital camera, especially when the first 1-megapixel cameras came out. Finally, true photo quality appeared possible. Then 2- and 3-megapixel sensors upped the quality so that excellent 4×6, 5×7 and 8×10 prints could be made. Advertising the benefits of more megapixels made sense.

Now with 4, 6 and 8 megapixels common, you no longer can compare cameras strictly on megapixels. Each of those sizes is capable of superb, highest-quality prints at 11×14 inches and larger. The more megapixels, the bigger you can make a print, but unless you’re a pro, there’s more difference in many other camera features than megapixels for the average photographer. But like Tim Allen and “Tool Time,” big sometimes overpowers reason.

All megapixels aren’t created equal, either. Tiny photosites on a 5-megapixel cell phone camera have no hope of matching the color, tone, low noise and other characteristics of a 4-megapixel pro camera, for example (let alone getting a high-quality lens into a small cell phone). For true digital cameras, once you have enough megapixels, other features-from lens type and quality to lag time to exposure systems to ISO settings and noise-become more important.

Space Invaders Plunder Computers
You’ll read a lot of books that say to never use sRGB and always use Adobe RGB (1998) as color spaces for digital cameras and other digital files. These two color spaces are different-sRGB is smaller than Adobe RGB, to be sure, but size isn’t everything. Does this mean that you should always buy and use a big car because it has more cargo space? It all depends on what you need.

 

 

Since sRGB was originally developed for display purposes, many digital workers assume that it’s only useful for the Web and screen display. That’s a very limiting attitude. There’s no question that when dealing with precise colors in a specific color range, Adobe RGB has an edge over sRGB.

But sRGB offers high-quality results, too. Because it’s a simpler color space, it can help photographers get to a print they like faster than working with Adobe RGB, as the slightly more limited color space can be easier to work with. In addition, since many small digital cameras only offer sRGB, saying you must use Adobe RGB ignores the quality results possible from these cameras.

New digital photographers are disappointed in what they first see on the screen with Adobe RGB since this color space spreads out the colors and tones more, sometimes making the image look dull. When they started using sRGB, they were much happier.

It’s interesting to me that pro photographers who used to only work with slide film never complained about the smaller “color space” of slides compared to print film (print film has a far greater tonal and color range than slide film). They liked its colors and tonal rendition. Now, some of these same photographers will absolutely insist that they must have the larger color space of Adobe RGB. Such arguments are never about the photography, however, but about numbers, i.e., how much bigger the Adobe RGB color space was.

This is really what the sRGB and Adobe RGB choice is about-personal preferences. If you like the results that sRGB gives you, you can use it and forget those books that chastise you for even thinking of anything else. If you like what you get from Adobe RGB, then use it and make great images, too.

 

Attack Of The CD-Eating Rot
“CD rot” is an interesting misconception that’s based on real facts. Older, poorly manufactured CDs have had problems with the lamination of the top layer of the disc, where it chemically decays and “rots” from the edges, making the CD unusable. This became a big news story that went across the wire services nationwide and alarmed many, including photographers using CD-Rs for archiving images.

 

Several things are important to consider (and this applies both to CDs and DVDs). First, there’s no evidence that discs made by quality manufacturers for archival purposes (which we’ve always recommended for PCPhoto readers) have or will have any problems with CD rot. Second, extensive testing by quality CD manufacturers of their premium discs, such as Verbatim DataLife or Delkin Archival Gold, shows that these discs will hold up for decades and even centuries as long as they’re not physically abused. Third, cheap discs have had more problems than just CD rot, including not being able to be read by multiple computers and becoming unreadable by all computers within a short time (another reason to avoid cheap, too-good-to-be-true deals on CDs). Finally, there’s some evidence that the acid in permanent markers can affect the top layer of a CD or DVD; use markers made specifically for these discs.

