Millimetering: The Death of God’s Own Light

Years ago a great London-based studio photographer called Chris Joyce, now sadly dead, would allow me to wander around his still-life studio. Thus was invented the sport of “cambo kicking,” which was the not-so-subtle way of altering a camera position by the simple means of tripping over the camera stand.

I was also introduced to the art of “millimetering” — watching Chris set up a perfectly good shot and then watching while the art director, client and anybody else with an ego insisted on making changes. Thus an object would be moved through 360 degrees over a period of hours to return to its original and perfect position, at which point all egos were satisfied and Chris would press the tit.

Recording the Light

You can indeed go through the same process on location, but changing light, weather and often (praise the Lord) the total absence of the client means that generally it is up to the photographer as to how and when they shoot. Shooting on location with film was quite simple — you sat and waited for the right light, you made sure the camera was loaded with a film whose characteristics might enhance the shot, and you bracketed like crazy as the sun set.

What you shot was what the client got — warts and all. Our only controls were really the nature of the film we used and the variations of exposure: the rest was down to “luck” and one’s willingness to stay on location for as long as one felt able. All we could do was shoot the light that God gave us: “light” was some amazing form of radiation which changed by the moment and whose effects we could never quite predict.

But the onset of “digital capture” has meant that increasingly we seem to have forgotten that the real basis of photography is trying to record that “light” and the effect it has upon the scene in front of our eyes. Even the word “capture” suggests an arrogant assumption that the light is there to be tamed and controlled rather than simply used to illuminate the scene in front of our eyes.

Read any online forum these days and they are all about technique and computer programs. Very few actually deal with the art of recording the light — they are all about the invention of different types of light. We no longer have to wait for that perfect light — hey, we can fix that with Photoshop! We don’t need to do clever things with our film and camera; we can fix that when we get home. We “millimeter” with layers and levels: we are fast losing the real joy of light in all its natural glory.

Don’t get me wrong — I love digital and the freedom it gives me to shoot far more cheaply than I could ever do with film, but I find this obsession with the macro-detail in images is really getting past a joke. People sit looking at images at 200 percent muttering about noise and colour aberrations as if they are some kind of defect. Hell, they should have tried looking for detail in a 400asa tranny! There was no detail, just grain. What is wrong with grain and noise anyhow?

Missing the Forest for the Trees

Imagine the present generation looking at Bob Capa’s D-Day pictures at 200 percent. We are getting to the stage when we cannot see the image for the technique — I see far too many pictures which have perfect tones and fantastic curves but which are, quite frankly, crap.

We now have a generation who expect perfection — the amazing colors and plastic smoothness of digital tones are an accepted norm, and it is hard not to fall into the trap of digital millimetering. I have now adopted as part of my work flow the practice of copying the RAW file and just keeping a thumbnail on my desktop as I work on the processing of the file. It is quite amazing how often I find myself tweaking a picture this way and that for an hour and then discovering I have simply gotten back to the appearance of the original RAW file.

I suggest that we really need to get back to the notion — and the excitement — of capturing God’s own good light rather than trying to re-invent it on the computer. That way, we might emerge from our computerized darkrooms and mole-like snuffle out into the light and find out — Whoa! Just shooting the light as it shines is really rather fun.

Enjoy the light!

[tags]Mike Sheil, digital photography, photography advice[/tags]

3 Responses to “Millimetering: The Death of God’s Own Light”

  1. I can sympathize with some of the author's points, but I disagree with the basic premise. As with any revolutionary technology, there is the potential for both good and evil in digital photography. I choose to celebrate its strengths, which is the ability to overcome the limitations that film constrained the phtographer with. The idea that film somehow better captured "God's light" is grumpy-old-man-talk. My eyes are my best judge, and I trust them in guiding me towards a result that is true to my vision. We are a part of nature, not a mere spectator.

  2. As a nature photographer...other than fixing image problems created by lens/digital such as softness, dust, vignette, etc...a photographer shouldn't change "anything" in the picture if he want to truly enjoy the beauty of our nature. Changing image light is pure cheating in my opinion.

  3. Digital photographers have increased creative reponsibility than film photographers because of the post-capture editing. We have more creative control than any film-shooter. Why did many wedding photogs hate digital at the onset? Because they lost the ability (and simplicity) of shooting an event and sending that film to the processor. No more lab to do the processing for you. With digital, YOU have to add the creative element to the image. Choosing film is inherently choosing the light, how can that not be understood? If PS allows the digital photographer to make changes, just as dramatically then does the variety of film allow the film photographer to make changes. There is no difference in "change"; the only difference lies in the digital photogs increased ability to be creative with the image, not the lab's ability to do all of the processing for the photog.

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