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Is digital too easy? – that film thing (again)

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Is digital photography too easy?

Has digital taken the skill out of photography?


If digital photography is too easy, then you are not trying hard enough.

Photography in Seattle

Why take those pictures?

Has digital photography taken the ‘real skills’ out of photography?  I’m very much inclined to say no, but it has made it more difficult for many people to know why they are taking photos and what they want to achieve.

A while ago, I was noting how Fuji had just announced that they were going to discontinue two more film stocks (Neopan 400 Presto 135 and Fujicolor Pro 400 120) [translated announcement].

Given I’ve not used film for several years, what interest was there in this? Well, I’d just finished writing a review of some software (DxO FilmPack V4.5) that offers  very good conversions of digital images to a ‘film look’.

It offers a wide range of films including such legends as Kodachrome 25 (the last rolls of which were processed a while ago). What piqued my curiosity were all those films listed that I’d never used (or even heard of).

Leaving aside the difficulty of applying a transformation to a digital image that has already had some processing, I wondered just why I’d want to use some of them, and then, why the large number of photographers who had never used film would want to?

This is too easy

Swans on the Canal in Leicester

Swans on the Canal in Leicester

One comment about the FilmPack article suggested that such ‘one click creativity’ tools made image manipulation too easy and was symptomatic of what was wrong with the work of many photographers these days.

Apart from my instant suspicions when anyone uses ‘these days’ in a comment, I realised that I’d regularly seen such comments in regard to phone photos, Instagram, HDR and a whole host of other image processing tools.

Now, I do have a dislike of many ‘click to enhance’ processes, not because you can do it so easily, but because of the urge to run everything with the dials set at eleven.

There is no subtlety.

Back in the old days…

I’ve never used film since becoming a professional photographer, but I did used to have my own darkroom (our iPF8300 44″ printer and some servers live there now) and have an appreciation of the range of skills you needed to master to achieve any degree of predictability in your photography.

box of Kodachrome 25

Working at ISO 25 was different

Note that I separate many aspects of the skills from the creative side, since I’ve always believed (well, since I was about 13) that understanding the technical side of things and gaining a certain level of practical skill was what you needed to take the photos you really wanted.

There were all kinds of things you needed to grasp, exposure, focus, depth of field, the difference that different lenses made to your image.

Well, that was about it for slides (at least when I was at school). Once I started developing B&W film and printing, I thought more about those processes needed for making prints. Photography offered some real craft skills to learn (mixing chemicals or cutting out bits of cardboard for dodging and burning for example).

All of this was great – there was techy stuff and the challenges of working on creating prints that would look as I had envisaged.

Above all, it was (and still is) for me, about the results…

That said…

  • I got bored in the darkroom taking several hours to get just one print that I liked, one that I’d be unlikely to reproduce if asked again.
  • Film was supplied in rolls of multiple shots – sometimes I didn’t want 24 or 36 images
  • The disconnect between taking shots and seeing the results meant I lost interest (delayed gratification – pah!)
  • Experimenting just took too long – I’ve never used large format film

Digital arrives

OM2n and canon 1Ds

My first ‘proper’ digital camera

When I first dabbled in digital photography, in the late 90’s, it was a revelation. I could see so much potential, but with 1.4MP sensors and the state of software and printing at the time, I wondered just when it would get close to what I could do with 35mm film.

Sooner than many thought…

For me, the big change came about in 2004 when I got my Canon EOS 1Ds at a then very impressive 11MP, along with our first large format printer, a 44″  Epson 9600

Almost overnight, film had no place in my photography any more. There is an article I’ve kept on the site (from 2004) that covers some of my initial thoughts about ‘going digital‘ – I’ve kept it as a reminder.

One thing I did notice was how much of my basic photography knowledge was still perfectly relevant, but also that the rate of increase of my knowledge increased dramatically.

I have many hundreds of shots of the street outside of my house, just because I had an idea or wanted to see if some popular method in photography was real or myth  (see why I don’t use ‘Hyperfocal’ focusing very much any more, for a good example).

I could test an idea for a print in minutes and didn’t have to spend an hour cleaning up the darkroom afterwards.

A simple DSLR back adapter for an old view camera (from eBay) helped me nail the principles of camera movements in days, without the expense and delay of shooting boxes of 5×4 film (I seriously don’t have the patience to get into large format photography, but that’s another matter ;-)

 Film revival(s)

DxO FilmPack

Film – not dead yet

Every so often there is a story makes it to the press, covering some aspect of a ‘return to film’. The reality of it is that these are minor bumps in what is becoming an ever more specialist area. Only 10 years ago, there were three places in the city I live where I could get film processed, now there are none.

Film photography is becoming more of a craft again. There are lots of skills to perfect, which when it comes down to it, is what attracts an awful lot of people to photography (and you thought it was the photos ;-)

It’s this ‘difficulty’ in mastering a craft, that sometimes leads to comments that digital is ‘too easy’.  Auto this and auto that, not mentioning all the software whistles and bells, just takes the real skill out of it…

I appreciate that others have an attachment to the techniques and results from film, but I sometimes wonder if the ‘digital’ that is referred to, in some discussions, is not a ‘straw man’ version of what you can really achieve?

I find the complexities of what can be achieved require just as much work, practice and experimentation as mastery of analogue media. Digital has advanced my own B&W work by leaps and bounds, compared to its rate of change when I used film.

Anyone who says that digital is too easy, hasn’t tried hard enough ;-)

The difference is that to take ‘acceptable’ photos is now much easier.

