Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Mentality and Economics of Digital Photography

I recently took a vacation with my family, during which I took photos using a 35mm film SLR camera. It's going to cost me $125 or so to get the film developed and scanned to digital. (The cost of film processing without the scanning would be about $70.)

The same lens/lenses I use on my 35mm film SLR camera also work on my full-frame, 13 megapixel digital SLR. And being a wedding photographer, I have enough memory cards to store thousands of images, even if shot in raw format. For another $55 (bringing my total cost to $180), I could have gotten the developed 35mm film scanned to yield 16 megapixel-equivalent image files. But the $125 I'm paying only gets me 6 megapixel-equivalent scans.

So, you may be asking: "Why the heck would you shoot 35mm film when shooting with the digital SLR would be FREE since you already own the digital SLR and memory cards??"

There were three main reasons for my 35mm film folly:
  1. I have a bunch of leftover, out-of-date 35mm film (refrigerated) that I don't think I could sell for much anyway.
  2. I thought this out-of-date film might end up giving me some interesting artistic effects.
  3. I was curious how I might shoot differently knowing I was shooting film.
I haven't gotten the film back yet, so I don't know how the photos came out yet. (I'll speak to this in a follow-up blog post after I see the results.) But my shooting style was definitely affected and it got me thinking about how digital photography has changed photography.

One of the main things that stood out for me was how much more scrutiny I gave the image in my viewfinder before pressing the shutter button.

With digital, one tends to "shoot away" if anything even close to a possibly compelling image enters one viewfinder. I've seen some photographers take random shots without even looking into their viewfinders in hopes of luckily catching an interesting shot. (They check their LCDs and delete most of these...only keeping a few serendipitously interesting shots.) I've been "guilty" of such random shooting at wedding receptions when I'm holding the camera over my head to give it a view of the dance floor I don't have in hopes of catching something good.

From an economics point-of-view, "shooting away" with your digital camera makes sense: each additional shot gains another possible "winner" without any additional per unit cost (assuming you've got plenty of room left on your memory card/s). Sure, there was some additional cost involved in buying the digital camera and memory cards in the first place; but once this cost is absorbed, taking additional photos cost nothing financially.

Now, there is a "cost" involved in having to store and go through additional images *afterward* to find the good images and weed out the bad ones. But digital storage just keeps getting cheaper and cheaper and there are now services a photographer can employ to help him or her edit and adjust the thousands of images they've taken per photo session or event.

I considered making the argument that the money you would save by not having to keep updating your digital camera and computer equipment each year and not having to send your images out to one of these image editing/processing services would more than pay for all the film and film processing expenses (including having the film scanned to disks for proofs) you would incur. I'm not really sure how it would ultimately work out, and it would probably vary quite a bit from photographer to photographer, depending on the type of photography they specialize in, number of events per year, etcetera. However, I think this consideration is a good thing for all photographers to evaluate individually.

So, back to the issue of the added scrutiny I gave each image in my viewfinder before pressing the shutter button...does it matter?

There's a successful UK wedding photographer (Jeff Ascough, selected as one of the best wedding photographers in the world by various publications) who only shoots 200-300 images per wedding, even though he's shooting digital. In his blog post titled: "Less is More", he says: "For years I've worked on the principle of getting one exceptional image to tell the story of a particular moment, rather than lots of average pictures. If you cover a wedding with this mindset, not only does the photography improve, but so does the consistency of the coverage."

Here's my take: I think the added scrutiny you give a shot before pressing the shutter button *does* matter, in at least three ways:
  1. It helps you keep your photography "eye" critically trained. If you're "machine gunning" away, you've at least partially absolved yourself from judgements of quality of the images you're shooting.
  2. More scrutiny of the images you're capturing keeps you more "in the moment"...which should help keep you in closer touch with what you're photographing...which should, ultimately, lead to better images.
  3. You're not swimming in hundreds of mediocre images afterward, which I really think *has* to erode your judgement of images. With so many images, I find--at some point--it's difficult to evaluate what's good anymore. (Interestingly, I find it much easier to make these quality judgements if I wait some number of weeks after a wedding before looking at these hundreds or thousands of images.)
Now, it's not necessary to shoot film in order to implement more scrutiny and judgement in your photography. However, it can be an effective means for bringing your mindset back into the mode of more intentional and mindful photography to see if you notice a difference in the quality of the images you get.

When I get my film back, I'll let you know if the noticeable change in the mental part of my photography led to any differences in the actualy images I captured!

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is: http://www.mgm-photography.com/.

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