Saturday, January 24, 2009

How Digital Cameras remind me of the old B&W days

Recently my Tai Chi instructor asked me to take pictures of my class for the school's web site. His digital camera has some shutter lag which makes photographing people in motion a hit or miss proposition. So, I took a hundred or more shots, knowing that I only needed a couple of good shoots.

As I was doing this I was reminded of my old days learning to shoot black and white photos, (which happened long before there was such a thing as digital photography) and I was struck by the similarities.

I learned photography from an old friend, long since passed away named Christopher Resnik. Chris taught photography from the ground up. We bought 100 foot rolls of 35mm film and made our own film cartridges. Cameras back then were fully manual and Chris wouldn't even let us use a light meter...preferring to train our eyes to read the light and determine the exposure. To this day I can look around and know that such and such a day requires an F8, 1/250 second exposure with 400 ASA film. Today most people probably don't even know what those terms mean.

Since we bought film in bulk and did all of our own darkroom work it was quite inexpensive and so we shoot a lot. Chris used to say that is you got one or two good shots out of a 36 exposure roll you were doing well. When we found an interesting subject we'd take a number of shots of us...from various angles, with various exposures and with various perspectives. We might take whole roll of film on a single subject. Taking 100 Tai Chi shots reminded me of that.

Back in the days before digital cameras a roll of color film might cost $3-$5 to buy and then perhaps $10-$12 to process. With that price model you were careful how you spent your photos and a roll of film might sit in the camera for months or a year.

We've now come full circle in a way. Photos are basically free, especially since many people never make prints but instead view their photos on a digital picture frame or online via Snapfish or KodakGallery.

A missing element for most digital photographers however is the culling process. Back in the day, after processing a roll we'd stay in the darkroom evaluating our photos and would throw out 90% of them. We shot 36 pictures of that flower so that we could find the best one, but then we left the other 35 shots on the darkroom floor. Today most digital photographers take the 36 photos, post them all to Snapfish and go on their way. After a few months they have 100s or 1000s of pictures, most of which are awful and have no idea where the dozen or so gems are.
I'm sure there's a metaphor in here for the pace of modern life but it escapes me. I do however like when life comes full circle.

For my own pictures, (and I have a 3 year son so I take a lot of pictures), I've developed a culling process. When I plug my digital camera or my IPhone into the computer it creates a new directory where all the pictures go. I then create a subdirectory called so_so_shots. I immediately look at each picture and if it isn't great it gets moved to the so_so_shots directory. Since I'm just moving them rather than deleting them I can be quick and ruthless in the decision. This lets me easily manage a much smaller set of much better pictures.


  1. What a memory - of My dear Friend and Mentor Chris, I had the same thought about him when i was just starting with digi cams, I was shooting ski photos, kept missing them? I was missing my old nikon F3!
    But I really miss Chris, Do you have any of his work on file? I was student at Desito Stockbridge school in 82/83

  2. What a pleasant surprise to hear from someone who knew Chris. I don't have many photos from the old days (a basement flood wiped out most of my old photos and letters ... an 'opportunity' to learn about letting go I suppose. I'm looking at a rare surviving picture of Chris right now. I'd be very interested in corresponding more and sharing stories.