Is Digital Photography Really Easier Than Traditional?

by William Lulow

I have often said that digital photography is easier than using film in several ways:

  1. There are many auto-focus lenses
  2. The camera can be programmed to calculate correct exposure
  3. You don’t have to load film
  4. You can preview your work directly on the LCD screen. No need to wait for development.

With all this being said, there are quite a few more items to consider than simply pressing the shutter and recording the image. In the days of film photography, you had your choice of indoor or outdoor film and several options of film speed. You had several different sizes from which to choose, from 35mm to 2 1/4 medium format, all the way up to 4×5 or 8×10 sheet film. The characteristics of each were somewhat different, but that was about it as far as choice went.

Today, the digital experience offers quite an array of different settings that force us to think carefully about how we want our images to look. Yes, you can set your camera to AUTO and it will yield fairly good images, mostly correctly exposed, but you can also use a myriad of different settings depending on your personal preferences and, of course, those of your clients (if you sell the images or shoot for a commercial concern).

So, here are just a few. My Canon cameras have nine different “PICTURE STYLES” from which to choose:

  6. MONOCHROME and three more “USER DEFINED” settings.

Within each of these you can choose four more settings:

  1. Sharpness
  2. Contrast
  3. Saturation
  4. Color Tone

This gives you at least thirty-six different settings you need to think about. Some of the differences may be subtle, but that can sometimes make the difference between a good shot and a “great” one.

Here are some examples, all shot with the same exposure (ISO100, 1/125th of a second at f/8):

This image was made on the STANDARD setting with SHARPNESS set at 7 (Max) CONTRAST at 2, SATURATION 0, and COLOR TONE 0.

This image was made on the PORTRAIT setting with SHARPNESS set at 6, CONTRAST at +2, SATURATION at 0 and COLOR TONE at -2.

This one was shot on LANDSCAPE mode with SHARPNESS set at 6,CONTRAST at 2, SATURATION at 2 and COLOR TONE at -2. Here you can begin to discern a slight blue tint to the snow (probably cyan rather than blue).

This was made in the NEUTRAL mode with SHARPNESS at 6, CONTRAST at 0, SATURATION at 2, and COLOR TONE at -2. To my eye, this looks a bit more reddish than the STANDARD setting, but still looks good.

In FAITHFUL mode, this image actually looks the most neutral of all of them, representing the scene most closely as my eye saw it.

Now, with all these settings to add to your confusion, you need to be mindful of how you want the scene to be represented. If you prefer more color saturation, then you can use one of the USER DEFINED settings for that. I once had to photograph a client’s paintings and I had to be sure that the colors in the paintings were correctly represented in the images. Also, if you are shooting a product, you need to make sure that the images accurately represent the colors, otherwise, the client will not like them.

In the days of film, we were able to control the way the images looked with a combination of color balancing the lights, processing the film in certain ways or by filtering the film to produce a “normal-looking” image. We would often compare color charts with the colors we were shooting to get a fairly exact match.

This should give you some of an idea of how complicated your “easy” digital photography can be.