Musings on Photography

Editing at exposure time

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on October 4, 2006

One of the things that constantly fascinates me about photographic equipment is how our photographs are a blend of the photographer’s vision and the equipment used. The impact of equipment isn’t absolute; you could make macrophotographs of flowers using a Leica M series rangefinder, for instance. But it would be harder, and you’d probably make slower progress. Even if you did it, there’s a sort of soft Sapir-Worf effect where the equipment used affects the photos envisioned, so that flower photographs made with a Leica M6 would probably be subtly different from those made with an SLR, or a view camera.

Sometimes the effect is more subtle than the difference between using a rangefinder camera and an SLR, though. With a view camera, the rate at which you make exposures is limited both by the relatively unwieldy nature of the camera and by the fact that you simply can’t carry all that much film around with you. Using Readyloads, I routinely carried around 100 sheets of film in the pack, but because I always make duplicate exposures with sheet film, that works out to 50 exposures.

Someone working with a medium format SLR can easily carry enough film for 200 exposures. And the camera is faster, too, so that with a medium format camera, you tend to make actually use the capability and make more exposures. In the end, with MF, the practical limit on how much you shoot is the time it will take to run the film.

With a digital camera, things are even more pronounced. I use 4gb compact flash cards, and with the EOS-5d, that gives me room for about 400 exposures per card. I actually own several cards, so I can go on an extended excursion and make perhaps 1200-1500 exposures before I run out of cards. That’s a lot of exposures; my brain gives out before I run out of space. And if the card size is the limiting factor, Samsung just announced a line of CF cards in capacities running up to 64GB. At that size, I’d actually be anxious about having so many exposures committed to a single storage device. (on the other hand, a 64gb USB flash drive would be something I’d really be interested in).

The point here is that as I’ve started doing most of my photography with the 5d, the fact that I’ve got storage for 1200 exposures in my pack has removed a significant censor in my process – the tendency to edit work at exposure time, rather than reflectively and at a leisurely pace back at the studio. I make a lot more exposures, including minor variants of a single setup. The effect is the opposite of the experience that Jim Brandenburg must have had when he was making ONE exposures per day.

Before, I’d run through those variation BEFORE setting up the 4×5. When I found one I liked, I’d set up the camera, make an exposure, and then move on to some other thing. But with the 5d, I tend to linger just a fraction longer – did I get it just right? I change framing, I change point of view slightly, trying to work out what drew me to the scene. Sometimes the exposure I end up using is the first one I made, but often it’s a later variant. Often, as I go along, my idea of what the photograph is about seems to shift. The chance for that shift didn’t occur when I was using the 4×5.

It turns out that this difference in process exerts a subtle, hard to articulate difference in the results. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; it’s probably good for the individual artist to shake things up now and then. But I wonder what the aggregate effect will be as the vast majority of photographers undergo the same shift in process all at the same time.

One Response

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  1. Steve said, on October 4, 2006 at 2:02 pm

    Interesting that your point is somewhat contrary to the oft-heard contention that large format photographers do more exploration of the subject, out of necessity. I suppose everyone will have their own preferred balance of artistic effort between capture time and development time. I personally love having the capability with digital of being able (because it’s easier) to explore the possibilities of the image more extensively during development. But it seems I don’t want to spend too much time selecting from minor variants. My conception often changes enough that what I really need to do is go back and re-shoot with a better understanding–which I do. Sure, that’s not always possible, but it’s the kind of deeper engagement I’m looking for in photography. That said, I expect I do shoot more major variants of most subjects than most LF photographers would.

    Good luck with the blog! I’ve enjoyed your web site for some time.

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