Digital Is Another Medium

by William Lulow

I used to think that using digital cameras was just another medium, another way of recording what “traditionalists” have recorded for generations (at least since the 1840s). Of course, before that time, drawing ,painting, etching, and sculpting were the only methods by which images could be made. But now, I have come to think that digital photography is a whole different genre of picture making. It’s not just another way of making lasting images. The “digital revolution” has taken over almost completely. It offers instant images, instant checks on whether you’ve made a good exposure and almost instant “fixes” if you haven’t. The digital revolution has made it possible for shooters to go out, shoot something and correct any mistakes in post production. Traditional photography had its “fixes” as well. It bred a whole coterie of retouchers who were able to fix various problems with original exposures. But, if the lighting, pose, setup or concept wasn’t right from the beginning, no amount of retouching could save it.

Nowadays, you really don’t have to “get it right in the camera.” There are programs to correct almost anything that goes wrong with an image. Of course, if it is several stops under or overexposed and there is not enough information in the pixels to create some kind of image, it may not be able to be saved. But, generally, the digital process is quite forgiving.  What this has created is a level of mediocrity. Many people think that because it’s a digital image, it doesn’t have to be correct from the start. There was a series of articles written on line recently about whether a light meter was a necessary tool. You might be surprised to hear several photographers say that it wasn’t necessary any more. You can just check your LCD and see if the shot is okay or not.  I must confess that even though I carry a light meter with me always, I don’t always use it. This is partly because I have memorized light conditions after so many years of experience and don’t really need to use a meter, but it is also partly because I can preview the results right on the camera immediately. The thing that a light meter teaches, however, is how to set up a ratio lighting or how to balance indoor and outdoor exposures. Without it, you would need one of those magical “programs” that does all this for you.

I guess where I’m going with all of this is that new programs and digital “fixes” are great if you know what you’re trying to fix and why. The problem comes when people who really don’t know anything about photography learn how to apply the “fixes” before they learn how to take the pictures. It seems that the thought process in photography has given way to the notion that “I’ll think about it after I see the images.” This is the wrong approach to making good photographs. The idea that one can just take hundreds of shots and hope there’ll be one good one, or that some kind of “idea” will emerge from all those images after they are processed, is a mistake. It should be the other way around. The thought should come first, then the execution.