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Is Digital Capture Too Easy?

Do We Take Digital Capture For Granted?

In the “My Story” page on this Blog, I suggest that it would be a wonderful exercise for “new” photographers to begin with a truly all-manual camera and color transparency (“slide”) film.  Perhaps there are readers here who don’t even know what that is (or was).


For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice

The “brave new world that digital “capture” has given us has also done a pretty good job of hiding the technical aspects behind the curtain (no pun intended).  To understand that statement probably requires a little trip down memory lane.  The original idea, of course was chemical reaction caused by exposure to light (hence, “exposure”) light on a medium. The reaction caused the chemical to change color (or at least contrast).  While there were some prior experiments, the first “permanent” photographic image was probably the Daguerrotype, in the 18th Century.  Over time, the chemical medium of choice became silver nitrate crystals, suspended in an gel-type emulsion which we called “film.”  A series of red, green and blue layers were later added to the process, to create “color” images.  Compared to the vivid color we see on our computer screens today, early color film was rather subdued.

Black and white, and later, “color reversal” films were designed to create a “negative” image.  The negative image was developed in a chemical bath process in the darkroom.  Then, a second process was used to expose photographic paper (coated with a silver crystal emulsion of its own) to yield a “positive” image.

I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story

For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice.  The color transparency was designed primarily to be projected onto a screen by shining a light through it.  It was also possible to create prints for personal use and for publishing with these images.  In its early stages, this process was confined to a very complex development process, that required very expensive equipment.  Perhaps the first and most famous was the vaunted “Kodachrome.”  Later, processes were created that would allow a less expensive, more routine form of development of the film.  The draw of the color transparency was its detail and realism.


Color transparency film is rarely used anymore, primarily because of the modern digital sensor.  Film had certain limitations, including relatively low ISO ratings (particularly in relationship to grain).  While the film industry made wonderful advances – particularly during the 1990’s, the arrival of digital sensors turned the photographic industry on its “ear.”  Suddenly, we could have a variable ISO “film” in our cameras.  And the quality of digital sensors has continued to get better and better, allowing for a relatively grain-free image at previously unheard of ISO ratings in the tens of thousands (compared to perhaps 200 ISO in a color transparency film).

If digital is so good, why do we care about all this?  Aside from the fact that history is interesting to some of us, I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story.

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders.  Those familiar with cameras that allow user input, are perhaps familiar with the established system used to characterize the amount of light allowed to “expose” the medium (whether film or digital sensor), known as “f stops.”  Scientists say that the eye is altogether capable of seeing a range of up to 30 stops (though, at any given time, depending on lighting conditions, the useful range is perhaps closer to 10 stops).  Neither film nor digital sensors are capable of that much range (though digital technology will probably get there one day).  Because of this limited range, what we are able to record and present is much more limited that what our eye can actually see.  The magnitude of this range is known as “exposure latitude.”

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders

Without getting into a detailed analysis of the various and relative exposure latitudes of different films and digital sensors, knowing these limitations is instructive.  As a general rule, B&W film had greater latitude than color negative film (perhaps comparable to the best digital sensors).  But color transparency film had nearly zero practical latitude.  When shooting slides, I would often under or over expose by 1/3 stop.  Any more than that and the image exposure just began to deteriorate.  So how is that useful?  It forces us to be thoughtful and careful about our exposure techniques.  I learned early on that I could be a bit sloppy when using negative film and still get acceptable exposure.  With slide film there is no margin for error.

But if other media is more “forgiving,” why does this all matter?  Well, what you can see in the darkroom is that there is a lot more you can coax out of a well exposed negative than a poorly exposed one.  And sometimes that is the difference between “acceptable” and “desired” results.  Using color transparency film was an in-your-face demonstration of how critical correct exposure is.  I have always thought of my digital sensor recordings as “digital negatives.”  And, much like the physical film “negatives” the quality of the “digital negative” critically impacts what you are able to do with it in post processing.  Getting correct exposure will yield desired results!

This image, made on Fuji Velvia; the most colorful and saturated film of the day, even with digital “enhancement” shows the more subdued colors and contrast ranges of transparencies

Of course, the comparison between film and digital is not exact.  There is a “science” to correct exposure with a digital image, and the response to exposure latitude is mathematically different.  Enough so that different and new techniques evolved for exposure judgement.  This technique, know as ETTR (or “Expose To The Right”), recognizes use of the graphic, “Histogram” for judging exposure.  I explain this exposure theory and technique in The Perfect Histogram, posted here in 2010.  While again, not an “apples-to-apples” comparison, there are many parallels to shooting with transparency film and optimal use of the digital sensor.

So, to my original question, do we take digital sensors for granted?  I believe many of us do, by not doing the “homework” involved to understand how these marvelous tools do their work.  The “cover” image was taken with my Smart Phone (the ill-conceived Blackberry Priv – Blackberry’s last ditch stand and attempt to compete in the Android world).  My first digital camera had a sub-2 megapixel sensor and produced, small, rather low-quality images.  Today’s smart phone cameras rival nearly any other small-sensor camera out there.  Most of them do not have the ability for significant user technical input, but the ability of the software to “do it for us” yields some impressive and often acceptable results.  But I will stick to my more sophisticated equipment and my knowledge of it, to obtain desired results.  And if you want a “tough lesson” learning experience, grab an old manual SLR camera and a roll of Kodachrome 25 and make some images!

I am experimenting with a beta version of WordPress’ new “Gutenberg” editor, which uses “blocks” of information.  Like anything new, there is a learning curve.  And bugs.  I like the ability to customize backgrounds, and to insert multiple images as “galleries” instead of just a single image at a time.  I am not sure I like the captioning,  I like that they have added drop caps (my prior solution was to make just the first letter in a bolder, larger font).  I do not like the in-your-face, hugeness of the drop caps.  I hope the final version gives us some more adjustability.  Likewise, I would like the ability to use font colors in the blockquotes, and vary the fonts within the text boxes.  Time will tell, but I apologize for any “wonkyness” here.

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