Getting It Right in the Camera: The Truth, The Myth, The BS


“One should still try and get as close as possible to what you want in the initial click.”

A friend of a friend just pointed this out in a conversation we were all having on Facebook. It’s prompted me to say something. To explain what “getting it right in the camera” means to me now, and what it meant to me in the old days.

The experience is different for everyone. Each photographer wants to do something different in the camera. Each photographer feels the need to get certain things right in the camera. Always did, and still do.

If we are to take the idea of “getting it right in the camera,” we first have to decide what it is we want as a final product. Then we can begin to decide how much of that we can get IN the camera and what may need to be done OUT of the camera.

Between that first press of the shutter and the final, finished photo, there are many steps in between. Many possible “slips twixt cup and lip” as well.

Getting the exposure as good as possible and the composition spot-on: these are always what to strive for ‘in-camera’. The rest, I would suggest, was as up for discussion in 1960 or 1988 as it is now.


Too many people these days seem to get some sort of “pure as the driven snow” feeling from posting the acronym “SOOC” (Straight Out Of the Camera) next to their digital pics. It seems to make them feel as if they are being true to the “lets get it right in the camera” feel of the old days of film.

Well, SOOC in the old days meant, literally, an unprocessed roll of film. Unprocessed, unshareable. An event waiting to happen. Pictures still yet to be processed and fixed.

The notion that film was somewhat more pure than digital is, IMHO, horsesh*t. Film is, indeed, an analog experience. Organic. A chemical cocktail of pigs’ gelatin, silver, nitrates, bromides. It responds to light differently than the silicon-based sensors in our digital cameras. It is very different to digital. No doubt.

I still feel that exposing a piece of paper to light, putting that paper in a dish of liquid and then watching the image appear before my eyes is the closest thing I will ever get to performing alchemy… and performing miracles.


I often thought, on those long, red-lit days in the darkroom that if some other magic had occurred to see me transported in time, and that I had opened the door of the darkroom to find myself in the year 1524, I would have been dragged out and burned at the stake for crimes of witchcraft.

Fast-forward to 2013 and my even more witchcraft-like Nikon DSLR. What does “getting it right in the camera” mean to me? Getting enough right in the camera. It was always thus. There was a percentage of that final product — which started out as an image pre-visualized in my head — that was done IN the camera and done OUT of the camera.

What was, shall we say, “expected” from the camera very largely depended on what was possible OUTside of the camera. Those parameters have now changed. I can now do a lot more outside of my camera, more quickly, more conveniently and with the lights on than I ever could back in 1988 with my F3, tanks of chems and a stash of Agfa Grade 3 paper.

About the author: Alfie Goodrich is a British photographer and photography teacher based in Tokyo, Japan. He has shot for publications including BBC, TIME, and the Wall Street Journal. You can find his photos on Flickr and his writing at Japanorama. This post originally appeared here.

Image credits: Photographer, Camera and Tripod: Shadow Self Portrait, Spirit Within by Dominic’s pics, Camera expo by auggie tolosa, Exposed Darkroom by Gamma-Ray Productions

  • Alfie Goodrich

    Thanks to all the people who have commented here. Some very valuable points have been made which have added to the article: another great ‘plus’ of the digital and internet era is that we don’t have to wait a week for the ‘Letters to the Editor’ to see what readers thought about a writer’s article. That’s great for writers. This article was very much ‘SOOK’ – straight out of the keyboard… and everyone’s comments have added a little to its post-production into a conversation.

    To all those of you who mentioned shooting straight to slide in the old days: yes, it was all about getting it right in the camera with very little latitude or tolerance in exposure. But let’s not forget all of the studio ‘shooting straight to chrome’, where ‘getting it right in the camera’ was very often [almost always] backed-up by having first shot a test or two on Polaroid: the old days’ equivalent of the screen on the back of our digital cameras.

    I love photography. I do a lot of varied work. Some where post-production is feasible, allowed or warranted. Some where for very good reasons it isn’t. News for instance.

    I care very much about what I do. I care about teaching people photography and getting their fundamentals right. In addition to composition and exposure, those fundamentals for me include photography history and visual literacy. I’m planning to write something about those topics soon as well.

    Thanks again for engaging with this post.

  • Deirdre H. Malfatto

    My problem with the term SOOC is that it doesn’t mean much to me unless you also tell me what in-camera settings you used (contrast, saturation, white balance, etc.). To me, unless you are shooting JPEG with everything set to neutral or shooting RAW without even default computer software adjustments, then you’ve made some processing choices about the photo. Even just converting a photo from AdobeRGB to sRGB is is a processing choice that is going to change the look of the photo.

  • a.w andrews

    Add to the snobbery ‘I shoot B/W’, Yes OK you walk down the high street of the most colourful cities in the world and come back with B/W shots, DOH

  • rob

    i’ve been shooting lots of pack film for a personal project lately. sometimes I need to spend two or three frames to get it right; talk about “sooc”! heh, even then, a little tweak seems to occur when I scan the prints. there’s always a little improvement.

