Being a Photographer in the Digital Age

Does Using One of These Make You a ‘Photographer?’

What does it mean to be a “photographer?” Is it the knowledge of necessary concepts like luminance and illuminance, ‘camera exposure’ versus ‘photographic exposure’, lens transmission variables and exposure latitude; understanding meter scales, light ratios, tone reproduction curves etc, and knowing how to use this knowledge to produce better, more consistent photographs? Or can it simply be someone who owns a camera and uses it with intent, without a firm grasp of the physical realities involved and the underlying processes by which one’s photographs are produced?

I suppose this is a debate which occurs whenever technological advances transform the manner in which a given task is accomplished – what is it that constitutes that task and defines those who practice it? What is essential, what is peripheral?  100 years ago ‘traditionalist’ practitioners could define photography skills as those involving the creation and development of wet plates and an understanding of the mechanics and use of view cameras; they would have looked suspiciously on Oskar Barnack and his toy “camera.”

…or Must You Use One of These?

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All of this was brought home to me recently when I went to visit my brother. I hadn’t seen him for a number of years; we had lost touch the way grown family members sometimes do. This was a trip to reconnect, to catch up on what each of us had been doing with our lives. What I learned is this: he’s now an avid photography buff, having developed a passion for photography in its digital manifestation. He’s the proud owner of some serious kit – a Nikon D810, D5100, a number of huge bazooka-sized pro Nikkors, all the associated computer programs with which to ‘develop and print’ the end results. And, truth be told, he’s got a good eye, and if there’s any area he lacks technical knowledge the camera will usually take care of that.

With digital tools he has the capability of producing technically excellent photos I couldn’t be capable of, even today, 45 years of experience behind me, with my Leica film camera, my 21/35/50 mm focal length manual focus rangefinder lenses, and my roll of HP5. As for matching his Photoshop skills, I’m not even going to try. I’m clueless. Which left me with a certain depressing realization: the skills I’ve spent a lifetime cultivating, the arcane knowledge acquired through decades of dedicated interest in traditional silver halide photography, is essentially now worthless as a badge of expertise. I’m now just an old guy toting around an outdated camera using an obsolete exposure medium, head filled with useless arcane information. Meanwhile he’s effortlessly pumping out 30×40 color prints, tack sharp corner to corner.

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Stroebel’s “Basic Photographic Materials and Processes”

Growing up, I had been the one fascinated by photography – the cameras, the darkroom, the smells of the films and chemicals, the various skills you needed to correctly expose a film negative, to develop it and print it. While my brother was out being a normal kid with normal interests, I was voraciously reading books about photography – The Time/Life multi-volume photography series, the 15th Edition Leica Manual (still a great book), John Schaefer’s Basic Techniques of Photography Volumes 1 and 2, and, finally, as a student,  slogging through Leslie Strobel’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes, a dauntingly obtuse textbook that’s formed the backbone of most serious American collegiate photography programs – building and maintaining darkrooms, immersing myself in the minutia required of being a dedicated film photographer as opposed to a generic happy-snapper with a Kodak.

What came along with such dedication and mastery was a certain condescension towards the happy-snappers. We were ‘real’ photographers, with a seriousness of purpose and a body of knowledge and practical skills we used in pursuit of meaningful photographs. They pressed a button and dropped their film off at the corner pharmacy, willfully ignorant of the processes by which the pushed button resulted in the 4×5 photo held in the hand. Trying to explain to them how that happened was like trying to explain to your Golden Retriever how his dog food got into the can.

Today, that sort of differentiation – the ‘serious’ photographer with his earned body of knowledge, versus the enthusiastic hobbyist – means little in actual practice. More than ever, the cameras we’re offered allow us to do amazing things, almost effortlessly, things even the most accomplished practitioners of film photography would have found difficult if not impossible back in the day. This is wonderful for the average guy, a levelling of the playing field by removing technical mastery from potential results. Now, anyone with a “good eye’ can be an exceptional photographer.

