Pictures that become pixels

It was a Mamiya medium format camera that triggered this article. The occasion was the 90th birthday celebration of Mahijit Singh Sodhi, one of the grand old men of Chandigarh.

Karam Sodhi examines the frame of his picture through the viewfinder of a Mamiya medium format camera. Photo: Avi Sodhi

His grandson, Karam, was making a valiant attempt to photograph the extended family of, well, around 90 people together and his tool of choice was this medium format camera that uses a film which I started my photography with – the 120-film that was used in the Agfa Click III cameras and the Yashika and Roliflex twin-lens reflex cameras, common in photo studios in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now, there were digital cameras galore at the wine and cheese evening. You could say that everyone had one, from the Nikon and Cannon digital SLRs to the ubiquitous cameras in phones, and as drinks circulated and the roasts were savoured, many flashes punctuated the darkening sky. A number of pictures were snapped, as often happens when people meet after a long time.

Why was the seemingly antediluvian film camera doing amidst all these snazzy digital ones? Well, it still holds true that practically nothing in the digital world can match the tonal range and even resolution of a film. A medium format film image can record an equivalent of approximately 50 megapixels. The 120-film dates back to 1902 and a century later, the best digital camera was made by a filmmaker, Fuji, and the FinePix S602Z Pro had a resolution of 6.0 mp. Top cameras have managed to double the resolution now.

The convenience of reducing light to binary digits, the bits (Binary digIT, i.e., 0 and 1) and bytes (8-bit bundles) that dominate the digital world is, however, undeniable. We can do so much more with pictures than we could do using the traditional chemical

Often comparisons in digital cameras have been reduced to the megapixel game, but this is not an accurate measure.

Megapixel (one million pixels) is a term used for the number of pixels in an image. It is also used to express the number of image sensor elements of digital cameras or the number of elements of digital displays. A pixel is generally defined as the smallest single component of a digital image. Instead of a film, digital cameras use photosensitive electronic image sensors. They can either be charge-coupled device (CCD) or complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS). These sensors have a large number of single sensor elements, often called pixels.

A colour film normally has three layers of emulsion and each layer is basically the same as in black and white film, but sensitive only to one-third of the spectrum (reds, greens or blues). Similarly, each pixel in the sensor will record only one channel (red, or green, or blue) of the final colour image.

When comparing cameras, one must look at the size of the sensor, and bigger is better in this instance. Just as the 120-film is three times size of a 35mm, the size of the CCD in compact cameras is much smaller than that in digital SLRs, which have only recently been able to give a “full frame” 35mm CCD.

The size of the CCD determines the size of the individual elements in it and the bigger the sensors, more the information they can store.

Most phones now have fairly acceptable pixels in their camera, yet the sale of compact digital cameras is booming. This is interesting, since most of the people who buy these cameras would have camera-equipped cell phones. This brings us to the fact that sensors are but one aspect of the camera.

The most important thing in a camera is arguably its lens. Normally made of glass, it can have one or many elements. SLR cameras have mounts on which a photographer can mount different lenses, depending on the situation and the effect that is desired.

Compact cameras, however, have only one kind of lens fitted to them. Most of them have a zoom feature, which allows you to change the frame of your picture without moving back and forth. Thus, you can go nearer the object or go wider to include more of the background without moving.

The range and optical quality of the lens plays a major role in the way the image is formed, and that’s the reason people pay thousands of rupees, even lakhs, for a high quality lens. My photo lab person says that most of the images that he processes daily come from digital cameras, not from films.

The wide-scale adoption of the digital medium means that storage of pictures has also moved from shoeboxes to computers and hard drives. Since, unlike film, digital pictures do not cost money to take, just to print, people tend to take more, and thus have many more to store, process and catalogue.

What use is a picture unless you can find it when you want to? On a computer, it can become difficult unless you have some sort of picture processing software. After long use, my favourite is Picasa, a software application for organising and editing digital photos.

The word Picasa is a blend of the name of famous Spanish painter, Pablo Picasso, the phrase ‘mi casa’ for “my house” and “pic” for pictures. It was created by Idealab, but Google bought it in 2004 and has since offered it as a free download. I have been using it since the beginning, and thousands of my digital pictures are catalogued via Picasa. The retouching and other functions are basic, though effective. The recently introduced face-recognition programme is fun, although sometimes intrusive.

Since on my phone I can store pictures of the callers, I have used the recognised and tagged faces from various pictures and exported them to the phone. Seeing a smiling face when you receive a call definitely puts you in a good mood to talk! Other photo organisers include Adobe’s Elements, Apple’s iPhoto, Novell’s F-spot, PicaJet and DigiKam. And you may want to try out these too.

When we take a picture, one of the primary reasons is that we want to share the moment with others. The people who took pictures at the party also shared them with others. How? Well, that’s what we will look at the next time!

The article was published in the Lifestyle section of The Tribune. It is the beginning of a fortnightly column.

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