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Affordable, understandable…And even good for the environment

March 27, 2002

The lowly family snapshot – so common today yet once so revolutionary. Affordable photography for the average person was a huge step in establishing the American middle class.
    Before the advent of commercial portrait photography in the 1840s, few people outside of the rich could afford images of themselves or their children. Common people lived and died with only fading memories and maybe a grave marker to testify they once lived. In a few generations, no one would remember what they looked like.
    The early Daguerreotypes cost $2 for a sixth of a plate portrait and $30 for a whole plate – still too expensive for most families, except for special occasions. But for the first time, families could obtain lasting images of themselves to display in the home and pass down through the generations.
    Photographic portraits established a sort of pedigree for the middle class: It had “arrived.”
    The second giant leap for personal photography was the Kodak Brownie camera and the commercial processing that went along with it – now everyone could make photos, not just professionals and dedicated hobbyists.
    Today there’s photography with digital still cameras, or “digicams,” freeing the photographer from film and the film processor. If you take one roll of 35mm film a month, you spend about $200 a year on film and developing. That 200 bucks will buy a basic digital camera, plenty good for snapshots.
    Everything in digital photography can be done in the home with modest equipment. Traditional prints are easy to make – even glossy ones – as is sharing photos via e-mail.
    And digicams are good for the environment. No water, chemicals or materials of any kind are needed to take and view photos. You can print only the photos you like; you’re no longer stuck with processing and printing an entire roll of film to get a handful of “keepers.”
    If you already have a computer and inkjet printer, you’re more than halfway there to digital photography. And when you’re all the way there, you’ll find you take a lot more photos.

Picture it then:

    If you have family photos taken from the turn of the century to the 1930s, chances are good they were taken with a Kodak Brownie camera. It was America’s “photographic Model T.”
    This is a typical example - a 1924 Kodak No. 2 Brownie Model F box camera - basically a container of thin aluminum covered in leather-embossed paper. It had a tiny, crudely made lens with a fixed focus. Everything was mechanical: no batteries required.
    The shutter was a rotary plate with a slit, operated by a sliding lever. Exposure was set by a sliding metal tab with three holes of varying size. A photographer’s best estimate of conditions – “Ordinary; Snow or Beach; or Shade,” determined which hole to use.
    The camera had two viewfinders: a tall one on the top for portraits, and a wide one on the side for landscape shots. The viewfinders use mirrors and show right and left directions reversed. Two tripod sockets were provided, one for each viewfinder.
    It used “120” roll film that produced six large 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 inch negatives and cost 25 cents a roll. A winding key advanced the film, and users kept watch through a little red window to see the moving frame numbers. The camera had to be disassembled in dim conditions to load the film.
    The slow, grainy black-and-white “orthochromatic” film was blind to red light, so the glow from the little window wouldn’t ruin exposures. The film’s large negative size – about five times bigger than a 35mm exposure – yielded pictures with the modern digital equivalent of about 10 million pixels.
    But the cheap lens was the camera’s weakest link: “focus-free” is an accurate assessment of its performance. Old Brownie snapshots usually are distinguished by a soft blurriness and are a big step down from the razor-shop studio and professional photos of the time.
    Developing and printing the six exposures ran about 50 cents. Film usually was processed by the local drug store, or could be mailed directly to Kodak  Many hobbyists developed and printed their own film in a basement darkroom.
    Prints typically were archived in albums, but the delicate and irreplaceable negatives were put in paper sleeves, subject to damage by heat, moisture, dirt – even background radiation. Negatives also are notoriously easy to lose. In short, few family photo negatives from before World War II survive.
    This Brownie cost $2.75 in 1924, equivalent to about two days’ take-home pay. A basic digital camera today also costs about two days’ wages. Buyers got a free six-month subscription to “Kodakery,” the company’s photo magazine. So many Brownies were made between 1901 and 1933 that it’s estimated the majority of the country’s families had access to one.
    A mint-condition Brownie like this one will set you back only about $30. The 78-year-old camera is tough as a tank and everything works like the day it left the factory. The 120 film is still widely available, although the little red window will have to be taped over to accommodate today’s “panchromatic” B&W film that is sensitive to all colors.
    If you don’t want to bother actually taking pictures with it, the Brownie still makes a great bookend. 

Picture it now:

The Canon PowerShot G2 digital camera is representative of today’s top end consumer-level “digicams.”
A power zoom lens sends images to a light-sensitive 4.1 million-pixel CCD, or “charge coupled device,” which then transmits the signal to an analog-to-digital converter and then to the camera’s processor electronics. The lens is a marvel of compact design, and can autofocus from infinity down to a mere 2.4 inches away.
    By the way, a pixel, or “picture element,” is the smallest element of a digital image with information such as color and brightness. When you zoom in real close on a digital photo and see those little rectangles of solid color – those are pixels.
    Digicam resolutions pretty much have settled into multiples of a four-by-three rectangle: 640 x 480 pixels, 1024 x 768, 1600 x 1200, etc. Multiply the two numbers to get the camera’s resolution in millions of pixels. This Canon can produce images of 2272 x 1704 pixels that equal 3.87 “megapixels.”
    In general, more pixels in a digital photo means a sharper image meaning larger size prints are possible. The Canon’s high resolution means sharp prints up to 8x10 can be made.
    The body is aluminum-clad plastic. Exposure is fully automatic, and special programmed or manual settings can be chosen to override the auto features. The camera can be operated from up to 16 feet away with a wireless remote control
    It’s totally dependent on battery power, supplied by a rechargeable lithium-ion cell good for about 700 shots. Only the zoom lens and the shutter are mechanical.
    Like the Brownie, the Canon has two viewfinders. One is an optical finder similar to a regular camera; the other is an LCD display, similar to those on camcorders. Users have a wide choice of image size, resolution and special effects, and can even record brief movies with sound.
    Images are recorded on removable, solid-state memory cards. About 110 high-resolution images, equal to five rolls of 35mm film, will fit on a 128MB card. Memory cards up to 512MB currently are available. A super-tiny hard drive also is an option, good for more than 900 pictures.
    Digicam owners usually make prints by downloading images to a personal computer, tweaking them with a program like Adobe Photoshop, and printing the results with an inkjet printer. The photos also are popular attachments on e-mails to friends and family, a way of publishing that requires no paper or ink at all.
    The digital photo image files usually are stored on the computer’s hard drive, which is subject to breakdown and other assorted electronic horrors. More-secure archiving can be done via recordable, removable media such as CDs, DVDs or tape. Unlike the prints and negatives of old, these digital copies will never degrade, scratch or get dirty.
    This Canon  costs $750, equivalent to about two or three weeks’ paychecks. Consumer digicams today cost from $120 to $1,000, depending on resolution, lens and features. Faster pro models based on 35mm single-lens reflex cameras start at $3,000 and top out at more than $10,000.
    Unlike the Brownie, digicams are fairly fragile. Most would not fare well after a drop to the floor or a soaking in a rainstorm. And, as good as this Canon seems now, it likely will be replaced by a vastly improved model within six months and will seem a true dinosaur by 2004.
    But don’t let inevitable technological obsolescence deter you from buying a digicam now. That same march of progress that brings new and improved models to the marketplace also has brought prices down. It’s not unusual to see the price on a new digicam drop 30 percent or more within six months of introduction.  
    Writer Mike Gearlds' checkered career has included tours of duty as a newspaper and studio photographer, as well as teaching photojournalism for seven years at a junior college in Arizona. He has been involved with digital photography since the first digicams became available more than a decade ago.

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Mike Gearlds

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