Monday, May 14, 2012

Professional Photography and Digital

A portrait client said something funny to me a few weeks ago. She said that she was surprised that there were still professional photographers around since we now have digital.

I am still trying to figure out what assumptions she had that would cause her to say that. After all, professionals were the first to adopt digital photography in the mid-nineties. Would she suggest that since there are now Walgreen’s on every corner we don’t need doctors, or that there is no need for architects or contractors now that we have Home Depot and Lowes?

I think she was assuming that photography is mainly a technical pursuit and that a photographer is mainly a technician. If that were true the biggest challenge to professional photography would have been the original Kodak and roll film introduced in 1888. The Kodak ushered in the idea of the casual snap-shooter and also the photo-finishing industry. All of a sudden, anybody could make photographs.

But it also was the beginning of a new visually literate culture and the golden age of magazines and photo-journalism. 

Film improved over the next century until it was about as good as it was going to get and a totally new approach was needed. Digital photography came along at just the right time. The continually improving quality has benefited both amateur and pros alike.

Professional photographers don’t just have better equipment or know a little bit more about technique; they bring a well-trained eye and usually years of experience. Buying an expensive camera doesn’t mean that you will be able to make photographs as good as a person who has taken their natural gift and developed it through study and years of practice, to the point where they can make pictures that convey feeling and emotion or move people to change the world.

I have spent most of my waking hours for the past fifty years trying to make better pictures. I don’t consider better cameras in the hands of casual snap-shooters a threat.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wide Angle

When I worked in a camera store many years ago, we were encouraged to try out all of the new cameras, lenses, and films, that came into the store. I quickly fell in love with wide-angle lenses. The wider the better.

Wide-angle is the opposite of telephoto. It is any lens that gives a field of view wider than about 45 degrees.

In the 80's & '90's it practically became an obsession with me as I bought a number of specialty cameras with names like Plaubel Veriwide and Widelux.

I still love wide-angle lenses. One of the main reasons to buy a camera with interchangeable lenses is to be able to use some of the marvelous wide-angle lenses that are available.

Alternately, multiple pictures can be spliced together to form an extreme wide view. The above photo of the interior of Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is made from three images merged together forming a view of about 180 degrees.

Most people discourage using wide-angle lenses for portraits because they tend to be unflattering, but in photography, it is OK to break the rules. Below is a photo of steel guitar player Fred Uzzell made with a 16mm lens on a Pentax which gives an angle of view of about 90 degrees. I was standing less than a foot away from the front edge of the steel guitar.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I bought a truck load of old photography magazines a few weeks ago. Being a bit of a history buff and especially the history of technology, I have been enjoying reading the articles from the time that digital photography was being introduced through the transition from film to digital.

The month I put all of my 35mm Canon equipment on eBay, because digital had finally passed film in quality, the cover story in Popular Photography was “89 Color Films Compared.” Amazing. The tipping point was a pro-quality 5-meg camera with a lens developed especially for digital, priced under $2000. That was in 2001.

One of the basic truths of technology is that the first generation of a new technology is never as good as the well-developed old technology. The only exception I can think of is LPs to CDs. The first CDs were as good as the best LPs of the previous generation. Not better, but just as good.

The first automobile fuel injection systems were so bad that GM (after doing the initial development work) gave them to Bosch in Germany because GM thought that fuel injection would never replace carburetors. AT&T invented cell phones and then gave away the technology because they didn’t see any commercial potential. Kodak invented digital photography, but didn’t pursue it because they were in the film business. Kodak had previously passed on the system that would become Xerox because it didn’t fit their idea of photography, so they hadn’t learned their lesson.

It took a relatively long time for digital photography to take hold because the first digital cameras were so bad that many “experts” didn’t take them seriously.

It is my opinion that just as CDs and digital recording didn’t improve the overall quality of music; digital photography hasn’t improved the overall quality of photographs. But it has certainly increased the accessibility to the average snapshooter. Camera-phones are now replacing point and shoot cameras, just as PS cameras replaced box cameras.

However professional and other serious photographers who have taken the time to learn the nuances of digital and the subtle skills of software like Photoshop, have benefited greatly. We can now do things with digital cameras and Photoshop in minutes that it took hours or even days to do with film and chemicals. I know, I owned a successful custom photo lab for 23 years. Many of those darkroom skills I have transferred to the computer and digital imaging.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Yellow Father

Last week was a sad one for those of us in the photography industry. The company once known as the "Yellow Father" filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Chapter 11 does not mean that the Eastman Kodak Company is out of business, but if and when it emerges from Chapter 11, it will be a much different and smaller company that it was before.

When I teach the history of photography, I break photography down into three eras - before Kodak, the Kodak reign, and after Kodak. The twentieth century was the era of roll film and it was dominated by one large company. I can think of no other industry that was so dominated by one company for so long.

Many of us in the photography business looked upon Eastman Kodak as the benevolent grandfather who could do no wrong. Unfortunately most grandfathers eventually lose touch with the times and need somebody to just make them comfortable in their last days and EK seems to be at that stage.

George Eastman was a visionary who invented the method of applying photographic emulsion to flexible material. This made possible roll-film that led to the birth of amateur photography. He didn't forget professionals either, making ever higher quality films and papers for both amateur and professional users.

The empire he built later invented digital photography and made the first professional quality digital cameras. But this giant "cruise ship" of a company just couldn't navigate the treacherous waters of modern business. I sold my film processing business fifteen years ago when I saw that digital was the future, but fifteen years was not enough time for Kodak to adapt to the new course.

When we look back at the twentieth century, it may very well be that it was the era of the huge corporations. The accelerated pace of change is just not compatible with the way big business was done in the last century. Kodak is just the latest casualty to the old slow way of doing things.

R.I.P. E.K.C.