TCS Daily

The Greatest Picture Show on Earth

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - March 24, 2004 12:00 AM

I've written a lot about digital photography lately. (Here's last week's column on its role in enabling "flash media," and you can see blog posts here, here, and here). But there's more to photography than photojournalism, and one thing that I've found interesting is the way in which the Web may be affecting photography.

Traditionally, the primary medium for photographers has been the print. Whether shooting on film or plates, in color or black and white, in negatives or transparencies, the goal has been the production of a picture on paper -- the bigger, sharper, and richer, the better.

But now the Web is becoming the primary way of distributing photographs. This is both good and bad. The bad -- already noted by many photographic purists -- is that Web images aren't nearly as good as high-quality photographic prints. The good, however, is that a lot more people can see them.

Online photo sites like PBase are rapidly growing, and they're a lot better for sharing photographs than hard-copy methods. One of my favorites is this gallery by a U.S. Marine Corps aviator, of photographs taken while flying combat missions over Afghanistan and Iraq. (This shot is especially cool.)

Photo blogs are growing steadily more common, too. One of my favorites is A Smoky Mountain Journal -- a photo blog focusing on the Smoky Mountains, naturally enough. Another is Shutterbug, which won this year's Bloggie Award for best photo blog. These pictures by Matthew Cromer are good. And check out the Blue Ridge Blog, too.

Web photos have a number of limitations compared to prints, but those limitations may -- as limitations have done throughout its history -- shape the nature of photography for the medium. Back when photography was limited to black and white, lighting and shadows were the dominant theme (think of Edward Weston's famous studies of nudes and peppers, as collections of interlocking shapes). Web photos have different limitations, but the results will likely be similar. Web photography is limited in resolution -- since most monitors won't display more than 72 dots per inch, photos are either low in resolution or displayed as so huge that viewers can't see more than a fraction on-screen at any given time.

Web browsers are also often limited in the number of colors they will display, and bandwidth concerns tend to require the use of compression to keep image load times manageable. (Here, for example, is a 2048x1536 .jpg image, which is huge by Web standards -- but much smaller than the uncompressed .tif version).

You'd expect that people would respond to these limitations by focusing on composition and subject matter. When subtle color and tonal ranges, or tiny detail, can't be preserved for the viewer, the natural response is to focus on those things that can be preserved: interesting subject matter, well presented. And -- as you can see from the photo sites I've pointed to -- that seems to be what people are doing.

What's funny is that camera manufacturers seem to be directing their attention elsewhere. The big new thing in digital cameras is the move to eight megapixel models and even, stunningly, a fourteen-megapixel model that produces images of stunning detail -- but images that require gigantic prints to do them justice, and that can't really be viewed on the Web at full resolution. I guess that makes sense. Cameras can't make you a better photographer (though some are starting to try) but they can make better photographs, whether that's what's needed or not. The proliferation of advanced printers -- which are getting steadily cheaper and better -- means that people can take advantage of these features on paper. But pictures are mostly shared via email and the web and, realistically, that's not going to change. (How many pictures have you emailed in the past year? How many have you snail-mailed? A lot more of the former than the latter, I'll bet.)

Can we expect monitors and Internet connections capable of displaying 14-megapixel images at full resolution, at a viewable size? Not any time soon. Which means that for most applications those extra megapixels that they're piling into cameras have as much to do with marketing as with anything else. But a look at the way people actually use cameras suggests that other features, like speed, low-light capability, and ease of use will soon take the lead over megapixels. And those go well with the "flash media" that I've mentioned before.

Of course, I'd like to see all of these features integrated into a single device -- a high-quality digital camera, with in-camera photo sizing, cropping and editing, a cellphone or cell-modem that makes it easy to upload or share photographs, and maybe the ability to record web-quality (or better) video.

Right now, those features are scattered around various devices. The Sony DSC-F828 and the Nikon Coolpix 8700 will do the video and the high-quality photos. (I think they even do rudimentary in-camera editing.) PDAs like the Handspring Treo 600 have cameras (but not very good ones) and wireless connections. And even my consumer-grade Toshiba does the video and the in-camera editing, but no wireless.

How long before all of this, plus some web-browsing and text-entry gets integrated into a single device? Based on the progress to date, probably about a year. I'm looking forward to it.


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