Are you setting out on your journey of discovery in the wonderful world of photography? Are you wondering whether to go for digital or follow the fad for film? Are you intending to invest in some gear but don’t want to waste your hard earned cash on kit that doesn’t help you to progress? Here’s some advice from a photographer who has seen both sides extensively.
Yep, I’m that old. I spent 30 years with film cameras, a short time using both in the infancy of digital, then the last 11 years using digital moving from bridge cameras, through DSLR to my current mirrorless Pro Spec Olympus.
When we learn anything we judge our progress through feedback.
As a baby, we make attempts at walking. They are not always successful, but gradually we learn what we need to do to stop falling over.
As a child at school, we practice writing until the marks we make resemble the letters we intend to form.
When we are learning a mathematical skill, we solve problems and get feedback from our teachers.
Throughout our lives, we will do work and get feedback which helps us to progress. That feedback can be our own observation. We know we haven’t got the walking bit right when we fall on our backsides. We know we didn’t get the recipe right when the food tastes foul. Or it can be external feedback from those who are already skilled in the process or deemed worthy of giving feedback (critics). Most of the time we can relate that feedback to our progress. We know we didn’t get it right when we get an ‘F’ for our work. We can analyze what has gone wrong and address the problem because we can observe the process and alter our working methods.
For feedback to be effective, however, you need two things. One, it needs to be as fast as possible, and two you need to know which part of the process went wrong.
For progress to be made you also need to make corrections in a timely manner.
When you are learning to drive, your instructor will give you immediate feedback. He will tell you straight away if you misjudge something and you can make timely corrections. If you are following to close, for instance, you will be advised to ease back and give more space. That may well stop you from hitting a vehicle from behind as you have more time to react to the situation.
The Domination of Digital
In the arena of film photography versus digital photography, feedback is key.
With film photography, you shoot a roll of film over a few days. You are careful and precise with the shots you take because you know it will cost a substantial amount of money to get them processed. It will also take time — time during which you have forgotten what you have done in the process of taking that shot.
The feedback you get is delayed. The connection with the process is lost.
More than that, you have no information on the settings you used for that shot. You also have no idea how the lab processed it and every lab will produce a different result.
When we learn something new, we practice over and over again until we get the results we want. If the cost limits our ability to repeat an action, then we limit our horizons. We may never reach our goals.
10 years ago, that was me, limited by my income and frustrated by my inability to regulate the process and get fast feedback.
Digital changes everything.
There are no expensive lab costs to process my film. There is instant feedback.
On the back screen of my camera, I can not only see the final image, the composition, the focus, the light but also heaps of technical data. The shutter speed, ISO and exposure time are recorded and a histogram shows the spread of light information in the image. This is important because it tells me if those settings are right for the shot I’ve taken. I can adjust immediately if I want to make changes knowing the result of the previous shot.
My feedback loop is instantaneous and my learning curve progresses exponentially. I can see the process and alter it straight away. I can do this as many times as I like at no cost.
As Henri Cartier-Bresson once said: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
To get past that mark with film would cost over $100,000 with film and processing through a reputable lab.
In my first year with digital, I took over 8,000 shots. Many were complete rubbish with incorrect focus, movement in the frame and movement of the camera. Underexposure, overexposure, the works. But it cost me nothing after my first investment in gear.
The Key to Unlocking your Potential
Of course, digital isn’t a cure for producing bad photographs, it’s a tool that has to be used to give feedback and inform the changes you need to make.
Firing off your camera willy nilly shotgun style won’t help. You need to slow down, evaluate each picture and move forward with intention. Have you got enough of your scene in focus? If not open your aperture a little. Is the picture too dark overall, as can happen with snow scenes, if so increase the exposure.
My photography in the first year of embracing digital improved by leaps and bounds. If you are serious about improving yours, embrace the learning potential afforded by digital.
P.S. I’m currently writing a series of step-by-step guides on the basics of photography for beginner photographers. You can follow me on Medium to stay up to date with the tutorials.
About the author: Janice Gill is an award-winning photographer and artist. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can connect with Gill on her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Medium. This article was also published here.