I fell for the pitfall of digital photography: shoot first, think later. Digital cameras led me to believe that click is cheap. It’s not. It cost time, and a lot of it! Time to process all the pictures produced under click-euphoria, but also time to deal with distracting, non-essential, on-camera functionality.
Looking back, I found my 1999 film photos appealed more to me than my 2009 year digital photos. Nevertheless, I bought a new dSLR, worthy descendant of my last film SLR. Using it was an Eureka-moment. Professor Luca Vascon analyzed (content warning) my feelings on the Italian 360° panorama photographers mailing list. It took me another few months to articulate my findings.
Back in the days of film all cameras shared the same film. They were in essence physical interfaces to the mental process of framing and capturing a moment on film. Manufacturers were focused on improving the interface between the user and the film, leaving it to the chemical companies to focus on improving the film itself.
When digital components replaced film, camera manufacturers allocated more resources to their development, to the detriment of the optical and mechanical components. Product managers deciding the feature mix within the available price budget for each model in the product line preferred the faster product cycles of the digital components, trading them off against the mechanical and optical ones. More mega-pixels, larger display, faster processors. All become obsolete faster, helping to more turnover. But what about viewfinder and other optical components? and the mechanical ones? The trade-off is particularly noticeable at the lower end of the product range where little budget is left for them.
Once I became aware of the issue, I retrained myself:
1. Use a Small Memory Card. Shoot RAW+JPEG to make the memory limitation even stricter. Quality over quantity. At the end of the day the limitation to the equivalent of a single roll of film (36 exposures) sharpens your thinking. Photography is a process of the mind, not of the trigger-finger. Become conscious of the process. Think before pushing the trigger. Analyze the scene, what you want to communicate, how to frame it. Wait patiently for the magic moment.
2. Don’t Use the Display. Forget about live view and interact again with the scene through the viewfinder. Hold the camera close to your body. Feel it. Become one with it. It’s your camera the moment you can navigate its controls blindly. Free your eyes and your brain to roam the scene.
3. Focus on the one Single Task. Review the captured image only when you’re back at the base. Forget about the histograms and other in-camera review tools. If you’re unsure, take a second shot with different settings and select the best one back at the base. In the field, give your full attention to the subject. After a while your relationship with your camera will be so symbiotic you won’t need to think of exposure anymore, it will come as natural as shifting gears when driving a car.
4. Less is More. Make a conscious decision to leave non-essential gear at home. Setting up the tripod and changing lenses is a distraction. Deal with the limitations of your chosen gear rather than juggling with the extra weight.
5. Don’t Post-Process. Resist the urge. Even if you’re a technophile and you know that you could extract that extra something by manually processing the RAW file and retouching the photograph, try sticking with the out-of-camera output, or at least with the output of an automated development script running on your computer. Reserve post-processing to a very few exceptional cases.
6. Exception, maybe? Some shooting techniques do require post-processing. Whether it is panorama-stitching or HDR-compositing: will it add to the picture? or just to the pixel count? Consider first the story you want to tell and then the technique you use.
7. Share and Archive, Quickly! Every photo shooting has its own folder. The convention for the folder’s name is YYMMDDname where YYMMDD is the date and name is a meaningful but short (no spaces!) name. The folder goes through three stages: first pictures are downloaded from the memory card, sorted and pruned. Then I run them through an automated script that does neat things for me such as making resized copies to send to mom. After the pictures are shared with the relevant friends, the originals get into the archive. The archive is organized by year and month, so there is some redundancy in the archival path of a photo session: /YYYY/MM/YYMMDDname. Redundancy is good: I keep the whole archive on a RAID and an extra offline hard disk. The size is too big for optical media. I try to move a photoshooting folder through sharing and archival within one week, but sometimes I’m just too busy or too lazy.
8. Most Important. Enjoy it! It’s fun, at the end of the year, to go into the YYYY archive folder and look at all the pictures.