Digital Images Found In Dead Sea Scrolls
The misconception that digital images can’t last as long as photos from film took a nasty turn when a group promoting itself as interested in protecting families’ photo resources said that family memories were now being lost because of digital (and newspaper journalists reported their line), that people weren’t printing enough of their images and digital files would be lost. That’s a misrepresentation of how photography works. Let’s look at some facts:

•Old colored photos from our parents and grandparents are fading rapidly. Prints aren’t the answer alone. It’s a lot easier to deal with multiple backups of digital files than fixing a faded print.

•Few people keep their negatives for prints, so there isn’t anything archival about that! Plus, even if the negatives are kept, they’re rarely stored properly or in any kind of searchable order.

•Color photos stored in albums, or worse, shoeboxes, and in garages, attics and basements, often

are damaged by heat, humidity, fungi and bugs.

•The old, black-and-white photos of our ancestors (black-and-white traditionally has had a longer life) are specific, saved memories that have rarely existed in quantity. No one ever printed every black-and-white photo taken like color prints were in the past.

 

 

•An archival CD will outlast most of us. Some question if there will be technology to read it. VHS tapes and vinyl record albums aren’t the prime media they used to be, but accessing either isn’t a problem. Even if disc-based digital recordings change in technology, this won’t be an instant change and there will be lots of opportunities to deal with it (a good example of that is the 3.5-inch disk that’s rarely used any more, but still can be accessed).

•It’s easy to have hundreds of images on a CD or other digital media that are instantly accessible. Try that with most photos in shoeboxes and albums.

•New inkjet prints from Epson and Hewlett-Packard photo printers have far more archival characteristics than any color print made from a few years ago. They easily will outlast the color family memory shots made conventionally when we were younger.

High Incidence of JPEG Depression Noted
In a publication about digital photography, I actually read that JPEG was okay if you only wanted to do low-quality vacation prints. This has led to the unfortunate misconception that JPEG is an amateur format and RAW is for pros and serious photographers. Tell that to many working pros, especially sports photographers, who have high-quality JPEG-saved images printed in publications every day. That publication, as my grandfather used to say, was full of chicken soup.

RAW is a superb working format, no question about it. I use it all the time, but not for everything. RAW lets you get absolutely the most from an image if you’re willing to spend the time working on it, but it has no absolute quality difference over JPEG. JPEG is a faster format to deal with, and for most photographers (except those who enjoy the RAW process in itself), it probably will be the best all-purpose format to use.

Digital cameras include internal processing that smartly converts RAW data into JPEG files so that JPEG files usually come directly from the camera looking better than the first opened RAW file. Yes, the RAW file gives you many great processing options, but the one you only get with JPEG is a faster, simpler workflow to a finished image file.

Pro SLR In Bizarre Point-And-Shoot Murder Plot
The misinformation on camera types dwarfs megapixels in many ways. Part of this confusion is understandable due to the great diversity of camera types and sizes that manufacturers have created. Still, a lot of writers reporting on them should do better research. Let’s look at a few common misconceptions:

•I’ve read that EVF (electronic viewfinder) cameras are the same as digital SLRs. They aren’t. Both are specific and different designs that change how you interact with a camera. An EVF camera uses a viewfinder with a magnified LCD screen that shows exactly what the sensor sees, including exposure and white balance, although focus can be difficult to see because of the LCD screen’s low resolution. An SLR is a single-lens-reflex that uses reflex viewing (with mirrors and other optical technology) to give an optical view of the scene through the actual taking lens of the camera. You can’t see what the sensor sees because of the main mirror (that may change in the future with special semi-transparent mirrors).

•We’ve seen several sources stating that cameras can be put into three categories: point-and-shoot, pocket and high-end cameras. This is a noble attempt at simplification, but as NPR’s “Car Talk” guys often put it, this may be a better effort at obfuscating real choices. Most pocket cameras are point-and-shoot cameras, although “pocket camera” is a worthy category. Many larger, so-called point-and-shoot cameras actually are quite advanced in their capabilities (and often are called advanced digital cameras or advanced digital zoom cameras because they have built-in zoom lenses), but can’t be called high-end cameras. A digital SLR is a whole different beast with its interchangeable lenses, and a high-end pro digital SLR offers a whole host of features that a low-end digital SLR can’t match.

