As any art form matures, tools become first good enough, then much better than good enough, and we can come to first develop the techniques to use those tools to their fullest capability, and then, once the artist knows her or his tools and their idiosyncrasies really well, to concentrate on the production of real art using those tools. For almost all purposes, digital photography has reached that point where our tools are not only sufficient, but excellent, and the tools for a second, only somewhat related art form – filmmaking – are also found in our cameras.
The most mature of the photographic arts is probably black and white image-making and wet darkroom printing. The transition from “thinking mostly about the tools” to “what can we do with those tools” started around the time the Zone System was developed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ansel Adams and Fred Archer conducted thousands of hours of tests determining what exposures and development times produced optimal results from the tools available to them, and they developed a set of techniques that enabled a vast range of expression with those tools. Adams was very careful to say that the Zone System wasn’t the art itself, rather, it was a set of techniques that enabled the use of tools (cameras, film and printing paper) to create art (photographs). Even before the Zone System was developed, there was Group f.64 – a group of photographers who were pushing the limits of the available tools to create sharp, detailed images with a particular aesthetic. They called it “straight photography”, in contrast to the heavily manipulated, dreamy images (pictorialism) in fashion at the time. The first films (and before film, plates) and printing papers were not sufficiently capable for the images Ansel Adams and the other California photographers who were part of Group f.64 wished to make.
The pictorialist aesthetic of photography around the beginning of the 20th Century was only partially because that was in fashion at the time – the other part was that films, papers and lenses capable of the great detail we saw somewhat later simply didn’t exist yet. As the tools evolved, new forms of art became possible – Group f.64 simply couldn’t have started in the 1910s instead of the 1930s, because the tools to make the photographs they wanted to make hadn’t been invented. The glossy baryta papers we think of when we think of a classic black and white photograph, with their detail and contrast, were not widely available until shortly before the artists of Group f.64 developed their aesthetic. Equipped with new tools, Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and others made new images.
The birth of the Zone System was a time of taking those new tools (better films, baryta papers), learning what they could do and how to do it, and taking those insights and translating them, through technique, into art. The tools have continued to evolve since then, but somewhat more slowly – and art and tools became less closely tied together, because the tools of black and white silver gelatin photography and printing were good enough, and their use was well enough understood, to give the artist a very large vocabulary with which to speak. The paper Ansel Adams used to make the last prints of his life, Oriental New Seagull, is still manufactured – and it is still one of the best papers on the market. Interestingly, many of the best current baryta-based inkjet papers have similarities, both in paper base and in surface texture, to New Seagull.
Color photography followed decades behind black and white – early color films simply couldn’t reproduce what was in front of them, and, even as films got better and better, processes to print from those films lagged behind. C-type prints are lower in contrast than the original scene, and they aren’t terribly archival. Ilfochromes are higher in contrast than the original scene, and they have always been difficult to produce. Neither process ever offered the extensive control that black and white printing does. Color dye transfer printing did offer a great deal of control, a gorgeous image, and superb archival properties – but it was so complex that only a few dozen people in the world ever mastered the process. A process that nobody can use is not a process that allows artists’ voices to be heard. A language with a gloriously wide vocabulary, but that is so complex that essentially nobody can learn to speak it, is of very limited use.
Digital has given us realms of control in color that we never had before. What we can do with a modern sensor and a great lens, the tools offered by Lightroom, Photoshop, DxO, Qimage and ImagePrint among others, and a multichannel inkjet printer is the color equivalent of what improved films and baryta papers offered to the photographers of Group f.64 in the 1930s. Over the past ten years, the tools have been developed to capture a color image with extraordinary fidelity, work with it on the computer until it speaks to our personal vision, and then set it on paper with beauty and permanence that rival black and white silver gelatin printing. We have a beautiful process rapidly growing to maturity – how shall we use it?
