In the old days we took far fewer photos, normally in batches of 36. Today we don’t feel we’ve done our job unless we’ve blasted away gigabyte upon gigabyte. So what happens when we shoot digital the way we shot film? By Nick Smith
Next time you take your digital camera into the great outdoors take a big bag of fifty pence pieces with you. Then throw away one coin for every time you depressed the shutter release button when you didn’t have to. For those of you wondering what on earth I’m talking about, this is what shooting on film was like. I can’t remember the exact figures, but it cost about nine pounds to buy and process a roll of 35mm transparency film that would result in 36 photographs: 37 if you were lucky. You simply couldn’t afford to be profligate.
My new camera can shoot 36 exposures in less than four seconds, and because it’s digital, think of all those fifty pence pieces I’m saving. Storage is cheap and plentiful, and if Moore’s Law holds – essentially that digital technology doubles its capacity and so halves in price every two years – they’ll be giving gigabytes away with petrol soon.
But what you gain on the swings you inevitably lose on the roundabouts, because we all end up paying through our teeth in lost hours peering into the screen when it comes to the edit. If you think that this is somehow an absorbable cost or it doesn’t really matter, try throwing a fifty pence piece out of the window for every five minutes you sit at your computer.
I don’t know about you, but I loved it when my trannies came back from the lab. I’d put them on the light box and reacquaint myself with what was really going on, rather than just delete stuff. Editing then seemed to be a process of selection rather than of mind-numbing elimination.
But then it occurred to me that I might be looking back with misguided affection. How could it have been better then? By any objective measure cameras and their consumables today are better, cheaper, lighter, faster and funkier. Well, maybe. But one thing I am sure of is that digital is responsible for a torrential surge in mediocre photography. It’s everywhere. Don’t believe me? Put your hand up and offer to judge your local newspaper or camera club photographic competition.
I decided to investigate if we really do shoot better photographs when we do it batches of 36. The rules were simple: I could take as much kit as I liked with me to the Gower peninsular and shoot anything I fancied. The only thing I had to do was stay within the frame budget and complete the project in one day.
Off to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Llanelli one glorious Easter day. The sky was the colour of bluebells and there was more cherry blossom in the April breeze than you could shake a stick at. It was with an optimistic heart that I set out to fulfil my task that day of a portrait of my daughter (it was her sixth birthday), a wildlife shot (hence the drive to the wetlands) and a sunset, which would involve a short, sharp hike up a small mountain. I arbitrarily allowed myself 12 shots per project, which was a bit more daunting than sounds, not least because I was going to shoot the portrait on the teacup ride at the Easter fair, birds (for me at least) are notoriously fickle sitters and sunsets are not common in a land where it never stops raining.
By nine o’clock I’d downloaded my 36 compositions into Lightroom, and to my surprise my first reactions were all positive. First, it took no time to physically transfer the files because there were simply so few of them. Second, I suddenly found myself doing a positive edit rather than just moronically hitting the delete key. Third and most important of all, the proportion of decent shots was much, much higher that I would normally get from blasting away the megabytes. I was able to select three shots quickly – one for each project – that were above my quality threshold, and perhaps even more importantly, was tucked into a pint of Brains bitter well before closing time.
As I lubricated the tonsils I reflected on what my experiment had proved. I think this is what may have happened. I’d definitely spent more time thinking about what I wanted to shoot rather than pulling the trigger. And I was much more conscious of getting the basics right in order to avoid wasting my virtual roll of film. This had a further advantage, because when I came to review my work I found it much easier to evaluate how successful the images were relative to my intentions, simply because I could remember taking each exposure. I’d also had more fun, and as I polished off my pint I decided that wandering around South Wales musing on the glories of the natural world was simply a better experience than filling up flash cards with machine-gunned gunk.
This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography magazine