A lot has changed since digital came around in 1999. Film has always been about quality – all kinds of it, too. It was about resolving power – we have Fujichrome Velvia for that now; it was about color accuracy, which also suits the former as well as, say, Fujicolor Superia Reala; or, for those who want sharp and vivid, there‘s always the beautiful Kodak Ektar. Now, however, there’s one kind of film for all those purposes. Just as film was finally providing the quality, the age of digital sensors came. And, some think, wiped film‘s quality ambitions off the table as if it were dust. We now have one film that can do everything – low light, color accuracy or vividness, sharpness and endless manipulation possibilities. One film that fits all.
I am a wedding photographer and I love what I do – it wouldn’t be quite as exciting and rewarding without digital photography. The speed, flexibility and quality I can get out of it in almost any situation is a must and has to go without saying in this kind of business today. Every year feels like a leap – better cameras, better lenses and even when it seems there’s no way forward anymore, manufacturers surprise us again and again. But there’s still something missing. With all the advances and new technologies, new ways of making our photographs more technically perfect than ever before, with all the new cameras every year, it always seems to me as if there’s something vital missing. What is it?
I remember buying my first ever camera – it was about 5 years ago. A cheap, rather bulky even by older standards, it was a very basic point-and-shoot, Canon Powershot A430. I loved it. Every bit of it. Those 4 megapixels were amazing (you still think that the D700 has low resolution?)! I was thrilled. Took it everywhere I went. It even did video, which was just as great.
The next time I was thrilled was when I decided to buy my first DSLR and retire the point-and-shoot (I really only now understand how much I miss it). I bought myself a used D80. Suddenly those 4 megapixels were almost nonexistent. I left my point-and-shoot and never looked back. The realization of what quality and speed is hit me so hard I could never believe I was satisfied with the point-and-shoot I used to have. I didn’t quite know at that time I was slipping away from photography as a form of art and expressing myself into technological abyss, where the point of everything was to shoot with better equipment just because it was better. Not because I loved photography or needed that equipment. Thrilled. I guess I was in the very far left of the “Stages of a photographer” chart, where everything I shot was pretty, just because the camera was better:
The D80 was great, but lacking something. I realized that my need for higher quality, no matter the circumstances, was growing rapidly – I pixel-peeped instead of concentrating on composition and visual content of my photographs, my emotional attachment. And I wasn’t happy with the noise I was getting above ISO 400. It sounds silly now. I saved up – it took a while – and bought myself my first lens (apart from the kit) – the Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, my most used lens today in both my daily photography and wedding photography business.
When I bought it, I expected a quality leap once again – the same kind I had when I switched to the D80. It never came in the form I thought it would, and there was one simple reason for it… At that time, I don’t remember myself stopping down below the lens’ widest aperture, f/1.4. Not once. It was a revelation. It stayed there, glued, a constant, as if there were no other settings I could ever use. I then thought it was what I wanted. The quality was fine and I was able to use lower ISOs even in difficult light, but the best part was the shallow depth of field. “This is it”, I thought. “This is my big break. I’m now ready for a masterpiece of my own”. And I shot. I shot my first wedding with this duo. And looked at reviews I’ve already read before. And pixel-peeped. Same as before – I was thrilled. Same as before – I was thrilled by the wrong thing, and because of that I failed to see why I needed it in the first place. Why I truly needed a camera and a lens.
Quality matters, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t go far in my business – won’t go far – without understanding that, and that’s why digital is great. The thing is – the important thing is – quality doesn’t matter as soon as you get that piece of gear into your hands. You have it. If you have it – it’s good enough, or you have to make it good enough. Then, only photography matters. Only the composition, the visual content and emotional attachment. The context. The story or lack of one. I failed to see it. I failed to see the difference between my work and my personal projects.
