Monday, November 07, 2005
I took a lot of pictures with our new camera, a Digital Rebel XT, over the weekend and the techniques I used got me thinking about the way the very definition of photography has changed...at least for me.
I've always been fascinated by cameras - a Canon EOS 100 was my first major purchase after I started working as a programmer. When I was 14 or 15 I used to get all the free brochures from our camera shop when we lived in Saudi Arabia and read them over and over again, comparing the features on each model. I also read a lot of photography books and I knew all the basics of apertures, film speed and shutter speed before I owned a camera.
The one thing I rarely did was actually take pictures. Film was expensive, developing even more so and there wasn't much scope for experimentation with weird pictures on a budget. So I just kept reading about it, about how to get the image you wanted directly onto the film with the right camera, lens, composition, settings and filters. There was some information about darkroom techniques: basic cropping and composition...changing the image after you'd taken it, but that seemed unlikely to be something I'd get into. Like most keen amateurs I'd be working hard to get good pictures straight onto the film and not worry about modification after the fact.
But the digital camera revolution changed things for me. I can remember the first time I used one. I was at a birthday party (Hi Anestis!) and a friend of his brought a small digital camera along. I was asked to take a couple of pictures, and I got such a rush when I snapped a picture, looked at the little screen...and there it was! No guessing, no hoping the light was right...it took the guesswork out of it, and best of all, every picture was FREE! You could take as many as you wanted, weird ones, stupid ones, or whatever and not feel $0.20 leave your pocket with every click.
I was very happy with this whole arrangement for many years, happily using fully automatic cameras that seemed to do the job of taking basic pictures of people, places and things. And all the pictures were well lit, cropped nicely, thanks to free software like Picasa (which I'm even using now to write this post!) As the mega-pixels increased I found that I didn't need to zoom in as far - I could just crop a generously wide image down to the interesting bit and still have enough detail to make it look good. The software made it easy to take a competently taken picture and make it look terrific. Final images that would have taken a lot of training and darkroom skills were a mouse-click away.
It seemed a shame all that stuff I'd learned about manual control of photography wasn't being used...but this weekend I found a good use for it! The Rebel XT has several manual modes and, while you can use it in "point 'n' shoot" mode you'd better stay in good light and not try anything too fancy. If you want to take pictures under a range of conditions though, you'll need to understand how a camera works, because the rules are the same as they were a hundred years ago. The XT will tell you if areas of the pictures are overexposed - they've gone "flat white", containing no information, and if you try to darken the image or process it in some way, that area of the picture will immediately reveal it was a bad source image. You need to make sure the source image is just right if you want to have the software produce a beautiful final image. I think that's a lovely synthesis of the skills I learned as a kid with his camera brochures and "How To Take Pictures" library book, and the adult I've become who loves what software (and some money!) lets us do.