How often have you heard it said that a skilled photographer can take a great image with a poor camera; but that a great camera doesn’t guarantee good images? This “axiom” has largely been true over the years, though maybe less so in this age of smart phones and artificial intelligence. Implicit in that statement is that creativity and skill are far more important than technology. However, the reality is that the three capabilities have been closely entwined and interdependent over time.
Professional photographers and enthusiasts are always aware of the limitations they face under a range of conditions to capture and express what they experience, and are always presenting “wish lists” to camera designers and manufacturers. In fact, the more skilled and imaginative a photographer is the more likely he or she is to suggest specific improvements that will make future photography outings more successful. Also true is the fact that new camera, lens, media and “development” capabilities will often enable and stimulate use of new image-making techniques. They extend creative expression by diminishing or removing limitations on broader expressions of visual experience.
Similar to visual artists in general, the outdoor photographer is dedicated to creating and sharing fine art, and must go through a process that requires:
- Locating compelling subject matter
- Determining the context in which to show it
- Planning and waiting for optimal lighting (and sometimes supplementing it)
- Determining the most defining and appealing composition
- Gear that can capture sufficient information to enable creative interpretation
- In the digital age, software that fully translates raw data to expressive visual content
- Equipment to make exhibition prints or which can transmit image files to publishers
The facilitative role of technology in some of these steps is self-evident. But, all of these steps have been made easier by ever improving technical development. Consider how far we’ve come since the days of the first true outdoor photographers immediately after the American Civil War. Using large heavy wooden cameras and collodion/albumin wet plates that had to be prepared and sensitized in the field (usually on harsh mountainous terrain during inhospitable weather) early field photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson had to pack hundreds of pounds of gear and supplies on horses and mules, and trek many hundreds of miles across mountains and rivers to capture images. Except for sketchy reports from scouts, they only had vague ideas of what they would see, and often even less idea of how to get there. They had to be prepared for months in the field which meant more pack horses and mules to carry the food and sundries necessary to sustain them.
Even with experience and skill, it took much time to set up bulky gear and to coat glass plates with albumin emulsions followed by a silver salt bath immediately prior to each capture which then required immediate development on-site. Exposure times were still several seconds long despite improvements over the earlier Daguerreotypes. Many exposures were failures; and there was always the likelihood of a successfully exposed glass plate breaking on the long rough journey back to civilization. Yet they did produce successful and often artistic images. Jackson’s photographs of Yellowstone motivated Congress to create America’s first national park.
In contrast, a recent project of mine is fairly typical of photography outings some 150 years later. I planned to photograph a herd of wild horses living along the Salt River near Mesa, Arizona, 170 miles from my home. Browsing the Internet turned up images of these horses taken recently. The next day I drove my Jeep down to scout the 10-mile stretch along the river, and also solicited local input on sightings. Once home, Google Maps displayed sufficiently fine detail to actually see the horses on one particular stretch of river where they were known to bathe and to cross to the other side.
The next week I checked into a nearby resort planning to spend three mornings to locate horses. On Day 2, I parked in a recreational area near my target location and hiked for two miles along a sandy flood plain. Ninety degree temperatures were no hardship as I carried a Sony A 6300 ILC camera with three batteries, a 70-200mm zoom and a 16-35mm WA zoom with a total weight of four pounds. The two lenses covered an effective range of 24mm to 300mm for an APS-C sensor. Two minutes after reaching the end of the walkable trail a whinny led me to cut back through the trees to the river bank where a stallion stood with three mares. Before they crossed the river and trotted off, I took 114 images of them in the space of 15 minutes, all optimally exposed despite high-contrast lighting. Though the A 6300 can take hi-res RAW images at 11 frames/second, three frames per second proved to be all that was needed.
From this comparison, it is easy to see how highly evolved technology has made photographic capture easier and more reliable, because of improvements in photographic equipment, and also because of far better transportation and communications. This three-part article will primarily explore the impacts of evolving photo-technology on the way we make images.
So far, I haven’t yet made the case for how technological improvements stimulate artistic creativity. Certainly they make recording a scene or event easier and more reliable. And one could easily argue that just faithfully recording a three dimensional real world scene or occurrence on a two dimensional piece of paper is art in itself. But, an increasingly broader choice of media and treatments gives the artist more to play with. Additionally, many photography developments have greatly eased limitations in the way that we capture and present images, in the past and particularly in recent years and months.
Few people would question the artistic merits of images of Native Americans produced by Edward Sheriff Curtis in the early twentieth century. His main objective was to record a culturally rich but vanishing way of life exhibited by many different tribal cultures in North America. But, he also chose to present his subjects in artistic ways that often resembled paintings. The development of lighter (but still bulky) field cameras along with the production of “faster” dry glass plates in the 1880’s made it possible for photographers like Curtis to spend months in remote locations, and to quickly unpack glass plates, load his camera, make exposures and then simply store the plates in light-tight boxes for later development at home.
The camera shown below is the same model used by Curtis for his Native American images, a Premo Long Focus Special by Rochester Optical ca 1895. It made 8.5 x 6.5-inch glass negatives.
