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.

5 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.

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  2. 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?

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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!

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