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Wednesday, 03 December 2008


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I hadn't thought about the photojournalistic impact of the things you mention before; silly me!

Photographically we live in an era that is an embarrassment of riches on a technical level. There is nothing that cannot be overcome. The playing field is pretty level when it comes to image quality, the differences are minute between the top and mid level contenders these days. Complainers will always have something to moan about no matter what the manufacturers give them.

I remember the old days when new technology came in a yellow or green box, and boy were changes slow in coming, but we reveled in what we had and were grateful for it. Thirty years later I'm still making images to pay the mortgage and put food on the table, and not one day goes by when I am not astonished by what can be done with all of this new and wonderful technology that allows me to shoot in any light. What is possible today I could not even dream about 10 years ago.

My advice to pixel peepers and navel gazers, shut up and shoot! Fortunately, I don't have to pay any attention to them if I choose not to.

This has been exactly my experience moving to a digital SLR: I've realised that most of the visual experience, and almost all of the interesting light, falls way outside what we used to shoot on slides.

The sort of nice evening light which made good slides easy now seems like an awful cliche, and while I still can't help myself shooting in it when available, those pictures tend to get edited out in favour of all varieties of low and mixed light. Dusk with streetlights is great, especially if it's wet. Campfires and moonlight go well together too.

Thanks for this reference re-calibration, Jim. It's easy to forget how tight those film pants really were, once we've become accustomed to elastic waist bands.

Thanks for a terrific post — right on the button, and beautifully put.

Is it me, or does anyone else notice the irony of Jim using a photo that illustrates the results you'd typically get if you used daylight color film with tungsten lights, while his post extols the ability of digital cameras to adjust white balance on the fly?

I'm impressed by how sharp the photo is (considering it's hand-held) and I don't mind the warm color balance at all. In fact, I might prefer it to the alternative. All I'm saying is his point would be better illustrated if he provided a version of the same photo with a more neutral balance.

There may have never been an area of advancement that shed as much light on human nature's need to resist change as the advancements made in photography. I remember how astonished I was that years after word processors were routinely available, it was common to hear almost snobbish commentaries about how a typewriter was infinitely superior and how we were all losing a piece of reality by switching to a "no personality, no paper" screen. "I like to see what I type appear on real thick white paper as I type it" was the mantra. "it helps me think and compose." I believe Andy Rooney even did a piece on what step backwards typewriters were.
But that whole issue pales in comparison to the issue of our need to hold onto film once digital cameras were produced. The legend of film still reverberates today. For those like me, who used film day in and day out for decades, the legend seems more of a myth. But to this day, we actually try to get the "look of film" in our digital captures and video cameras. Video cameras that should run at 60 fps but are at times retarded to 24 fps to simulate the jerkiness of celluloid movies that we are so accustomed to.
The truth is that even before digital won the resolution war (which is all anybody seemed to care about), and even when digital really was pretty crappy and hovering around 1 MP, it was clear that the advantages to digital were insurmountable. Unlimited captures without cost or having to stop and change film, adjustable white balance, computer manipulation of contrast and color, photoshop techniques, and most importantly - the "Polaroid effect" of being able to see what you just took. We professionals often lugged Polaroid cameras with us for any planned shoot. My film cameras were calibrated to my exposure in my Polaroid camera more often than to my light meter. And some Polaroid film was fast (ASA 3200 and it was not going to be enlarged which would add grain) – which would often accentuate the slowness of film. If a lighting setup was all wrong, it was the Polaroid that would tell you. After shooting a wedding all day, you could find out that you had your film camera set wrong for every photo. That doesn’t happen now, because we see what we shoot immediately and make adjustments. We know we got the shot. Those advantages alone made digital instantly better than film.
Even today though, we hear talk of the superiority of film. I admit that the cameras were very nice - more varied, more understandable, more mechanical, longer lasting, and often more compact and faster than digital cameras are. And clearly film has a film “look.” And there may actually be some areas where film surpasses digital – like dynamic range and smoothness of transitions from light to dark. I think those advantages are over rated largely because they make no difference in many lighting conditions, and a little difference in extreme conditions. What is really meant is not that film is better, just that we have more familiarity with it and we like the “look.” That will change as future generations will have much more familiarity with digital stills and video than film. It really comes down to sentimentality.
If you objectively look at the majority of photos from past decades taken on film, you would be very disappointed if similar technical quality came out of even the lowliest digital camera. I am convinced we have never had such versatile, user friendly, high quality imaging devices as we do now.

