It's been over a year since my last post: "I Saw the Light... Finally," (here)
and the interesting thing I've discovered is that if one simply pays attention, one will continue to "see the light." So what have I learned since then? That it's worse than I first thought: the whole digital craze's fixation with equipment is creating a generation of photographers who can't see
For what it's worth, I agree with most everything I said in my post a year ago, and particularly--if you care to read the thread--with the few comments I made in response to some of the responses. But things have changed. And let me be clear: contrary to how it may have appeared in my previous post, I had actually used a few different digital SLR's by then, but when I had my little epiphany, I parted company with them. But then, through nothing other than sheer curiosity in the face of temptation, I purchased another SLR--two others, in fact--and began life once again in the instant-gratification world of digital photography. But--and here's the reason for this new post--after my second foray into digital SLR'dom, I realized that something wasn't right. What was it? Was I becoming intimidated with film because I couldn't see the finished product and was forced to take chances? Was I becoming obsessed with how many pixels I had at my disposal? Was I losing precious hours at my computer adjusting white balance and a million other things when I could be with my family? Was I relying too much on "P"? Was I, in short, becoming a worse photographer because the equipment was dumbing the whole process down?
Allow me to explain. (And just so we're clear, I'm talking about fully manual street/travel/candid photography here, not professional action sports photography, studio work, etc.) With film, I was forced to pay really close attention to the image at the moment I was making the shot, and I had to rely on what I'd learned previously about the properties of light passing through glass, the idiosyncracies of a particular lens, the characteristics of a certain type of film, etc. In other words, I was forced to do some guesswork, take some chances, follow some hunches--in short, pay attention. And then, even in the darkroom later, short of completely turning the image inside out and the darkroom upside down, the most I could do is dress the image up in new clothes--that is, if I wanted to. 99% of the time, I didn't. I wanted to know what I'd captured at the "decisive moment." After all, it was that
moment, and no other, that I was interested in recording, and I didn't see any point in capturing a moment in time if I was simply going to doll it up as something entirely different later. I wasn't interested in changing history... I wanted to record it. Yes, of course, I wanted to record it from a certain angle using certain equipment, but the art of photography had always been such that, after seeing the shot and framing it, you generally had only three parameters left to work with: the film you chose (I usually used chrome or b&w), the lens you used (I was usually with a Zeiss or Pentax), and the combination of shutter speed and aperture you'd fixed (the camera itself, actually, which wasn't much more than a glorified light trapping device, was always a secondary consideration... and remember, I acknowledge that action photography and studio work is a slightly different beast where the camera one uses can
make a significant difference).
Then along came digital. Now, instead of thinking about the image and all the other attendant considerations, I was:
a. letting the camera think for me ("P" mode)
b. doing a little thinking myself but still letting the camera do a lot of thinking for me ("A" or "S" modes)
c. think completely for myself ("M" mode) but still have at my disposal all the post-processing marvels that I could now apply PRE-processing; and I could take a thousand shots of the same image given enough time and battery power and then just make little tweaks here and there until I created the "perfect" image.
And instead of having the power to simply dress the image up in new clothes (burn, dodge, extend/decrease processing time, etc.) in a darkroom later--assuming I wasn't shooting chrome, I now had a plastic surgeon's scalpel in my hand (aka Adobe Photoshop, et al.) and I no longer had to rely too much on the original image itself. In other words, no more having to mess with technique that had been acquired through years of guesswork and trial and error: now I had instant fixes to virtually any problem and could tweak away to my heart's content.
But notice that I said "virtually" any problem. There was one problem that digital could never fix (and herein lies the rub): the ability to see
the image in the first place, which is what separates photographers from gearheads, or if you prefer, developing artists from casual snapshooters. But not only could digital not improve one's ability to see
--after all, neither could film--but it actually had a deleterious effect on the process. I was starting to fixate on the equipment itself whilst the image slowly became an ancillary issue. I could let myself off the hook now since I knew that the camera would "fix" a lot of problems for me, and there was always Photoshop waiting at home. In other words, the longer I was in pixel world, the less I thought about capturing an image at a particular moment and the more I thought about my equipment and what I could do to whatever image I'd happen to capture. Gone was the decisive moment. Now it was all about the reductive equipment.
