Plus Ca Change

Sorry about the pretentious title. Its just that the French phrase plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose describes digital’s relationship to film photography very well. People often talk about digital cameras as if they were the beginning of a new kind of photography. I don’t think they were nor will they be.

All they really change is the technical means of recording an image. The bones of it are that we are recording an image. There isn’t a new digital photographer any more than communism created a new socialist man. From the cave painters of Lascaux to folk with a Panasonic GH4, we are all doing the same thing. Communicating. See what I see!

We talk about image manipulation images as if it was something modern and new. All that is really new about it is the ease with which it can be done. One of the early things I was taught by the photographers on my first newspaper, the Kent and Sussex Courier was how to move the ball in your football pix. All photographers had to be printers too back then, which was a good incentive to getting your exposure and lighting right at source. If not, you were the bloke who had to rescue it in the darkroom!

Often a good football shot was spoiled by the fact that the ball was a bit too far from the action. Using a piece of cotton wool on a length of wire and your cupped hands and with judicious movement of the printing frame, you could move the ball where you wanted it to be.

There were high acutance developers which were a kind of chemical unsharp mask. If you heavily overexposed a film or plate you could ferri it, reduce its density. If you heavily underexposed it you could even use a form of uranium to beef it up. Perhaps that was how I got my glowing reputation

The means may seem primitive but the motive was the same. My picture doesn’t look how I hoped, how can I improve it?

My own experience of pictures is that if you get it badly wrong in the first place, no matter how much remedial work you do, it usually ends up looking wrong. It may be acceptable but that’s not the same as right. Mind you, I can tell one little story against my own case.

Photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones – he was married for a time to the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret – was shooting a fashion spread for Conde-Naste’s Brides magazine, a sister journal to Vogue, highest quality and using only the very best photographers. He was shooting models in wedding dresses in a setting of giant leaved exotic plants. Unfortunately, his Hasselblad magazines had been loaded with the wrong film.The exotic plants’ habitat was damp, dark places. Armstrong-Jones thought he was using high speed colour film. He wasn’t. His cameras and all their magazines were loaded with fine grain slow film. The images were underexposed to a degree that made them unusable. They lacked density and the only fine detail rendered was in the very highlights of the dresses.

Given the status of Armstrong-Jones, when his processed material was delivered to the magazine, they felt unable to ask what had gone wrong. Too embarrassing, for them and for him. What to do? Just not use the feature? But it was billed in advance. What about the couturiers? What to tell the advertisers who had bought space on the back of this prestigious feature. Was there any way of saving it? On the face of it, no.

Except that one of the printers had an idea. What about duo-toning it? We had detail in the white dresses. What if everything else was differing densities of, say purple? White dresses enveloped, surrounded by massive exotic purple leaves, the models with lightly purple face tones, the near black of the earth. It looked like fairies in an eye popping fairy setting but wearing these beautiful wedding dresses. They went with it. Everyone, readers, advertisers and magazine executives agreed it was a triumph.

Armstrong-Jones, seeing it, realised that something had gone wrong, this was not the set how he had shot it. He phoned and was told what had happened.

A few days later, in the Conde-Nast darkroom appeared a crate of champagne. It was from Armstrong-Jones.

Of course, now we can view our images as we go along and so pick up and correct any mistakes. In Armstrong-Jones’s case his shoot would have turned out as planned. Which is a good thing. Or is it? The magazine would have run a good feature – a simple mistake resulted in a great one.

David Bailey remarked recently that one problem with digital cameras was that you could see your results as you went along, so you knew when you had the picture you wanted. With film, you couldn’t be sure so you continued until until you had done everything you could. When the film came back from the lab, often the best shot had occured after the point at which you would have said “got it” had you been able to view your results as you went along.

What digital has done is democratize the art/ science of photography. If I go through the menu of my GX7, I can do time lapse, stop motion and panoramas, HDR and many other technically complex processes in camera automatically. All horrendously time consuming and expensive with film, where every mistake costs you time and money and therefore mainly the province of the professional.

You no longer need costly light meters and motor drives and stocks of different speed tungston and daylight film. Or filters. Movie is no longer an esoteric art needing special cameras, projectors and screens. Anyone can do it.

From the professionals’ point of view, all this opening up of photography has been disastrous. Estate agents can take their own pictures, staff portraits for company brochures can be taken by anyone in the office who has a ‘good camera’. The staples of the high street photography business, weddings, portraits, family shots, passports all these can be done by anyone with a ‘decent camera’.

The effect on the photographic business has been dire. It is worst for those who were really no more than camera operators and got business because they had equipment that amateurs did not. Much of what they did really can be done by automated digital cameras. A live-wire photographer with a creative eye can still make a living on the high street.

What hasn’t changed is the earning ability of the top photographers. The big fashion and advertising photographers in London and Paris and New York, the truly driven, ambitious and creative are probably earning more than they ever did. But essentially, they are past being photographers, they are image makers for whom pressing the shutter button on the camera (assuming they do that themselves) is only the culmination of weeks of planning, discussion, set making, designing and styling. The act of actually taking the picture is trivial, like the pressing of a button to launch a ship, it merely crystallizes the preceding effort.


For we sad failures still forced to press our own shutter buttons, whether the light goes to one of these here new fangled digital sensors, a 10×8 inch orthochromatic glass plate or anything in between – It’s just you or me with a camera making the best images they can.


Like I said, la plus ca change

2 thoughts on “Plus Ca Change

  1. Gordon Coale

    I just discovered that you have a blog. I will be back regularly. I’ve been watching your micro four thirds videos for some time now. I always enjoy seeing my camera straps on your cameras. I’ve been using micro four thirds since the G1.

    1. Post author

      They get around, those straps of yours. I often recommend them as presents because they are kind of personal and different. Neither of us will get rich, though, I guess! Sorry to take so long to reply, i get so much spam on thsi blog, it’s hard to keep track of it all.


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