I was talking to a couple of friends of mine about photography recently and we got onto the subject of ‘the days of film.’ One of them was a committed darkroom worker. They would spend hours producing black and white prints, becoming completely absorbed in the whole process and even gaining comfort from the smell of the chemicals. The same person also shot a lot of slide film. My other friend shot colour and black and white film. The conversation stopper for me was when both said they had lost something as a result of switching to digital. Even though I insisted that they would surely be going through the same motions and emotions to take a photograph whether the camera they were using had film in it or a sensor, they both maintained something was missing.
I explored this subject further with them and had to accept that post- processing on a computer couldn’t replace the darkroom experience for those who immersed themselves in the hands-on world of chemicals, processing trays, photographic paper and enlargers. I could see how sitting at a computer may seem a little sterile in comparison. The creative element of making a picture was still there but the blood sweat and toil wasn’t.
I also got the strong impression from my friends that using a digital camera felt like cheating. On further questioning it transpired that what they actually felt was perhaps a reduction in the effort required to produce a good picture, as if digital photography now provided so many safety nets via post-processing correction that the skill required to take a good photo was no longer as high as before. One of them even went as far as admitting that their digital camera had made them lazy.
It’s easy to see the argument here, which incidentally wasn’t an anti digital argument or a ‘things were so much better in the days of film’ argument either. It was in fact an honest self assessment and something of a cry for help. My response was to take them back to when they were shooting film and transparencies and ask them what had changed. Had their approach to producing good photographs changed? The message that came back was centred on the skill required to get the photo right at the time of shooting. Pre digital the resulting pictures were not guaranteed, particularly when it came to correct exposure. That had to be judged and achieved in-camera in the field. This generated a sense of anticipation whether waiting for developed slides to be retuned or a black and white photograph to emerge from the chemicals. Equally there was a significant sense of achievement when perfect results were achieved. I understand that anticipation and sense of achievement having shot slide film myself. Waiting for the processed slides to be returned, going through the pictures in my head and wondering if particular favourites would live up to expectation. Finally having that box of slides in your hands, holding each one up to the light then viewing them on a light box was part of the buzz of photography. What my friends were trying to say was that pre digital they gained a greater sense of satisfaction from a good photograph because they felt like they’d had to make more decisions and calculations and put more photographic knowledge and experience to work to obtain that picture. With slide film everything had to be 100% correct in-camera as what you shot was what you got, and with darkroom work the end product was the result of hours of your own dedicated effort mixing chemicals, judging time and working with light.
Having listened to all that had been said and offered to give it more thought, my initial suggestion was that other than going back to shooting film or slide they should simply treat their digital cameras as if they were film cameras. They already looked very similar and operated in a similar way so why not just take photographs in the same way as when they’d had a film camera in their hands? In other words assume there was no option to correct anything post capture. I put it to them that the less time spent at a computer when it came to photography was surely a good thing, so why not strive to get everything right first time, just as before? In tune with my thoughts on this was a suggestion I heard Catherine Connor of Aspire Photography Training make during a talk recently which really endorsed my point of view that a digital camera could be assumed to be a film camera. The suggestion was quite simply to switch the display on the back of the camera off. Not only would that help with the disguise it would also bring something of that old sense of anticipation back.