Philosophy & Reflections

Is it Easier or Harder to Take Photos Now? – By Frank H. Wu

November 3, 2018

Photo taken with a Contax G2 and 45mm Zeiss Planar lens, on Ilford HP5 pushed to 1600.

I received a compliment about my photos that illustrates how much digital technologies have become the norm. I had emailed a few images to a friend. “Photos you sent are fantastic,” she wrote back. “What kind of filter or effects did you use?”

The reply is none, not filter in the sense she meant. The Contax lens, a 45mm Planar, with which I usually shoot in fact has a B&W UV filter affixed to it, but she didn’t have that type of filter in mind. She meant what effects had I selected from an app.

I had taken a series of snapshots, just quick, spontaneous clicks of the shutter as she, her husband, and their teenage daughter were studying the menus at a restaurant. As casual as the analog results were, and grainy, too, because of the low light, they had the quality that digital imitates.

Perhaps it a blind test (no pun) would show this difference is merely our imaginations, or maybe additional advances will change matters, but film images still appear distinct than digital images. The best words to describe the subtlety are elusive. “Natural” is not right, since film itself is a simulation. It may be the representation to which the generation that grew up on it has become accustomed.

The truth is the photographs of this family could have been superior by some standard, if they had been rendered with my MFT digital camera, at least with the best of the lenses. They might even have been matched, but for a bit of subtlety, with my iPhone. That would not have been the same though. The very act of making the image — the process, the moment — is integral to the meaning of the product. That is why we wonder about photos of strangers, discovered as artifacts. We yearn for the backstory and the context.

The next generation will change no doubt. People will forget what film looks like — more accurately, past tense, looked like. They will establish a new norm.

I am reminded of maple syrup and orange juice. I grew up in an era when artificial sweetened versions of maple syrup and reconstituted from frozen concentrate orange juice were what was available. Or they were all my parents were about to buy, with modest means and a frugal attitude. It is easy to purchase artisanal maple syrup and fresh squeezed OJ now. I have the financial resources to do so if I wished now and then. Yet I am accustomed to the counterfeit, cheaper versions. The authentic, premium stuff feels off.

Or you can watch motion pictures. At high frame rates or on the latest digital television, there is the dreaded “soap opera effect.” Many people can perceive it, but most seem able to adjust. It does not bother them. For those who notice it, and are disturbed, it ruins the illusion. You can argue the innovation is an improvement. But it does not comport with expectations.

When the frame rate exceeds the usual 24 frames per second of movies, including digitally shot movies that have been set to mimic old-school film movies, and instead corresponds to the 30 or 60 frames per second of soap operas, the unpleasant phenomenon is generated. On an LCD screen, it is caused by the refresh rate of the screen exceeding the frame rate of the medium, prompting the machine to “interpolate” additional frames that do not in fact exist but are a mash-up of the proceeding and following frames. Suspension of disbelief becomes difficult. (Conventional broadcast TV had issues that were similar but not as severe. Technophiles might be more precise, that what is deemed 30fps is a smidgen less than that to accommodate the signal for color TV versus black and white TV.)

The technology is never more than necessary; it is rarely sufficient. As cameras become phones and phones become cameras, and the population of the first world takes selfies to death, the art of photography is simultaneously easier and harder. It is easier to be competent. You don’t need to know anything about focal length, f-stop, metering, ISO, shutter speed, white balance, parallax, aspect ratio, or, really, anything at all. You don’t even need to care about composition. Yet it is harder to be better than competent. The problem is everyone can produce a decent snapshot. Anything that catches the eye requires all the more skill and dedication. Nobody is impressed by technical expertise if they, too, can purchase it off the shelf. The mastery of Ansel Adams is more difficult to appreciate for an audience that assumes an algorithm can emulate it automatically. Deep focus and bokeh are just alternative buttons to press.

Our collective disinterest in facts may be an unintended consequence of photo editing. It is all data anyway, so if it’s been manipulated in post-processing that hardly seems protesting. The #nofilter meme can be its own fetish. Yet we likely be sorry if we lose altogether the notion of an objective reference point. The skeptic Descartes was among the original modern philosophers. His “cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) was the answer to a question. How can we be sure we are not solitary dreamers, fooled by an evil deceiver into believing there is a material world around us populated by other souls.

The filter we need in life is a curator. We need to edit. There is too much media for us to perceive much less comprehend. The stream washing over us relentlessly is too great to cope with. Even the best educated person can know but an infinitesimal fraction of what there is to know. The scope of individual comprehension is bound to decrease in an inverse correlation to the limit of our collective awareness. We are moving beyond our capabilities. It is the phenomenon of outrunning your lights on a motorcycle: in the dark, when you are traveling so fast that if something appeared at the far end of where your illumination projects, you would not be able to react and stop quickly enough to avoid hitting that object.