What really enabled Curtis to achieve his style was the ongoing development of alternative photographic processes such as palladium/platinum prints and cyanotypes, along with sepia and gold toning treatment of silver prints. Many of Curtis’s images utilized rich brown patinas which did justice to his subjects who were usually strongly weathered from constant outdoor exposure. Also, Curtis’s images are excellent studies in composition unquestionably aided by his ability to set up and expose more quickly than his 19th century counterparts. He tended to underexpose to limit detail to what he felt was most important.
Yet, Curtis was not an early adapter to silver-coated flexible film introduced by George Eastman in 1888, though he later shot movies on this medium. By the 1940’s when Ansel Adams did some of his best work, silver-based film had already been refined to produce finer grain and faster emulsions. Panchromatic film reduced sensitivity to blue light rendering skies a more natural medium gray instead of stark white. Polaroid, red, orange and yellow filters along with split neutral density filters also allowed for darker renditions of open sky. First produced in 1935, Kodachrome, the first commercially available color film gave photographers the ability to show subjects in brilliant color, although only in small format. So, Ansel’s preferred medium remained large format monochromatic sheet film.
He understood what few photographers bothered to learn: how to push the limits of film and paper following the densitometer tables created by Kodak film engineers, and using varying exposure and development times to match film and paper dynamic ranges to the luminance ranges found in nature. He simplified this series of guidelines into what was famously known as the Zone System. The technical excellence of his images set the standards for monochrome landscapes even in today’s world. Better lens design with high transmission coatings, as well as the availability of quality photographic enlargers also contributed to Ansel’s image quality.
But, there is more to Ansel’s images than technical excellence. The great master continued to refine his exposure, development and printing techniques throughout his life. I saw the G. Ray Hawkins gallery exhibit in mid-1970’s announcing Ansel’s retirement from active field photography. The graphic quality of his 16×20 prints (then available for $800 each) was astounding. Over following years, I spent many hours at the Yosemite Lodge where many of his best images were displayed. As I studied them, I realized how he created strong graphic compositions by selectively darkening parts of his images to create dynamic balances between dark and light areas. Yes, Ansel Adams did a lot of dodging and burning, and what some people would call manipulation. But, this was part of his great art, which always remained true to what he saw. His emphasis changed over time. His skies got darker, and he used a greater proportion of darker tones, particularly compared to his early work from 1925 to 1940.
Color images, which Ansel only played with in his later years, began to become the focus of art photography in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Kodachrome, with its brilliant reds was the staple for both professionals and amateurs. Despite its very narrow tonal range, I learned to make good images by shooting in soft light or confining inky shadows to unimportant parts of the image.
While Elliott Porter continued the tradition of large format landscapes, he took advantage of newly available color sheet film. Photographers like Ernst Haas saw monochrome images as cerebral, but color as raw and emotional particularly when combined with a sense of motion captured with blur producing slow shutter speeds. He preferred Leica M3 and M4 35mm cameras loaded with Kodachrome 25 and 64 for spontaneity and fast reaction time to capture the spirit of his adopted country. His seminal work, “In America” is a great classic. Toward the end of the film epoch, highly saturated color films like Fuji Velvia became popular to call attention to the use of bold color in many cultures. National Geographic Magazine photographers played a major role in this transition. Stimulated by an avalanche of more capable cameras, more highly corrected lenses, and many new films, many classic art works were created with color film by countless photographers in the last half of the 20th century.
Digital photography was introduced to the consumer in 1994. My first digital camera was a Casio QV-10 purchased in early 1995. It took 0.25 MP images, barely enough to give a hint of the future. But, like others, I dreamed of the day when digital images would out-resolve film with no noise or grain problems, with high ISO sensitivity and with super color accuracy to create a stronger sense of reality. With the introduction of Photoshop 4.0 in 1996, I hoped that someday we could control and manage every pixel in an image without have to spend eight hours massaging a single darkroom print. Shooting in default color mode and digitally converting to high quality B/W images was also a dream then, and now regular practice.
I traded up frequently as digital improvements gained momentum. In 1999, I carried a 3 MP Olympus C-3030 Z as a back-up camera and upgraded it in 2001 for a 4 MP Olympus D40 Z.
My first “pro” DSLR was a 6 MP Contax 1N. In 2002, I donated my darkroom equipment to a local school and went completely digital. After years of Canon and Nikon DSLR’s, I switched to a Sony A7r and now the A7r M2, which I use for travel and general photography. The Sony A 6300 is well suited to wildlife and action photography, while I use a Pentax 645 Z for serious landscapes. My wife and I have a standing joke about buying the “ultimate camera”, because I keep doing that. But, it appears that any image improvement will now have to come through my own creative effort. Current technology has left me without any excuses.
This Part I on Technology and Creativity ends with a teaser. I took the following image with a hand-held Sony A7r M2 and a Sony Zeiss 35mm f1.4 lens at ISO 6400 on the Riverwalk in San Antonio last October. It involved very low artificial foreground light with harsh background light, people moving through the scene, and copious amounts of detail in a very complex composition. I believe that it would not have been possible to adequately convey the festive mood of this scene until 2015, when Sony upped the ante with brand new technology in a historically feature-loaded small camera. More about this in Part Two.