Serious digital cameras have been around for 12+ years now, but why when I read the photographic internet does everything remind me of when I started reading photographic magazines in the mid-1980's? Full-frame, portrait lens, bokeh, bridge camera, DSLR, full manual control, ISO, 35mm equivalent etc. etc. All this is a film sensibility (and a 35mm film sensibility at that) and we don't seem ready to give it up.
I'm not talking about the way cameras look, that's irrelevant. Camera design from years ago works. The rangefinder design works, the SLR design works. But no matter what a camera looks like on the outside, no matter how retro and 'old-school' it seems, it is different. And isn't it about time we embraced it, thought about it in a different way, developed a different language for it and finally stopped thinking about creating images in the way we would have talked about exposing and developing those small canisters of cow intestine and silver in a noxious and unpleasant pile of chemicals?
We really don't need to think about everything in contemporary photographic practice as being somehow related to 35mm film and the cameras we run that through. We also really don't need to think about lenses in those terms and 'measure' them accordingly or talk about applying film techniques and 'film thinking' to how we compose, how we expose and how we process our images. Because none of what I do these days has anything to do with chemical process and everything to do with binary code, the internet and the fact that digital images don't actually exist unless we have some kind of powered viewing device. We can't actually hold a digital image in our hand in the same way that we held a negative or transparency or a print. We also need a power supply and a whole lot of other stuff before we can even see a 'translation' of all those noughts and ones, that resembles an 'image'. No electricity, no pictures.
Digital images are taken in a different way, viewed (for the most part) in a different way and stored in a different way. The look of the images is different as well and of course the creation of the image is just the beginning of a process that determines how the final image will look. And that final image is in fact not final at all, but merely a version.
And we don't have to 'get it right' in camera, like we did with film. Though for ultimate quality that's still a good thing. And yes we take a lot more images. And no neither of those things are necessarily bad. Because we don't have to be economical with our exposures because if we take 10 or 1000, the cost is the same. And the assumption that this is lazy and lacking in 'shutter discipline' is common. But why should it be? Why should it matter?
The world is awash with images, but as far as I'm concerned that's a good thing. Photography and the process of creating images is now centre stage and an ever expanding part of peoples daily lives thanks to the smartphone revolution. It's no longer the preserve of a snobby elite, ensconced in their camera clubs having stultifying conversations about bokeh and chromatic aberration. Smartphones encourage point and shoot. And I LIKE point and shoot. I also like minimum fiddling around with gear and the closer I can get to restricting my photographic expertise to composing and pressing the shutter, the more I like it.
My favourite camera to use at the moment is my Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone. I use it every day and I don't leave home without it. And it's about as far away from a film camera as it's possible to be. There are some touch screen controls, but I mostly ignore them. It has a fixed lens and aperture (4.1mm - f/2.2) and a micro sensor. It also has an amazing view screen and equally amazing image stabilisation. And all my favourite pictures taken recently have been taken with that.
I imagine it looks a bit odd, walking around with a Nikon or a Leica slung over my shoulder 'snapping' away with my phone. But I love the freedom, the simplicity. And the phrases I came up with 'The ART of point and shoot' and the 'Smartphone Aesthetic' sum up what I'm doing with it. Prioritising creating images over 'playing with gear.'
Having said that, I'm certainly not going to abandon my 'conventional' cameras anytime soon. Because I enjoy using them and the lenses I have to create images also. But though many of them look just film cameras, I don't use them in the same way or think about them in the same way. I'm far less concerned about getting the image nailed in the field. In fact I spend a lot of time thinking about how I'm going to process the image in Photoshop even before I press the shutter. And yes, some photographers have always thought that way even with film, in terms of darkroom practice and printing. But while film processing had 10's of gears, digital processing has 1000's. And the thought of the almost infinite number of ways I can process an image is a good thing for me, even though for the most part I keep it simple.
So, why don't we dump 'film thinking' and start coming up with language and descriptions that reflect the fact that the majority of the photographs taken in the world are digital, very few of them are printed and millions (billions?) of them are shunted around the phone lines every day and end up on social network sites?
And lets have more cameras like the Leica T. The surprisingly modern and almost revolutionary picture taking device from one of photography's oldest and most respected names. This is a camera that says the view screen is everything, so lets make it a really good one. This is a camera that says leave all the setting up and adjusting to a touchscreen menu system and lose all those knobs and dials. They just get in the way. This is a camera that says make a choice abut how you want to work and then just get on with the important stuff, composing images and pressing the shutter. This is a camera that can be controlled from a phone or a tablet and then send pictures wherever we want. This is a camera that finally says, film is now a niche product for a small number of people and we don't need to style our cameras any more to take regard of that minority. This is a camera I love using.
And at some point in the future other manufacturers of cameras and lenses will come to the same conclusion. They will finally realise that in a smartphone world people don't have to be 'reassured' by a film type appearance and a film sensibility. With their phones most of the world has embraced the 100% digital way of taking and 'publishing' photographs anyway, so that just leaves us enthusiasts to convince. And I for one am convinced and it's the way I want to go. Now that may be strange for someone who uses a Nikon Df with all those knobs and dials and who also uses, for the most part, lenses designed for film cameras on it. But while I still love 'retro chic' what's actually inside the Df couldn't be more different to my days shooting transparencies with a Nikon F4.
So why not start thinking 'digitally?' Why not call a 12mm lens on a m4/3 camera a 12mm instead of a '24mm equivalent?' Why not throw out any resemblance to 35mm film thinking, composing, taking and processing images? Why not stop calling 85mm lenses 'portrait lenses?' Stop thinking that we have to shoot wildlife and sports with long, heavy telephoto's? Why not get more creative about what we photograph instead of what we photograph with?
I was just momentarily stopped there by the vision of a pig flying past my window. Because I'm not naive, I'm not stupid, I know none of this is going to happen. We are stuck with Full-frame, portrait lens, bokeh, bridge camera, DSLR, full manual control, ISO, 35mm equivalent et al in perpetuity I suspect. Because otherwise people won't understand what on earth we are talking about. And on the photographic internet, the gear we use is everything. It defines us as photographers. Because the 'enthusiast' photographer as a notional subgroup of the consumer society is a gearhead subgroup. And yes I'm a gearhead too. Because people have assimilated the language of 35mm film use into the world of digital photography and that. I'm sorry to say, is where it is going to remain.
The smartphone photographers will eventually succumb too. The smartphone will become 'filmed up' and we'll get virtual aperture rings and eventually I guess our phones will project a hologram that makes them look like a Leica. There are already software filter systems that just simulate old film looks and I don't see them going away anytime soon. Because it does seem that somehow we need to justify our photographic output by constantly referring back to a time of contact sheets, developing tanks and enlargers. And what that says about what we are actually producing these days is surely somewhat uncomfortable to contemplate.
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There is an interesting article on the BBC website HERE, which deals with many of the issues above.