I admit to starting to become a Luddite in some ways. I spent a long career developing and working with advanced technology, but I am starting to object to its misuse, especially by giant corporations and the government who spy and track and infringe our rights. But on the other hand, I occasionally step back and look at where technology has taken the art of photography and have to say “wow”. We live in the best of times for digital imaging. Technology can also be a blessing.
I think what precipitated this is that I have been going back re-reading my library of photography books. Many of these are by well-known experts of their day. It has been an amazing realization that many of the images in some of them would not be exceptional or even noticed today. And in some, the author’s discussion of the images was mostly about exposure and technical problems. Exposure used to be an overriding concern. We have come a very long way.
In particular, I based this on going back over the following books. This is just a fraction of my library that I have looked at recently.
- The Fine Print, by Fred Picker, 1975
- Taking Great Photographs, by John Hedgecoe, 1983
- The Photograph: Composition and Color Design, by Harald Mante, 2010
- Learning to See Creatively, by Bryan Peterson, 1988
- Photography of Natural Things, by Freeman Patterson, 1982
- The Making of Landscape Photographs, by Charlie Waite, 1992
Most of these books were based on film photography. It amazes me the degree of technical sophistication and planning that was required. For instance, in The Fine Print, most of the discussion about each image was about the film choice, adjusting the camera tilt/shift settings, exposure considerations, development chemistry, and printing tricks.
Do you remember reciprocity failure and how to compensate for exposure degradation on long exposures? Do you know exposure chemistries and how to push process a negative to increase contrast? How about dodging and burning during printing? Or making an unsharp mask?
I skipped this whole generation by shooting slide film during those days. This complex process of color or black & white developing and printing was not for me. And I’m an Engineer. I generally like complexity.
I would say that many of the results I notice in these old books are “thoughtful”. They have to be. It was generally a slow process. It could take an hour to set up for a shot and determine the exposure and anticipate the printing that would have to be done.
I am very thankful I was able to skip this. I am able to be much more spontaneous and intuitive in my shooting. My standards have become very different.
Did you know Kodak invented digital photography? I bet they wish they didn’t. It put them out of business.
The first prototype in 1975 was an 8 pound monster the size of a toaster. It took 23 seconds to record a blurry black & white image that had to be read by a separate, larger box.
But unfortunately, for them, Kodak suffered the classic problem of large corporations with entrenched technology: they did not aggressively pursue the new technology for fear of cannibalizing their existing products. They could not convince management that they are going to be cannibalized, and they would be better off doing it themselves. This has put a lot of companies out of business. Who is your buggy whip provider?
Many years of technology improvements and innovation were required before we got an actual digital camera, the Dycam Model 1 in 1990. The first practical digital camera, in my opinion, was the Nikon N8008s in 1992. It had a whopping 1.5 million pixels and could do color!
Collecting pixels is not much benefit unless we can do something with them. Adobe Photoshop 1.0 was released in 1990 on the new Macintosh computer from Apple. Hard to believe there was a time before Photoshop. Or Apple 🙂
As a note on something I have observed over a long career: don’t underestimate the power of engineering. The early digital components were just toys, but they gave a hint of what was possible. Most people dismissed them as impractical, predicting they would never be at parity with film. Now even the most die hard film enthusiasts would be hard pressed to make a good argument that film is better.
Engineers and scientists and manufacturers and marketers can do amazing things when there is a market to support them.
An anecdote will illustrate. A friend of mine at HP developed the ink jet printer technology. It was black and white and pretty crude and slow. Not too long after the first one was made, he told me that someday I would take an 8×10 print out of one of these printers, in full color, and it would look every bit as good as a Kodak print. I politely told him he was crazy. But now, here in my studio, I have a 17″x22″ ink jet printer that makes color and black & white prints far better than commercial prints of a few years ago. Much larger printers exist, too. It stretches belief.
State of the art
Look at where we are now (mid 2022 when this was written). I shoot a 47MPix mirrorless camera. The lenses have better optical properties than ever before. They support the full resolving power of the camera sensor.
I can shoot great quality at much higher ISO speeds than has ever been possible.
This camera has abandoned the optical viewfinder and has gone to a marvelous little video display instead. It shows a wealth of information that photographers in the 1990s and before would never have dreamed of. Or I could chose to see the information on the camera back instead.
Since the camera is mirrorless, the sensor is live all the time, continually measuring exposure across the entire frame. No more 18% gray reflected light meter to interpret. And this exposure information is real time displayed for me as a live histogram, focus tracking, etc. Whatever I choose to see.
Exposure is a minor consideration most of the time. I am usually in Aperture Priority mode and the camera’s internal computers do a wonderful job of accurately determining exposure from the data it can see from the whole sensor. Plus I have the histogram to look at to check for abnormal conditions. And the sensor has such an exceptional dynamic range (range of light capture ability from darkest tones, to brightest) that even if I miss the exposure by a stop or 2, I probably have sufficient data to correct it in the computer. Besides, I can immediately review any image to double-check it.
An embarrassment of riches
I am almost embarrassed to have all this power at hand. Compared to image making of a few years ago it is like going from Morse Code to an iPhone.
I don’t worry much about exposure now. I can see what I am about to capture. Even before shooting I know from the histogram that it will be well exposed. I can immediately review any images to verify them. No doubts. No anxiously waiting for the developed film to come back to see if I got the shot.
This technology frees me from most of the mundane technical concerns and lets me concentrate on composition and creativity. The resolution and tonal detail in my images is the best in history. The computer processing power and tools are the best in history. Printing or display of images has never been better. The ability to transfer even huge files anywhere in the world in seconds is amazing and unprecedented.
Thank you, technology! It is a golden age of imaging. We have a blessing of technology.