Photographing, Like It's 1999
On the eve of the Millennium, I was standing in Herald Square, huddled with the masses in the freezing cold, blocks away from where the ball drop was going to land at the strike of midnight. I hadn’t intended to go, but was finally convinced by a friend to change my mind at the last minute. I suppose it made more sense to mark this once in a thousand year occasion with others in a memorable place than alone in my tiny Kips Bay studio apartment - eating chunks of white albacore from a tin with a can of Coca Cola to wash it down.
I don’t recall what film I had loaded in my Contax T2 at the time. Most likely, it was a roll of Kodak Gold 400 - the film I most often used at the time. In reviewing the photos from the night - all of it taken poorly - I wonder why I didn’t practice greater vigilance in doing a better job. Still, it really didn’t matter. Back then, taking bad pictures wasn’t entirely unexpected. In retrospect, I suspect my carefree approach resulted from the overall electricity of the moment. I was just enjoying the celebratory mood too much to be vigilant.
When you think about my choice of film at the time from the context of today’s high ISO norms, you’d think I was crazy. To be fair to all my poorly taken photos from that night, exposure wasn’t my problem. All my photos were reasonably exposed with the camera’s fill flash. Fact is, we all managed with much less in the past. We didn't need high ISO, and we definitely got along perfectly well with much slower film speed. If and when the light began to fade, we relied on proper shooting fundamentals to get us through the complication.
I must sound like an ill-tempered curmudgeon whacking my cane at the onslaught of technological progress. While I’m at it, I might as well give creature comfort a swift kick too. That being said, I’m not discrediting all the many advances we are currently enjoying in making our lives easier. However, it should be noted that there is a significant difference between enjoying something versus relying on it. In our world today, that seems to be the problem. Reliance on technology is making us forget how to take a simple photograph with proficiency.
To be fair to those reliant on the creature comfort of shiny new gadgets, it is not as if knowing and practicing proper shooting fundamentals is absolutely necessary anymore. With any simple smart device, a perfectly good photo can be taken effortlessly with predictability and certainty. Exposure is determined automatically; can easily be evaluated on preview; and if need be, can be selected manually with just a tap of a finger on the LCD screen. All the guesswork of the past now replaced by the technology of what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
Framing couldn’t be any easier too on today’s smart devices. With screen resolution now roughly the size of your palm, one can preview the image with increased certainty - in scrutinizing the finer details of the subject and the background - with both eyes open a comfortable distance away from the LCD screen. Given the way smart devices have made the picture taking process easier, more predictable, and more certain, what is there not to like about relying on technology. If only I had an iPhone at the eve of the Millennium.
Technology has definitely been a boon to better picture taking. But as beneficial as it has been in enabling the masses from not completely botching the moments they want to capture, all that creature comfort comes at a steep price. Call it enjoyment or reliance, the problem is the same. When you let your smart device take over, you’re no longer taking the photo. All you’re doing is picking what you want to capture. But in the end, it’s your smart device that has the final say. It’s your phone calling the shots, not you.
For most, relinquishing control to technology isn’t a material issue. In fact, it is a good thing. But if one is truly a photographer - or wishes to believe that - one should have the final say in how the image is captured. That is to say - whether to freeze the motion or not, whether to document the environmental context clearly or isolate the subject, or whether to expose on the shadows, the midtones, or the highlights. These are just a handful of variables that many cede to their smart devices on a regular basis.
It’s easy for us to scoff at the selfie shooting sect who’d be lost without the camera on their smart device. But then again, aren’t many of us the same when we take pictures on a DSLR or mirrorless camera? Fact is, the creature comforts that we enjoy on smart devices are also on our digital cameras. It’s only human nature that we take advantage of them, whether on program mode or semi automatic set to aperture or shutter priority. The only problem is, many of us enjoy them so much that we begin to rely on creature comfort exclusively.
I don’t want you to think that it is wrong to set your camera on the dreaded “P” mode. It isn’t. But at the same time, there are consequences to over-reliance on technology. It might not be something that you’d notice, if you continue to shoot exclusively on digital imaging devices. However, it is an issue that you will notice when you start to shoot on film, and then resume shooting on digital cameras again. Simply put, an over-reliance on modern technology will make you forget how to take a proper photograph.
Again, there is nothing wrong with a little technological hand holding to get you through the shot. We all do it. However, if one is to really split hairs on what it means to be a photographer or what it means to properly take a photograph, then understanding and executing the right shooting fundamentals is a prerequisite. You have to call the shots - not your smart device and not your digital camera. Ultimately, it’s you who must visualize the image before you take it. Otherwise, you never had the final say.
I can’t speak for everyone else. But when I started to shoot film again, I began to realize just how inefficient a photographer I had become over the years, in shooting digital. My reliance on all the many creature comforts afforded by digital imaging, from previewing exposure on the rear LCD screen to the forgiveness of large disk storage beyond 36 exposures had made me lazy. I stopped thinking before my shots - which essentially is the photographers equivalent of leaping before you look.
So on the eve of the coming new year, I’m reflecting on the year that will be ending, and looking forward to the year that will begin. I want to be a better photographer. I want to be more efficient in my documentation process, and I want to be more precise. In the age of digital capture, what is ironic is the solution. Shooting film on a manual camera is the best way to make one improve. Only in ridding all these creature comforts can the problem of over reliance be remedied by renewed focus on practicing proper shooting fundamentals.
Frankly, I am having the time of my life, shooting film this New Year’s Eve. It’s like I’m partying like it’s 1999. And dare I say, I’ve even started to add some fill flash into my film photography too. Admittedly, it still needs some work. But in this photography racket, practice, persistence, and patience maketh the photographer. Thing is, I’ve been shooting more film for quite some time now, and even my digital capture has become more precise and significantly more efficient - which really is the point of this post.
Mind you, shooting film in itself isn’t a cure-all for bad shooting fundamentals. It’s not like it helped me on the eve of the Millennium. You still have to make each frame count, which I suspect I failed to do, all those many years ago. Perhaps on a night as this, on the eve of the new year, we should all relinquish control to our smart devices. School can start tomorrow with shooting film. For tonight, we celebrate and let our smart phones call the shots. But if you’re still up to it, it never hurts to shoot some film. Have a safe and happy new year!
All images optimized on Adobe Lightroom. Images automatically cropped on in the film digitizing process. All film digitized on the Pakon F135 scanner.
By the way, I might not have a post next week. I might take a break.