Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Confessions of a digita photographer 3

I wasn’t going to write anything else on this topic unless asked a direct question but a post was made on the Dyum forum recently that has inspired me to return to the keyboard and break my promise. That was a statement by Dynaxdude that: “The only difference between a SLR and a DSLR is the recording medium.”

This is simply wrong. Show me an SLR that can take 400 shots without pause. Show me the SLR that can change film sensitivity on the fly. Show me the SLR that can give me a histogram of the shot I have just taken. Show me the SLR that can show me the picture I have just taken.

I suspect that Dynaxdude’s response to me will be a paraphrase of what was written in his post, that these are bells and whistles that do nothing to change the essence of taking a photograph. But this is wrong – at least for me.

I’m going to jump to a completely different area of endeavor for a second to illustrate my point – bear with me please. Consider the Head Up Display (HUD). A HUD is a composite projection of flight data onto a plane, focused at infinity, into the pilots field of view. For many years after they were first introduced these were considered to be a nice extra that made some boutique functions easier (especially those related to shooting stuff). HUDs were certified as secondary flight instruments, that meant you could fly with it turned off, could disregard it etc.

More recently however this is changing. The HUD is being regarded as a primary flight instrument, the one instrument you must have operating or the mission is off. In this sea shift there was little change in how the HUD worked or the data it provided. What has changed are the users. When the HUD was developed and introduced every pilot was trained and gained their experience on traditional instruments so when this new technology came along it was simply grafted onto a pre-existing training and operational concept. A pilot learnt to scan the “T” of his instruments and refer to the HUD occasionally for specialist purposes.

A few decades on and we now have people running flying schools who underwent their introductory training in aircraft (and/or simulators) with HUDs, these people are also writing the specifications for new aircraft, defining the standard operational procedures, assessing trainee aptitude etc. As the people that use the HUD have changed the use of the HUD has changed. And the way aircraft are designed and flown has changed. Now pilots fly the HUD and scan screens occasionally in response to cue. Instruments aren’t arranged in the classic “T” any more.

Sticking with the aircraft theme, similar changes in Flight Management Systems, navigation, communications etc have fundamentally changed what it takes to be a pilot of a modern aircraft. Hands and feet skills are slowly becoming less important while systems management and monitoring and pattern recognition are increasingly essential.

Returning to photography the same revolution is currently underway. I titled this thread “Confessions of a digital photographer” for a reason. I am a digital photographer. Having the ability to take hundreds of photos, review my shots, check the histogram etc isn’t an extra to me it’s a fundamental part of the process of taking a photo. I routinely take a shot just to review it on the screen and gauge how I want to meter the next one. I rarely (though action shots or ones I plan to subject to HDR treatment are exceptions) bracket my shots as I find one shot, a quick review and the next one I generally get right. As a guy who has grown up with technology the 2.5 inch screen is a meaningful and useful, not a “postage stamp”.

Further, as a digital photographer, this statement just does not make sense to me:

“So processing and workflow aside: what's the difference between taking photographs with en electronic recording medium versus a chemical recording medium?”

It doesn’t make sense to me because, for me you can’t put processing and workflow aside in the digital realm. To us, the idea of taking your raw files, sticking them on a disk and giving them to a lab to “process” is just wrong, if I did that it wouldn’t be my photo when I printed it. To me as a digital photographer my computer is part of the DSLR system and has fed back to affect my photography. What hardware and software I have changes the photos I take. What I can do with layers and curves informs me of what exposures I’ll set. How I can remove bits of extraneous scenery with cloning feeds back to determine how I frame the shot etc.

Increasingly I’m finding this is automatic, again it’s not a add-on to my thinking, it is core processing done in the background and doesn’t intrude into my consciousness when I’m looking thru the viewfinder. In responses to my initial email a number of film guys and girls have stated that they find film brings them closer to the subject as they aren’t distracted by reviewing photo’s, checking histograms etc. They enjoy the slower pace of film and the need to change rolls and wait (days) to see the results. They are like the pilots suited for and trained in a classic steam cockpit confronted with the modern glass one. They can use the new systems but will tend to fall back on their ingrained habits unconsciously thus many of the new tools will actually be hindrances to them.

Ultimately I would say that if you don’t see a difference between and SLR and a DSLR you aren’t using one of them right – or at least to their full potential.

I hate film because I am fundamentally a digital guy (when it comes to photography) to me what others see as character I see as fatal flaws. Others aren’t digis and use film – what I see as core features they see as diversions, that’s cool. And there is the difference between most film and digital photographers – respect.

As I read through this thread and the corresponding “film-digital-film” one I see virtually no instances where digital photographers are critical of film photographers or their methods. Film itself cops a bagging but not those who use it. Film photographers have no such respect. Terms like “dabble”, “point and hope for the best”, “impatient”, “lacking confidence”, etc are routinely bandied about by film guys about those of us who prefer digital.

We might use totally different ways of getting to the final image (and they are totally different if you are doing them right) but in the end its about the image. I hate film, but I have never derided those how love it. All I ask is for the same respect in return.

PS - I dont apologise for writing a long post.

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