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However, I still stubbornly subscribe to the notion that it’s a mistake to assume technological advances resulting in easier use of technologies will always be a net positive. Every new technology contains within it both a blessing and a burden. Unfortunately, in the digital age the debate is largely to those who see the incredible power of new technology but are mostly blind to its significant downside. And then there are the few of us in opposition, seeing mainly the burdens and blindly ignoring or discounting the blessings.

The entire philosophical premise of my blog, if it has one, is that there needs to be a dissenting voice to counteract the headlong embrace of digital technologies, even in light of their obvious benefits. It’s larger than the facile dismissal of the consequences of an inevitable generational shift, you know, bleeding edge hipsters versus us edgeless oldsters. There are very important issues involved, and photographic culture ignores them at its peril.

If I put aside my bruised ego for a bit, my resentment in having my skill set made obsolete, I can isolate my discomfort with digital technology by pointing to its ‘virtuality.’ Peel back both the experience and the results, and there’s very little “there” there. It all seems rather thin and formulaic, devoid of a robust sense of mastery. You end the day with nothing of substance except more files on your computer and at best a vague sense of agency; you’ve pointed your camera at things, pressed the button, viewed the virtual results on a screen of some sort, maybe shuttled the file over to a printer that spits out a print. What mastery might be involved usually seems to be in the service of manipulating results to fit an idealized Hyper-reality, a sort of Madison Avenue transcription of the real into the simulated realities of advertising and entertainment. Unfortunately, the world I live in little resembles the world I see depicted in car commercials. What’s the point in technologies that assist us in pretending it does?

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So, I will continue to use my mechanical cameras and continue to believe in the power of agency – making a thing happen through my intention and action. I will continue to delight in the “kurr-thlunk” of a mechanical shutter which physically opens a window through which light passes and impregnates a strip of cellular material with the evidence of its presence. I can then process this material – itself an embodied physical experience – and I’ll end up with a negative, a physical thing I can physically manipulate to produce one more physical thing, a photograph. The entire process will embodied from beginning to end (by embodied I mean the exact opposite of virtual; in embodied processes I’ll get my hands dirty by interacting with brute, physical things, things like mechanical shutters that respond to the exertion of pressure , rolls of film, acetic acid, squeegees, D76 at 1:1 dilution, varying weights, sizes and grades of paper etc).

Digiphiles often have what they consider a reasonable retort to a traditionalist like me – They’ll reply that, in photography,  you don’t get points for difficulty. Correct, as far as that goes. But we’re talking here of photography as a practice, as a thing that’s done and gives value in its doing. And I think it gets back to a certain level of agency – I did that; I made the decisions that produced that photo as an end result, and I made those decisions from a history of embodied experience, a history of failed and successful photographs that taught and refined my skills in so doing. Or… I pointed the camera, after first selecting an appropriate mode offered me by my camera manufacturer, and created that jpg I’m sending you as an attachment to my email; you’re welcome to print it out should you want a hard copy.

12 thoughts on “Being a Photographer in the Digital Age

  1. Andrew

    But, doesn’t that body of arcane knowledge transfer over from medium to medium, at least to some degree?

    Like you, I started out shooting film a long-time-ago (35 years), and about 6-years-ago made the move cp,pletely to digital. Gradually, I’ve moved back to film to the point where now I use both, with about 70% digital and 30% film, mostly based on my mood at the moment I walk out the door.

    I haven’t developed my own film in decades, nor printed in a darkroom, and use digital tools whether working from a digital file whether it started out as such or was scanned from an analog negative. Those digital tools actually remind me a great deal of my darkroom days, with dodging and burning, adjusting contrast and exposure and even toning working much like different papers, chemicals and playing with the enlarger did back in the late 80s when I last had my own darkroom.

    I don’t print at all anymore, but rather send out the “processed” files to be professionally printed, usually in beautiful coffee-table books that my wife and I enjoy looking through, and occasionally for prints large and small that adorn various walls and countertops. Looking at one wall where I have 13 prints displayed, 5 of them were film shots and 8 digital.

