New Thoughts On Digital Photography

Let me start by saying that after nearly 50 years of film photography — primarily large format 4x5 — I have been shooting digital imagery for the past ten years, and I’ve been processing digital imagery for three of my books:  “Art of Photography” “Plateaus and Canyons”and “Essence of Photography”. So, at this point I feel I’m qualified to discuss both digital and traditional photography with some degree of understanding of both. I should also admit that while I have quite a bit of experience with digital, I do not consider myself an expert, but a competent user.

There are several basic points I wish to emphasize in this article. The first is that traditional photography carries a host of powerful tools in its tool chest that are neither diminished nor superseded by digital. Second, digital has its own powerful tools. Third, both have limitations, but there are problems with the misuse of digital teaching and methods that should be recognized and openly discussed along with digital’s many attributes.

There is nothing about digital photography that forces lack of thinking, but there is much about digital photography that encourages it. You can grab the camera, point it at a scene and shoot almost immediately. Then you can look and even delete if you’re not satisfied. Not much thinking involved there. Having started using digital after nearly 40 years of traditional 4x5” film camera usage where I learned to carefully compose each image before exposing a negative, I find it hard to make an exposure — a so-called digital “capture” — without doing at least an initial quick assessment of some basic compositional elements within the scene...and also give thought to the quality of light before pressing the shutter. Unfortunately I see far too little of that from most digital users, especially those who have learned photography with digital equipment. Many seem so eager to “get it” (i.e., the picture) that they have no thought, whatsoever, to the elements of photographic art that could make it relevant. Thought can — and should — be injected into the digital process right from the start.

After 25+ years of development digital photography is still relatively new, yet some fine work has already been produced. Traditional photography has been around for more than 180 years, and extraordinary work has been produced by hundreds of greats, including Kertesz, Adams, Weston (both Brett and Edward), Cunningham, Emerson, Sudek, Mark, Uelsmann, Salgado, Porter, Sander, Haas, Caponigro, Cartier-Bresson, Riis, and many, many others. We can expect fine work in the future from both approaches.

Unfortunately, we can also expect a plethora of bad work from both approaches, which brings me to my starting points about digital. A computer is a tool, nothing more, nothing less. A camera is a tool. A darkroom is a tool, nothing more, nothing less. A paintbrush is an artistic tool. A pencil is one, too. A computer will not turn the average person into an artist any more than any of the other tools will do so. It’s the mind behind the tool that creates art, not the tool. Those who think they will make an artistic breakthrough by approaching photography through digital methods are in for a tremendous surprise. It would be like thinking that by going to a pen you’ll become a better writer than you have been through the use of a pencil.

Over the past several years I have heard from workshop students that some are turning to digital because of convenience. They tell me they can start and quit at any time, save what they have where they are, and continue when it’s again convenient. That’s fine if it keeps you in photography, but it should be noted that none of the great work in photography was done when it was "convenient." It was done by people who were committed to self expression, by people who put other things aside to do photography because it was so important to them. It was not done by people who put photography aside until it was convenient. That’s not my opinion; that’s a fact. That fact won’t change. Work will be produced in times of convenience, but it won’t be outstanding work. The people who will do great digital work will be as artistically visionary and as committed to it as the great photographers of the past and present who have been committed to their work. People doing it on a "convenience" basis will not produce much of lasting value.

None of this should be surprising. Great work in any field — artistic, scientific, business, etc. — is always done by people who are driven, are committed, are enthusiastic, and are totally involved. Einstein did not create his revolutionary theories in times of convenience. Picasso did not create his great paintings when it was convenient. They — and all others who have been creative — put everything else aside to do their great work, and their lives were fully devoted to these endeavors. But how many who are doing photography have the illusions that you are in the league with Ansel Adams or Edward Weston, or any of the other "greats" in the history of photography? Probably very few of us. So what's wrong with doing work when it's convenient? Nothing! In fact I would have to concede immediately that if it does, indeed, keep you in the game, in your hobby, in your passion, and it allows you to proceed with your passion when you have the time to do it, then go for it! If digital allows you to proceed with your photography when you have the chance in your busy life (and all of our lives seem busier than we would like them to be) then digital may be the answer. I'm simply saying that if you aspire to be an Adams or a Weston, don't expect digital convenience to get you there.

