Notes, with permission, from: "Time to Switch to Digital" by Martha Cooper,published by the New York Folklore Society's "Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore",

Fall-Winter, 2001


The price of digital cameras has come down dramatically in the past year, and many bargains are available on-line. With a digital camera you will no longer have to pay for film and processing, but the cost of imaging and storage software, flash cards, a speedy computer with lots of memory, a CD burner, a color printer, photo paper, and ink must be calculated in a cost-per-photo analysis. If you take a lot of pictures, you may be able to amortize these setup costs over time, but since new, better, and better equipment is always coming on the market, chances are you will continually want to update. Therefore the seemingly lesser expense of digital photography is not, by itself, a reason to switch.


Only the best digital cameras at their highest resolutions can match the quality of photos shot with a good 35mm camera and lens. On the other hand, unless you need large, museum-quality prints, digital prints from medium-quality digital cameras are adequate for general use. Also, unlike slides or negatives, you can make duplicate digital images without any degradation in quality.


Digital cameras operate in a similar fashion to film ones. Both my Olympus Camedia and a Nikon Coolpix 950 work extremely well in low light. This means they are great for interiors with fluorescent, tungsten, or mixed light. With digital cameras you can immediately view what you've shot, and delete images images you don't want and re-shoot if necessary. The downside is that most digital cameras are slow: the shutter delay makes it difficult to capture a decisive moment or fleeting expression. They are, however, superb for artifact photography.


This is a sticky issue. Digital images take up a lot of computer space, and the only practical way to store them is on a CD. No one knows for certain how long images stored on CDs will last. All sorts of factors-the kind of storage case, the temperature of the room-may affect archival quality. Or they may not. There is also the serious question of how long CDs themselves will be the storage technology of choice. Be prepared to migrate your entire storage system more than once or be stuck with a batch of useless silver disks.


For many folklorists this may be the crucial issue. Because slides and negatives are so easy to lose or misfile, a colleague called her former systems for storing, retrieving, labeling, and viewing slides "the bane of my existence". Imaging software enables photographers to caption their pictures and view them in any combination. Using the computer screen as a digital lightbox, you can sort photos by date, place, subject, file name, or key words. You can pull up and view forty thumbnails on a screen at once or scroll down to view a thousand. You can copy these into subsets for book chapters or presentations or other projects. My colleague says, "It's a gold mine for research". Her recommended image management software is Cumulus; I'm using a program called Portfolio.

Mastering digital technology isn't easy, however. There's a lot to learn, and now is the time to jump in and familiarize yourself with the process, even if you can afford only a very cheap digital camera. Take an introductory course or buy a few books to get started. I am now shooting both digitally and with film. It makes me feel comfortable to cover all bases. Since film will be around for a while longer, at this point there is no need to choose between the technologies-just be sure you are ready when the digital only day comes. My colleague and I listed a few further thoughts to help you go digital:

1. Look for markdowns on last year's digital camera models, but buy a top-of-the line charger and rechargeable batteries.

2. Beware of off brand software: you may not be able to upgrade it.

3. Store CDs in a slim jewel case. The surface shouldn't rub against anything.

4. Check out Irfan View for free imaging software.

5. Try the business edition of Adobe Photo Deluxe before you invest in Photo Shop. It's easier to use, costs less, and takes up less space in your computer.