I recently picked up a floor model Nikon D300 and snapped a few grab shots inside the dimly-lit store, using a long zoom lens. I had cranked the ISO to 3200, and judging at least by the preview images in the LCD, the images were sharp and relatively clean. That's when I had my epiphany: "we no longer need light for photography!"

Or at least that's how it seems.

The points you make apply all the more to those of us who are generally not at our best in the mornings. We get up late, stay up late and hang around with others who stay up late. Today, we finally get to document our own lives - at home, out with friends, out for an early walk around dusk :) - without strobes. It's seriously liberating. Soon, this freedom will be available to people using compacts, too.

I still come across many commentators claiming to be baffled by the appeal of handheld photographs taken in low light. For them, a good photograph always has great sunlight in it and maybe a waterfall or some mountains and night photography is about with tripods and flashguns. For the rest of us, our time has come.

While I understand that many are tired of hearing about noise levels and high ISO performance--or, for that matter, any other feature of a camera--and while it could be argued that too much ink is being spilled talking about this rather than the images themselves, I have to admit I fundamentally disagree about the fact that we should stop talking about it.

No, I wasn't doing photography back when ISO 64 was considered extraordinary. But so does people who did were not around when taking a picture required MINUTES of exposure, a hundred years ago. To those people, ISO 64 would be a blessing and they would probably wonder why so much fuss was made about the possibility of extending that to even higher using sophisticated techniques.

My point is that it is all relative. Maybe twenty years from now people will look back at the equipment we currently use and will be amazed that we still bothered to do photography since it required the use of TRIPODS, when they will have ISO 500K, or something.

Alright, ALL the products today, compared to what was used 20 years ago, are ALL wonderful. Of course, but then that is what we would expect. When I am considering buying a new camera today, I don't see how relevant it is to compare it to products from another era. Even though they are all indeed very good, you can find available on the market today cameras that have a staggering *two stops* of difference in high ISO performance between themselves.

It always depends on your usage, of course--for some fields of work, you are always using the lowest ISO for optimal quality, so that's just not an issue. But it's not just the newbies that make a big deal about this. How many times have I read or watched a video of a professional photographer telling how much the Nikon D3 has changed the way he works, because of its unprecedented high ISO performance. [For the record, I use Canon gear, so this is not fanboyism...]

For a lot of people, I think it DOES matter a lot. And I do look forward for the performance to continue to go up in the next generations of products, that will open up new photographic opportunities that we can't even imagine today.

These lines about high iso noise and image stabilization are getting boring. Mike, let us hear a nice new story about the (successful) use of --flash. These onboard flashes built into consumer dslrs don't really seem to be satisfying, don't they? So what types and model are there these days and who makes great use of them?

Hallelujah indeed! Thank you for the reality check Jim.

While I think there is merit in scrutinizing new technology (pixel peeping, navel gazing... the works), I agree that we need to appreciate the bigger picture - quite literally - that we have access to now.

It's still early in the digital era. Eventually we should also be set free from the hardware paradigms of film cameras.
Perhaps pocket cams with big sensors or mirrorless and shutterless boxes will join reconfigured rangefinders in our arsenals. Form factor and click noise is as important as ISO and sensor noise in expanding the world we can represent photographically.


Jim -- Absolutely!

Project this trend into the future to its extreme: A sensor that lets you shoot at 1/1000 sec and f/16 in the light of a single candle, noise-free. Essentially, no more limits. It will happen eventually. And I'm on board for that.

(But then I imagine logging into my favorite photo forum and reading the familiar discussion about why the hell anyone would pay extra for that f/1.4 lens when no one in their right mind needs anything faster than f/4.5. Grrrr.)

First, this is a truely wonderful and refreshing article. I had such thoughts many times, but never could have articulated it that eloquently. Thanks.

The discussions around such thoughts tend to be philosophical on the one hand, but also mostly neglecting an important difference: Commercial pro versus artist. I see many applications where one is literally forced to use the best gear in order to have competing image qualitiy. Shooting expensive weddings, events, magazine stuff and so on. On the other hand I hardly suppose an artist to be worried over high iso noise or stopping rat's motion in the coal cellar. Only mentioned pros or gearheads worry about these.