Twenty years ago, when The Luminous Landscape was founded, digital photography was certainly not yet a maturing art form. Technical hurdles abounded, and what we could do as artists was radically limited by the tools we had in front of us. Camera resolution limits meant that print sizes were small, and even modest-sized prints required extensive resizing, with odd, technical choices about how to accomplish this. Color rendition was, shall we say, interesting – much of the time we spent in front of the computer was not about artistic vision, but merely about getting rid of color casts and other glitches that the process itself had introduced. In order to get an image from the sensor to ready for the printer, we had to be as much technician as artist.
Each generation of cameras offered us increasing relief from the drudgery of fixing equipment-induced errors. Resolution improved, opening up new print sizes. Color improved radically, from “well, it covers most of sRGB, if you hit the white balance” to “all of Adobe RGB is no problem, with a bonus here and there, and it’s really quite well behaved – out of camera color mostly works”. It was somewhere around 2008 to 2010, with the introduction of the Nikon D3x, among others, that we first saw a really modern digital image. The D3x was a slow camera, it was a heavy camera, and it was manifestly an expensive camera – but it produced a beautiful file. While many of its features would be laughable today (1.5 fps at maximum quality), its files would not be. By 2015 or so, the modern digital image was widely accessible, with a range of cameras from different manufacturers producing gorgeous files.
Even once we had the image ready for the printer, the printer had a strong voice of its own in the process – and it wasn’t necessarily the voice the photographer wanted. Early pigment-based inkjets were temperamental beasts, and they often had severe color casts of their own. The original Epson Stylus Pro 2000P/7500/9500 , the first archival inkjets that most photographers could potentially afford and operate, had green color casts that were very difficult to get rid of, plus bronzing and metamerism (even more green that showed up under certain light sources). They would only print reliably on a few papers – and “reliably” was a highly relative term…
Compare that situation to today’s – the tools we need to express ourselves are readily available from a wide range of suppliers. The current printers from Canon, Epson and HP are capable of producing the richest color prints humanity has ever been able to make – in the past generation or so, the best inkjets have surpassed even the range and control of dye-transfer, let alone any more widely accessible color process. The papers available range from translucent Japanese Washi to the thickest and most sumptuous of watercolor papers, and they include baryta papers that remind us of the finest darkroom papers.
We have cameras and lenses that can produce images that would have been difficult or impossible to capture on film, and they are compact enough that we can bring the camera to where the image is. The 40-50 megapixel class full-frame cameras are producing raw files in the same range of detail as a 4×5” color transparency, and with superior color and improved dynamic range. 24×36” and larger prints from cameras in that class are simply stunning, and well beyond anything previous color processes could achieve. That level of image quality in a package that is small, light and weather resistant enough that it can accompany the photographer even on a backpacking trip of hundreds of miles has never existed before. Affordable ~24 MP APS-C bodies with the right lens are capable of results that would have required medium-format film.
I am in the process of reviewing the Fujifilm GFX 100 for The Luminous Landscape, and it is capable of even more than that – but not without its drawbacks. The image files I am looking at are extraordinary (think 8×10” transparency), but the camera and lenses are big, heavy and temperamental. Of course, 8×10” was big, heavy and temperamental, too! It will probably be an extreme niche camera, just as 8×10” was – for the times when the very best image quality is needed, and the significant drawbacks are overcome by the image quality. For the type of images I prefer to make, the size and weight prevent me from getting the camera to the image as well as I can with something less than 1/2 the size and weight that produces a stunning image. It is, however, an extraordinary tool to produce absolutely enormous prints.
The maturing of digital photographic technology is bringing a different set of questions to bear on the equipment we use. Until fairly recently, “does it work” was the fundamental question in a review. Early digital photographic equipment often had glaring flaws that reviewers discovered, and helped the community learn to work around – metamerism in early Epson printers, for example. Only few years ago, many raw converters (including widely used Adobe products) claimed support for Fujifilm X-Trans files, but made a terrible mess of them -that’s now been pretty much fixed, with occasional programs refusing to support X-Trans at all and most of the rest doing a decent job. We have now reached the point where most name-brand photographic gear works pretty darned well – there are flaws we wish every manufacturer would fix, but they’re relatively well-known, and the question is “what set of idiosyncrasies are easiest to work around”. Taken more positively, the question is “what set of special features would enhance my personal vision”.