    As far as the capture goes, at least for me, there is almost no difference between digital and film except for the ability to change ISO in “mid roll” and having ISOs faster than 3200, which is the fastest I’ve ever pushed film. My Leica M5 and M-D (screen-less digital) pretty much do the exact same thing, though I do enjoy the aperture priority mode and 1/4000th second shutter speed on the M-D that the M5 doesn’t have. Ditto with Nikon for SLR shooting. My Df has faster shutter speeds and higher ISO than my FM or F2, is harder (though more accurate) to focus with my manual Nikkor lenses, and other than the ability to chimp, which I generally don’t do at all, requires the exact same skills as analog.

    The only thing I miss shooting digital is the feel of winding on film, which I really like. Oh well, its still good with the motors in modern digital.

  2. Rob Campbell

    You have my sympathy.

    As I started off doing it for money as a young guy in ’60, that my learning and best experiences are all film-based can hardly come as a surprise.

    But digital has done something else for me: it’s allowed me to continue to make images (I call them images now, where I used to call them pictures – almost never photographs) but there’s absolutely no question that for me at least, the end product is now inferior.

    I don’t feel much difference when making the shot, other than having more doubt about whether it’ll be any good – though I used 135 format a lot, I never was a machine-gunner: yes, I’d easily and happily shoot 36 frames on pretty much the same model pose, but that was not because I didn’t know what I wanted – it was to work the moment to its peak and catch it when the girl had understood what was required from her, and was giving it. Look on the many clicks as photographic foreplay.

    That no longer exists for me in retirement; the alternatives are now very different and I find myself working with luck. Luck, in the sense that I hope that something will be out there, waiting for me to find it. As I can no longer coax or control content to any degree worth mentioning, I have to take whatever found thing my eye suggests is a good one. Often, it’s right, but not always. Imagine the cost of doing that with film. Without a client picking up the tab, it would be ruinous. Well, for me at least.

    But really, the shooting MO remains pretty much identical with one important difference: the advantage of Auto ISO, and what I consider the greatest wonder of Nikon: the Matrix metering system (and I use old cameras: a D200 and a D700). As for chimping, I have developed so much faith in Matrix that I never look at the screen unless I find myself shooting something from inside a room towards an outside window, when I use the screen to set a reasonable exposure and then just go with that.

    So far, so good. Unfortunately for me, that’s also as far as the good will go. I have already run into the state of being digitally screwed by big business. I bought myself an HP B 9180 Pro printer (A3+) with which to produce my black/whites, and insofar as digital quality goes, it was wonderful right until HP abandoned the system. It now attracts lots of dust. Note that I qualified my remark about quality. A granddaughter spent a few days with me a fortnight ago, and she wanted to see some of my old stuff; I do have a very few real prints left from the 60s/70s, and hadn’t looked at them in a couple of years. I can only say that I almost wept, both for the memories as much as for the quality. To my mind, there is absolutely nothing on this Earth that can match a print made on Kodak’s WSG D (a double-weight gloss paper) which I always glazed. I never did understand air-drying glossy paper; it defeats the fantastic, ultimate tonality that a glazed glossy will give you. Sure, process houses tried to get you not to glaze just to avoid problems for themselves with reflections, but that was up to them to fix: I wanted my clients to see my work at its best, not a few degrees below that.

    However, I can’t see any value in shooting film and then sending it out to a lab. Why bother at all? Unless we speak of transparencies, there is no logic that I can see. The point of film today is as ever it was: control, and discovering how well or otherwise one is handling exposure and development (both can be intentionally variable), and then printing from it. Abrogating that to a third party is self-defeating in the extreme, IMO.

    The problem affecting quality judgements today is that, as the article points out, it’s usually only the elderly that have the knowledge of what that baby looked like before some idiot pulled the plug while said babe was still bathing.

