My previous article was a very opinionated piece regarding the state of camera/lens design. Some readers may have seen it as Nikon vs. Leica vs. Canon, but who cares? It really is a very personal matter. I had stated that camera and lens design had not changed much over the years, but I neglected to mention that they really did not have to, because the major advances in the past 10 years have been primarily in software.
Prior to 2000, most photographers still used film, and the major advancements in technology were in camera design (e.g. autofocus) and film technology. For the most part, the changes were very subtle, but with the rapid advance of digital photography, things began to change at a quicker pace. In years past, exposure and processing technique were absolutely essential to produce quality images, and they are still important today.
If you look at current images in magazines and on the web, however, don’t you notice a major change? They are perfect! The exposure is perfect, the color is perfect, the balance between shadows and highlights is perfect. This has nothing to do with exposure or camera/lens technology. This is all about software.
With film you developed negatives to rigid standards and printed them with enlargers. You then had to develop your prints, either by hand or in processors. In order to enhance shadow and highlights, you either burned in areas or “held back’ areas using a variety of tools from special cut-out shapes to using your own hands. It was primitive but it worked and the best printers had mastered this art to near perfection. It was the same with color but much slower — you had to wait 10–15 minutes for your print to emerge from the processor and then dry it to see if you got it right. If the image was slightly magenta or cyan, you had to make filter adjustments and then do it all over again.
Software Gives Us More Control in Less Time
Today we have Lightroom and Photoshop. You not only can see your results immediately, you also have the option of better control of your selected areas due to layers, masking and the other 200 adjustment tools that ship with Photoshop. That is why published images today always have detail in the shadow and highlights. The color is rich and saturated, the shadows have incredible detail, the sky is brilliant blue with puffy clouds (they may have been added later), and there are no distractions in the background (they were removed).
Actually I like this! I think it has improved the craft and art of photography immensely. For one thing, it makes us more productive, because we can work faster and more efficiently, especially for those who have to work on deadline.
It gives us more control over our work. We are no longer limited by the graininess from high ISO and shots taken at night. If we want grain, we can put it in, and if the photo is too sharp, we can blur it to create a feel or mood.
Mistakes are easily corrected. I have a whole drawer full of “almost great” negatives that were either unprintable or just not interesting due to distracting backgrounds, thin negatives, water-spot stains, sprocket shadows, etc. It wasn’t that I was sloppy in the darkroom or when I took the photograph; when you take thousands of frames, you are bound to screw up every now and then.
These days I can look over my digital “almost file” from previous years and resurrect a bad image, because some third-party Photoshop developer has come up with a product I can use to save these images. (For instance, Lightroom 4 now has a highlight control, which helps me save images where the highlights have been blown.) Some of my best images have been saved by third-party Photoshop developers or third-party Lightroom presets.
Today’s Tools Are The Best Yet
Not all photographers will agree with me. (I am so surprised.) Some artists still prefer to use film and make an excellent case for it, just as some photographers still make excellent palladium prints. There is room for everybody. But for those who use photography as a way to make an income rather than a form of self-expression, these are the best times. The tools we have today are superior to anything that was made before, if we choose to use them.
Photography is an evolving craft, and it always has been. However, whether one prefers to use a Speed Graphic from 1930 or an iPhone, there is only one constant: In the end, nothing can replace the skill and eye of the photographer. Those who are good will have a far better chance at succeeding than those who are not.