When I wrote my previous blogs about digital cameras and noise (see “Related posts” below) I was not really thinking about it in terms of analog or digital being better. It was just an example of the two systems working together in a cooperative manner to solve a problem.
Yes, I love the fact that the pictures are stored digitally in memory rather than relying on film, but I had naturally accepted that analog components were necessary in such a system. I am not aware of any research related to being able to turn images directly into a digital stream of data — and even that would need to have some analog side to it.
So, I was surprised by one of the comments that I received from one “NetCrawl” that started by saying “Digital system[s] really solve the noise problem.”
Now, NetCrawl had not had the advantage of seeing part two of that blog where I show that digital processing actually injects noise, but it did get me to thinking about this problem in a little more detail. First, I have no issue at all with noise in photography. It has always been there and, as “artists,” we are expected to overcome the limitations of the materials and physics as best we can. It can lead to creativity.
The same is true with the manufacturing of semiconductors. We use masks to create the silicon IC. The random variation in the fabrication process is inherently noisy, and we find ways in which we can reduce the noise because that leads to higher yield.
Then my girlfriend's car broke down, just as we were about to go away on a trip. Without going into all of the details, it appears that a body control computer had a problem. This in turn led it to send a message to the engine control unit making it think the car was being stolen… so it disabled the ignition system. As you can imagine, this led to the car being towed back to its starting point.
I used to love tinkering with cars — they were analog. If things were slightly off, it would still run, just not perfectly. You could tune it, upgrade pieces of it, and life was good.
Now I feel helpless when I look into the engine compartment. The analog bits are gone — with the exception of the combustion chamber itself — all in the name of progress. This system cannot degrade gracefully; it fails in a digital manner. It goes by itself, or it is towed. There is no middle ground. At this point you may be thinking that I have become a convert and that I will stray over to the analog side. Not so fast.
So, back to my camera and the “problem” of noise. It is not a problem that my camera has noise. I am very grateful for those analog components that degrade slowly in their performance. Think about this in a totally digital camera — it would probably tell me there was insufficient light to take the shot. It could either take a perfect image or none at all. My advice to Canon may well be — skip the traditional ISO numbers if you cannot support them in the analog amplifiers, and so guide me to the less noisy settings.
So, the next time you are designing a product where there are choices that can be made in the analog/digital divide, I ask you to consider how many people would appreciate a slowly degrading system rather than a binary operation. Even a digital person can appreciate the analog components. Are there products where you think the analog/digital divide has been put in the wrong place?