Six photography game changers
Recently in a post, I mentioned that one of the best advancements in photography was the improvement in the sensitivity and quality of the digital chips to produce beautiful photographs in low-light conditions. You can shoot at ISO numbers that were unheard of years ago.
I received a nice letter from Joel Blackwell, who thought that autofocus was a more important advancement. It would be tough for me to argue that the current progress of autofocus isn’t the most important feature. This started me thinking about all the advancements in photography since I started working at the Los Angeles Times 37 years ago. It’s really hard to believe how so much has changed over the years. Here are few of my picks as the most important photography advancements:
1. Autofocus – Today’s top DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras focus ridiculously fast. I can’t remember the last time I used manual focus. The cameras are so accurate at featuring a myriad of focusing points and options. It’s just hard to believe just how slow manual focus was back on those vintage lenses. Much of the exterior of the lens moved and focusing was a chore. I need quick, instant focus, just a quick press of a button. My eyes are getting older, and my manual focus skills don’t have a chance of improving.
2. Digital Chip – Overall, this has to be one of the biggest advancements. Once the quality and speed (ISO) passed film there was no holding back. OK, I remember when our newspaper first started trying out the digital camera which were so big and bulky. My first digital camera was the Kodak Professional DCS 520, which produced 6 megabyte files. It incorporated Kodak’s electronics with a Canon EOS camera body.
I thought, “This is never going to get better than film.” Of course, back in 2005, I had an assignment to shoot photographs of college students using Facebook and that didn’t make any sense to me either. I had no idea what they were talking about. I guess I’m not that good at looking into the tech crystal ball.
3. Electronic Flash (Strobes) – I don’t need to be transported back in time, it seems like it was just yesterday when you had to calculate the distance of your subject to your flash to figure out the proper f-stop. My first flash was attached to the camera using a special bracket and had only had one output power. It had a dial on the back to help calculate the correct exposure. Using the flash was a chore and getting the correct exposure was at best an educated guess.
Using flash back in those days was tricky; remember flash meters weren’t around to help out. I remember using a flash meter for the first time. This was a dream come true, giving me the correct setting and eliminating a lot of bracketing of exposures. Flash meters have become obsolete since cameras have LCD screens providing detailed information about the exposures. Today, strobes synch with cameras and remotes, producing accurate results by responding to your camera settings.
4. Fast motor drives – My first camera didn’t have a motor drive, especially my Kodak Brownie. There was a lot to remember back then because if you forgot to advance the film you got a cool double exposure whether you wanted it or not. My first camera with a motor drive was an L.A. Times company-issued Nikon F in 1975. It was rare to see a camera with a motor drive; they were used mostly by professional photographers shooting sports and news. Current motor drives are so fast I’m glad to be shooting pixels, not film.
5. Fast lenses – Most cameras came with a standard 50 millimeter lens. Mine was f/1.4, which was great, but the rest of my lenses were at least f/4 and f/5.6. Those f-stops made it very difficult to shoot in low light. It made for very grainy and contrasty photos. There were all sorts of magical potions for push processing your film to get a higher ISO (film speed) or ASA, but the quality was always problematic.
Back in the 70s, most long lenses were big, clunky and hard to focus because exterior parts of lens rotated stiffly. No automation then, and the settings needed to be made manually. The next major change was internal focusing. This design created faster, lighter and sharper lenses used today.
6. LCD Review Screen – I don’t miss waiting to see what develops. I don’t miss film and the processing. I don’t miss working in the darkroom. I don’t miss messy and expensive Polaroids to check the exposure. Just keep making those digital screens bigger and brighter.
Photographers looking at their LCD screen in between snaps has even created its own word, chimping. It’s not in the dictionary, but it is in Wikipedia, which says: “Chimping is a colloquial term used in digital photography (especially when using a digital single-lens reflex camera) to describe the habit of checking every photo on the camera display (LCD) immediately after capture.”
It’s so hard not to check your images after clicking the shutter. It would be a tough habit to break. You can even ramp it up another notch by tethering your camera to an iPad or computer. Why rely on a tiny 3-inch LCD screen?
It’s time to figure out what is wrong with my crystal ball, it’s always on the brink.
February 3, 2012, 9:32 pm
While you didn't get into the types of cameras in your post (point-and-shoot, dSLR and mirrorless, they to are changing the photography game.
LCD lights are a biggie for flash photography (no more hot blasts of light).
