Musings on Photography

The Problem Remains the Same

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on October 29, 2009

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There have been several interesting posts that captured my attention on Mike Johnston’s The Online Photographer, here and here and here. It’s true. Technical mastery is hard, and it does not help when the rate of advancement in manufacture of camera gear is so rapid that your mastery doesn’t last long before you need to refresh it.

But, as I am fond of saying… And yet. And yet.

Amidst the fundamental problems of rapid advance in capabilities as cameras evolve, computers become faster, printers expand in color gamut, and papers advance in longevity, I am reminded of something I learned in a workshop – technical mastery is about learning to drive, and although it’s hard work, it’s not the end goal. The hard part is not knowing how to use a spot meter and the zone system, or how to expose to the right on your digital camera, or even how to do focus blending in Photoshop.

The hard part has always been the same – which way do we point the camera, when do we let the shutter go. Interestingly, this has been the case since the very first photographs, and it remains the same today. Amidst all the technological game changing in photography, from plates coated with tar through wet plates and dry plates and roll film, through Polaroid and Kodachrome and C-41 and E-6 and digital capture, this one thing remains as the unchanging foundation.

That’s because photography is not about cameras. It’s about making photographs. It’s not about what you drive, or even how you drive. It’s about where you’ve decided to go, and whether you’ve decided that for you the value is in the destination or the journey.

3 Responses

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  1. Tommy Williams said, on October 29, 2009 at 11:50 am

    No question for me the hardest part is the act of making the photo itself. But even if you go to the technical mastery questions, there are a number of things that, once you figure them out, transfer pretty quickly to a new camera or a new system.

    In the beginning, it takes time to figure out the relationship of aperture to shutter speed and the realization that you choose based on how you want the picture to look first and how much light you want second. But once you’ve gotten past that, it’s not too hard to transfer the ideas to a new camera. Maybe moving from a 1.6x crop camera to a medium format camera means you need to recalibrate your expectations for a given focal length and aperture, but I think that can happen pretty quickly once you have the foundation down.

    And the same thing goes for the digital darkroom: Photoshop still has the same capabilities in CS4 as it did in Photoshop 7 (to use Mike’s example)–there are just a whole lot of other choices.

    Maybe he’s saying that the *expectations*–whether his own, or his audience’s, or both–are what are changing more rapidly, so that pictures he would have considered sharp, low-noise, and colorful when shooting 35mm film in the 1990s no longer make the bar today.

    And I can’t deny that. But I’m not sure I’m unhappy about it, either. Or that I’m entirely happy about it. It’s something to think about more.

    Consider the introduction of word processors and the office memo. Word processors certainly made it quicker and easier to produce a pre-word processor-style memo. But it didn’t take long before expectations changed and the style of that typewritten memo was no longer sufficient. Now people expect better formatting, bold and italic text, maybe even charts and graphs and tables. With richer tools, it now takes longer to produce a memo than it did before thanks to higher expectations.

    Could that be what he’s getting at?

  2. Chris Klug said, on October 29, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Just thought I’d mention that the light in your image above is lovely.

  3. Rory said, on October 29, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    2nd what Chris said…


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