    Rob

  3. Archiver

    Take a highly skilled painter and ask them to use Photoshop or Illustrator to create something, and they will be hard pressed to deliver. The same goes for a digital artist who has barely painted, when asked to do a classic watercolour.

    Give your brother a M4-P and a couple of lenses, and see how he fares. Take his D810 and see how you fare.

    Technology makes things easier, there is no doubt about it. Things that were important theory and practice in earlier times are now taken care of by computers, leaving the user to concentrate on things like composition, action and light. And technology brings with it a different set of skills and knowledge. How many Mustang mechanics can fully service a Tesla, and vice versa?

    I believe a “real photographer” is someone who can handle their tools with a high level of proficiency and create desired results repeatedly within the bailiwick of those tools. You still need technical mastery of the tools. You can’t create a digital image from a M4-P and a darkroom, and you can’t create a negative from Photoshop. But a skilled film photographer with a M3 and Summicron can produce gorgeous images, as can a digital photographer with a D810 and 24-70 f2.8.

    The difference in skills you are describing between a ‘real photographer’ and happy snapper who drops off rolls at the corner shop is the difference between a Sports Illustrated photographer and a spray and pray camera-mother. One has a well honed body of skills, the other does not. And many of the SI photographers came up through film anyway, so they know all the skills of film, and have taken them into the digital realm.

    In his own way, your brother has become just as much a photographer as you. Perhaps that is the depressing realization, eh?

  4. Wayne

    It sounds like you and your brother may be more alike than either of you would have anticipated. But yet, you remain very different. Build on it. Shit can the digital vs film thing as you do.

  5. chrism

    “Digiphiles often have what they consider a reasonable retort to a traditionalist like me – They’ll reply that, in photography, you don’t get points for difficulty.”

    Perhaps not from viewers of the resulting photograph, but not many of us earn our living with a shutter button, and hopefully we don’t all do it just for getting lots of ‘likes’ on our photos. If you take a photograph to please yourself, there is an enormous amount of satisfaction in knowing it really was all your own work; you will give yourself points for difficulty, in effect. The satisfaction of understanding an arcane skill, the craft element of film photography has got to be a big part of the satisfaction available to those who do it all themselves from film selection to matting the print. I don’t deny there is some similar element to being very knowledgeable about digital photography, but it’s not really the same thing – more of a different pastime entirely. Equally valid, but just not my cup of tea.
    My brother was passionate about photography and led me into it. He now rarely takes a photo and if he does it will be digital (probably taken with a phone), yet here I am exposing and developing a roll of film most days. I don’t think either of us ought to judge the other. Live and let live seems to apply here.

  6. Aaron

    Well said chrism. There ARE points for difficulty. Why not? Why is it that there is frequently no value placed in the enjoyment of the process?
    Sure, if life is all about money, what you can measure and in turn all about efficiencies; your existence devoid of grey, black and white, all or nothing….even writing this I feel my will to live ebbing…then perhaps there are choices made whereby enjoyment of process is secondary to the end result. Speaking with people like this typically leaves me feeling as thought I’ve been bludgeoned with logic-never my first choice. (Is it me or are these folks often the very same who are never wrong?)
    Regardless, what if, just maybe- buckle up, we’re getting into the metaphysical here-there were intangibles, unmeasurable but yet done and specifically chosen, wrapped up under the umbrella of “process” (equipment, medium, methods) that inform the end result and thus add value. Either currently or carried forward from past influences. Actually creating something distinctive. Unachievable any other way. To remove them would alter the course and in turn the end result to say nothing of servicing the simple pleasure the person actually doing the thing might receive and contributing to their longevity and ability to persist at the task.
    A lifetime of film shooting as described will certainly have contributed to your aesthetic sensibility. What a gift!

