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Learning photography: From analog to digital.

10. May 2017

How does mirrorless photography change the way on how we learn photography as well as make us better photographers?

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The big debates

If you are long enough into photography, you will certainly remember those debates on analog vs. digital. Which is better? Which is more realistic? Which has better dynamic range and why? What about analog and digital grain? Those discussions didn’t end quickly. Today digital is the major medium to take photographs, while analog photography is left for professionals in certain niches as well as Berlin hipsters.

Photography as a general topic doesn’t develop as quickly as other technologies, at least not in groundbreaking steps. Since the last large debate on analog vs. digital, there is this new debate on DSLR vs mirrorless. We have seen many advantages and disadvantages in the previous article. This time though… We’ll look at how learning photography changed throughout these big changes.

Changing workflow

Considering that we have these three major phases in photography, the way we take images and how we could learn from it changed tremendously:

  • The analog age. Photography is based on film. It doesn’t make too much of a difference if we talk about large format printing or 36mm.
  • The digital age. This is where DSLRs came up, starting with bulky low-resolution cameras, developing into high tech gear surpassing analog film by far.
  • The digital mirrorless age. We get to why it makes such a difference below.

So how did we take pictures differently in those times? We’ll look at that related to the question on how it effects our learning process.

Taking analog pictures

In the early days of analog photography, you have never had issues with your batteries. Dynamic range was not an issue. Not in terms of something you needed to discuss or improve, it was just a fixed part of the tools you used. Memory cards was not an issue. It was not so much about how fast you can take photographs, and it was not an issue if you can take 200 images in a row or not. It was about 24 or 36 photographs on a film. Color or black and white. What sensitivity (aka how much grain) would you like? Having spare films ready was the only issue. I don’t remember anyone running out of battery. Good times, right?

To take a photograph and get it on paper the following steps were necessary:

  • You choose a film. By choosing a film, you were kind of fixed to the film for 24 or 36 photographs in a row with the same film, which means the same sensitivity, color or black and white. There were actually people who rewinded their film in between, but not fully. So they could exchange it, insert it again later on, took „blank shots“ to skip the film which has been used already and then shoot again. I was never bold enough for doing that. By choosing a film first, you have had the idea already what to shoot. You would choose a different film for bright sunlight or for in-house shootings.
  • You take the photographs. By taking them, you had to use aperture or shutter priority. There were no program modes, no white balance to set. The photo had been exposed onto the film, but without any further information. No aperture information, no shutter speed.
  • After finishing the film, you had to give it away for processing - or if you had your own darkroom, process the film. Having the negatives, you were able to make prints out of it. This could take hours for express services or up to a couple of days.

Now consider the following: You have no idea how the photos turned out. You have no display to check the results, you could just expect based on your experience and from the metering of the camera that things to work out in some way or the other.

If you didn’t take notes on the exposure settings when taking the photographs, you would not know those settings at all after such a long time.

Taking pictures digital

As soon as digital photography came up, the turnaround time was much faster. Considering that a photo on the screen on your computer is as good as a paper print, the turnaround time for taking photographs changed from hours and days to minutes.

Even if you have much more options like changing white balance and all sort of things, it got much easier because you could immediately see the results.

From taking the picture with a DSLR, analyzing the picture, looking up the settings, changing settings to taking another picture it is only a matter of seconds or minutes. You don’t need a log of your shots anymore, because all the information is available with every picture.

Taking pictures mirrorless

Taking images with a mirrorless camera is actually pretty similar to the previews step, taking images with a DSLR.

The difference is that you don’t need to take the picture and look at the screen on how it turns out, you can actually see the result before you take the picture. Mirrorless cameras let you look at the pictures which have been processed by the camera already. Not in every aspect, a long exposure of 30 seconds will still look different after it has been taken, but almost all other aspects can be evaluated before the image has been taken.

Why this is good or bad for learning photography

Learning in general is based on an iterative process. You do something, evaluate the results and act upon it.

The iterative process

The iterative process in the analog age took days and you had to keep track of your settings. You had to remember why you chose certain setting at that situation, compare the result and gain experience for an upcoming similar situation.

The learning cycle got a lot faster when things got digital. With mirrorless you can even adapt before you shoot.

What improves our photography?

The big question is: In which way do we gain more experience and develop our skills? This might be different for each person.

  • While taking notes on photographs, while deciding which film to use up front, you put much thought into the process right away. This consciousness might make things more obvious from the start. But how much can you remember and transfer into knowledge after getting the prints from the print shop with such a delay?
  • Taking digital photographs in short intervals, looking at the result in no time makes you adapting your settings on the fly. But does it persist into experience and knowledge or do you stick to trial and error next time too, which might not a big deal for you as the cameras recommended settings are good enough anyway?
  • Having a limited number of available photos on film might make you more selective on what to shoot, while on the other side it limits your chance for trial and error.

Conclusion

I feel kind of feel privileged, because I learned photography from the ground up, starting with analog SLRs and only later switched to digital. But this is only half the truth. I started taking photos without much guidance. I liked black and white, so I chose black and white films. I liked a shallow depth of field, so I chose a larger aperture. I just did not make the effort on improving my photography specifically, I just had fun taking photos. I even developed the photos in a darkroom at some point, which is awesome to get some deeper understanding. Only years later (about 20), in the beginning of 2016, I figured I didn’t use my Nikon gear for ages. Photography seemed a hobby from the past, and I sold all my equipment, which I have built up throughout the years. It took only about a year and I understood that I was wrong. So at the end of 2016 I bought a new camera, this time I started over with Sony mirrorless cameras. It turned out that it was not just about doing the same photography as before, but kind of in a more structured, more meaningful way.

I started studying photography and all it’s different areas. The first part which I understood, and which I was actually very happy to find out: In all those years on photography which have passed, I wasn’t really going into the topic in a structured way, but rather learned from experience. All those things I did, I did right already. I just built up intuition over the years. So now the time has come not to learn photography in its basics but get to specific areas in all its details. Learn about colors, how do colors work, what effects do they have, how can I use colors for certain goals. How about image composition and when to break out. All these interesting things were now available for further research.

How is this related to this article, and what should you do to get better in photography?

At the end it does not matter if you are able to start with analog photography or not. In either case: Try to understand why the photographs you take came out the way they are. Look at other photographers and their work and try to understand why you like those and why not. There is a lot to learn about image composition, editing, choosing lighting and such things from others to improve your own photography.

Finally: Go out and shoot, have fun. And if you want to improve your work, look at it in a critical way and understand what you can do to make it better next time.

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