APS-C systems routinely feature sensors with very high image quality potential, held back by native lenses aimed primarily at beginners, as I detailed in a recent article here. Fujifilm is making a different kind of APS-C lenses, and has created a uniquely compact artistic tool with that decision. Sony, Canon or Nikon could easily copy that move, but none of the three have so far. If you want to work with an APS-C sensor, for reasons of size or cost, yet have access to truly beautiful glass designed to work with your sensor size, Fujifilm offers something important that nobody else does. Olympus is also making unique cameras – their maximum low-ISO image quality is compromised by a small, old and relatively low-resolution sensor, but they have some unique features. Because the sensor is small, some of their bodies are tiny, and others have room for an image stabilizer that is simply uncanny (handholding a full second is possible with certain lenses). Their higher-end bodies offer ruggedness and speed that is unmatched by anything except pro sports cameras several times the weight and price.
Nikon and Canon have taken completely different approaches to full-frame mirrorless lenses, and only one of the two is likely to appeal to any given photographer. Most Canon mirrorless lenses are big, heavy and expensive – but they’re uncompromising – fast and with superb optics. Two out of Canon’s first three primes are f1.2 and over $2000 (the third is a macro lens with an inexplicable 35mm focal length). Canon’s first zooms are one f2.0 (!) lens, three f2.8 lenses (all over $2000), one f4 lens and one slow, variable aperture superzoom. Nikon has decided to make sharp, compact and affordable lenses instead. The three primes Nikon has released so far, plus the next on the list, are all f1.8 and under $1000, while two of the first three zooms are f4 (a $1000 24-70 that comes cheaper with a body and a $1300 14-30). All are excellent lenses, and the only lens in the Nikon lineup that is priced like a Canon lens is the 24-70mm f2.8. Both are viable strategies, but they are completely different.
These aren’t fatal flaws – what they (and other oddities like Sony’s weathersealing or Micro 4/3’s reliance on much older sensors) are is idiosyncrasies that photographers need to be aware of. If you print big or work in extremely high contrast situations, you probably want to prioritize something with a Sony sensor (Sony, Nikon, Fujifilm) and stay away from Micro 4/3. If you’re trying to backpack with full-frame, give Nikon extra points for those sharp, compact lenses and stay away from Canon’s f1.2 behemoths. On the other hand, if your personal style depends on razor-thin depth of field and you work in a studio, Canon’s f1.2 primes and f2.0 zooms may be exactly your cup of tea. The technical discussions photographers still need to have in this era of excellent cameras are threefold. One is matching the camera system to the images that you wish to make. There is certainly no best and worst camera system available today – but there are camera systems best suited to particular styles of photography, as there have always been. Ansel Adams would never have been satisfied with the resolution of 35mm film for the majority of his work (although he made a wonderful portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe with a 35mm Contax). It is equally improbable to imagine Henri Cartier-Bresson roaming the streets of Paris, or Robert Capa storming Omaha Beach, with an 8×10” view camera.
The second worthwhile technical discussion is the equivalent of all the work that went into the Zone System. We have equipment with remarkable potential to produce amazing images, but we’re still learning how to use it. Jpegs straight out of a modern camera can look pretty darned good, but they’re still only the work print in a process that should lead to a fine print. Ansel Adams once said that “the negative is the score, and the print is the performance”. That still holds true, except that the score is contained in the raw file. There are still questions of exposure, lenses, software tools and techniques that will be in flux for years to come.
Lightroom offers a remarkably self-contained environment that allows the photographer to stay in one piece of software from importing the raw file from the camera to making the final, fine print – but there are other tools that improve upon Lightroom at various stages of the process, and there are techniques from the field to the printer that can improve the quality of the image at the end of the process. Everything from the lens at the very front end of the process to the choice of paper for the final print has an impact, and each is a creative choice. There is no need to try everything that’s out there, but photographers should know their tools at each stage of the process and choose them with care.