Digital – some technical challenges for you

I’m firmly of the belief that a compulsory film element in photography courses misses the point of just how many skills you need to master in a digital workflow. Many of the excuses I hear about making people use film, seem almost to be about making it difficult. Or perhaps it’s because it’s still in the teacher’s comfort zone?

MT-24EX flash mounted on MP-E65 lens

Try something new? – Macro

If I want to take more time, I can tape over the screen at the back of my camera, set it to manual, use an old manual focus lens with an adapter, use one or two 1GB cards, and not look at the contents of those cards for between an hour and a week from taking them. No thanks.

A few basic challenges would be to try as many settings of your camera in manual mode as possible.  How about exposure? Many people are surprised at being able to set exposure outdoors and then not vary it, until the light looks different. Sounds simple, but getting a feel for how something is lit is as important as it ever was.

There are many more such challenges, and I’ll perhaps look at writing some more about them, but my point is that digital doesn’t have to be easy – I’m just grateful that when I do want them, there are so many tools and camera/lens technical advances around.

The real elephant in the room – why are you taking photos?

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always seen technical expertise as the way to get photos to look the way that I want.

With film and the darkroom, there was a lot more you could concentrate on perfecting from a technical POV without actually looking at the photos from a content or ‘meaning’ oriented view.

With digital cameras, it’s got ever easier to produce technically competent images. For a while, there was always the hope that the next camera model would make some technical aspect of your work easier (better). However, the rate of technical advance is slowing, and the benefits of having a £2000 camera over a good phone are becoming less obvious to many. This is not a trend that will stop.

I’m lucky in that I get paid for my images. That means that I have a reason to create images in a particular style and to meet a client’s needs. It gives me reasons to explore technical solutions, in areas such as camera movements, multi image stitching or macrophotography.

If you’re not taking photos for a client, then why are you doing it?  Seriously… I do wonder what I’d photograph if I won the lottery and gave up some of my day to day photo work.

I know that some enjoy competitions, as a challenge. That’s not for everyone though (I generally dislike them, even more so after being asked to judge others’ works a few times).

Sharing and social media also offer a use for some of those photos you’ve taken, and the sheer joy of having a great looking print on your wall can’t be underestimated. So I wondered what other people are finding to do ‘these days’?

Now that the techy side is ‘easier’, what are your challenges?

All suggestions and comments welcome! ;-)

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6 Comments
  • marg93 | Sep 6, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    What are the challenges? Well, my basic drive is to create a photo that doesn’t look ordinary. if the photo is in the point & shoot style, then it isn’t good. I have perfectly good pair of eyes and can see that kind of stuff everywhere without a camera, no need for “shooting the hell out of” mundane things.

    I don’t earn any money from photographing just to note it.

    Recently I got into astral photography, but not in a too techy way as it usually is. I enjoy combining night sky with landscape photography, broadly speaking, giving that half-earthly/half-universal feel. ( Here’s an example if you’re interested: http://s8.postimg.org/4wo8ucbut/CRW_0499upl.jpg . I know I’m not that great a photographer and I don’t even own a proper DSLR, but I enjoy it and that’s what matters to me. ) I do fiddle a lot with settings on my camera until I get a photo that really makes me fascinated with the world I live in. I think that’s the drive, to be fascinated.

    In the proces of fiddling with camera settings I learned many interesting things. For example, before it seemed to me that 1/1000 of a second is, well, infinitely short amount of time. Photography really revealed to me that some things are faster then I assumed them to be. Also it seemed to me that stars move very slowly, if at all. Like it would be possible to set up shutter speed of half an hour and have stars stay in the same place. :) Shooting star time-lapses made me really feel how we are actually traveling through that thing we call universe. Shooting my pets often made me smile when I would catch some of their facial expression often lasting a split second and which would pass as if nothing ever happened if there weren’t for the camera to catch it. I could go on endlessly about it and all this may seam trivial to somebody other than me, but in essence, photography enabled me to be fascinated with a world in a new way, seeing and realizing things otherwise impossible to really notice because they are very brief or on the other hand, so slow that it seems that they don’t even happen.

    So the challenge is always to shoot something different, something that we otherwise don’t see often, or at all. Technology makes that possible, and some photographic styles such as macro, long exposure and panoramic photography are very heavily relient on the techy side of things, needing to set a whole lot of things right to get a good result, and with many fails in the process of it. You’ve said it right; it’s easy only if you don’t try hard enough. P&S ignorance is bliss. ;-)

    • kacoooper | Sep 7, 2015 at 6:11 pm

      Excellent – a few more pro photographers should remember to experiment and enjoy things like you ;-)

      • marg93 | Sep 8, 2015 at 2:56 pm

        Well I guess I enjoy it like that just because I’m not a pro. :) I do in when I feel like it and not because I have to.

        I’m a student of physics. When I first entered the college I was all enthusiastic and elated, but listening and stuyding physics almost every day for 3 years kind of dulled me and now I very rarely have the desire to go read some physics stuff in a casual way because I feel like it’s already spilling out of my brain for the mere quantity of information that I have stored in there. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to say that everybody will come to hate the thing he/she does for living, but being obliged to do it on regular basis can certainly lead in that direction.

        Thus to my mind, being a pro in anything does not necessairly mean enjoying it really (though that’s probably what got you into it), and if you’re the one who does enjoy it, I think it’s easily one of the best things that can happen to you.

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