On Photography (Part 2) Digital
Previously I’ve written long and volubly about the merits, the beauty and of course the sheer hard work of film. I think it only fair to write a few lines about digital work.
If you are a regular or even occasional visitor here you may have noticed the increasing number of posts referring to my recent experiments for improving the quality of my digital work. As a film worker I always had a very stringent and exacting method of testing and perfecting technique and process, all the techie things, before shooting with a new set up for serious. I would batch test my films till I knew the character of the batch fully. I would test under real and ideal conditions, I would even at one point go as far as making densitometry tests and drawing up graphs and charts of the performance variables.
Yet with digital, once I moved to the format, I made some very cursory tests, and then settled on what seemed the best results and left it at that. I even committed to the sin of using automatic exposure as my default mode!!!
Now this was uncharacteristic, though in my defence (scant as that is) I fell into the comfort of the “Put it in Photoshop” trap. Like ‘OK concentrate on taking a good frame and then make all the improvements in Photoshop’. I also shot a lot of work on JPEG straight!!! This is a mistake I’ve seen many colleagues who went digital make. In their case they had the good excuse that they were relatively ignorant of the massive restrictions and shortfalls of the format. I on the other hand had no such recourse. I knew that JPEG was entirely unsuitable for any serious photographic quality. And yet I went the route of least resistance.
Until that is I saw the results of my tests with the most magnificent RAW format.
But still even then I was paying hardly any attention to the science of exposure and optics. For a spate I carried on using all the toys of the modern photographer. Automatic exposure, auto focus… zoom lenses for god sake!!!!
Until that is I started really looking at what I was actually getting.
What I was getting was no better in quality or in some cases in terms of vision too, than any amateur tourist enthusiast would get from a compact camera. I had fallen into the tempting trap of digital negligence.
I referred to this factor in Part I. It is where you start getting sloppy because digi-photos seem so much more disposable. You know you pick up the camera, you take ten snaps, cycle through them on the back of the camera and dump the boring, no consequence ones and keep the ones you think “Oh well I’ll feed it into Photoshop, bump up the contrast, do some jiggery-pokery with the levels, damn I can even change the exposure afterwards, so why bother?”…
During my trip to Australia in March – April of 2011, something quite fundamental changed, in some ways without me even noticing at first. I BECAME A PHOTOGRAPHER AGAIN! I started really looking at the world again. Suddenly, gone was the digital fuzz of the past few years. Now I’m not saying that I did not take any pictures worthy of the name before this event. I have afterall been a photographer for over thirty years now. I have all the instincts I developed over all those years still built into me. So of course I had taken shots that I considered good enough, with my Nikon D200. But there was something missing in them, a certain depth, a certain commitment!
Australia, being entirely a new topography and a new impetus seemed to kick my eye back into sharp focus. I abandoned my auto-focus, auto-everything zoom lens and went back to my old Nikkor prime lenses. Old war horses that were built in the glory days of Nikon in the 70’s and 80’s. Pin sharp optics, everything manual. This forces the operator into the situation of actually having to make all those minute, crucial, instantaneous decisions again. No longer leaving it to the machine to make certain functional operations automatically means that you will take a real intelligent hand again in the process of making images.
Now I still did not take the next logical step of moving away from automatic mode, yet. But at least I was now making a first all important leap in the direction of taking real control over my photography.
Coming back home and starting the long process of going through my work, I began at long last to see the light. I started to understand what, exactly had been missing in the quality of my digital work. I had become lazy, I had, more vitally given over control to the technology. Bad move at the best of times and in terms of the, unfortunately named, “creative process” a total disaster. I don’t believe even the idea that art is at least fifty percent chance or accident would cover for this kind of indulgence.
Also I have been involved with a growing bunch of news photographers here in Athens who have formed a group called “phasma2” and for whom I have been responsible, first for building their web sites and of late also been given the task of photo-editor in charge of choosing and editing their portfolios. Looking at their work, wonderful as most of it is, put me in the position of also reflecting on the quality of my own. Seeing their grave mistake of shooting exclusively on JPEG convinced me further of the serious need for looking more carefully at digital photography and the technical aspects involved.
