Saturday, August 26, 2006

Purist (Elitist?) Photography

Sunday August 26 2006

Yes, I finally did get myself a professional digital camera (a Canon 20D), and yes, I did wrestle with the ethical ramifications and subsequent guilt of that, and I still am, to some extent.

A friend and I were talking about this the other day: is digital photography true photography? Or is it cheating? Or is it art? Or does anybody else besides us care?

This discussion came up after we toured the gallery of a famous, awesome, landscape/outdoors photographer whose photos have appeared in countless magazines, and several of his own books. I won’t name names so I don’t piss off any fans.

You walk in the gallery, and all you can say is – WOW. Dramatic photographs – stunning settings, exceptional timing, and brilliant colors. And it’s the brilliant colors that got us talking. The colors in some of the photos are not natural. They are unquestionably dazzling, perfectly coalesced and composed, something you’d want to see in nature, but they are not what the human eye sees, or what the camera sees – they are better. They are better because they have been manipulated digitally post-shutter.

One question is: is this better? I think that just depends on your taste. Is it prettier to you enhanced like this, with better colors? Or do you just want the untainted photo?

The other question is: Is photography with digital manipulation true, pure photography?

There is no question that if this photographer had not digitally enhanced the processing of the photos, they would still be brilliant, for the composition and the timing. Photography is part skill, part timing, part luck. But the pictures do look more dramatic and vibrant touched up, and even so, I wouldn’t mind having several hanging in my house.

But are we photographers losing something when we alter pure photography – when we have to do something after taking the picture to attain almost perfect photography?

Here’s another aspect: with film cameras, I think you have to carefully think about what you’re after, (unless you’re rich and can shoot off 24 frames in 12 seconds without a care for cost), carefully compose each shot, and wait for the right split-second timing to get the shot you want – otherwise, you waste frames and film and money. The time you wait to see your developed shots adds more value to the perfect shot you hopefully got, for the anticipation you built up waiting for it.

With a digital, all you have to do is start shooting, hold your finger down on the shutter, fire off 30 photos, immediately look down and delete the 29 you don’t care for, and start firing again.

This was me shooting at the Breeders’ Cup a few years ago: I was leaning over the backstretch rail rubbing elbows with all these famous big-shot photographers whose work I greatly admire (or, rather, I was kind of standing behind them or kneeling underneath them, as the big shots deferentially get the best spots) - me and my little film cameras and my little lenses. I was one of only about 2 photographers still shooting film. And I was one of the few who didn’t have assistants staggering around lugging their huge cannon (not Canon, but cannon)-sized lenses and bags for them.

Anyway, we were all on the rail this morning, watching horses exercise, waiting for Breeders’ Cup gallopers to come by. Here came one around the turn – you could tell by the purple saddle cloths they wore. All cameras went up and pointed to the horse, and 10 digital cameras started firing away like machine guns in a trench… and here’s me, waiting, timing it so another horse is not in the frame, waiting for the horse to get to the best background I’d picked out, waiting for the horse to hit that stretched out stride when he’s just the right size at the right spot in the frame, and – CLICK – while the machine gun shutters are still firing around me. After the horse passes, they all look at their viewer screens, delete the 19 not-so-good photos, and watch for the next horse.

Do we lose anything doing this?

Now that I have a digital, I haven’t shot any races, but I expect when I do I will take advantage of this rapid firing shooting, to make sure I get some good shots. I will try to compose all my shots, but, since I can, I will probably shoot many extra shots, and immediately delete the ones that aren’t good – which means it’s okay if I shoot too many, since I will have many backups, which means that I won’t be carefully composing my shots since I don’t really have to, which means I have lost some artistic integrity there.

When I’m not shooting on assignment, I really do make a conscious effort not to shoot at random, and I still try to compose every single shot, and not waste it, as if I were still shooting film.

When I load the pictures on my computer, I don’t do any manipulation except for removing dust and scratches and adjusting auto contrast (is this cheating?) if necessary – only what would be done at a photo lab in developing. I might crop a bit – also what a photo lab might do with a negative. I don’t, however, manipulate color in any way. To me, that would be photography plus computer manipulation. Which maybe isn’t bad – it just isn’t what I do.

There isn’t really a right or wrong – and I don’t know if many would agree with me on the old school photography thing. (By the way, I still have an old manual Canon AE-1 that I still shoot black and white film on.) And who knows, maybe one day I may change my tune. But, when I get my book(s) of horse photos published, they will all state that the pictures were all done the old traditional way – pure photography, no computer enhancement.

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