The greatest failures I have found from those employing digital approaches are two-fold. First there is a difference in the way traditional and digital photographers photograph. To put it semi-facetiously (but with a great deal of truth to it), traditional photographers look and then shoot; digital photographers shoot and then look (at the LCD screen on the back of the camera, of course). My observations at workshops show remarkably little careful seeing among digital practitioners prior to snapping the shutter release.

Second is the over-reliance on Lightroom or Photoshop or other applications to make everything right in the end. While my years of workshop instruction have shown me that most students attending any workshop feel that they already have "a good eye" (though very few actually do, initially) the problem seems magnified among digital users who simply want to learn Photoshop. (NOTE: a nascent "good eye" is one that understand light and compositional elements, not one that can recognize a pretty landscape. Everyone can recognize a pretty landscape. “A good eye” can be nurtured and improved, but it rarely takes place without both good instruction and a willingness and desire to learn and to work at it. With extremely rare exceptions, the "eye" improves with learning and practice, and with guidance from good instructors.)

Photoshop is a digital darkroom, nothing more, nothing less. If you feed in digital exposures that have poor lighting, or is poorly seen or poorly composed, Photoshop cannot turn a sow's ear into a silk purse (nor can a traditional darkroom do it with a poorly seen negative). Yet students who approach photography digitally seem to universally ignore the idea of learning about light, about composition, about the relationship of forms in both black-and-white and color, and even fail to understand their own emotional relationship to the subject matter they have chosen. While they are determined to become experts in Photoshop, they seem oblivious, and indeed hostile to the absolute need to understand the fundamentals of light, compositional relationships, and their relationship to their chosen subject matter. What results is inevitably: "Garbage in; garbage out."

Photographic artistry cannot result solely from a complete mastery of Lightroom and Photoshop as tools; it must begin well before that. Photoshop, like the traditional darkroom, is the second part of a process that begins with seeing, understanding, insight and creativity. Those who wish to be great digital photographers still need the ability to see and to compose with the likes of Ansel Adams, the Westons, and all of the other great artists of photographic history. Whether you choose digital or traditional methods for the output of your final result, a grounding in seeing, in composing, in a full understanding of light, in extrapolating from what you see to what you want to convey to others, are the foundations of good photography. That cannot be overcome by mastery of Photoshop alone, any more than one can be a great photographer by confining one's expertise to traditional darkroom techniques. Such expertise (with traditional or digital darkroom methods) will make you a great craftsman, a great technician, but not a great artist. If you don't understand the necessities of those initial requirements to great photography, you'll never be a great photographer (though you can surely be a great technical expert in either the traditional or digital darkroom).

The student who seeks photographic artistry must be as determined to learn the art of seeing, of understanding, and of creating, as much as he/she demands to learn Photoshop or darkroom approaches. My own workshop program stresses those fundamentals, making the workshops as valuable to the digital photographer as to the traditional photographer. Every student must pay equal attention to all the necessities in the field — and to your own mindset while working in the field — as you do to the digital or traditional darkroom aspects of the art. Ignoring either one inevitably results in failure.

I also hear a great deal from digital enthusiasts about the ability to produce 50, 100, or any number of virtually identical prints from the "digitally perfected negative." This is true, but this confuses the issue of creating art with the issue of mass production. Producing photographic art revolves around a number of factors that are common to all approaches: understanding of light; an appreciation of the relationship of lines, forms, balance and imbalance; fluency in the visual language of color and contrast; a rapport with — or understanding of — the subject matter; and an understanding of what you want to say to others about your chosen subject matter. Digital methods surely outpace traditional methods for mass production, but offer no new insights for the artistry required to get to the stage of personal expression...and beyond that to mass production. (Let me also point out that mass production has no place in real art.) For those with artistic insight, digital methods offer powerful, new and unique methods of image manipulation — and these should be fully exploited, as they are by the best practitioners. But insight, feeling, artistry, and expressive communication are the important issues. Mass production is a minor and tangential afterthought. Always keep this in mind: it's the insight into the singular artistic expression, not the fact that you can produce any number of them, that is the artistic fulfillment of the idea discovered in the field behind the camera, or conceived of in your mind, to be pursued later in the field and darkroom (traditional or digital).

