Photography is not dead!
Photography is dead according to German photographer Wim Wenders, speaking to The Age Melbourne newspaper, blaming the iPhone. We have to disagree as photography is a craft and if the photographer has continuing passion for his or her craft then how can it be dead? It is more likely the photographer is going through a period of low inspiration and this can be difficult to break. That photography is dead can become the truth. Don’t accept this and keep shooting as this is the only way to let the light in again. And, most certainly visit the Wenders website where you will see that photography is very much alive. Maybe you could try some different gear, but I doubt you need yet another digital camera, so why not bring out that 70s rangefinder which has been languishing in the cupboard. A very important point here is cost and loss of value or ‘techno-price-rot’. Your new, latest digital costing maybe $1200 retail is not worth half this as you walk out the door. The latest DSLR is worse. But, your new/old analogue rangefinder either purchased 2nd hand or resurrected from the back of your gear cupboard, in excellent cosmetic and operating condition, original cost long forgotten but today worth in the low $100s, maybe $300 is still worth $300 and may even increase in value - something your digital gear definitely will not.
Everything doesn’t have to be snapped, with discernment the key to photography in the 21st century and there are potential ‘A’ grade images everywhere. There will always be that ‘special’ image, that moment in time that no one else can ever capture - it is unique to you. Even in your own space where you are right now those special images are waiting. The main problem with iPhone photography is there is no understanding of the rules of photography which haven’t changed since the first days early in the 19th century. The iPhone does it all for you, mostly rendering the snapper clueless. Most iPhone pictures will be lost - consigned to their ICloud grave, never to be seen again. Today’s cell phone is a useful instrument for - email on the go, text messaging, internet banking if you want to take the risk, Google maps to get your directions, photographic record of a vehicle accident and quick snaps of family events, but that’s about it. A lot of extravagant claims are made, but a quality image making tool it is not. Fast moving action, either sport or nature, and available light photography is not the cellphone’s strong point. The SLR/DSLR with focus tracking and an A grade fast (large aperture) lens is the tool for this job. To freeze the action a fast shutter (1/500 - 1/1000) is needed and if the light is slightly challenging the average cellphone lens cannot gather enough light to allow a useable image to be recorded on the very small sensor. A digital camera which has proven low light performance such as Nikon's full frame FX D700 has large pixel pots able to gather lots of light whereas the pixel pots on an I Phone's sensor are tiny.
Bright professional grade lenses with large apertures of at least F2.8 and preferably F1.2, F1.4 maximise light collection. These ‘fast’ lenses are expensive and the cellphone cannot offer this professional high grade lens. Bokeh (the out of focus background) produced when a large aperture is used creating shallow depth of field, is an example of the type of result acheivable with the right lens for the shoot. A creative photographer’s tool, very much sought after in the food photography segment.
Image quality requires many factors to optimise. We will consider only the important basics 1) original size of image - pixels matter. 2) Glass quality (lens). The average cellphone lens is plastic and not professional grade. A high quality 'fast' (large aperture) professional grade 35mm format lens is capable of resolving detail in low light, enabling a moderate speed film or in the case of digital the ISO setting to be 200 or less. Image noise is minimised at these settings. Lots of modern digital cameras are capable of very high ISO settings but the resulting images will be disappointing to the point of being useless due to high noise pollution. Recently, for extra $, sets of good quality glass lenses are available for cellphones which may include wide angle, macro and telephoto but the user is still dealing with a consumer grade lens and no manual control. 3) Image recording process. Film, the ultimate original. Properly stored film can survive for more than 100 years, whereas the digital file can have an uncertain life, file corruption being the main problem experienced and incompatibility with an upgraded computer can become very frustrating. In the digital photography world the digital uncompressed raw file, or digital negative offers the widest post shoot processing scope. 4) Last but by no means least - image content. Be discerning and only shoot what raises your photographer’s heartbeat, unless, of course, you are on a commissioned assignment, then your innate creativity may need focusing!
