Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The influence of advancing technology on photography

I have always refrained from talking about the "good old days" early days of my photographic life as if somehow the experiences then were better than now, even though there remains a nostalgic glow coupled to shooting with film that is lacking in the digital era. It is always a bit wistful to remember a time when the process of photography was more demanding of technical skills. Light meters were not integrated with cameras, auto-focus lenses did not exist, and the SLR camera was an emerging novelty akin to the mirrorless models of today. I am referring back to the 1960's and early 70's.

This was my typical post-processing work station -- the previous day's slides spread out on a light box to be examined and edited with a loupe magnifier. You either got the shot right in the viewfinder or you tossed the slide in the garbage. There was no going back to fix any imperfections in a scene. 

The Nikon F SLR camera was introduced in 1959 and represented a sea-change in camera technology with its pentaprism mirror reflex design allowing the photographer an eye-level view through the lens while taking the picture. It wasn't the first reflex camera, but its tank-like build quality, technical excellence, and comfortably swift ergonometric design contributed to its quick replacement of the Leica M and medium format, twin-lens Rolleiflex as the professional's first choice in camera gear. It was the pinnacle of camera design at the time and retained a dominance throughout the era of 35mm film based photography that lasted until the end of the 20th century.

Camera models did not change anywhere near as rapidly as they do today in the digital age. Nearly a decade elapsed between the various Nikon F models -- F2 introduced in 1971, F3 in 1980, F4 in 1988, F5 in 1996, and the current F6 in 2004.

We shot on film, 36 exposures of 35mm film. The ISO (then called ASA) range of color transparency film was 25 or 64 for Kodachrome, and advanced later to a high of 100-400 for Extachrome and Fujichrome. We tried to stay at or below 100. Otherwise the image became too grainy.

With an exposure latitude of no more than a fraction of an f/stop, there was no room for error with transparency film. You bracketed the shot, taking one under and one over. There was no instant feedback of a digital screen on the back of a camera.  You could take a Polaroid of the scene, but this was an approximation of the exposure at best. I had a Polaroid back that fit onto my Nikon F cameras. The image was rendered on Polaroid film in the actual 35mm size. The method left a lot to be desired, especially when compared to today's LCD screens, but it was all we had.

Many photographers I meet today began their photographic life in the digital era and are truly shocked when I explain some of the limitations photographers put up with when shooting film. I have a collection of early Leica screw mount and M cameras. When I demonstrate their use to digital-only photographers they are usually aghast at what was involved to achieve even the simplest photograph. It is a humbling experience when I point out that the old camera they are holding is the model photographers, like Cartier Bresson, used to take many of the photos we admire today. When you consider the steps involved from pre-visualizing an image to actually capturing it, the process can be intimidating.

The Leica III was one of the most popular early screw-mount models. On this IIIb the three windows lined up on the front of the faceplate were for focus and framing with a 5cm lens. For any other lens an auxiliary  viewfinder was needed. The one above is for an 85mm lens. There was a dial on the finder. Turning it to match the focus distance on the lens moved a frame to correct the parallax error of the lens. Try doing all this with a moving subject -- and don't forget, you still  had to set the correct exposure beforehand. 

Today's cameras have evolved to a point where they can pretty much take a technically correct image unassisted. They incorporate mini-computers capable of sophisticated exposure and focus calculations on the fly. They can analyse a scene, recognize the presence of a person, find the face, and complete a rapid auto-focus on the person's eyes completely unaided. There is no guess-work involved in exposure. The camera can do it all instantly with a latitude for exposure error that would be astounding to a film era photographer.

Modern camera technology puts extremely high end photographic capabilities in our hands without an immediate demand for experiential knowledge. Today's cellphone cameras are quite advanced. They cannot compare to a decent dedicated digital camera with a 1" or larger sensor, but they certainly outperform 35mm transparency film cameras that most of them have built-in software to mimic.

The addition of auto focus and high speed motor drive systems in cameras and lenses significantly expanded the range of how we capture moving subjects in a photograph. This photo taken with a high speed Nikon D3 and 400mm auto-focus lens of a hurdler coming full speed straight at the camera would have been next to impossible without an auto focus camera system. Prior to auto focus I would have had to pre-focus the lens on one of the hurdles and snapped the shutter at just the right time as the jumper hit the focus point. That would give me only one shot per pass. Instead, with high speed auto focus the camera was able to follow the jumper from the moment he began his run until the end, taking in-focus photos continuously as he moved. With a digital camera I was not limited by the need to change film after 36 exposures and could hold the shutter down the whole time the jumper was coming towards me. At 9 or 10 frames a second a modern camera would have plowed through an entire roll of film in less than 4 seconds. 