Strangely, refining artistic seeing and feeling is where the abuse of digital methods may prove to be most detrimental. Digital methods, per se, are not the problem, rather the pervasive misuse of digital methodology by its practitioners is the problem. It occurs when digital practitioners overlook initial problems with the idea that those problems can be corrected later in Photoshop. Some simple problems — the unwanted power pole or the speck of dust in the sky — can indeed, be easily removed. If the power pole is recognized as a problem, it can, indeed be removed digitally in a way that's clearly better than any procedure allowed with traditional photography. But as problems multiply, later correction becomes exponentially more difficult. I have seen too many cases in which the initial simple problem (the power pole, for example) has expanded to so many unseen problems that the situation becomes unmanageable.

Digital users would be wise to guard against such proliferation of problems. "Defects" in the scene should be fully understood and recognized from the start, with a clear path in mind toward the appropriate corrections needed to make the scene what you, the artist, want to convey...even if it's an alteration of reality. That's fine, but be aware of it from the start. But also be aware of the most critically important fact: you can't really change the lighting or your "feel" of the subject matter through Photoshop.

It’s best to start any endeavor — artistic, scientific, business, etc. — properly, rather than waiting for subsequent fixes to correct the initial problems. To do otherwise is "digital abuse": acceptance of initial sloppiness with the thought that it will be corrected later. It is a syndrome that has few parallels in traditional methodology simply because the opportunities for later correction are more limited. Pervasive overexpectations of digital technology has spawned it. People caught in digital abuse often forget to see light as it is, or often count on Photoshop to do more than it can do to remove unwanted objects, create non-existent, but desired objects, and even change poor lighting into desired lighting. Photoshop is a very powerful tool, but like any other tool, it must be used wisely and used within its limitations. Poor initial seeing will not be corrected by Photoshop, no matter how powerful a tool it is.

Traditional/Digital: How I Divide My Work

I now do all my black and white work traditionally; I do all of my color work digitally. I am quite content with that dualism. I feel that color digital methods surpassed traditional methods years ago, but I do not feel that to be the case with black and white. So as long as I’m strong enough to carry the heavier large format camera gear, and as long as I continue enjoying the darkroom work as much as I do, I’ll continue doing my black and white in the traditional process. Nothing has the radiance of a finely crafted silver print. Nothing. Even after 20+ years of improved digital technology, the traditional silver print is still the epitome of b&w photographic excellence. And I’ll continue to be happy that I’ve switched to digital for my color work. And I’ll continue to fret that there’s nothing in the set of traditional tools that matches the clone stamp tool in Photoshop. 

For more than half of my photographic career I printed b&w images—mostly from 4x5” large format negatives—on “graded” papers; but that all changed some time ago when high quality variable contrast papers were introduced. With that seminal improvement, I have been able to print negatives that previously were impossible to print, and make better prints of those that were printable in the past. I can print each part of an image at different contrast levels and merge them smoothly with the advent of these outstanding papers, and I have been able to print images that I was unable to print satisfactorily years ago. I can mask easily, and do it whenever desirable. It’s a simple process, and a valuable tool in the darkroom kit. I can bleach images area by area to impart a shimmering quality to the image, a look that is virtually impossible to achieve digitally. Make no mistake about it, the traditional darkroom is a very potent tool, and it is not static; it is improving constantly as products improve. Currently I am printing on the finest paper black and white paper I have ever used, Fomabrom V111, made in the Czech Republic.

