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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?

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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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  • 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.

  • 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 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: . 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. ;-)

  • Pete Simpson | Aug 7, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    Thanks for the reply Keith. I’d like to think that this might open up a discussion but maybe its a bit late now. Incidentally you may recognise my name from a recent contact regarding monitor calibration and the X-rite eye-one display 2. After that jam and your helpful comments, I think that the problem is solved. That’s the part of the digital nightmare that I left alone in my earlier reply…

  • kacoooper | Aug 7, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    Thanks for that excellent reply Pete – worthy of an article in itself IMHO!

    That folded up print ‘filter’ is actually part of a new B&W image processing plugin (Tonality) that I looked at last week ;-)

    When reviewing such software it’s definitely a case of seeking out those adjustments that genuinely allow for you to explore ways of showing what you want, and those (like film borders and those creases) that just make you roll your eyes ;-)

  • Pete Simpson | Aug 7, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    At the birth of photography painter Paul Delaroche stated that, ‘from today painting is dead!’ He was wrong of course, thankfully. I have often felt like echoing this sentiment from the outset of digital photography: ‘from today photography is dead’. Again wrong, but I certainly think
    that the medium is suffering.

    I would agree with Keith’s opening paragraph: …(digital) has made it more difficult for many people to know why they are taking photos and what they want to achieve.

    That’s a good starting point. I’ve been a photographer for a long time. I was a good black and white printer. I was a fine art photographer and exhibited considerably but I did commercial work as well. Around the time when digital appeared I too was finding printing a bit of a chore, not least because the kind of work which I was producing appeared to be becoming invalid.
    Big colour prints were becoming the norm. In addition, the space taken up by my
    darkroom was needed. Big colour prints were becoming the norm. I needed a new
    camera and it was a toss-up between film or digital. I could have scanned negatives at the college I was teaching at but eventually I went for digital and from that point for me,
    photography pretty well died.

    I had always known why I wanted to take photographs and I would agree with American photographer Henry Wessel when asked why he took photographs: to see how the world looks as a photograph. I knew what I wanted to achieve: for other people to share my view of the world, to see it as I saw it. Photography has now gone beyond that very basic idea. We are so saturated with images that we are drowning. All the crap is out there with the good stuff and let’s face it, there is a lot of crap out there. People want to share their crap with the world but does the world really want to know? Is it interested in images of drunken idiots at parties? Images which in the past would have been shared around friends and family, laughed at and consigned to a drawer. Fair enough. That was their function, their reason to exist.

    Now, I am aware that the perpetrators of this kind of image probably do not even consider themselves to be photographers and I’m not decrying them their pleasure . They are, and I
    don’t wish to patronise, at the bottom of the pile. They do I suppose, know why they want to take photographs and they know what they want to achieve but it’s not about vision,
    perception, composition, or meaning.

    The kind of photography which encompasses those qualifications is what I’d call serious photography but there are layers of serious photographers. At the top of the pile it is undertaken by those who have something to say, a need to communicate and a desire to connect. And so many images that I see these days do not connect with me at all, they don’t speak to me in fact,don’t even whisper.

    Why is this? Is it fair of me to blame digital for this? Well, I’m going to and here’s why.
    It has never been difficult to take a photograph. Blindfold someone, spin them round and give
    them a camera and get them to press the button. They will produce an image and, with today’s all singing all dancing auto focus auto exposure cameras that image will be at least comparatively sharp although the content will most likely be meaningless. And here is the first hurdle. Camera manufacturers have us believe that their latest product will make its user a better photographer. Really? Can it possibly be that a £3000 Nikon can produce a better photograph than my old box brownie?

