The discipline of shooting slides

by Simon St. Laurent

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While I'm still quite thrilled with my Canon Digital Rebel (interchangeable lenses! real manual focus! precise exposure control!), a piece Tim Bray posted yesterday reminded me of how far I have to go to regain skills I'd developed long ago on a much more manual camera in a much less forgiving environment.

After writing about how Photoshop affects the way people work with images, Tim writes:

I can see the lure of a cult of photographic puritanism and minimalism; take the bits the camera gives you and push 'em out on the Web. Because once you've decided not to colour-correct and sharpen, shouldn't you also give up on cropping? If I took that vow there'd be a lot fewer pictures here, but each would, I think, somehow mean more, because you'd know that nobody, however well-intentioned, had pissed in the pipeline from the camera to your screen.

That cult seems alive and well in the thousands of raw cell-phone pictures posted daily, in all of their weird white balance, graininess, and odd composition. It's much like the way that Instamatic pictures processed automatically showed the world however it had been in the camera, without any opportunity for the taker of the picture to retouch it.

Professional photographers have rarely been members of that cult, however, as darkroom skills have been important as long as there have been cameras. Cropping, dodging, and burning have always been key tools on the path from film to print.

I never developed my darkroom skills too far. I'd always thought that was unfortunate, but now that I compare the results I've gotten from my first three months with a new SLR and my last three months of active photography with my old and utterly manual Pentax K1000 SLR, I see that perhaps it was an advantage.

I shot slides in college because the overall costs were lower, paying the premium when I needed the occasional print. After a few years of doing that, even though I wasn't taking pictures all the time, my compositional skills improved dramatically. The disconnect between the time I took the picture and the immutable results I would get forced me to pay careful attention to framing and exposure. The cost of film (and sometimes the hassles of changing rolls or simply running out) kept me from shooting multiples in the hope that one might work out.

The pictures I'm taking now, even when I'm shooting similar subjects in similar conditions, just aren't as good. I can feel ten years' worth of rust that needs removal, but I also feel myself resisting the kind of discipline I used to have. When I can go from original to good enough with a few minutes in Photoshop, it's tough to convince myself to put in the extra effort when I'm taking the shots.

Maybe writing this will shame me into paying that kind of attention again; otherwise I guess I'll just have to buy a film body and shoot slides for a while.

Ever find that working with less makes you perform better? (I know assembler has that effect on people.)


2004-03-16 14:55:43
Do it!
Hi Simon,

Seriously - do it. I went ahead and bought myself a bunch of secondhand gear off ebay and don't regret it for a single second.

An older SLR camera helps you re-learn the importance of apperture, shutter speed, and film speed. I had forgotten (having been a keen photographer in school), and am glad to be back with a "manual" camera. My pictures are slowly improving too!

The big downside is film "cost" - both in terms of real money and time and number of shots. So you do restrict yourself. Maybe that's part of becoming a better photographer too though.

2004-03-17 01:54:43
quite right
You're quite correct in stating that digital cameras cause a degradation in photographer skills when it comes to composing and exposure.
"I'll just fix it in PS", "If it doesn't work I'll throw it away, it's free anyway" are bad.

Myself I've decided to abandon my plans to acquire a DSLR and have relegated my Coolpix to the status of electronic notebook and for taking the occasional picture for the company newspaper.
Once again a fullblown SLR (and a tripod!) have a permanent place in the stuff I carry and is never more than a few minutes from my person.
I've even played with the idea of getting me a rangefinder or a medium format camera, possibly replacing one or two other cameras.

2004-03-17 02:09:29
Comparing cost
If you do the math, you'll soon discover that filmcost isn't that much compared to a digital camera with the same capabilities as the regular you're using now.

A regular SLR costs say $500 (for a midrange model, I'm using a $1500 model myself as my primary camera these days).
A DSLR that gives the same functionality (in features) as that $500 camera will set you back roughly $2000.
Then you will need 2 spare batteries and a carcharger, adding an extra $250 or so.
You'll need several large CF cards or microdrives to cover a day in the field, add another $400.
Your DSLR outfit (given the same lenses as a regular one) has now cost you $2650 against $510 (adding batteries :)) for the regular SLR.

That's $2140 saved.
At a cost of roughly $12 a roll for slides (film, processing and framing), vs. $2 for CDRs for the same number of pictures you want to keep from your DSLR, you could shoot 214 rolls of film before breaking even.

For the average person with a camera in that class, that's about 10 years!
In that 10 years that same person would likely have "upgrade" to new DSLRs (driven by marketing more than requirements) 3 times at least, while the film-based camera would still be used.
That's (given a constant camera price, which has been shown over time to be more or less correct in this range) a extra cost in equipment of over $8000 compared to the same person using a regular SLR.
That's more than most people will spend in their entire lifetimes on film and processing...

2004-03-17 06:14:53
I'll need a mix
As the primary use of my digital camera is for news gathering on a tiny budget, I don't think I'll be abandoning it any time soon.

Fortunately, as it's an SLR, lenses (well, except the 18-55 kit lens) are interchangeable, so a film body might make sense as part of my permanent kit. I already have a tripod!

I've always wanted a rangefinder, and toyed with a mostly broken 2 1/4" Rollei for a while, but don't think I can justify yet another camera system.

2004-03-17 06:21:33
I've already invested, but
since I did invest in an SLR, at least the lenses are mostly interchangeable with both new digital bodies and film bodies.

I don't doubt that I'll want to upgrade this camera in five years, as it was itself an upgrade of a five-year-old Olympus D620-L, but at least I have a good chance of preserving most of my investments (lenses, flash, accessories) as I do that.

Adding a film body to the DSLR mix does make a lot of sense, though, and I think Matt's right about looking for secondhand gear. Having a ready choice between convenience and discipline seems more likely to improve my photography than sticking purely to convenience.

2004-03-17 12:21:56
I'll need a mix
I hope you got a good sturdy tripod and not some lightweight thingy?
I've had several poorly built tripods which were in real use less than useless. I've seen others loose cameras and lenses because tripods tipped over onto a concrete floor, not a nice sight.

There's only 2 brands to consider: Manfrotto and Gitzo.
Which you prefer is a highly personal choice.

Myself, I own a Manfrotto 0190CLB and a 055Pro (US has different numbers, check for Bogen which is the US brandname for some obscure reason).

2004-03-17 12:56:09
Tiltall, Gitzo
For the tripod, I went with a Tiltall, for two reasons. First, I'd used them before (with small video cameras) and enjoyed the experience. Second, I needed a tripod that could go tall enough for 'birds-eye views' of table-height objects. So far, it's been rock solid.

I did get a Gitzo monopod, the Monotrek. It works nicely, but its ski-pole bottom is a bit of a nuisance it you work on hardwood floors. I carry a piece of felt in my bag just in case.

2004-03-17 16:13:22
quite right
You're quite correct in stating that digital cameras cause a degradation in photographer skills when it comes to composing and exposure.
"I'll just fix it in PS", "If it doesn't work I'll throw it away, it's free anyway" are bad.

I have to disagree.

My brother is a professional photographer. Prior to widespread, high-quality digital cameras, he would take 20-30 rolls of film and end up using 1 or 2 photos. He was doing the "If it doesn't work I'll throw it away" already. Being free for him is a bonus that really adds up.

2004-03-17 23:25:23
Tiltall, Gitzo
Check the Gitzo product catalogue. Most likely you can get different feet for the 'pod (I know they have them for tripods).