I now do a lot of digital work, which offers wonderful opportunities. With my digital camera I can make exposures quickly without the slow, cumbersome need to first set up a tripod and dig for my camera and appropriate lens. I carry less than 1/20 the weight of my 4x5 camera and lenses (more if I carried a larger DSLR and several lenses, but still far less than my large format film camera). I can shoot hand-held, even out of airplane windows, allowing me to photograph digitally where I simply cannot using traditional equipment.

Digital photography offers great tools, to be sure, but it also comes with problems. Cost is one, not just the initial costs, but the subsequent costs. Initially the cost of digital — the scanner, computer, monitor, printer, and software applications — is comparable to traditional: enlarger, lens, sink and plumbing, timer, easel, trays, safelights, etc. But digital requires constant updating and upgrading. Nothing obsoletes itself as swiftly and thoroughly as computer equipment and applications. As a result, you must pay out your initial costs again every few years just to stay current and keep working.

Some digital enthusiasts argue that you need not pay continued costs if you buy smart at the start and stay within those bounds. However, if any one component of your system breaks down, it may not be either repairable or replaceable with anything that the rest of your system recognizes after several years. Or, any replacement may have a series of hidden incompatibilities with the rest of your system. Thus a chain reaction starts: the inevitable breakdown of one component may necessitate the complete overhaul of the entire system. There is even the possibility that your saved files may be incompatible with the new system (and this gets progressively more likely the longer you stay within any outdated system), so you may lose access to your older, prized images, or they may be convertible to your new system at very high cost. And this says nothing about the anguish you endure caused by the possible loss of prized images from the past.

Future access represents a greater problem. Digital memory is constantly changing and improving. A tiny flash drive today holds vastly more data that whole mainframe computers decades ago. Memory was once put on “floppy discs.” Then on hard disks, then zip drives, then CDs, then DVDs, then giant terabyte back-up drives, now “the cloud” and in the future quantum memory. The question then arises: do you have access to your old files? Can you go back and access imagery you made years ago or decades ago? This is a pertinent question because I have discovered many excellent photographs in negatives made decades ago that I either didn’t recognize at the time or I printed them improperly (and then gave up on them), or that I failed to crop to the proportions or size that I now see. But I have immediate access to those old negatives, I can put them into my enlarger, and I can print them now as if they were just exposed and developed.

That may not be true in the digital world. Just as it may be nearly impossible to access information today from earlier forms of memory, in the future it may be difficult or impossible to access today’s memory unless you constantly update everything. That’s a problem. Furthermore, how long will digital files last? For example, one of my back-up memory drives began failing within two years of installation. Fortunately, I was able to transfer the remaining files quickly to another back-up, and the corrupted files were still on my laptop, so I lost nothing, but that was pure luck. Digital files can corrupt, whereas negatives last forever (or nearly so) unless physically damaged.

So there is good and bad (shall we say) in both traditional and digital processes. Above all, you have to enjoy the process as much as the product. I greatly enjoy the traditional process, both in the field and in the darkroom. I have come to enjoy doing digital work, as well. However, I must admit that I feel I’m more “in control” with the traditional process than with the digital. I’m working with the materials, not just the camera and keyboard, and I find that more fulfilling. But I’ve also learned a lot of digital processes over the years, and I enjoy employing them to obtain the results I want. I’m surely not an expert in digital processes (as some may say I am in traditional processes), but I know a reasonable amount, and I enjoy using it for my final imagery.

A final thought should be noted here: the work of Ansel Adams, the Westons, Imogene Cunningham, Joseph Sudek, and all the other past and present greats is still great, and always will be. Digital has not made their images irrelevant. Beyond that, none of their finest images could be enhanced via digital methods. How would Photoshop improve Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, 1941” or Brett Weston’s "Holland Canal" or Edward Weston’s "Pepper #30?" It can’t because those images were so well seen and so deeply felt. Currently produced traditional work is equally relevant. Today, traditional film photography can be correctly viewed as an "alternative approach" (much like platinum/palladium, cyanotypes, or other infrequently used procedures), but none of that negates the power of traditional methods.