  7. Shaheen

    Allow me to preface this by saying I love this site, I love the sentiment expressed, and I love film photography. But why stop there? Don’t get me wrong – I totally agree with you and share your delight “in the ‘kurr-thlunk’ of a mechanical shutter which physically opens a window through which light passes and impregnates a strip of cellular material with the evidence of its presence.” Beautifully said, and there’s nothing like it, to be honest. Film photography is magic you can see with your eyes and touch with your hands, but… So what? And I’m not arguing against your stance at all, in fact this is just me trying to come to terms with how I have thought about and developed my own point of view in relation to film photography in our digital world. I used to fall into the trap of thinking that it had to be one or the other, realized that was kind of limiting and narrow-minded on my part (Red Team! No, Blue Team! Etc. etc.). Realizing it didn’t have to be like that was really liberating. I loved printing in the darkroom, and while I don’t really do that anymore, I still love making prints from film or digital sources. After all – isn’t the end result what counts? The printed image – that is the final product that elicits emotion, triggers a memory long forgotten, or allows you to see something familiar in a totally new way. The final image is what counts in the end, and let’s be honest here – digital has long been able to lend itself to the creation of just absolutely beautiful final printed images. This is a testament to the ability of man and his pursuit of excellence, this technology is something that should be celebrated and utilized, not scorned and shunned. In the end, film and digital are fighting for the same end goal: the printed image.

    You mentioned something about those who are blind to the “significant downside” of digital, and I am just curious as to what you think the significant downside is, in your view? To me, digital no doubt cheapens the majesty and true feat of ingenuity of being able to capture reality and preserve it for all time (If you choose to launch some negatives or prints into deep space – why not? The sun will engulf the earth someday and destroy everything on it anyway, right? Then again, and just thinking out loud here, perhaps digital is much more resilient in terms of creating permanence? Beam those images made of 1s and 0s out into space where they can theoretically last for all time? Maybe? Who knows?).

    Anyway, what digital gets right is that it brings equality to this pursuit of capturing life as we know it. Sure, in the beginning I poo pooed it, and I was as annoyed as the next guy who was sick of hearing about how 19-year-old John or Jane just got a new DSLR and is a photographer now… But over the years, something strange has happened. I am increasingly interested in the images young people are creating and sharing. Think about it – it’s a wonderful thing. Even the crap images. But by the way, I have seen some truly remarkable, moving, and thoughtful images created by kids who don’t have the faintest clue about film photography, and who have only just recently picked up cameras, or, more incredulously, are creating these images with their phones. Does it matter? We live in a time where you really can’t tell the difference when looking at a printed image if it was shot with a Leica or an iPhone, digital adjustments considered. I used to think this was sacrilegious, offensive, wrong, and stupid. Now I realize it’s quite amazing. When I look at old photographs, whether they belong to my family or whether they belong to others, I find myself thinking how fortunate it is that that moment was captured. I don’t really care whether it was shot on 35mm or 120 or something else or whether a nice German camera was used or even if it was a Japanese point and shoot. The print, the image, that’s what matters. To me at least.

    I’m really sorry to ramble here, but I think I needed to also just get these thoughts down. Maybe you can take away something from this, maybe not. But I will say this: In my experience, film and digital can exist quite happily together. Why the heck not? What’s the worst that could happen if you picked up a digital camera and messed around with it? And just because some people out there were not fortunate enough to have had the experience to truly work with and understand film and develop a sincere appreciation for film photography does not make their approach and appreciation for image capturing and printing less meaningful. But I’m with you on this point – the process is just different and incomparable, digital is lifeless and cold when compared to the living nature of film photography, but again, in the end, the goal is the same (for me at least) in that the end result is the print, which is the most important thing.

    I can understand your frustration with the situation with your brother – after all who is he to create images when it is you who put the time and effort into this craft? Don’t look at it that way. This should not be a depressing realization for you. This should be something remarkable, uplifting even, because it is. We are so blessed to live in an age where all these tools are available to us, very powerful tools that allow us to do absolutely anything our minds can think up when it comes to creating visual representations of the world around us. Perhaps this is an opportune time for you to connect with your brother in a deeper way. It seems he has accumulated a wealth of digital knowledge that you, with an open mind, may be able to benefit from? Lord knows he could learn a thing or two from you.

