Technology is Important

Technology is important in photography, maybe more than most other arts. I sometimes hear photographers say “I’m not interested in the technology; I just want to make pictures.” This seems to usually have one of 2 meanings: either they really do know the technical side but they are making an exaggerated statement to say that artistic considerations are more important, or they really don’t consider the technology. This later group is needlessly limiting their potential.

The term “photography” comes from Greek words meaning “writing with light”. It is a good name. Photography is unique among arts in that (for the most part) we start by capturing something that is there in front of the camera. Most other visual arts start with a blank canvas and the image has to be built from scratch by the artist. I’m not arguing that this makes photography more of less valuable than, say, painting. Just that the process is different.

Since we are capturing something that exists, we must know how to use the tools we have to maximize our success. Taking digital image capture as the norm, there is the lens, the camera body, the image correction process, and the creative manipulation process. Modern photography absolutely requires a good computer system.

  • Lens : The focal length and maximum f/stop determine the envelope of what can be captured for a certain scene. The focal length sets the magnification or “cropping” or framing of the subject. The f/stop choice determines the depth of field — the relative amount of the field of view that is in acceptable focus. They also interact to control the amount of light entering in to the camera sensor.
  • Camera body: In a typical modern camera this controls the exposure, the focus, the shutter speed, the image capture, and the initial image processing. Exposure is a combination of the ISO speed (the relative sensitivity setting of the sensor), the aperture, and the shutter speed. The image is captured on the sensor, a large silicon chip. The sensor is perhaps the most critical piece of technology in the system. It has a maximum number of pixel it can capture and a dynamic range — the range of brightest to darkest data it can record. The data coming from the sensor is not the image ready for viewing. It must have sophisticated and high speed processing done to it before it can be written to the memory card or even previewed on the back of the camera.
  • Image correction: Even after the processing done in the camera, every image needs some correction. This is not a flaw, it is a required part of the process. Typical processing at this stage include color correction, a little bit of sharpening, some tone correction (e.g. reduce highlights and/or raise shadows), and cropping.
  • Creative manipulation: This is a later stage of processing, maybe using in the same software; maybe not. This may include tone mapping, black & white conversion, removing extraneous objects, compositing images together, blurring, sharpening, and many other operations.
  • I’m not even considering here the final output. This can be prints, web postings, stock images, etc.

This is neither a tutorial of digital processing or meant to scare you away from photography. It is just stating what is involved to do a better than average job.

The point is that a good artist will have an excellent working knowledge of every one of these steps. Each one is an important factor in determining the final outcome. You have to become very familiar with your tools. It is necessary to work with them over and over for so many repetitions that they are second nature. An artist must make dozens of conscious decisions, often in a fraction of a second, in the dark, or in bad weather, to get the result they envisioned. This might be heresy to many, but my opinion is that an old camera you are intimately familiar with is better than a sophisticated new camera that you don’t know how to use quickly. (So get the new camera and spend a lot of time learning it 🙂

Any visual art involves making things. Making things requires tools. A good artist learns their tools well. This is one of the things that separates the good ones from the mediocre. When I hear someone say “I don’t do technology” I interpret it to mean “I’m not serious about my art.” Is that unfair? Not to me, but let me know what you think.

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