I like that my friend cannot replicate what I did with a phone. She probably can come close. The tiny deviation that remains, however, is what separates the analog from the digital, the real from the fake, the extraordinary from the ordinary. The better all of us are in general, the better each of us must be in the details. Otherwise we will lose our individuality.

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  • Reply
    Laurie Branch
    November 3, 2018 at 11:36 am

    I really love this. I have voiced similar sentiments myself, although not nearly as well. I have always loved Ansel Adams, but just last week I was looking at a book of his photos and realized that a lot of people now would likely shrug off his work as “nice but I don’t see the what the big deal was all about” (probably followed by “I could do just as well”). Most of the reason I enjoy film is that it allows me to step away from the feeling that I am caught up in a world going crazy from information overload. I’m glad I rediscovered film when I did. Thanks for sharing!!

    • Reply
      Steve Ember
      November 3, 2018 at 5:59 pm

      Eloquently stated, Laurie, including that dreaded “I could do just as well [with my camera-phone]” comment, which sadly, as often as not, is based upon a smug assumption that knowing about the interactions of aperture, shutter speed, depth-of-field, etc. is old fashioned and/or irrelevant. As “intelligent” as digital cameras and camera-phones have become, I’ve always felt that what separates film (and serious digi-cam users) from the “I can do just as well” crowd is that they KNOW WHY a photo is good. And I share your feeling that shooting film is a therapeutic “escape” from the current atmosphere of information overload.

  • Reply
    Terry B
    November 3, 2018 at 11:48 am

    Is it easier or harder today? In a world comprised primarily of digital imagining, definitely easier. For those of us brought up on film, and it is in our DNA, and for those who still use it, it remains as it was. But, for better or worse, digital has been the big leveler. At least as regards technical competence and where, in 99% of occasions, the camera can be left just to get on with it.
    I perceive this as a seismic shift from the days of film when the family snapper could have a high percentage of wasted images through poor exposure and/or blurred images caused by camera shake. And let’s not forget the oft times indifferent High Street processing.
    But no matter how technically competent may be a camera it can’t (yet) make any decisions about the artistic merit of whatever it is being pointed at. This is still the prerogative of the photographer and can require skill levels beyond the average snapper.

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    November 3, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    I wonder whether in 20 years filters will have moved away from aping film looks, as people collectively forget what film looked like. I will be surprised if film is not still around then — disappointed, really, as I can’t imagine not shooting it. But its look will have fallen out of the collective consciousness.

  • Reply
    November 4, 2018 at 10:53 am

    Definitely something I daily think about…
    Thanks Franck for sharing this interesting part of your thoughts.

  • Reply
    November 4, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    Of course it’s easier to take a picture. It’s still not easy to produce a good photograph…..for the reasons listed above. Thinking, planning, choosing deciding, processing, producing a good satisfying photograph was never as easy as merely pushing a button.

  • Reply
    George Appletree
    November 5, 2018 at 3:25 am

    If you think photography is about seeing, as
    many do, maybe the fact of using a film camera or a digital one has not much to question about.
    The trivialization of photography it seems brought great results. Masters have multiplied by hundreds, a few years experience and a lot of media sharing do the rest (instead of Kodak).
    But making equal film with real and digital with fake is demagoguery.

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    November 6, 2018 at 3:36 am

    I take pictures w/my iPhone. I make photographs with my film camera. I’m 67, and I think I’m beginning to get the hang of it after 49 years.
    Someday I’ll be good.

  • Reply
    November 7, 2018 at 4:17 am

    Frank, that is a well-written commentary. I often think about the amount of imaging that we are bombarded with continuously. And so much of it is manipulated, I often do not trust what I see. But apparently many (or most) contemporary people are not bothered and think such images are “normal.” I am a bit older than you, and probably have an old person’s discomfort with highly manipulated photography and much of the connected stuff on the cloud, etc. In response, I have almost totally returned to using film, mostly black and white. There is something tangible in the rolls of celluloid (or ester). There it is, just as the photons changed the silver clumps. I can scan it and then do all sorts of things to the file later if I wish, but the little negative remains as a piece of real, a minor revenge of the analogue.

  • Reply
    Recommended reading : Down the Road
    March 5, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    […] Writing for 35mmc, Frank H. Wu argues that it is simultaneously easier and harder to make photographs today, despite the ubiquity of highly competent cameras. Read Is it Easier or Harder to Take Photographs Now […]

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