New verses the old – photography in flux

The photographs of the past have suffered from lack of contrast depth, but they are still precious.

Photographs of the past are still precious. Old style photography has given way to the great technology of today. We should want more for the future of photography. However, we should not forget the roots of our skills.

Photography has changed a lot in a short time.

As a result there has been a global image revolution. Photography is the latest form of communication that has moved into the public realm. Sometimes we need to be careful about what we have lost as well as what we have gained.

Contrast depth

For many years I waited for digital to become a reality. I have been doing computerised image editing since 1988 and photography for much longer. Waiting for digital camera technology became frustrating. Today, digital is here to stay, but it still suffers from its problems. Readers of this blog will know that I am concerned about the poor contrast depth in digital cameras. Digital image sensors are getting better. Nevertheless the eye is still better than the camera for seeing into the depth of a scene.

Today manufacturers want to keep selling on the basis of real improvements in the technology. They sell the latest upgrades on the basis of technical steps forward. In my opinion most of the technology upgrades in the last two years have been about tweaks, not real technology leaps. What we need the manufacturers to do is tackle the real problems. More realistic photographs will have to come from getting pictures that more closely resemble what the eye sees. for that reason contrast depth is something that will have to improve. It is one of those problems never solved by film, it is still weak in digital images.

Great new technology

We have seen some wonderful leaps forward. Night-time photography has seen the biggest improvement over film. The digital sensor is a great improvement over early photographic night work. The ability to produce images using incredibly low levels of light is a real leap forward. Its a pity that most people don’t do more night photography.

Another great leap forward in modern photography equipment is auto-focus. While I personally enjoy using manual focus it is not very often that I have to resort to doing so. In the main macro photography is best done with auto-focus. When you are working with a very shallow depth of field you should be careful to ensure that what you want in as the subject is where the focus is centred.

Auto-focus has its problems. On a tripod the action of the auto-focus motor actually creates movement and vibration. The vibrations reverberate up and down the tripod and cause movement-softness while the shutter is open. So beware of this issue and work with manual focus on a tripod.

In general auto-focus, for me, beats manual focus for most things. It is with the thorny issue of poor contrast that forces me to use manual focus. Sensors are so poor at reading contrast in a scene (which the eye can see easily) they often hunt for a focus match in twilight. Of course that is prime shooting time. So the issue is something of a problem.

Often forgotten from past photographic experience is the single focus point in old film SLRs. The big round circle where the focus point lay has now been replaced by a range of pinpoints where we can arrange the focus to be placed. This has been a revelation for the improvement of composition, especially for amateur photographers. Being able to focus off centre and control the focus to meet the need of the shot in that area is excellent. Many digital photographers without the experience of the old SLRs may not recognise this issue, so just rejoice in the AF points array.

What have we lost?

I am for learning and changing with the technology if it improves the shot, but definitely go for the old school where digital cannot cope. Are there places where we can still be better off using the old skills?

Once upon a time photographers were limited by their equipment so they could control only three things. The depth of field, the length of exposure and the sensitivity of their film. Keen photographers know these today as Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. They are the key components of exposure. Despite those being so important in the past, today the vast majority of people taking pictures have probably never heard of them. If they have they do not know what they mean. I am talking here of your average happy snapper. They will probably never read this blog or any like it. They just get pictures they like from a camera that is pretty automatic. People are right to be happy with that if that is as far as they want to go.

For me, the expression of my photography is in the power of the images I produce. If I enrich my viewer through an image, then I have succeeded in communicating. I personally don’t feel that using the automatic functions of a modern camera can help me much. I believe they are set up to please the person who expects a picture to be representative. I want my images to go beyond representative. I want them to be individual, the result of what I see, an expression of the way I see the world.

To meet my personal aspirations for an image I want to have control over the elements of exposure. That means falling back on those old settings… Aperture, ISO and Shutter speed. If I succeed in mastering these essentials of exposure then I can make my image fit the vision I have for it. I don’t want to ‘snap’ and get just a picture. I want to breath life into an image so it tells a story. Only the old skills can really do that.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

4 responses to “New verses the old – photography in flux

  1. Enjoyed this article Damon- and find myself doing something similar to Jose- shooting as best I can with a point and shoot in the old SLR mentality. I’m hoping that when I finally upgrade to a “real” camera that I’ll be able to adjust and shoot as you do. That is mantaining the most control I can over the components of the picture in manual. Even now, I have my camera set on manual. I don’t trust the automatic setting, although I know I should! Thanks again for always sending the links to your great articles. You have a real talent for making the art of photography easy to understand.

    • Damon (Editor)

      Hi, Thanks for the great feedback. It helps to know that people appreciate the work that I have put in on the site.
      I beg to differ with one point… I think there is good reason to distrust auto-settings. I have found them to be somewhat variable in their application. There is no malicious intent, its just that if you apply average settings to anything other than average conditions you get some unpredictable and poor results. The manufacturers auto-settings are just that, averages applied to the general case.
      I must admit I prefer my photography to be anything but ‘average’ and ‘general case’ LOL.

  2. Jose A De Leon

    Wonderful article Damon! I totally agree with you. I’ve embraced the new technology with open arms. Technology is only good if it’s useful. For instance you mentioned how sensor tech has leaped forward in an astonishing fashion; cameras can capture things almost in total darkness with these new sensors. But the laws of physics prevail and everything has a price. Like film, high ISO produces noise ala grain in old film. You mentioned automation and how some folks are content with that, and that’s okay. But I liked and agree totally with you that if you want to really harness the power of all this new technology, one has to have total control of the process. Understanding the concepts of exposure, ISO (ASA back in the day) and shutter speed is a must.
    I still have with me an old Olympus OM4-T that I purchase in 1986. Last week I purchased my first DSLR: a Canon EOS 7D. You know what? I find myself using it as if it was loaded with film. My settings are in manual or aperture priority mode and bracket if I have to. For handheld shots I usually leave on the auto-focus, but once I put it on a tripod, I turn it off and use the mirror lock feature. In other words: I shoot digital with a film mentality. I’m starting to get comfortable with my camera, after fine tuning it the way I like it (another plus for new tech) I’m really enjoying all the capabilities and some of this new era in Photography.

    Best regards,

    • Damon (Editor)

      Hi Jose, thanks for your feedback and comments. I agree, photography is nothing without total control.