Are You A Photographer and Artist Or Simply a User of a Camera? Has Digital Taken Away the Skill?

I read a story on the Australian ABC News website yesterday that had me cheering!

It seems there is a small band (and growing) of professional photographers swapping their state-of-the-art digital cameras for old time film cameras.

And this is the statement made by one of them, that will either have you howling in anger or like me, cheering.

It felt like I wasn’t a photographer. I was just using a camera and it was doing all the work for me.” (Calin Jones – Gold Coast Pro Surfing Photographer).

I imagine this is going to stir a LOT of people. And for those scratching their heads and wondering what the hell he is talking about – let’s face it, at least one generation has never heard of “film camera” let alone used one – here is a quick primer. It’s rough but you’ll get the idea.

In the “old days”, instead of an image being “seen” by a digital sensor and then recorded onto an SD card as a string of 0s and 1s, cameras used to use “film”. A single “roll” of film would usually be able to store up to 36 images.

A film is a sort of plastic medium that has certain chemicals embedded in it that react to light. When the light passes through the lens of the camera and hits the film, a negative image is created, and later, a bunch of chemical processes turns those images stored on the film into proper pictures that have been printed on paper by using yet another chemical process.

As you can imagine, this means the time from taking the image to when you actually see the finished product, unlike now which is almost instantaneous, used to take from hours to weeks depending on different factors.

There were actually shops that specialised in this process called D&P (develop and process), and you’d drop your roll of film there in the morning and collect the printed images that afternoon or the next day. Chemist shops used to act as agencies too, and a runner from the main D&P centre would drop by twice a day to pick up and deliver finished packets of prints. And in most cases, it cost.

Some people even did this at home as a hobby, and while monochrome (black and white photography) was relatively cheap and easy, colour was quite a complex process and expensive to set up.

Professionally, it could be a nightmare of logistics.

I started out my journalism life as a photojournalist specialising in motor sport and had to get my photos to Sydney ready for the weekly editing of a publication called Motoring Reporter (I also worked freelance for Auto Action). Thankfully this was all black and white stuff, and after a race meeting at Wanneroo Park Raceway here in WA, or a major event like Rally Australia we’d race home, process the rolls ourselves, print off the best shots, write captions and write a 1000 word story of the race meeting of the day, put it in an airbag, take it to cargo at Perth Airport (this was the days of TAA and Ansett) and get it on the midnight flight to Sydney.

Later things became a bit easier as we became friends with the Sport Editor at WA Newspapers who let us use their D&P machine in house where you’d put the roll of film in one end, and it would come out the other an hour or so later as a roll of photos.

Today of course, the process is much simpler and professional motorsport photographers can check their photos as they take them and at the end of the day, typically email the best to their editor and job done.

But there is another difference too.

With a film camera, as we were stuck with film made up of 36 shots, you had to be very selective in the way you got your shot, unlike today, where a modern camera can literally take hundreds of shots in seconds. This means you can say, “bracket” an incident and pull out the best one later.

There is no such luxury with film shooting. There is much more reliance on the experience of the photographer knowing exactly when to take the shot, and the best settings to get that shot perfect. Other factors also come into play. Today you can dial in the ISO setting, or let the camera choose it, depending on the light conditions. With film, there are different types of film with different ISOs (called ASA in the old days). Film also has different grains and colour characteristics you can choose from, and it takes experience to get all the right combinations in place in order to again, get exactly the shot you want.

Hence the quote from Calin Jones at the start of this story.

Even the average person these days can get a half decent shot by setting the camera on all Automatic and just holding down the shutter release.

So, this is the big question; are they then a photographer, or just a camera operator?

Has all the need for skill been removed and we are just churning out millions on million of cookie cutter shots with little or no “art of the photographer” involved? And does that matter?

It reminds me strangely of the guitar shop that has signs up saying “NO playing Smoke on the Water” (or a cartoon I saw yesterday that made laugh, of a piano shop with a sign that said, “NO Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”.

Lots of people can do these things, but very, very few of course are musicians. They are guitar or piano players.

What are your thoughts? Comments are most welcome below, but please, keep it civil! And don;t shoot the messenger 🙂

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