The third question that is worth examining in an era of excellent cameras is how we live with them in the field and once we return home with the images. Unlike mechanical cameras of yore, digital cameras are dependent upon batteries for power, and on devices to charge those batteries – whether at home or in the field. They also depend on memory cards to store the image in the field, computers to process the images and drives to store our image libraries safely at home or work. None of these things affect the quality of our images – but they could very well affect whether we get the image at all and whether we keep it safe until it emerges on paper. Over the next several months, I will be examining many of these factors, in all three categories, in detail on The Luminous Landscape. From which camera system might meet your needs to how to keep your camera running on a long backpacking trip, and to choosing and using software and paper in the service of a fine print, I hope to look at how the technical interacts with the artistic. One of my inspirations in how to write about the technical side of photography is Ansel Adams’ wonderful series The Camera, The Negative and The Print. Yes, they were technical – but they never lost sight of the fact that the reason we are interested in the technical is ultimately in the service of art.
There is another side to the art and craft of photography that has only become viable in the past few years. In addition to still image capture, the cameras in our bags are often very capable movie cameras. The moving images captured in high bitrate 4K by the best hybrid still/video cameras are in the same range of detail and quality as 35mm movie film – which is what big-budget Hollywood films have long been shot on. The 6K modes that are just beginning to appear on relatively affordable cameras from Blackmagic and Panasonic are entering the territory of what compact versions of IMAX film cameras can do. This is certainly evidence of a maturing format, a tool that will allow many more cinematographers to explore art, rather than being constrained by technology.
The challenge presented by these cinema-quality movie modes is that cinematography is an art of its own, with a century of rich and beautiful history separate from that of still photography. Simply placing the tools of the trade in new hands does not automatically grant the skills and vision needed to use them to their fullest. Still photographers wishing to learn the art of the moving image will need to study its forms and then decide how to adapt those forms to their art. Just as there are schools and styles of still photography, there are schools and stylse of cinematography and filmmaking. Ansel Adams could never have done what Dorothea Lange did (nor could she have done what he did), although they were friends, contemporaries and shared a set of strong social concerns. Equally, Spielberg could never make the work of Hitchcock, nor the other way around. A style developed in still photography does not translate to film merely by setting one’s camera to movie mode, no matter how much the manufacturers wish to tell us that it does.
Cameras that offer both stills and video open the possibility of creating work that is a hybrid between the two forms. Although I have not yet produced anything I am satisfied with, I have long been interested in the idea of a “moving landscape” – a landscape image that is hung on the wall like a photograph rather than viewed like a movie, but in which elements vary through time – whether in real time or through the use of time lapse or slow motion. A landscape could use time lapse to capture the change in seasons through a year, slow motion to bring the rushing of a river or the breaking of a wave closer to our eye, or it could show
Of course, this means that the physical object hung on the wall would need to be either a monitor or a projection screen, because a print cannot vary through time. On film, such an image would have been impossibly expensive to produce. 16mm wouldn’t have been good enough to produce a convincing landscape, and 35mm and 70mm cinematography would have been out of reach of any except an extremely well-funded artist. With any digital technology until recently, the low resolution would have been a distraction from the art. Until really good 4K became available, there was a video signature that imposed itself on the work – especially in a case like a moving landscape, which might be examined like a print, with attention to image details, rather than used to tell a narrative story where the scene shifts more rapidly. With really good digital 4K or above, it is possible – and the equipment is small, light and reasonably priced enough to get it to interesting spots.
Is a moving landscape a photograph, a piece of video art, or something in between? It borrows techniques and aesthetics from both, and, if it catches on, will also evolve conventions of its own. Similarly, there are digital arts that may begin with one or several photographs, but that are then manipulated using techniques borrowed from drawing or painting, or unique to the capabilities of the modern computer. Are these arts “photography”? I don’t know, although I have absolutely no question that they are art. When Group f.64 wrote their manifesto declaring photography independent of painting in 1932, they freed not only photography, but painting as well, from the constraints of their relationship.
“Group f.64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.”
From the Group f.64 Manifesto (1932)
Is it time for a group of highly creative digital artists to declare themselves “not photographers”– as a group of creative photographers declared themselves “not painters” 87 years ago? Photography certainly flourished in the aftermath of Group f.64, and painting did as well.