If a picture is worth a thousand words

Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Click. A precious moment of my children's early life is recorded for posterity. Click, click. Two more precious moments. Click, click, click, click. Get the picture?

I inherited my photography hobby from my father. He inherited his hobby from his father, who served as the photographer for a small Illinois newspaper. Because of their passion for pictures I got to see snippets of my father's childhood, his tour with the Army in the 1950s, and my own early years a decade later.

I bought my first camera when I was 8 years old, a Kodak 104 instamatic. I also bought my first roll of film then, and when my pictures were all taken I paid to have them developed.

And then I stopped taking pictures for a few months. I had to, since there was no more money for film and developing.

Until the digital revolution, photography was a hobby with a price. Every picture cost money, good or bad, with more tending toward the bad side than the good. Worse yet, film photographers had no way to tell whether a given picture was any good until it came back from the processor, and only professionals actually exposed enough film to capture the "right" moment.

The opening years of digital photography were slow to reveal the promise of the new technology. Early digital cameras offered low-resolution images of mediocre quality, and limited memory storage meant that only a few pictures could be taken at a time.

But technology marched forward, offering better cameras and more storage for less money. In this decade, digital image quality has improved to the point of rivaling film, and on-board storage has expanded from kilobytes to gigabytes.

When I first saw my father taking dozens upon dozens of pictures with his digital camera I thought it was a novelty. When I saw the results it was a revelation. To be sure, many of the individual pictures weren't very good, but there were so many of them that the number of keepers was actually quite respectable. Additionally, the sequences themselves were fun to watch.

I adopted my father's technique. If a picture is worth a thousand words, after all, then a sequence of pictures should be worth thousands of words, right?

I did my father one better too, by changing the setting on my camera from single exposure to continuous, so that when I hold down the shutter button the camera takes a continuous stream of pictures, slightly more than one every second. I've been taking a lot of pictures.

But even good concepts can go awry. After a recent outing to the beach I came home to discover over five hundred pictures on our camera, which I added to the nearly 18,000 pictures already on the computer. More and more, I feel as if I'm trying to contain Pandora in a digital box.

I try to pare down the pictures, I really do. But the reality is that although 90 percent of my pictures may get deleted, 10 percent remain. What am I supposed to do with 50 great pictures of a day at the beach?

I'm not much better with videotape. On our last big road trip I recorded 14 hours of video footage. How many bowls of popcorn does that equate to? Surely, I do not know.

The upshot of all this is that I believe digital photography has diminished the value of a picture. The pictures on my hard drive do not represent 18 million words. Indeed, the whole collection can probably be summed up in two words: too much.

My kids are getting into the act now. We bought them cheap digital cameras at Christmas, and since then it has become a regular event for my 3-year-old boy to come to me with tears in his eyes because his camera has quit working. There's never really a problem with the camera, of course. He's simply filled the memory card again.

And so a fourth-generation photography buff has come into being. I can hear him now. Click, click, click. More pictures he wants me to look at.

I see one-terabyte hard drives in the store these days. How many words are a million pictures worth? I'll find out soon enough.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and long-term Juneau resident.

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