    A camera works on exactly the same principles as it always did. The only real thing that has
    changed is the way in which the image is recorded. It was film, it’s now a CCD and while it is essentially the image which is important, I do have a bit of a problem with this. Until it’s printed,
    the image does not actually exist – it’s virtual, ones and noughts. Back in the day, I enjoyed the organic nature of the chemicals and the magic of the optics and the way that they worked
    together. I enjoyed the tactility of the negative and the print and OK, we still have prints but many now view images on a monitor or, worse, on a mobile phone screen. I do find it strange and annoying when people wave their phones or cameras under your nose, urging you to view their fantastic pictures on the LCD. I usually inform them that I don’t have my reading glasses with me. It’s a bit like showing someone your contact prints.

    Images are instant though, probably a good thing if you hated processing film, and can be deleted if they are worthless. I don’t personally advocate checking every image after taking though, because it wastes time and battery power, destroys your focus and probably causes you to miss the shot which you’ve been waiting for.

    Not necessarily so, of course and it depends on what is meant by ‘better’. There have always
    been those who believe that a technically perfect image is a great one (not so – see Robert Capa’s D-Day photographs), and now technical perfection appears to be the fore, a notion cemented by the more pixels equals greater clarity equals superior image myth. Manufacturers
    provide us with multiple point this and multiple point that, auto this and auto that, face recognition, blink detection and heaven knows what else. They don’t want us to think. You can, it would appear, blindfold yourself, spin round, press the shutter release and get:

    …an award winning photograph. Amazing.

    And in post production, for those who actually want to work on that image so that it does speak, there’s much more.

    There’s Photoshop. The word has become a verb: this picture has been ‘Photoshopped’. The word has come to mean ‘to manipulate, to falsify’. This is a sad perception of a
    very useful and necessary tool. In the days of the darkroom, you would be very lucky to produce a negative which printed perfectly in one go. Techniques had to be employed. This was the norm and it was part of the process and it was enjoyable. All those techniques are available in Photoshop: cropping, changes to brightness and contrast, local control. Now,
    these techniques are less time consuming and in many cases life is made much simpler
    so there’s less cursing for a start. It’s less expensive too – no paper wastage here, unless your monitor is not calibrated and set up to produce a print which is identical to what you see on
    your screen, but I’ll not go into that here.

    If your area is photomontage, then that process is made easier but cutting out images can be equally as laborious as it was with a scalpel. The big deal is that if you make a mistake, it is easily rectified.

    But the image is open to abuse on Photoshop (or similar programmes), and I’m not using the word ‘abuse’ lightly here. It has filters and other tools which are often applied randomly to an image to produce an image which is ‘different’ and therefore somehow ‘good’. I’ve seen this
    done so many times. I recently saw an image which had been modified in a way which made it appear as though it had been folded several times to produce creases. I despair.

    Despite the fact that filters can be successfully used for graphic effect in the advertising industry, in general they should not be used randomly. Newcomers have a tendency to dive in there and attempt every filter going. Fine if your just having a look at what the programme can do but slapping a watercolour effect onto an image which is fine as it is just isn’t creative.
    Post production should be as it always was: a way of making that image say what you want
    it to say, then finding and using the correct tools to achieve this on Photoshop. There needs to be a reason.

    I’ve heard people talk about luminance, pixels, this camera, that camera and God knows what else. Fine, but can they actually take a photograph? Books are titled ‘Digital Photography’ but they are full of information about composition, colour – things which have always been there – and the digital bit only takes up a couple of chapters.

    The ability to produce a good, successful image belongs with the user of all this hardware and software, just as it always did. Many will never be photographers because well, they just won’t because they don’t have the visual ability. That’s how they are. The camera is no more than an extension of ourselves, our eyes and our brains. And our hearts. What is required is a need to
    record, passion, and the wherewithal and understanding to pull it off successfully.

    Everyone is, it seems, digital obsessed. We have computers and software which can make
    us designers (don’t get me started on that one), photographers, musicians and probably writers too. We are being denied the opportunity to think, to recognise our abilities and limitations. We are being hoodwinked and dehumanised. The image is becoming secondary to the technology.

    And somewhere beneath this massive overload there is in fact a decent image or two.

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