  • Phil Haber

    Actually, there is no such thing as an unedited digital photo, other than a raw file. Every jpeg or tif file coming out of a digital camera is edited, if not by the photographer (either through an in-camera menu or by post-processing), then by the factory default editing programmed into the camera by the manufacturer. Now, the factory default editing may produce an entirely acceptable result in many cases, but in my experience most photos can be improved by careful and intelligent post-processing no matter how good the initial shot was. That’s why I don’t take SOOC seriously.

  • Photodocnyc

    Thank you. I have fought against this perfect in the camera since the sixties! I had to defend cropping against the full-framers that consider it a mortal sin to crop. You said it correctly “Getting enough right in the camera. It was always thus.” and importantly “What was, shall we say, “expected” from the camera very largely depended on what was possible OUTside of the camera. Those parameters have now changed. I can now do a lot more outside of my camera, more quickly, more conveniently and with the lights on than I ever could back in 1988 with my F3, tanks of chems and a stash of Agfa Grade 3 paper.” These are the elements of your article that are essential and I think, irrefutable. I also agree with you concerning the chemical darkroom experience. While it was a poisonous environment, the site of paper in the developer becoming a print in progress was magical.

  • Richard Cofrancesco

    I agree with Neoracer Xox, film, pixels, the finished products is what counts. But the day is coming were you will be able to talk to a camera and dictate the finished image. What then?

  • John Cornwell

    I get the irony, and it points to something others have mentioned. Your smartphone contains a camera sensor which captures images, altered by the camera software. The smartphone also contains a range of software apps which can post-process those images. So SOOC out of the camera still has relevance.

    But the difficult part, as others mentioned, is the quantity of post software built into both physical cameras and smartphone cameras. That makes SOOC essentially impossible to define clearly.

    Still, instead of getting hung up on parsing, I still see value in using SOOC to mean an image which stands of the merits of composition, minimal in-camera processing, and no manual adjustments after the fact. It’s a kind of competition to play with oneself (but not others), to show that one can shoot correctly-exposed images.

  • Steve

    I believe the most important thing to learn from this debate is that a good photographer has total control over his or her image, as they envisioned it in their mind. Any photographer who adopts the attitude of “I’ll fix it later in Photoshop/Darkroom” is not taking control over their image making. Quite frankly, it’s an ass-backwards way of thinking and doing.

    “Correct exposure” is dependent on the shooting situation the photographer finds themselves in and is dependent on a number of other factors (lighting conditions, subject luminances, film vs. digital, etc.). When shooting b&w negative film, exposure and development have always been integrally linked…one is just as important as the other. However, no amount of development technique will correct sloppy exposure. The same is true with digital. Photoshop tweaks (histogram levels, calibration curves, etc.) are analogous to film developer, but again, if the exposure is severely off, no amount of Photoshop work will make a difference.

    For example, if you are shooting a landscape with an extremely bright sky and a darker foreground, a graduated neutral density filter should be used to balance out the contrast difference. This is a useful “in camera technique” that will insure that adequate detail is recorded in the low values (darker foreground) and prevent the highlight value details (bright sky) from being clipped. The image could then be imported into Photoshop for fine tuning, but only after the raw image has been correctly exposed.

    This landscape example is actually a technique modified from Ansel Adam’s Zone System. It’s simply first paying strict attention to the overall dynamic range created by the differences in luminances between high values and low values. Then, using the appropriate techniques to ensure the correct exposure is made and adequate detail is recorded throughout the entire dynamic range.

    The important thing to remember is that in order to produce this kind of image, one must first use the most appropriate “in camera tools” first to better take advantage of Photoshop later. After all, the camera is the starting point, so it is most wise to exploit the most potential the camera has to offer. Not to do so is being lazy, and I fear that the ease and immediacy of post production tools like Photoshop have unintentionally contributed to this laziness.

    If demanding absolute control and mastery of your craft and technique is snobbery, then so be it…I’m a snob then and I don’t apologize for it.

  • malixe

    Amen, brother.

  • Krijsh

    Shooting slide film was about as close as you could get. All those vehemently arguing about the falsehood of the limited alterations approach should try shooting slide film. None of these facile arguments about the type of slide film being used, just accept the fact that there are photographers that are far better than you, and have greater skills, greater senses than most, and that they were and are true artisans. Yes there has always been an element of creativity applied to the finished product but by and large too many photographers rely on the wondrous array of digital possibilities to make their photos worth sharing. The SOOC “movement is, perhaps, an overused retaliation to the onslaught of the digitally enhanced mediocre. There is nothing wrong with self expression and communicating a vision through photographic art or digital compositions, just don’t fool yourself into thinking your a great photographer in the older sense of the term. Try artist, that’s great too.

  • Amelia67

    So you followed up with a vacuous comment.