  8. San Warzoné

    The Leicaphilia site promotes Leica cameras and film plays a big part. There is no issue with wanting that tactile touch and feel of using film and enjoying the sensations that accompany it’s entire process. It’s a win win for the everyone choosing to be involved in the practice of Leica analog media.. So, why then does there have to a loser in all this? What’s the point of finding an enemy in the use of digital media where other photographers can find the same sense of satisfaction? Embrace and enjoy film Leicas to your heart’s content. Why do you feel the need to keep reminding us with your smug, anti-digital digs that claim only film can deliver a real, meaningful and authentic image and is the only true photographic experience? Equating digital images to be:

    “manipulating results to fit an idealized Hyper-reality, a sort of Madison Avenue transcription of the real into the simulated realities of advertising and entertainment. Unfortunately, the world I live in little resembles the world I see depicted in car commercials. What’s the point in technologies that assist us in pretending it does?”

    This all sounds as if you are actually living in a harsh “black and white” world…where you decide what the truth is for all things photographic.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      My opinion is my opinion. My blog is my blog. Ergo, my opinions will be found on my blog. Feel free not to read it if you find it too smug for your taste.

  9. Trond Are

    The problem arises from discussing the “real” photographer in the context of the equipment and technique used. A “real” photographer sees, searches for and composes images in a different way, to a snapper. Beyond the elements of composition which are a visual grammar, to be learned, a “real” photographer contextualizes the shot and project in a relevant social or artistic dialog. You can do snapshots with a Leica M3 or a Nikon D810 or what ever camera. You can do real, interesting and notable photography with any camera.

  10. Rob Campbell

    I believe – oops! didn’t mean to come over as Frankie Laine – that an interest in photography doesn’t always stem exclusively from photographic images.

    In my own case, I was initially drawn to painting, and the photography came about through my delight in the look of the Leicas, Nikons and Canons that were to be found in the advertising pages of US magazines: those little machines looked superbly tactile and beautiful; I just wanted to get my hands on one. I write of the early 50s.

    When I decided that my hand-graphics skills were never going to let me survive as a pro, my allegiance instantly transferred to photography and that’s all I ever did beyond four years in engineering, not entirely lost years, as it was within engineering that I found my first job as a photographer, mostly spent within the darkrooms of the firm where I had earlier begun my working life standing at a bench with a file in my hands and a block of steel in the vice before me.

    And yes, it did teach me more than I could ever have learned about printing on my own, and because of that I can appreciate the sentiment in our host’s reasoning. And I’d go as far as to state that, IMO, that background in wet darkrooms has been invaluable in my later experiences with digital. Working wet teaches you a lot of stuff about what print can look like, just how beautiful a little extra effort can make something look. And because of the cost and effort involved in, basically, having to revert to step 1 every time you change your idea of how the print should be, you develop the skill of looking hard and thinking before you do anything with the negative. Digital isn’t like that. Digital encourages guessing because it doesn’t cost you more than the electricity. And its greatest virtue – Layers – can also turn you into an idiot who never knows when the ideal state has already been reached.

    Using digital without wet experience must be different to coming to it much later in photographic development. Whether the virgin digital fan works free of film-minded mental reservations or not I can never know; does he work as a free spirit unburdened by previous experience? Does that allow him greater room for experiment? Personally, I doubt that. However, the ground becomes even more slippery when you think about the differences between film photographers who always did their own processing and those who invariably foisted that part of their photography off to somebody else. To me, unless one was faced with having to print the product of one’s exposures, how could one learn how to expose and process properly? And if you didn’t do those two steps properly, you could never achieve the bet results from the materials. I wonder how many famous “name” photographers owed their success to their darkroom monkeys… and today, to their retouchers!

    In conclusion, I’d suggest that a filmic background can be a great advantage to any photographer; I don’t think education is really ever wasted; whether you employ it directly or not, it’s ever there in the background.

    Rob

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