Admittedly, classifying the diverse camera types is tough, but we’d try something like pocket cameras, low-end point-and-shoot cameras, high-end point-and-shoots, advanced compact digital cameras, EVF cameras, low-end digital SLRs and high-end digital SLRs.

 

 

•Cameras often are lumped together based on price for comparisons in ways that don’t make sense based on their camera types. I recently read an article reviewing all sorts of different brands of advanced compact cameras that then included one digital SLR (of a brand that had advanced compact models, but wasn’t represented there) and concluded that camera was best (knowing a little of the author, I don’t think there were any motives to favor one brand, although he set himself up to look like that was true).

That’s like comparing compact cars from Nissan, Toyota, Ford and GM, and then suggesting that an SUV from Dodge is in the same class and better. Although prices seemed similar on the surface (which is supposedly why the comparison was made), they really weren’t. To match the advanced digital cameras’ capabilities, the digital SLR would have needed to add lenses and some other accessories, increasing its price dramatically. That also changes the portability comparison of the cameras. It’s difficult to compare digital cameras strictly on price because the feature sets on the cameras can be so different, especially when going across camera types.

Three Billion Printer DPI
Marketing types at manufacturers are responsible for the problem of hyped-up printer resolutions. It shows up in many publications masquerading as “just the facts, ma’am” sort of reporting. Consumer-oriented printers today will boast printing resolutions of 4800 to 5760 dpi. I’ve heard salespeople at mass-marketing stores like Best Buy tell customers that such resolutions mean they offer the best photo quality. Nonsense.

We’ve seen no evidence that anyone can see any real, visual difference in prints made with printer dpis higher than 1440. There are some claims that seem legitimate, stating that 2880 offers some slight advantage in printing out certain tonalities on specific papers, but we’ve yet to see any visual proof, short of putting a magnifier to the print (when was the last time you went to an art museum and used a magnifier on the paintings?).

But the high numbers sure look impressive on the printer boxes, right? Too many printer buyers are swayed by big numbers-power, power, power-even if they have no real effect. Well, actually, there is an effect; the printer is slowed down and it uses more ink.

 

 

Even if we never made any prints from these printers and compared them, there are two things that should make one suspicious about the super-high dpis for inkjets: the highest photo-quality settings on some printers aren’t available when the high dpis are chosen; and the pro printers using the same print technology as their sibling consumer printers don’t typically include these high numbers.

You have to buy printers with high-dpi capabilities, but you don’t have to set them to such heights.

Digital Images Only Printed By Gnomes
People don’t print digital images (so who does, then?). This is an interesting myth that has appeared in quite a few places and has gained urban legend st

atus. The implication is that digital photographers don’t care about prints anymore (which you’ll see isn’t true). There’s a truth on one level, however; photographers don’t print as many digital images compared to the total shot judged against how many prints were made in the peak of print film usage.

Let’s examine this rather big distortion of reality. First, when photographers used print film and went to a local processor, they only had one choice as to which images to print-print them all and double prints when possible. With digital, photographers have the choice that they have always wanted-just print the photos that need to be printed. Photographers aren’t printing fewer desired photos; they’re printing the desired photos instead of everything.

Second, in traditional photography, going back to black-and-white work, no one ever printed every photo. Photographers would make proof sheets of the negatives, then only print images that had potential for making an attractive print. The days of “print everything” print-film processing was a distortion of the reality of photo printing.

Third, the digital camera offers more possibilities of experimenting to find a good shot, resulting in a lot of images on a memory card that never have a need for a print, since only the best shot is needed for that print.

Finally, digital photography offers other ways of sharing images than prints. If you can attach a photo in an e-mail to a friend or relative, there’s no need to make a print to send off to them, which was viewed, then discarded anyway.