Photography in the digital age is different than most other art forms. Here is why.
First the photographer must take the photo. What does this action entail? A whole litany of things, beginning with identifying something interesting enough to photograph, then properly framing the interesting aspects, composing the shot, deciding about depth of field, shutter speed, and more. Depending upon the kind of photograph, you may have time to think through all these implications, but for the kind of photography I usually practice, instinctual, learned reactions are best, or else the moment may be lost. In the pre-digital days, there was also the complication of what film you had in your camera at the moment. I guess if you were a professional, you maybe didn’t mind switching out rolls of film mid-stream, but that was probably unusual. In the digital era, ISO settings can be tweaked from shot to shot.
Ok, you’ve captured something interesting, now what?
The second part of the process1 is processing the image. Currently my digital darkroom contains two main tools: Adobe Lightroom, and Adobe Photoshop CS 62. I have all of my digital images stored in Lightroom3 and when I’m in the proper mood, I browse through them, searching for an image to work on. I use Smart Collections in Lightroom, which is a way to automatically sort images into groups: by camera, by lens, by aperture, by year taken, by kind of image4, and so on. Sometimes I’ll work on photographs that I took recently, especially if there is some topical, photojournalism reason5, but more often I’ll work on an image I took long ago. During the photographing session, I may think I’ve taken a good photo, but later when I’m looking at the image while sitting in front of my computer, perhaps I see a flaw6, or perhaps I stumble upon something I took long ago but forgot about and work on that instead.
In the pre-digital age, I would make contact sheets of images from a particular roll of film, then decide which of these to work on in a darkroom, having Lightroom eliminates that tedium. Not to mention that the chemicals required in a darkroom cannot be good for one’s health!
Once I decide, I open the image in Photoshop, adjust exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, cropping, angle, whites, blacks, clarity, vibrance, saturation, white balance, lens distortion, and other tweaks. Some images are easy – they are what they need to be without much brainwork from me, many images take longer. I often convert color images to black and white, sometimes rather easily because that is what the image wants to become, but sometimes this process takes quite a while. I currently use two third party filters: the Nik Collection7 for color and contrast tweaking, and Alien Skin’s Exposure – which emulates film stock from various films.8
The second part of creating a photograph is a much different process than the first. In fact, the two processes use quite different skill sets, and require a much different state of mind. I prefer to wander the streets, headphones on, snapping photographs. Traveling to somewhere new helps focus the eye, but as Heraclitus noted, “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης.”9. I guess this is why I don’t take that many portraits: portraits require many photos of the same subject, I get bored by that. My style of photography is to snap only one or maybe two photographs of any particular subject at any particular time. For the processing aspect, I have to be able to concentrate at my computer, ideally without distraction, not always an easy request.
Other art forms are not the same. Painters may sketch what they are going to put down on canvas, or not, but the sketch is only tangentially related to the finished work. Writers might create characters, and back story, but again, the finished work is a different thing. Musicians practice, create riffs, but playing the song is in the moment of the song. Photographers work differently. I guess you could argue that the photographing process is collecting raw material, but that’s not quite accurate because if you don’t take a good photograph, you aren’t going to be able to save it in your digital darkroom, you just won’t.
A final thought: there is another type of photography that doesn’t involve processing images much. Namely, instant photographs, or in the digital age, images created with smart phones. I use the Hipstamatic app, but there are other similar photography tools, and part of the fun is that the photograph you’ve just taken is finished. You don’t have to go home and work on it, the image is already ready to be shared.Footnotes:
- and this is for me, how I work, you may handle this differently [↩]
- the last version available without having to pay a monthly fee [↩]
- nearly 50,000 DSLR photos as of now [↩]
- segmenting the photos from my DSLR from my iPhone snapshots, for instance [↩]
- protests, parades, weather [↩]
- out of focus, weird crop, whatever [↩]
- now owned by Google, I mostly use Color Efex Pro, rarely Silver Efex Pro, and once a year the Analog Efex Pro plugin [↩]
- Kodak T-Max 100, Agfa Scala, Fuji Neopan, etc. [↩]
- You can never step twice in the same river [↩]