Photography had been turned upside down. No more silly talk about decisive moments--how quaint; or for "seeing" the world with an artist's eyes--how elitist; or for capturing a moment in time as closely as possible to the original moment--how idealistic. Now it was all about AWB and Foveon vs Bayer and 10.0 vs. 14.0 and image processing size. Have you noticed? Do yourself a favor. Pick up a photography magazine from ten years ago, or buy a book of photography of the same vintage, and you'll see a glaring difference between then and now. Then, it was almost all about the image--yes, of course the equipment mattered, but check out the ratio between talk of equipment and talk of developing a photographer's eye. And now? It's almost exclusively all about equipment. And do you think the camera companies are complaining??
So what has suffered in the process? Give someone with a photographer's eye my Leica and ten rolls of Tri-X film, and then give any gearhead a Canon Mark-whatever, and set them loose on a weekend family reunion. See who comes up with the better shots; and spare me the nonsense about "what is better?" We all know what's better when we see it--we haven't completely lost the ability to make aesthetic distinctions... yet.
Allow me to indulge you with a parting personal example. Two of the best shots I've ever taken were of Annie and Rosebud, my two dogs who did a lot of living and traveling with me before they both passed away a few years ago. Each shot, both subsequently enlarged to 48"x24" poster-size and mounted, captures the personality of the two dogs perfectly: playful and spontaneous Annie the white English Setter howling for sheer pleasure, nose pointing at the moon; and brooding, serious Rosebud the black Australian Cattle Dog staring back straight at the camera with head cocked sideways, sitting on a bed of red maple leaves after an October rain, thinking long and hard about what I was doing and saying to her at that moment. The pictures say it all, and you can take out a magnifying glass to the enlargements and not find a single "pixel" (aka grain) from frame to frame. And yes, I shot chrome almost exclusively for the very purpose of forcing myself to rely on the moment of the shot. And what was my equipment? A Ricoh XR-M with the kit Rikenon 35-70mm zoom and a roll of Kodachrome.
In the end, all my work--trial and error, and a lot of error at that--got me to the point where I didn't need a light meter. So what if a battery went dead? I'd finally reached the point where I was starting to understand light. And then along came digital, and the broad primrose path it lead to was not a good place. Will I some day have to go exclusively digital? I'm sure I will--it's amazing how few color processing labs are left. I'll still shoot mainly b&w and do much of my own darkroom work in the meantime, and when I want to go color, I'll either send my film into A&I here in Los Angeles for processing or--that's right--use my digital SLR with an M42 adapter and a fully manual lens, put the camera in manual mode, turn off preview, and start shooting.
The point I guess I'm making is this: in the world of photography, I've come to learn that less is actually more. And vice-versa.
The reason I got into photography in the first place was because of some rolls I'd taken as a college student on a trip to Europe with my girlfriend back in 1987 using her father's Minolta XD-11. People told me that the shots I'd taken showed some photographic promise, whereas I was just taken with the fact that they allowed me to remember things and people I would've forgotten by now. After a few subsequent trips to Africa and Asia, and then the above-mentioned Ricoh as a graduation gift, I fell in love with the process of developing an eye to see the world in a new way. And this is where the liabilities of the current digital obsession with pixels and processors comes in. It's producing a generation of photographers who don't actually know the first thing about photography. Perhaps we should coin a new term for this new hobby, Adographers
: people who spend an inordinate amount of time at their computers in Adobe Photoshop (et al.) manipulating images and adjusting contrast and shadow detail along with a dozen other fixes and getting on discussion forums to wax eloquent about the virtues of this or that technology, whilst Photographers
are out there taking shots, getting wet and dirty, waking up early, analyzing the vagaries of light and letting nature run her course while trying to capture her in the act of doing so.
Speaking of which, I've gotta run while there's still some morning light left. Caught a shot of a ruby-throated hummingbird perched on a gorgeous, large white cactus bloom yesterday afternoon (need to find out what kind of plant that is) while hiking on the trail through the chaparral behind my house. And now in the late morning light with a little thin cloud cover?
Matilda, grab your leash.