Then I bought a used D300. Now, I thought I’d be in love with its amazing autofocus system. I was. I thought, too, I’d be in love with its speed, and ergonomics, and build quality. And, again, I was. I knew I’d be in love with its better sensor and better high ISO performance (I even tried to measure it against the D80, how silly I was!). But none of this mattered. Not a single thing. What I liked the most – and I mean the most – was the color. One would think – “Color? Get a RAW converter, you mug.” No. The color made all the difference. For the first time since the Powershot I had, I enjoyed my camera for my own projects. For capturing my day, my family, my friends, my art, even – not just work, which goes without saying. And I didn’t pixel-peep – I wanted the see the whole picture, literally. I then found myself shooting the D80 at ISO 1600, which, for my business, wasn’t very nice. But I didn’t care – not at weddings, at least. I shot that D300 at ISO 3200. And also didn’t care. For the first time since the Powershot, I was thrilled by the right thing – by photography, and not the gear. By the aesthetical part, and not the technical one.
Lets get certain things straight. For wedding work, D300 at ISO 1600 is bad. And I mean bad. There’s basically not that much detail to speak of, nor dynamic range. It’s true that, with careful exposure and quality light, the shot might look a stop better than it is in your everyday situation, but weddings don’t usually give you the luxury. At ISO 3200, in real life situations, shooting at f/1.4 in terrible light, it is dreadful. But there’s this simple question that puts everything into places – is it better, for personal work and sometimes weddings, to have an image with poor technical quality than not have one at all? I’d choose the poor quality simply because sometimes (more often than not for personal photography), it works. I’d choose aesthetics over technical stuff any day.
This shot was made using the Nikon D300, AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8G at 17mm, f2.8, 1/50 at ISO 1600. There was no light. And I really mean no light, only a couple of those disco lights you can get, very direct and focused, and it also was colored, very vivid too – it alone was enough to smear the detail. I had to use a lot of fill light and some exposure compensation in Lightroom later on. The AF, as can be seen with closer inspection, missed somewhat. Yet I chose to not use the flash. It’s terrible, technically. But works. I gave this particular image to the clients with full confidence, although only this time – I wouldn’t push my D300 so far very often.
I used flash for this next shot; I liked the slightly club-like light it gave me. ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/60th of a second, same body and lens. I like both shots even though the second one is of better technical quality. They are both, in my opinion, just as valuable – the first one just for the moment of it alone.
Let me give you another example, one that concerns my personal life and not my business. This shot was made using… I don’t really know what. It may have been an old soviet Zenit-E SLR with an Industar-50 50mm f/3.5 lens. The technical quality is, frankly, barely a match for some mobile phones. While the dynamic range is much better in a printed (enlarged in a darkroom, I mean) version and the color is not shifted nearly as much (I only scan/reshoot the negatives for preview purposes before printing, and this one was done using a very old Fujifilm super-zoom), there’s still lots of grain and not that much detail in there. But that’s my father! Would I only take a 36 MP image from the D800 of this moment or none at all? No. Any day, I will choose this. And that won’t change anytime soon. In this case, technical quality is irrelevant. Completely. In our memories, we don’t count eyelashes of our friends and wives and fathers – we see lines, shapes, smiles. Not exactly detailed or accurate in color, or anything at all. I want the photographs of my life, of my family to mirror what I remember. I want my memories to mirror my photographs.
I started out as a photographer, a beginner, with a budget Canon Powershot. I then became a pixel-peeper with a D80. Only a couple of years later I, again, started to become the photographer I wanted to be in the first place. I lost two years. Have you lost any? From the D300 I moved to the D700. It’s amazing, and yet again, while it gives me great technical quality in all kinds of situations, I mainly chose it because of the aesthetics. I didn’t get better as a wedding photographer, because it gave me 1.5-2 stops better high ISO performance over the D300, although it helped a lot – I got better because I tried to learn my gear. Because I learned photography, and not pixel-counting. I was thrilled by the right thing. My passion, finally, was photography – the very point of having a camera and a lens.
That’s me and my work. I strive for quality – I need it, I will take it whenever I can. And my clients need it, too. The thing is, they need less of it than one would think. And thus it’s not my primary goal. I don’t spend countless hours reading and reading and reading about gear I may never have, simply because I may never really need it. Shooting and thinking the way I do gives me the pleasure I work for. It’s fun to work. You should have fun photographing, too. If you’re thinking about reviews and what others said while you should be looking through the viewfinder, there’s a slight chance, dare I say, that you’re doing something wrong.
Be thrilled by the simple things. Pursue your passion.