And, Charles Lanteigne, of course there is 20+ year old gear that is far better than modern devices. I would pick a Canonet QL17 over any compact digital or plastic dslr any time. But by better I mean better for my taste...

"And now by a blockade of the sun were clearly disclosed those discharges of light which teach us what little we can learn of the stars and of the true nature of our surroundings" - James Agee.

Not a quote about night photography, but I always think of it as one. Ever since I got my first dSLR, I knew that we were indeed getting closer to being able to investigate that "true nature."

I had the great pleasure of attending a presentation by James Nachtwey a couple years ago. After the presentation, there was the obligatory Q&A. Of course, the inevitable question "Film or Digital? reared its head and Nachtwey deftly responded, "Don't be silly, it's about the image" . As others have mentioned, high ISO simply provides more image oppotunities, what we do with them is up to us.


Yeah, you kind of got me on that one. Probably would have been better if I walked the walk when I talked the talk. But.... I was more intent on showing the student working off a tripod while I waltzed around handheld, so I hope you'll forgive me.


A delightful post! - Some thoughts:

"Which brings me to my point. During that era we pretty much edited reality. We restricted the subjects of photographic inquiries to the brighter parts of world."

Yeah, those "Yellow-box Moments" . . .

"Essentially we edited out dark parts of the world, such as nighttime."

As the world became an increasingly smaller, 24/7, all shifts running type of reality.

"Either way, in the end we simply left huge parts of the world out of our examinations."

Right - except for various "Nocturnists" - starting in the early 80s - armed with Tungsten-balanced films (remember those?) - like 'white balance for wierdness, at night' - which did a pretty good job of neutralizing some of those myriad light sources one encounters at night (and those fims were somewhat resistant to the rampant reciprocity failure and the wild color shifts that characterized the Koda/Ekta-chromes of the day.

"Now comes digital . . . This is a real revolution."

Exactly - it's like the floodgates for night photography have opened up - and except for the predictable fringes associated with any watershed event/movement/practice - we seem to be the richer for it.

Maybe, we're at a point when/where the gear becomes irrelevant - and we can "focus" on the true atmosphere, mood. and mystery of the night.

the mystery of place,
and a heightened sense
of the nature of things - night photography seems a worthy vehicle, a ritual to express these themes."

- Tim Baskerville

Thanks for the perspective. I'd already forgotten about the Velvia Decade, which ended less than ten years ago like a supersaturated exclamation point on the age of film.

Just this last Tuesday I photographed 12 or so people/guests/DJ's and other people in a simple (strobe+softbox) one light/canvas backdrop location studio setup.

After packing up I shot some of the night's performers (rock' roll) on stage under stage light. These folks didn't just move a little when they played, they moved A LOT.

All done with one camera. ISO 200 and studio strobe to ISO 12,800 in some cases with stage light. ONE camera. A Nikon D3. This isn't the first time I've shot jobs that would have been just flat out not possible with film. Really, not possible.

Oh and I used the same lens too which may have surprised even me more than the camera. A Sigma 100-300 f/4 zoom. It just covered the whole job.

I agree with Jim.


"...we hear talk of the superiority of film"

I agree that some photographers go overboard when describing the virtues of film. I also agree that there are overwhelming arguments for the technological superiority of digital over film. Let's just not lose sight of the fact that there's more to one's choice of media than technological superiority. Cars are technologically superior to bicycles. Does that mean that bicycle makers should go out of business or that anyone who rides a bicycle is an ignorant Luddite?

If someone prefers the look of film or wants/needs to use a camera that's not available in a digital format, why not graciously allow them that option? It takes no money out of your pocket or food off your plate. Since we can all use what we like, when we like, what's the point in choosing sides, building fences, and fortifying them? Can't we all--film and digital shooters--just get along?

I love it!
I shoot at night almost as much if not more than in daylight. While I started on film I now am 99% digital. I almost prefer to shoot in low light situations. I have a better knack for it. when I shoot in daylight I have to think about it, but in low light I know exactly were to set my camera.

I have no qualms setting my ISO to 800 or higher. I even use the noise to my advantage in making a gritty grainy image which I embrace. yes I said embrace the grain! =)

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