Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Total Photographer - Mastering your tools

Camera manufacturers would like people to believe that modern cameras are intelligent enough to automate everything for the image maker. This has lead to the illusion that it is the camera that takes the image. So much so that there are people who think that a pro camera is all that is necessary for making engaging images. And I think in terms of taking snapshots, this may be true. In many common everyday situations, a digital camera set onto automatic mode actually produces a decent image. And this has had a direct impact on working photographers. Nowadays, things like covering a small event, or documenting a house for sale can be done by a non-professional. However, I would argue that besides making money, there is no real value in pursuing such work that is mainly documentary in nature. Weddings are events, and given the potential to interpret this event, photographers with vision continue to get work and be paid a premium for their vision.

Anyway, all the great photographers, whether they use a Leica all their lives or use a multitude of equipment, know their tools intimately. And the irony is that the digital revolution has actually made it more important for the working photographer to understand their equipment and editing software. There is a good and bad side to this. The good side is that the photographer has gained much more control over how their images will look. The down side is that they will have to work harder to produce their images.

The digital age has changed the carrier medium for the image, that is from a piece of film to mathematical numbers in some form of electronic memory. But the knowledge a photographer needs to know about aperture size, shutter speed, ISO values, depth of field, the effect of different lenses remain the same. The first step in creative control of an image maker is in understanding the trade-offs between the basic camera settings that are common to both film and digital cameras. For example, I like soft images because in portraits it is usually more flattering to my subjects. I tend to shoot at wider apertures of f2.8 or f4. And when I shoot in low light, I prefer to use high ISOs with more image noise than using flash with a lower ISO. These things are the same for me in both film and digital.

But in the past, once the image is captured onto film, a lab processes the image for me. For my black and white images, I had a professional black and white printer make my prints. I do know that there are professional photographers who make their own prints, but I think that by and large it is for their own personal work. Photographers in general use professional labs with whom they have a close working relationship with.

In Singapore, the amount of creative interpretation I had over my colour film is the choice of colour film. And Singaporean labs, that used minilab printers, the operators tended to produce a unified look to the output prints, regardless of the film. One thing I liked about Chicago is that the lab tried to tailor the output print to the taste of the photographer, including burning and dodging. I had more say over the output of my black and white images, but the overall look was still very much in the hands of my printer.

Today, shooting on digital, I have much more control over how my images look, even the proofs. I can vary the saturation and contrast of a digital image and even burn and dodge colour images to my heart's content. And cleaning up skin blemishes on portraits is much simpler than it ever was. I think that on this score, digital photography has advanced the ability of the photographer as an image maker. However, it means that most working photographers will have to spend much more time on their own images than they used to. They also have a larger technical learning curve as they need to understand how an image sensor works, how to convert a raw file to a working file and how to edit the file and produce a file for printing or delivery. To be fair, film photographers needed to know how their film worked, and how it is processed and the best way of making prints. The thing is that the chemical process for film was basically the same for decades and the difference between one set of chemicals and the next did not vary all that much. But digital file processing and editing keeps changing almost daily. What we learn today becomes obsolete the next day. And even if you are happy with your version of camera and software, you are forced to change because your client or your printer has to follow the constant upgrades that the digital world is going through.

I have said it before and I will say it again. The professional photographer today has to be part computer geek. I believe that there will be digital photo labs that will be willing to process raw files and do edits for working photographers. But I think that it is the photographers who embrace the whole process of digital image making that will be at the forefront. It is for this reason that I have decided to hire a digital assistant in my studio. Someone who is able to do basic file processing and editing to my specifications. But I do intend to take digital image making to another level.

I believe that even if you are an enthusiast of speciality cameras like the Holga, you will most probably scan the negatives and make digital prints of the images. So knowledge of Photoshop will become a basic skill of the working photographer.

I see digital photography doing two things. For the consumers, it makes it easier and easier to take a decent, sharp and well exposed image. For the creative, it is a brave new world, with a steep learning curve. It is a mistake for working photographers to believe that digital cameras are one for one replacements for analog cameras. It would be like saying the computer is a one for one replacement of the typewriter. The creative potential of the digital revolution is astounding, but only if the photographer works his way out of the old analog paradigm.

And have I talked too much about the technical challenges of the creative photographer in the digital age? I don't think so. Following from the preceding entries on The Total Photographer, an image maker needs to have a vision, must know how to conceptualise the image to fit the vision, and have a mastery over the equipment to make the vision a reality. It gets to be a bit of a jaded cliche, but vision without skill is stillborn. Skill without vision is souless. The total photographer has to have both.


pfong said...

Digital has indeed opened up a brave new world of creative control. With all that creative potential, the tricky bit for me is to find something worthwhile to say. Otherwise, I tend to end up with kitschy over-processed trash :-)

Heng said...

Yes. But that is where the true art lays.