So I began a series of tests, stringent almost as any I had done in the past with film. This led to a whole set of revelations.
Back in the film days there was one exposure mantra that we kept to as much as possible. [EXPOSE FOR THE SHADOWS, PRINT FOR THE HIGHLIGHTS]. So I took that as a starting point. I started making exact tests, using only manual settings across the board on my D200.
To my amazement, the results were just totally on a whole higher level than any I’d had before. But most importantly something I’d suspected for some time proved to be the case. In digital photos the major difference seems to be that the best exposures are made by reversing the old adage. [EXPOSE FOR THE HIGHLIGHTS, PROCESS FOR THE SHADOWS]. Yes that was the big shift in technical terms. Almost all the rest of the answers were very close to those one would expect from film.
Now I shoot exclusively on RAW, no more JPEGS cluttering my camera. I use only prime lenses. I shoot at the lowest ISO/ASA possible given the lighting conditions, and try to avoid ever using any non-manual settings. You will perhaps have seen on the blog page of this site some of my test results.
My conclusions and advice to old hands turning to digital, or new ones struggling with technique are as follow:
- Shoot on RAW.
- Get a good RAW handling application. Each major camera manufacturer has made its own specific file extension, so for example if you have a Nikon, buy their excellent NX2 app.
- Shoot where possible on full manual mode. And try under exposing by about 0.5 stop.
- Use prime lenses, get the best (read most expensive) lens you can afford. Look into buying older lenses, they are still mostly compatible and second hand would cost you a fraction of the new ones. Optically they are usually equal to if not better than any of the new models. Avoid zoom lenses unless you have the money to buy the best most expensive in the range.
- Test with borrowed lenses until you know which the most useful lens range to you is and then see if you can buy them in prime, new or second hand according to your budget. Nothing is more important than the quality of your optics when it comes to juicing your camera for quality. I personally don’t use but four lenses. All Nikon prime lenses. These are the 28mm f2.8, 35mm f2, 50mm f1.4 and the magnificent 105mm f2.5.
- Avoid unnecessarily high ISO ratings.
- Make a decision as in the old days whether shutter speed or depth of field should be your priority in the case of each shot.
- Avoid for god sake, digital zoom on any camera. No matter what the brochure told you. It will ruin your master pieces.
- Test test test until you are completely comfortable and fast with the manual settings. Get used to knowing or foreseeing your technical needs for any given shot.
- Frame exactly, cropping a digital image only means you will have less pixels to work with when it comes to your final image.
- Process your RAW image in a dedicated app. Make your first vital changes in that app and then save as uncompressed TIFF to finish the work in Photoshop. The Photoshop RAW plugin is OK but by no means as good as the applications made specifically and exclusively for handling RAW images.
- NEVER save as JPEG. Always use the save for the web function in PS for changing the size and resolution of your photos. The compressions are much more exact and you will never lose your original RAW and TIFF images that way. And only save for web when you are happy that your image is in its absolutely final form.
- Within the TIFF file create layers to take your image process to the next step. That way each TIFF file will contain all the steps from the opening of the file to the time you think you’ve reached the last step. That way you will not only have a full record of what you did for later use but also be able to reverse step to whichever part of the history of your image process that you may want to get back to.
- Avoid over sharpening digital images, avoid extreme contrast and other change steps. If you need to make large changes do them in small accretions. A little change per step is by far more capable of preserving as much of the detail and quality of your original image. Brutal changes are irreversible anyway and we would not have done it in the darkroom, so why here?
- As a rule of thumb every step you take should be baby steps in digitally enhancing your image. Pixels are nowhere near as forgiving as film emulation.
- Back up your work, even stuff you think you don’t want. One day you will wake up in a sweat and wonder where that incredible shot you over looked ten years ago went.
- Name your files intelligently. Using camera designations would be a huge headache later when you have a million photo files to cycle through trying to find that one shot that you let get away years ago.
Well that so far is my tuppence worth of advice on digital photography. Some of you will find it useful. Others may laugh at me for taking so long to get to this stage. Deservedly. I have been working exclusively with digital cameras since 2007. Thanks to my lovely wife, Cassi for pointing out how remiss I had been for so long not to have done what came to me as a matter of course in terms of testing my equipment.