The cellphone produces an 'in camera' processed jpeg which has limited ability for post shoot processing and does not contain enough image detail for close cropping or printing much beyond the common 6x4 standard photo. For all practical purposes the 35mm format (analogue or digital) is quite sufficient for at least A3 printing provided lens homework is done and understood in relation to the intended result. Stepping up to a medium format platform immediately takes image quality to the next level. 120, medium format film at 6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7, 6x9. These are large images with impressive detail. Digital medium format can produce an image in excess of 100mb needing huge computing power for post shoot process work. On a poster size printout this quality differential can be easily discerned. Portraits and landscapes take on a ‘medium format’ quality, lifting image detail, depth and colour rendition. The medium format camera is a large bulky beast, requiring some considerable fortitude to pack on any sort of extended hike. Medium format image perfection usually requires a substantial tripod and extra gear such as remote shutter releases and interchangeable camera backs. Read our blog post seeking the bigger picture. Of course it is all possible, but not too many of us want or need to print poster size and it is at these extremes that the differences are apparent. For A4, A3, even up to A2 a 35mm format image, shot with a professional quality lens, will deliver a very pleasing result. Film, scanned at at least 3200 dpi and saved to disk as a tiff file giving wide post shoot processing scope, or a full frame (35mm) digital negative recorded at al least 20 megapixels will both provide sufficient image detail. A 35mm rangefinder or SLR plus 2 or 3 fast, quality lenses will take up less space and be much lighter than most medium format combinations, and if you intend to be shooting mostly in good daylight then a tripod is not necessary so you could get away with a very light monopod for those dawn/dusk hero shots.
There is plenty to take our attention as photographers before we even exercise our shutter finger.The light, the focus - these are the headings, each having several sub headings tacked on. Light - white balance, balancing the light, where is the light coming from, flash or no flash. Being creative with available light can result in some dramatic images that you will contemplate time after time thinking ‘did I really shoot that - wow’. So think hard before using flash as it will destroy any image moodiness and drama. Of course there are photographic situations where flash is necessary such as interior architectural work where the purpose of the image is to show structural detail. This can be accomplished with on camera speedlight fitted with a Gary Fong flash diffuser to spread light to shadowed areas and in more complex shoots a series of slave speedlights can be set up, wirelessly operated from the on camera commander. Most low light or night shooting requires slow shutter to allow for a small aperture (F11 or smaller) sometimes very slow of some seconds duration where hand holding is not an option. A large aperture is an option if shallow depth of field is acceptable. If your subject is a city night scene then generally sharp focus front to back, is the best. For this result an aperture of at least F10 up to F16 is required.A secure tripod and remote shutter release will realise the most rewarding result from night shooting using a small aperture. Any movement within the image being shot will be blurred. This creates some interesting effects in itself such as headlight ribbons, blurred people against sharp backgrounds. Dramatic - dynamic. Choosing fast film (higher ISO) or increasing the ISO sensitivity on your digital enables a faster shutter but will introduce film graininess and digital noise which at it’s worst can make the image useless. Keep the ISO moderate (200) and use a tripod.
Redirecting available light to relieve shadows, using bounce reflector panels is a very portable, cost and operator friendly way to producing the natural image most photographers are seeking. Identifying hard and soft light, framing your image so the existing light quality is used to advantage will help produce the pleasing results you are after. Hard light can be very difficult as your camera will struggle to record detail from dark hard edged shadows, or strong highlights. Bracketing can overcome this where exposures for the shadows and the highlights are blended, averaging the available light from each exposure. Obviously the camera cannot be repositioned between shots.
