Why do photographers use different cameras? Why for example would they choose to photograph with a large format, cumbersome old camera versus a nice new modern 35mm DSLR? Why do some photographers prefer using a Pentax 645 or a Hasselblad 6 by 6 for their work? And why on earth would some photographers choose film over digital?
I want to say first of all, that even though photography is a visual art and the end product of what we do is something to study and look at, it is also an activity that is based on process. Therefore image quality aside, some photographers very much enjoy the process of shooting on large format compared to how easy it is to snap an image with say a cellphone or a 35mm point and shoot.
But in terms of image quality, let’s consider a few of the most important differences between formats.
1.) The larger the format or sensor size, the less depth of field and the better the separation between focus planes in the image. Typically when you go to a larger format you need a longer lens to get the same image coverage. And although you could shoot at a smaller aperture to compensate for the depth of field difference, the image is still rendered differently. Image planes are separated better and with a sharper transition than wider lenses can accommodate.
2.) The larger the format or sensor size, the greater the dynamic range and the more subtle the transitions between adjacent luminosities. This is perhaps the number one reason many landscape photographers tend to choose large format cameras. Not only are they typically shooting scenes with large dynamic ranges, but they also tend to print big. Some modern DSLR cameras handle dynamic range quite well while others do not. The capture curve on some cameras is very linear producing unnatural looking tonality. And there are some cameras that may have a smaller actual dynamic range, but they have a curve that renders the high-mids to high luminosities in a much more gradual and natural looking way.
3.) The larger the format or sensor size, the larger the image receptors and the more spread out over a greater area they are. This results in better signal to noise ratios which are perceived as better edge definition and clarity. And, when viewing large prints up close, certainly more pixels per inch is a huge part of what gives us the sensation of being immersed into a scene rather than just say looking at some flat rectangle from a distance.
An interesting aspect to this story that most people do not realize, particularly when it comes to tonal transition and resolution, is that most web images simply cannot show you these differences. In fact it’s not until you start to display images that are at least 3000 pixels in size that you will begin to appreciate this. Not many people are in the habit of outputting 100 percent crops of their web images or displaying them in that size. 4k monitors are becoming much more prevalent, but even still, the typical size of a web image and that kind of downsizing of a high resolution sensor cannot possibly yield any advantage to resolution or edge acuity, the very reasons why we think we should choose a large format camera.
So this brings us back to the question of why we need to shoot with a larger format camera or sensor size. I’d like to think that most who shoot these kinds of cameras are in the habit of outputting their images to large prints. But there are also those who simply choose to shoot different formats because it is the “process” that they enjoy regardless of the image quality. It is indeed a whole different thing to shoot a large format camera compared to a 35mm.
And lastly, why do some photographers choose film over digital? It’s been my experience that the response curve of film is very much like what we see with very gradual tonal transitions in the high end, whereas most digital cameras, particularly those with smaller sensor sizes have rather unnatural and abrupt response transitions to clipping. Trying to capture large dynamic range landscapes with an iPhone is going to produce images that not only suffer from poor resolution, but may have unfavourable highlight clipping or poor colour rendering. Cell phone cameras have really improved of late, and may be a huge advantage as far as stealthiness and convenience, however, they are not the camera of choice if you’re looking for high output resolution or image plane separation.
This all brings us back to what I’ve mentioned in many of my previous blogs about things to consider when choosing a camera. You need to look at and consider your end goal. If you’re only interested in printing the occasional 4 by 6 or outputting your images to Instagram, then why are you using a medium format sensor or a DSLR with a massively high resolution? I hope your answer is because you enjoy using the camera and not because it gets you more likes. (But we all know that those of us who still shoot film cameras are cooler right?)
Something to think about…
I was asked an interesting question the other day by a friend who was interested in photography: “What is it exactly, that makes a good photographer?” Put another way, “What is it that separates a lousy photographer from someone considered to be a really good photographer?”
I should first state that we are not talking about amateurs versus professionals here. We all know that there are many amateurs who produce very compelling images.
