The art of photography has arguably changed more in the past 20 years than in the century before it. With every improvement in equipment comes the inevitable groans from many photographers who believe that technology takes away from the gear. Is it justified or erroneous?
I have a Fujifilm GFX 50R, a medium format digital camera. On this body is a very fast manual focus lens that gives an ethereal and extremely fine depth of field in images shot with it, if you can manage to focus. Ever since I got this combination, I’ve become a bit obsessed with shooting wide-aperture medium-format images. It’s not a unique pleasure, and I’m sure many would criticize how hard I choose to shoot wide open, even if it’s still just for fun, not for clients. There are several reasons why I like to shoot this way. The first is obvious: I love the aesthetic created by a medium format sensor and f/1.4 on said sensor. Then I also like the manual focus element when paired with the shallow depth of field. To get the style of image I want, I have to work pretty hard; it’s far too easy to completely lack focus.
A friend of mine, an enthusiastic but amateur photographer, has repeatedly stated how much he loves these shots. We talked about how I create the look and what goes into the shot. Then something happened that threw me into a loop. I took a photo on my iPhone of my girlfriend and my son, and when my friend saw it, they commented on how awesome the medium format look makes the photo look. Now, he’s a (self-proclaimed) amateur, so no value in putting too much weight on the error, but I had edited the photo to look a bit like a medium format image, and it looked.
Creating the same shot on my medium format body and manual focus lens would have been much more finicky and in all likelihood wouldn’t have looked much different. It’s no news that phone cameras are extremely powerful now and are perpetually encroaching on dedicated camera territory. With a mix of artificial intelligence and clever design, they can recreate many effects that were once a real skill in photography. The most recent example that has now reached a level where it is almost indistinguishable is long exposures.
Yes, there are still differences in the end result, especially to a trained eye. In addition, the file size and its malleability in post-processing are generally far from dedicated cameras. But, on all those charges, it almost never matters. Most people can’t tell the difference, and most image apps won’t show the image near its actual dimensions. The most interesting question here is how all this technology impacts the photographer.
The dedicated camera versus a phone is a tired discussion. What’s a more interesting discussion, at least to me, is how all of this technology is changing the business. After all, while phone cameras have improved at a breakneck pace, so have dedicated cameras. Modern cameras now have some great quality-of-life enhancing features, from Eye AF to real-time generation of long exposures and composition. All of these make it easier to capture the shot you want in a way that wasn’t possible a few years ago, and usually they replace a skill in photography.
When digital photography more or less replaced film photography, there was the inevitable backlash from photographers who felt the skills needed to be a good photographer were diminished. They were undoubtedly right in that you no longer needed to hang a film in your bath, but were they also right in terms of using the camera? If you can check your images as you go, you can tweak exposure and composition until they’re perfect, something that wasn’t possible with prior know-how and experience.
Now, digital photography hasn’t quite had a pivotal moment of change like the transition from analog to digital, but it has had a myriad of smaller events. The most obvious and impactful to me is the aforementioned Eye AF. I assigned it to a back button on my Sony and never again missed portrait focus on the subject’s eye. They even added it to work on animals! Previously, I had to work hard to achieve focus, even with autofocus (in which there is another similar discussion), but now it’s more or less free. You can also get even more obscure with this line of questions: I used to practice a breathing technique taught by a sniper to shoot handheld shots in low light, but now the stabilization of body image (IBIS) is so good that I can get the kick out of dancing if I wanted to.
What does this mean for the photographer? Is photography easier? Well, yes, unambiguously in some respects. As a father and uncle of young children, I can confirm that Eye AF increased the number of goalkeepers by a decent margin, although the shots, had they been taken without Eye AF and if successful, would have been identical. There are many examples of this, and therefore, it is undeniable that capturing certain shots is objectively easier to do and requires less skill on the part of the photographer. The argument behind that is that photography is easier to do, and the bar has been lowered. This is where I disagree.
With the easier fundamentals in photography, the bar hasn’t been lowered at all. The learning curve has been smoothed out and beginners can get properly exposed and focused shots almost immediately, but this, in fact, raises the bar. The average is getting so much higher than it was a few decades ago, because what used to be a skill and a hallmark of a good photographer is now simply the bare minimum. As a result, we expect more, especially when not only are we taking more photos than ever before by a huge factor, but also looking at more photos at the same increased rate. Getting a lot of people to appreciate your photographs has always been tricky, but now it’s tricky in ways that can seem overwhelming; you are a grain of sand in the Sahara.
Still, there are benefits to the many quality of life improvements for photographers. Whether you’re shooting auto on the most capable camera or manual on an aging medium format body, kickstands (for lack of a better word) let you focus on what really matters: capturing a memorable image. . For the majority of photographers, the love of the job is not mastering the settings, but the results of them. There’s certainly satisfaction in mastering any skill, but knowing which settings to use is a vehicle to the destination. By keeping your mind free from trying desperately to focus on a moving eye, controlling the awkwardly wide dynamic range of a scene, or keeping the camera still enough to shoot in dim but beautiful ambient light, you can focus on everything that goes into a great image: the composition, the light, the rendering of the final photo.
For me, the technology – while making it easier to create properly exposed and sharp images – is liberating as a creative. I really like the film shooting process and the use of manual focus and manual settings on digital cameras, but the modern conveniences of contemporary photography allow for choice. You can focus on shooting and be creative whenever you want, and it’s hard to imagine that could be a negative for the craft.
What do you think? Does lowering the barrier of entry to photography erode the competence of our discipline or raise the bar? Does it do both simultaneously? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.