Photography

It Isn't the Camera, It's the Method

There’s quite a vigorous film vs digital discussion going on over the Times of London‘s report about Kodak and the future of its film business, as I blogged in my entry “Please Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away…”

Film advocates are busy suggesting that digital photographers aren’t really photographers at all. One commentator put it this way (ellipses mine):

“Digital is all about results, irrespective of how you get there: profligate image taking, preview and delete, then save the lucky shot for Photoshop…When I went digital (briefly) I’d shoot 200 images over a three day vacation and later delete three-quarters of them. When the digital thrill died and I went back to film, I found I was a terrible photographer. And now, slowly, with film, I’m learning all over again what it means to take a photograph.”

The problem here (as is evident from the complete comment in the original Times of London story) is that this photographer abandoned his careful “make every picture count” method when he switched from film to digital and replaced it with a “more pictures are better pictures” approach. However, you can waste three-quarters of your pictures if you shoot with film as well as you can with digital (ask anyone who has ever suffered through looking through unedited packets of pictures fresh from the lab!).

The problem isn’t with digital photography, but in how it’s being performed. Here’s a digest of my approach (based on over 35 years of photographic experience, including about 6 years with digital, and several years of teaching photography):

1. The instant-feedback features in digital cameras (LCD playback, histogram feature in better models, and exposure display in advanced modes) help photographers who know how to use them to get better pictures.

2. I teach my students to evaluate white balance, exposure, mode, cropping, zoom, and histogram and to reshoot immediately with different settings, when necessary, to get better results. In other words, I teach my students to be as careful with digital as with film.

3. I teach my students to review their photos on a computer and pay particular attention to the exposure metadata stored with each photo. This information includes lens zoom setting, f-stop, shutter speed, ISO setting, EV adjustment, white balance, and so forth. By viewing the image and the metadata at the same time, a photographer can learn what makes one shot better than another. What’s even better is that it is no longer to use the camera vendor’s own software to view this information.

Microsoft Windows XP users can download the Microsoft RAW Image Viewer and Thumbnailer to view this information from selected RAW as well as JPEG and TIFF files from virtually any digital camera. Windows Vista and MacOS X users already have the ability to view metadata.

Reviewing metadata helps photographers at all levels shoot better photos. Although I’ve known for years that I ought to write down exposure data, I’ve always been too busy shooting to pull out a notepad and do it. On those rare occasions I did it, I watched picture after picture go by. No wonder I love having metadata at my fingertips!

You can be creative, careful, and methodical or boring, careless, and unsystematic with either film or digital. They’re both valid means of expression, and you can learn to do both well – or badly.

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