December 7, 2022
The craft of photography has arguably changed more in the last 20 years than in the century before it. With each improvement to the equipment comes the inevitable groans of many photographers who believe the technology takes away from the craft. Is that well-founded or mistaken?
I own a Fujifilm GFX 50R, a digital medium format body. On that body is a very fast manual focus lens that gives an ethereal, razor-thin depth of field on images taken with it, if you manage to nail the focus. Since getting this combination, I have become a little obsessed with shooting medium format images wide open. This isn’t a unique enjoyment, and I’m sure many would criticize how much I choose to shoot wide open, although it’s always just for fun, not for clients. There are a few reasons I like shooting this way. The first is obvious: I love the aesthetic created by a medium format sensor and f/1.4 on said sensor. Then, I also like the manual focus element when paired with the narrow depth of field. To get the style of image I want, I have to work rather hard; it’s far too easy to miss focus entirely.
A friend of mine, an enthusiastic but rank-amateur photographer, has commented how much they like these shots on a number of occasions. We’ve discussed how I create the look and what goes into the shot. Then something happened that threw me through a loop. I took a snap on my iPhone of my girlfriend and son, and when my friend saw it, they commented how great the medium format look makes the shot. Now, this is an amateur (self-described), so no value in putting too much weight in the mistake, but I had edited the shot to look a bit like a medium format image, and it did look similar.
To create the same shot on my medium format body and manual focus lens would have been significantly more finicky and, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have looked much different. It isn’t news that phone cameras are tremendously powerful now and perpetually encroaching on dedicated camera territory. With a blend of AI and clever design, they can recreate many effects that used to be a bonafide skill in photography. The most recent example that has now reached a level where it is almost indistinguishable is long exposures.
Yes, there are still differences in the final result, particularly to the trained eye. Also, the file size and how malleable it is in post-processing are usually some way apart from dedicated cameras. But, on all of those charges, it almost never matters. Most people can’t tell the difference, and most applications of an image will not show the image anywhere near its true dimensions. The more interesting question here is how all this technology impacts the photographer.
The dedicated camera versus a phone is a tired discussion. What is a more interesting discussion, to me at least, is how all of this technology changes the craft. After all, while phone cameras have been improving at a rate of knots, dedicated cameras have too. Modern bodies now have some superb, quality-of-life-improving features, from Eye AF to real-time generating long exposures and compositing. These all make capturing the desired shot easier in a way that wasn’t possible some years back, and typically, they replace a skill within photography.
When digital photography more or less superseded film photography, there was the inevitable backlash of photographers who felt as if the skills necessary to be a good photographer were lessened. They were undoubtedly right in that there was no need to be hanging film in your bath anymore, but were they right with regards to the use of the camera too? If you can check your images as you go, you can adjust exposure and composition until it’s perfect, something that wasn’t possible with know-how and experience beforehand.
Now, digital photography hasn’t quite had a pivotal moment of change like the transition from analog to digital, but it has had myriad smaller events. The most obvious and impactful for me is the aforementioned Eye AF. I assigned it to a back-button on my Sony and never missed nailing a portrait’s focus on the subject’s eye ever again. They even added it to work on animals! I used to have to work hard to nail focus, even with autofocus (in which there is another, similar discussion), but now, it’s more or less free. You can get even more obscure with this line of questioning too: I used to have to exercise a marksman-taught breathing technique to take handheld shots in low light, but now, in-body image stabilization (IBIS) is so good I can get the shot while dancing if I fancied.
What does this mean for the photographer? Is photography easier? Well, yes, unambiguously in some regards. As a father and uncle of small children, I can confirm that Eye AF increased the number of keepers by a decent margin, though the shots, if taken without Eye AF and if successful, would have been identical. There are many examples of this, and so, there’s no denying that capturing certain shots is objectively easier to do and requires less skill on the photographer’s part. The argument that results is that photography is easier to do, and the bar has been lowered. This is where I disagree.
With the fundamentals easier in photography, the bar hasn’t been lowered at all. The learning curve has been smoothed out, and beginners can get shots properly exposed and in-focus almost immediately, but that, in fact, raises the bar. The average becomes so much higher than it was just a few decades ago, as what was a skill and a hallmark of a good photographer is now simply the bare minimum. As a result, we expect more, particularly when not only are we taking more photographs than ever before by an enormous factor, but also viewing more photographs at the same increased rate. To have your photographs enjoyed by a good number of people has always been tricky, but now, it’s tricky in a way that can feel insurmountable; you are a grain of sand in the Sahara.
Nevertheless, there are upsides to the many quality-of-life improvements for photographers. Whether you’re shooting in auto mode on the highest-spec camera or in manual on an aging medium format body, the crutches (for want of a better word) allow you to concentrate on what really matters: capturing a memorable image. For the majority of photographers, the love of the craft isn’t the mastery of the settings, but the results of them. There’s satisfaction in becoming proficient at any skill, certainly, but knowing what settings to use is a vehicle to the destination. By having your mind untethered from desperately trying to focus on a moving eye, control the awkwardly wide dynamic range of a scene, or keep the camera still enough to shoot in low but beautifully ambient light, you can concentrate on everything else that goes into a great image: the composition, the light, the feel of the final photograph.
To me, the technology — while admittedly making the creation of images properly exposed and in focus easier — is liberating as a creative. I thoroughly enjoy the process of shooting on film and using manual focus and manual settings on digital bodies, but the modern conveniences of contemporary photography allow for that to be a choice. You can concentrate on getting the shot and being creative whenever you choose, and it’s hard to imagine that could be a negative for the craft.
What do you think? Is the lowering of the barrier of entry to photography eroding the skill of our discipline or raising the standard? Is it doing both simultaneously? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.