For me the biggest innovation in digital photography is not the camera but the whole concept of post processing. The idea of using the camera to gather an extensive range of raw exposure data on a scene and then sorting it out later in a program like Photoshop extends photography into another dimension we could hardly have imagined as we loaded a roll of Kodachrome into our SLR.

One of the first things I did after switching completely to full frame digital was throw away all my filters. I used to have two stacks of color correcting and enhancing filters screwed together and fit with end caps. Each stack was about 4-5" long. That's a lot of filters. Thankfully, in those days Nikon tried to standardize their filter sizes into about three different sizes.  Now, with my digital cameras, the only filters I own and use are for polarizing and neutral density. All the color correcting and enhancing filtering is now done afterwards in Photoshop, and there is no guess work to it. Don't like the color balance? Change it with one click of a computer mouse. 

This photo is a composite of five horizontal images taken with a Leica M 240 and Leica 135mm APO Telyt lens. The camera was moved up to include another part of the scene after each 6 second exposure. Later all five images were combined with stitching software into one photo capable of enlargement to at least 8' tall with full detail and no noise. To further extend the already impressive dynamic range of a modern digital camera, a second set of shots were taken at a 2-stop underexposure to capture the bright details in building windows. It would have taken a large view camera to come close to this amount of detail and would have been impossible to capture the extended light range on film. 

Post processing of images has become such an important part of the photographic process that the word, Photoshop, is now used as a verb. To "Photoshop" means to clean up or alter an image. The process has become so over-used that we can rarely trust what we see anymore. This has led the Reuters new agency to establish strict guidelines for what it will accept as a press photograph, and it has banned images that have been converted from a RAW source. In the wrong hands good technology can bring with it an ease to distort reality beyond recognition. The cartoonish look of color and details in images with overly applied HDR is a case in point, as is the way we excessivley retouch our models who end up looking more like avatars that real people.  

On the good side, modern photographic technology has extended our vision. The dynamic range of a modern digital camera now makes it possible to take pictures even in the dark. Not too long ago it was necessary to mount a camera on an equatorial mount and track the heavens to capture the stars in detail. With ISO ranges now working comfortably above 1600, it is possible to capture such images in one still shot.

A fisheye view of the Milky Way over a western silhouette taken with a Nikon D800 and ISO 1250.

Modern camera sensors are currently capped out around a medium format size, but technology has found work-arounds for the size limitation with systems that combine multiple images into one large photograph. The Seitz 6x17 digital camera solves the problem by moving the sensor to cover a larger area during exposure. The Gigapan Epic extends the range by moving any camera mounted on it through a cycle of photos that are stitched together later into an enormous print size. The highly innovative Light L16 small camera works by using sixteen cell phone sized cameras to take up to ten simultaneous exposures and combine them into one large 52mp photo in a camera the size of a cell phone.

The Light L16 has sixteen randomly placed lenses of varying focal lengths. The camera software combines the exposures of up to ten of the cameras to achieve a multiple focal length zoom effect and a final high quality image which is the result of the multiple image stitching done internally.  
The tiny Gopro Hero cameras allow us to record in places we never would have dreamed of going before. Especially when combined with modern drone technology, the Gopro has extended our vision to previously inaccessible vantage points.  Admittedly the Gopro uses a small sensor, sufficient for video but lacking in quality stills. but the small Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 series cameras have a 1" sensor and are capable of pro-quality results. 

This available light photo taken in a room with overhead fluorescent light fixtures would have been a nightmare to deal with on film. We now take a scene like this for granted.  A simple mouse click on a gray card balances the color in post-processing, and a fast aperture f/1.4 lens coupled with an ISO of 800 allows the available light scene to be captured with a hand-held camera. 

Another instance of fast action coming directly towards the camera. Here the subject is just emerging from a deep shadow into bright sunlight. The camera has to maintain auto-focus and at the same time shift exposure to adjust to the rapidly changing scene. The huge dynamic range maintains detail in the deepest shadows and brightest highlight. We take all of this for granted today, but this is miraculous feat for a camera to accomplish. Taken with a 400mm lens at f/4 and 1/1600 second. 

In many ways technology has made life much easier for photographers, and the automated simplicity of operating a camera has reduced the barrier of entry for many.  One thing it can never do is eradicate the need for true creative vision in adapting the expanded changes into the execution of relevant images. The photographer acts alone in this. While it is now easier than ever to achieve a technically correct image, it is, perhaps, more difficult to tame the myriad of  technical advances to our creative will. The camera cannot compose an image by itself, and it cannot decide what to photograph. It can only capture the area where it is pointed, and the process of pointing it in the right direction and hitting the shutter button at the perfect time is still the most relevant part of creating a great image.

1 comment :

  1. Dear Tom,
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