“Once when I was down in Florida I attended a presentation on bird photography. The fellow who spoke was a professional. His photographs of hawks were exquisite: sharp, clear detail; up close. I asked him what sort of lens he used for those shots. ‘A 600 mm,’ he said matter-of-factly, without batting an eye. Do you know how much that 600 mm lens sells for? $10,000.”
A long-time friend who I don’t get to see that often had stopped off for the evening on the last leg of a week-long trek through New England. We were discussing digital photography over dinner at a local tavern. He took out his Droid to show me some of his bird photographs he had posted on Facebook. Every year he visits the Ding Darling bird sanctuary on Sanibel Island where he sets up his portable blind and waits, sometimes for hours, to capture a particular type of bird in a once in a lifetime shot. “Wish I could get you down there sometime,” he said.
“One of my buddies has a time-share on Sanibel. He and his wife go down every February,” I told him.
“I’ve gone in March,” he said, “but January and February are better months for birding. The great blue herons mate in January. By the time I arrive, their young have already hatched out and stand this high.” He indicated a span of perhaps 12 inches with his two hands.
He told me that many of his photographs were shot from a blind he’d erected by the driveway of his Pennsylvania home. “I put up a few feeders and wait for the birds to show up.” He tapped the screen of the Droid. “Here’s a hummingbird hovering in mid-air. I’m particularly pleased with the way the tail came out in this photo.”
I admired the sharply focused head, frozen in time; the tiny body; the lotus-cupped tail.
“My problem these days is that with my glasses off, I can’t see well enough to focus through my SLR camera,” I told him. “I’ve taken what I thought were great shots, only to find that they’re blurred when I get the prints back.” He studied my face with a slightly puzzled look. “Yes,” I admitted, “I’m still shooting 35 mm film.”
“You’ve got to go digital,” he told me. “The camera beeps twice when the lens is in focus. Very handy for those of us with aging eyes.”
“I can see how digital technology has revolutionized the art of photography,” I said.
He nodded. “You remember that 600 mm lens I told you about, the one that costs $10,000? Someone told me it takes seven months to assemble one, there are so many intricate parts.”
I reflected on that fact in silence. Momentarily, he said: “But no matter how intricately constructed the lens or the body, the camera will never be able to duplicate what the human eye sees.”
He tapped the touch screen of the pocket Droid again and showed me another digital photograph. “I shot this with my Nikon 300s and a Nikkor 105 mm macro lens at an f/stop of 7.1, shutter speed 1/400 of a second directly into the early afternoon sun. Can you guess what it is?”
I studied the three strands of colored ribbon stretched across the dark backdrop and drew a blank. “A feather?” I guessed, knowing it was the wrong answer.
“The strands of a spider web,” he said.
Modern technology has given us a lens capable of bringing the silken strand of a spider web into focus, simultaneously dissecting it into a spectral ribbon of diffracted light. Yet even this level of technology does not approach the intricate construction of the human eye.
How much longer, how much more difficult, for the writer to craft a description of the same entity, capable of capturing the same spectrum of emotional responses as the digital photograph.