Check out the book New Image Frontiers–Defining the Future of Photography which really gets into the photography game changers. http://www.amazon.com/New-Image-Frontiers-Definin…
February 3, 2012, 11:46 pm
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February 4, 2012, 1:22 am
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February 4, 2012, 7:45 am
I love the digital photography revolution; its wondrous, really. I own excellent digital gear, and love it. But, I recently bought a vintage Mamiya medium-format film camera. No light meter, no electronics beyond a very basic set of viewfinder tools, 'no nuthin'. Yes, film, paper, and chemistry! Result? I'm looking at my large prints on the wall right now, and they are certainly the best photos I've ever taken. It takes a lot of brain work to get it right. And, since medium-format film only gives me 10 shots per roll, bracketing is tough. So, get it right the first time. Obviously, this workflow requires a tripod and patience. My point is simply that, for artists like me, silver-based traditional photography is alive and well. You can get fabulous medium-format camera gear on eBay for peanuts. My total investment in the Mamiya gear was $450.
February 4, 2012, 7:49 am
Attention: Site Admin: The section on this page (http://framework.latimes.com/2012/02/03/photography-game-changers/) where the user needs to enter their email address and name is screwed up and barely functional. You might want to contact your webmaster; very frustrating. As one enters the info, its white text on a white background.
February 5, 2012, 6:23 am
I agree w/ Dave. All of the advances made in digital photography have been about convenience and money. Buy yourself a $50 film camera w/ a good lens, load it w/ Tri-X, make (or have made) some quality enlargements, and you'll get MUCH better results than the multi thousand dollar digital cameras. And it's a lot more fun.
February 5, 2012, 10:26 am
I agree that digital is getting better, there is still something about pulling out my trusty Minalta SRM. Yes it is old, and somewhat heavy, but when I pull a roll of film through it iI know it will be there. Oh yes, T.S.A does have a slight fit at the airport, but they do get over it.
February 6, 2012, 12:54 am
One area I disagree with is regarding strobes which in this case I think you must be referring to on camera flash. Those are great tools for wedding , paparazzi or concer shooters but other than that I have a very low regard for them and as a pro would never recommend them. Reflective light metering is inherently unreliable unless you have mastery over both your camera and flash settings. Incident light reading is far easier and frankly off camera strobes are portable, inexpensive and far more versatile than on camera strobes. Even if you want to master all 125 pages of your on camera strobe manual ( I just did a sample check on a SB 800 Nikon manual) its still a small light source with very limited capabilities. Light meters are very much alive and I pity the poor consumer who is entering photography and buys an on camera flash because there are far better alternatives. That is unless one is content with snapshots.
February 7, 2012, 11:00 am
1) You left out Polaroid. Being able to proof with Polaroid was a huge game changer for photographers.
"One area I disagree with is regarding strobes which in this case I think you must be referring to on camera flash."
I agree with the bit about on camera flash, but I know lots of really terrific professional photographers who are comfortable shooting advertising and other commercial work with off camera small strobes that are controlled via in camera e-TTL or i-TTL exposure systems including me. Of course those of us that are that are also know how to use the big lights as well. You ignore this technological development at your peril. It is all about the photograph and not the tools you se to make it.
February 7, 2012, 4:39 pm
Ellis I take your point.
I myself have two Quantum Turbos that I frequently use in my commercial work.
My point was that reflective light metering is too complicated for the amateur market. A pro needs and understands tools like those above but it's very rare for an amateur to want to read his 125 page manual nor his camera manual. Incident light metering is so much easier. I have a relationship with Dynalite who have a light that they manufacture under my name. It is based on the Uni 400. The instruction manual is one quarter of a page!!! The light is no more expensive than an on camera flash, runs of DC as well as batteries, has far more power, only weighs three pounds and can use all light modifiers.
I think that is a far better light for amateurs although you do need a light meter. But a meter is a good investment in this case. I may produce a light meter at less than half the price of a Sekonic or Minolta. There is no inherent reason why these should be expensive. It's only because they only aim at the pro market and have low volume and high margins.
February 8, 2012, 3:30 am
The digital darkroom was a massive game changer in the early 90s. I started serious photography in my high school darkroom around '88. When I went on to pursue it in college the Mac and Photoshop were just taking hold. Scanning a chrome or negative on a big and painfully slow Leafscan 45 and watching it appear moments later on a monitor was as exciting as seeing my first B&W print come to life in the developer. I couldn't have imagined where we'd be now.
Still, I also miss the beauty and process of analog photography, so much so that I've rediscovered it in recent years. After nearly 20-years as a newspaper photographer, and almost 14-years after using our first digital rig (the Kodak DCS 520), I'm making some of my best images ever using Tri-X and Ektachrome again on choice projects.
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