I was having dinner a couple of nights ago with some photo friends when the conversation turned towards modern photography and new technologies. Of course, ours is just one of many industries and professions that have needed to adapt to new digital technologies. From print houses losing jobs to desktop inkjets to musicians being released from the grip of record companies, we’ve all been part of a digital revolution that’s upended the media world. Each of us had spent years shooting film as well as digital, so the conversation naturally turned towards comparing the old and new. We collectively marveled at the capabilities of modern photography while bemoaning the less obvious downsides. So, what specifically has changed in our medium? That’s what we chatted about. In a word, quality.
Without a doubt, there has been a marked increase in the quality or our files (negatives). Today’s high-end digital cameras easily outperform even the best film cameras. We have increased sharpness, faster focusing, and better color fidelity. We get immediate feedback on composition and exposure from our camera’s image review. Modern photography allows us to shoot in lower light, create larger prints and even create movies by shooting video. So with all of that, where’s the downside? In a word, quality.
I am not talking about the quality of the actual print or digital file, but the quality of vision. While the advances in technology improve convenience and increase our capabilities, they can also allow us to become lazy, unfocused. We can shoot hundreds of pictures without considering the cost or stopping to replace a roll of film. If our exposure is off, we know immediately and we simply retake the image with better settings. When we miss in the field, we can just “fix it in post”. These “benefits” all have the capacity to reduce our concentration and lower our expectations. Each shot doesn’t matter as much. It’s easy to throw away that which cost so little.
Don’t take the disposable image
Modern photography can certainly encourage the disposable image, but it doesn’t have to. I recommend a return to careful attention and laser focus (note: I write this, as much to remind myself, as to inspire others). Don’t let the speed and convenience of the modern camera make you lazy.
- Let’s make each shot count. As I’ve repeated ad nauseam, I would much rather come home with one great image than fifty mediocre shots. It is so much more satisfying. Quality over quantity.
- Focus. Modern photography exists in an era of distraction. Tweets, Facebook notifications, texts. Family, friends, jobs, responsibilities. 24-hour news cycles. There is just so much to remove us from the moment. “Live in the moment” is an old adage, but it has stuck around for a reason. The more present we are, the more focused our images will be.
- Postcards and planning. Not every shot needs to be your masterpiece. Don’t forget to snap that shot for the folks back home. There are many different audiences for your work and their individual tastes don’t always align. There is a time for the snapshot and a time for your art. Just don’t let the postcard mentality overtake your artistic expression.
- Pay attention. Careful attention. To yourself. Why are you taking this image? What has inspired you to lift your camera to your eye? Why do you want to show this image to others? Remember, if you’re uncertain about the idea behind the image, your viewer will be as equally confused.
- Take your time. Be patient. We often think that if we don’t get the shot now, it’ll never happen. Not true. It will happen again and again. Remember, the shot you are about to take is only an idea. A representation of an idea you have in mind. You’ll be able to recreate that representation again in a different scenario. I guarantee it. And, it’ll be much more powerful when presented with all of the right conditions.
Take the disposable image
Yin and Yang. With every negative comes the positive. Shooting hundreds of images, immediately correcting your exposures or fixing an image with post-processing can certainly encourage laziness, but it can also promote creativity. The modern photographer can experiment with new techniques, try out new ideas, or extend their creativity on the computer. The immediate feedback can inform us of incorrect settings, visual distractions, and vague ideas. Use these capabilities to hone your vision in real time. Try it over and over until you get what you want.
Try overexposing. Underexposing. Overlaying images with multiple exposures. Try a different vantage point. Hell, try several. Realize that every snap of the shutter is just another attempt to realize your vision, your interpretation of what lies before you. There is no harm in trying.
Modern cameras and digital technologies bring both advantages and disadvantages. The key here is to recognize when one becomes the other. When pursuing new ideas or trying different techniques, take advantage of all that digital cameras offer. Let the combination of low cost and immediate feedback fuel your creative spirit. On the other hand, don’t let the ease of use and low cost of capture lead you to complacency. Focus. Pay attention. And above all, make each shot count.