The writer Arthur Koestler observed that you could take a cable car to the top of a mountain or you could slog your way up, battling the steepness and the snow. Either way you got to the summit – but the view would not be the same.
I thought about that the other day, when I was cycling home. It was freezing cold and dusk. I saw a scene that just screamed ‘winter, cold’. I had my Panasonic GX8 in my bag and not wanting to freeze, put it on iA, (Intelligent Auto) made a quick shot and cycled on. After 5 minutes, I realized that I hadn’t made the best of the scene and cycled back and spent a bit more time on the pic. And froze.
This was pic one, whip it out, point and shoot.
This was on the second go. I don’t make any pictorial claims for these but this one has a much bleaker feel to it and reflects what was in my mind’s eye much better.
How does that relate to Koestler? Because I could and did, at first, just take my camera out of my bag, point it in the right direction and know that the pic would be technically good. That was the cable car pic.
With a film camera of yesterday, I’d have to have selected the best angle of view lens. metered the scene, made a decision over where to base my exposure and having done all that move around looking for the best angle. Having no camera stabilization, I’d probably have needed to set up a tripod.
I would want to get the best shot I could because I was already frozen and only the best pic I could get would justify my effort and frosted fingers . I’d have taken plenty of variations too, because when you can’t view the pic right after taking it, you don’t know when you have taken the pic you were looking for. So you don’t stop until you are certain you have done everything you could.
And that’s why I went back. Same location, same scene, same camera but the view would be different. The result of all that effort would be the hard slog up the mountain pic.
When no-one is telling you what pictures to take, you only have to please yourself. If you do something for pleasure but don’t please yourself, what is the point? The best photographers I have known have always been their own harshest critics. And the hardest workers. They have also been people who were trained in photographic techniques, who knew what it was to climb the mountain on foot. Their approach to a picture, even using the digital wonders of today is informed by that.
It makes me feel sad for young photographers who want a career in the business. They are working with photographic tools that have taken away the need for classic photo techniques. The once mocked fully automated point ‘n’ shoot camera is now available in the guise of professional quality cameras.
It started in the late 80’s with the ‘P’ for Program setting on (universally known in Fleet Street as ‘P’ for Pissed) setting on the Nikon F4. Now, with auto ISO, auto focus, auto exposure and 30 fps stills from video, Mr Silicon Chip has taken over. Why would you learn the techniques of yesterday when Mr Chip does it just a well with no effort required?
Here’s why. The day of the camera operator is over. That job, being done by the camera itself. has devalued the currency. There has always been a distinction between a camera operator and a photographer, just as there is between a journalist and a writer. They are related but one is a learned technique and the other is that technique used expressively.
Where once people were delighted if a photo simply ‘came out’ or was ‘nice and clear’, they now expect lots of razor sharp well exposed colourful images. The digital camera delivers that with consistency. Now, everyone is a good photographer.
The trouble is, when everyone is a good photographer, no-one is a good photographer. How does a young photographer distinguish himself from the rest, the ordinary nowadays? How does he succeed and make a good living in a world where once knowing how to work a camera was enough for a reasonable career and now is not?
The young photographer today has to be outstanding, he has to be head and shoulders above the rest. He (or she) must have an attractive personality, be a hard worker and have artistic flair. He must not only shoot the image, he must either originate or help an art editor develop the image. He must know enough old fashioned photographic technique to understand when he can get a better, more personal, more tailored result than Mr Chip.
He must care about what he does and be prepared to work day and night, in these days of ‘interns’ (actually unpaid labour, of course), for little or no reward. It’s a big ask. Where once the ability to take an in focus correctly exposed picture could be turned into a successful and reasonably rewarding photographic career, you now need a super CV like the one above. The best prevail. The rest fall by the wayside. That’s what digital has done,
And that’s why I say, the easier it gets, the harder it becomes.