All light is not the same colour either, from pre-dawn, dawn, mid morning, midday into the harsher afternoon light and on into the golden sunset lighting that we photographers love. Images shot in pre-dawn, dawn and sunset lighting can acquire that ‘je ne sai quoi’ quality. Dawn shooting is easier for the photographer to handle as the light levels are rising, not falling off to darkness. Experimenting with light quality and how it is recorded by your camera is fun and gives the photographer a firm understanding of just how important the various light qualities are. The technical description of light colour temperature is called degrees Kelvin ranging from warm (2000) to cold (9500). Leave your white balance control on auto for most daytime shooting situations but definitely go manual control for early morning/evening, deep shadow and interiors as the camera auto white balance cannot usually compensate adequately for these extremes. If you choose to use traditional film then select the correct film for your shoot as each film type is colour balanced for it’s intended use. Professional film can be 'pushed' somewhat where the camera ISO setting can be manually set to a higher ISO than the film is rated for. With low light shooting this technique can enable a faster shutter but it will result in a grainier image. During the scanning process, using a professional scan program (Silverfast or Vuescan) there is latitude to adjust colour balance. This can also be done to a limited extent ‘on shoot’ with lens filters.
Most contemporary lenses are auto focus (AF) manufactured for use on modern digital cameras. Be careful of sensor size here as a general rule of thumb is full frame (35mm format) lenses can also be used on cameras with smaller sensors and there will be a crop factor to the resulting image. Although a lens specifically manufactured for a smaller sensor camera can be used on a full frame sensor the resulting image will only be the size of the smaller sensor the lens was designed for leaving blank areas. Nikon full frame (35mm) cameras automatically crop the image if a DX (crop sensor) lens is mounted rather than FX (full frame 35mm), whereas Canon do not allow a small sensor lens to be mounted on a full frame body. Some of the most rewarding full frame lenses to use are manual focus only. Leica, Minolta, Voigtlander and Zeiss manufacture some of the best photographic glass around and they are a worthy investment. Their value does not decline. Of course the main photographic gear manufacturers that we hear about all the time, Nikon, Canon, Sony and others also manufacture high quality lens but these are designed to be used with their respective native camera bodies. Some are useful, via adapters with non native bodies, analogue or digital. There are many lens to camera adapters and it is very important to do your adapter research and be prepared to pay for the best quality. Poor quality adapters either don’t work at all or provide a very poor lens to camera attachment, letting in random light or fitting so badly to the point of suddenly dropping off landing on the floor with your valuable lens! Handling and using high quality manual focus lenses such as Zeiss and Voigtlander is a joy in itself with the resulting images a major step up from the average. Color rendition, contrast and sharpness are all superior. Using such a lens with say, a Voigtlander Bessa R3M rangefinder body is a simple process. Your lens could be the Voigtlander 40mm f1.4 single coated M-mount. The R3M is an M-mount body so simply attach the lens directly to the body, adjust the aperture to suit conditions - say a dullish day street shooting, use an aperture of f5.6 and a shutter of 1/125. The film could be Ilford Delta 100 black & white. There is a multi coat version of this lens but the single coat suits black & white imagery best. The Bessa’s TTL metering is very accurate and these settings should produce a ‘0’ exposure indication in the Bessa’s viewfinder. Over or under by 1 stop, adjust the shutter accordingly. The smooth, well damped lens focus ring is quickly adjusted to bring the rangefinder patch into alignment. Ready to shoot - press the shutter. The Bessa’s satisfying shutter release lets you know the frame is in the bag! To be faster on the shutter pre set the focus to whatever range you may be shooting (zone focus) for the next few frames - might be 4 metres, could be infinity.
Some vintage lenses if they have been well looked after and stored properly, continue to produce results equal or better than professional grade contemporary lenses. Prime (fixed focal length) lenses of quality manufacture perform better than zoom lenses which tend to be a ‘jack of all trades’. The downside here is needing several lenses in your bag instead of just 1.
The excitment of photography - using the gear and capturing the best image of the moment, is a constant learning curve and you can be on this curve all day, every day. What a way to go - keep shooting!