Making the digital leap

I learned photography in the time when a curious material called “film” was used to gather light to make images. Generations ago people once used glass plates coated with chemicals to do the same thing. Nowadays cameras have digital sensors and few moving parts, and perform amazing feats under virtually any kind of light at all. It wasn’t always so easy.

But it took me a long time to come to terms with digital photography. I took a break from shooting pictures to write a novel, to design stained glass, to travel and work with my hands. One of the reasons I came to love photography in the first place was its veracity. It was safe to assume the information in a negative or transparency originated in the physical world. A photograph was believable, it was proof I had been there and seen that. Digital technology changed all that. No longer is a photo even a physical artifact; digital information can be conjured on a computer and is infinitely subject to manipulation. In short, you can’t be sure anything you see in a digital photo actually existed in the real world.

I stuck with film until its use, especially for color work, was no longer defensible. Kodachrome, the world’s greatest color film, was only available in 35mm format (except for a few brief years) and developing it was such a tortuously complicated process that by the late 90s even Kodak was spurning it.

Of course Kodak had even bigger problems, but once digital photography became established almost nobody found Kodachrome worth the trouble. It broke my heart. Comparably sharp and beautiful E6 emulsions had become available in all formats, were easier to use – but meanwhile digital photography required no chemical processing.

Moreover, the truth couldn’t escape me: with the exception of fine art, nearly everything we see now is digitized anyway. You can shoot on film, but that image will be converted to pixels before it’s published. And when information is digitized it becomes equally subject to manipulation as if it were originally recorded that way.

I won’t go deeply into the aesthetic qualities of film versus digital imaging except simply to say that film has inherent qualities digital media can’t equal. But with color those differences no longer balance the scale. The huge advances and resolution of digital imaging now far outweigh color film’s aesthetic appeal. Since the demise of Kodachrome there’s just not much reason to shoot color film any more except as an exercise.

This is not the case with black and white. The chemical processing of black and white film is simpler than color, and its granularity and strong aesthetic character are so unique I don’t believe it will ever become completely obsolete. See my galleries Mannequins and Life in black and white for examples of these qualities. And last of all, the veracity of film still makes it irreplaceable as an archiving medium.

I still love shooting black and white film, but do so much less often than I once did. In the darkroom it once was considered the more economical medium, but compared to digital it’s more exotic, time-consuming and increasingly expensive. I usually scan my negatives now and print them digitally, instead of using silver-based paper and chemicals. High resolution scanning captures and preserves the aesthetic qualities of film very well, and the negatives still can be printed conventionally if there’s ever a need to.

The magic of lighting

But there was another even greater advantage in becoming a photographer in the era of film. The sensitivity of film was far lower than that of today’s digital sensors, and demanded that the color of light be matched with its own sensitivity spectrum (usually of daylight) to produce acceptable results. So we learned to dance with this slow and demanding partner, and we learned the magic of lighting: both for aesthetic reasons and the tonal range limitations of the graphic printing process.

It’s possible today to be a very successful photographer without knowing anything – or knowing very little – about lighting, but it’s not possible to control the end results with the same precision or sensitivity as someone who has mastered the art of studio and location lighting. Digital technology has greatly stretched the circumstances where it’s possible to work with available light. But even with all its variations, there will be times when available light just isn’t enough. Or it’s not coming from the right direction, or it’s too harsh. For those times, knowing how to create beautiful light is an indispensable skill. And it’s a never-ending process to refine that skill and find new ways to apply it, even in a digital world.

High dynamic range (HDR) photography is a technique made possible by the extreme range of values captured in a RAW file, or in a series of multiple exposures made of the same scene. HDR software can be used to give photos a surreal quality that separates them from conventional photographs. These images sometimes can be identified by a halo emanating from the edges of dark areas in the photo (such as anything silhouetted against the sky), or a weird tonal quality.

I employ HDR occasionally (and very subtly) to stretch the tonal range of a scene, but feel conventional photography plays a more important role in telling true stories, in bringing visual information to viewers. I try to make my digital photos look believable and natural as I tried to make my photos on film look. I love the greatly extended range of circumstances I can shoot under now, but don’t generally favor digital or unnatural effects. Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom both have powerful tools for manipulating images, but I tend to use them mostly for optimizing images rather than pushing them beyond the boundaries of believability.

Yes, I have photographed people individually and added them to a group photo later when the subjects couldn’t be there for the original shot. I’ve even narrowed hips or waistlines a few times, whitened teeth and fixed countless skin blemishes. These are things I once believed I’d never do, and that’s part of my evolution – to accommodate the needs of my clients and embrace the possibilities of the medium, all while considering the purpose of the photo. But beyond such white lies I still try to keep my photography honest. I don’t like the blatant “look at me” quality of highly manipulated images. If my clients choose to take my images to that place so be it – they’ve paid for the right to do that. But most of what you see on this website is photography as I love to do it: straightforward and sincere. I hope you enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed making the images.

See also Color or black and white?

 

5 Comments

  1. Rosemary Smith July 13, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    Hi Dennis. I think you need to write a book about the art of photography and include examples of your work. I’ll buy one of the first ones!!! :-)

    • dennis July 16, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      You’re very kind, Rose. There may well be a book in my future – I’ll keep you posted!

  2. Andrea July 16, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    I enjoyed reading your beautifully stated post. While much of the film/darkroom era disappears some has evolved. My company has a process to make real b&w silver gelatin prints on light sensitive Ilford b&w paper DIRECTLY from a digital file or scan of a negative. The best of the old and the new.

    • dennis July 16, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

      Thanks, Andrea. I’ve checked out your website and process. It’s gratifying to see someone preserving and improving on the silver b/w printing process, in particular making it compatible with digital imaging. For photographers who are interested see http://www.digitalsilverimaging.com/

  3. Angela Radziszewski July 31, 2012 at 3:54 am #

    Hi Dennis, I try and keep up with your work. Trully amazing how gifted you are and how you make pictures come alive. Some of your work me and the boyfriend be wanting to visit those places you photograph. And maybe we will one day.

    I love photography; but someday will be pro at it like you are. Keep up the good work!

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