It’s always seemed to me that digital photography - the merging of the camera and the computer - was a marriage made in heaven. But to be honest, any time I’ve tried to matchmake them in the past, the result was usually a hasty and slightly acrimonious divorce. The cameras typically didn’t have enough resolution to produce genuinely sharp, crisp printed output, and the printers either produced very low-quality prints or else cost both your arms, a leg and the cat’s leg for good measure to buy and run.
In the space of 18 months, however, all that has changed. It is now possible to produce prints where no film or photographic media are used at any stage, yet which rival or exceed the very best quality the traditional process can produce. To my way of thinking, three players have been heavily influential in this process: Epson, Nikon and Sony.
For a number of years now, Epson has been quietly beavering away refining techniques for depositing ink on page. Around 1997, it released the Stylus Photo, which it claimed produced photorealistic output. It didn’t, in fact, but it was a definite step forward. Since then, there has been a gamut of models leading to its latest item, the Stylus Photo 2000P. This printer is quite definitely photorealistic - it produces the most stunning output I’ve ever seen from any non-silver-halide process. The colours are rich, dense and quite accurate, the sharpness is beyond reproach, and the cost per print, at about $3 per full-colour A4 page, is competitive with traditional media. At a little over $2000, this A3 printer is a significant bargain.
A little over two years ago, Nikon released the D1 digital camera. A technological tour-de-force, this camera combined reasonable resolution with the flexibility of using existing Nikon lenses and accessories. While it was undoubtedly an excellent camera, the purist in me found the resolution just a little too low to be exhibition quality. This year, however, it updated the D1 with the D1X, a 5.7-megapixel camera that produces images I would previously have assumed you could only obtain using medium format equipment. So, the second piece of the puzzle falls into place: we can now capture and print images without needing film.
The problem with the D1X is its $18,000 price tag (yes, that really is the right number of zeros). Make no mistake about it, though, this is a truly professional tool; but if the price seems a little steep, then Sony probably has an answer for you. Sony has been ... well, I guess the only word I can use is “churning” out digital cameras at a bewildering rate for the last couple of years - every time you go into the shop, there seem to be new models. But, like Nikon, Sony too has finally got some quite superb results, in particular the MVC-CD300, which sports a 3.3-megapixel CCD and a built-in 8cm CD-RW drive. While not as flexible as the Nikon and not producing images of the same quality, at around $3000 it’s not ludicrously overpriced either - and for images up to 12 x 16 inches (A3, approximately) you are unlikely to be able to tell much difference between a shot taken on this camera and one taken on a conventional camera using colour negative film.
One final product deserves honorable mention: Adobe Photoshop. Although seriously overpriced, there’s no doubt that it’s pretty much the undisputed king of photo manipulation software. If you need it, then you just have to swallow hard and pay the bucks, I guess.
So, here we are in 2001, and we can finally produce photos at home without a darkroom. The catch, of course, is the price tag: if you allow for the cost of the PC as well, you won’t get much change from $10,000 if you want to go down this route, and the stratosphere is the limit if you want to go upwards from there. But the price is really not the issue - the key point about this is simply that it is now possible for anyone to produce exhibition-quality prints without film, something that we couldn’t really do even two years ago. Consumer demand will eventually push the prices down, but for now, I look forward to matrimonial bliss between two of my most significant passions.