So after I gave the question a little thought, I narrowed it down to 3 very basic things:
2.) skill set
3.) the opportunities you have or create for yourself for taking great pictures
So let’s look at the first item – vision. Some people are born with a good photographic vision, others not so much. Vision is the great thing that really makes your photographs different than mine. It’s unique to each of us. From the day a photographer first pick up a camera, they are continually trying to improve their vision. The way we see the world is something that develops over time. Even the greats who have been taking photographs for over fifty years are still trying to see the world in a new way. When it comes right down to it, the way our brains, our eyes, and our hearts render the world is the essence of our photography. It is an ever-evolving process of teaching ourselves to see in a different way.
The second item on my list is a very easy one to comprehend. The skill set that a good photographer must possess involves things like how well you understand basic camera fundamentals, dynamic range, flash, gesture, contrast, color, light, tonality, computer software and file handling, measuring exposure, post processing techniques, communication skills, and a host of other things.
Finally, good photographers are ones who create opportunities for themselves. The best photographers have portfolios that are worthy of showing. To do that, it meant that they had to work hard at what they do. They get out of bed early to be ready for the morning light. If you’re a landscape photographer, you travel and position yourself to find great locations. If you’re a street photographer, you generally will want to live in a spot that is well populated with an active city life. A wildlife photographer has to know the behaviour of their subject so they can be in the right place at the right time.
Good photographers are constantly educating themselves about new techniques. They practice using their skills on a daily basis. They plan photography excursions. And they communicate with others to arrange sessions. They make things happen so that their collection of images grows along with their bank of knowledge. Good photographers put themselves out there in the world. They don’t just sit at home and wait for something to happen.
I’ve always said that the best photographers are the ones who can consistently create compelling images of any subject in any environment or set of conditions. They combine their skills with opportunity and then apply their vision.
Many photographers seem to shoot a particular genre such as wildlife or a landscape etc. And when the light or the weather is simply not conducive to their particular style, they find themselves blocked from shooting, and the day becomes an opportunity to catch up on bookwork or social media. And that’s fine. But if you’re like most photographers I know, you enjoy shooting more than anything else, and you’re robbing yourself of opportunities. Why not try branching out and explore other areas?
For example, after many years of shooting, I’ve found that shooting landscapes where I live can be pretty hit and miss. The early hours of sunrise or later on during golden hour into sunset can be great. But what about those blah days where uninteresting, featureless big white skies dominate the scene? Add a bit of rain or wind to the mix and we all just want to stay indoors and shop for more camera gear. Am I right?
Have a look at a few of these suggestions. I’ve been able to use them as “work-arounds” for many years now. And hopefully they will help you to develop your skill set and enable you to start thinking differently. It’s great to be very good at a particular style of photography, but it’s even better to be a “well-rounded” photographer with more options.
landscapes, nature, wildlife, portraiture augmented with flash
Mid-day big white skies:
intimate landscapes, nature, wildlife, macro, waterfalls, black and white photography, long exposure black and white, natural light portraiture, sports photography
Mid-day blue skies with strong sun:
landscapes, street photography, bird photography, wildlife, portraiture augmented with flash
street photography, studio photography
street photography, long exposure landscape/nature photography, studio photography
landscape, street photography, wildlife, nature, studio photography
landscape, street photography, studio photography
Many of us live in places where the weather and light conditions can be quite variable. If one begins to focus the style of photography you shoot according to the weather and light situations you face, you’ll open many more options for your shooting and probably get better results.
We live in a voyeuristic world where everybody is a photographer. We are inundated with imagery through social media sites like Facebook, tumblr, and G+. Often, the images that seem to get the most immediate attention tend to be the flashy ones…bright colors, over-processed garish HDR’s and images all dressed up with photoshop actions and Instagram filters. Our lifestyles are so fast-paced that photos have to be flashy to get our attention. The majority though, fade into that vast caldron of the “same old same old” after only a few seconds. We click on the next, and the next, and the next, looking for some kind of superficial stimulation.
However there are a few images that simply don’t care about grabbing our immediate attention. In fact, at first they don’t seem like anything special. But it’s often this kind of photograph that as time passes, becomes more meaningful.
Throughout the history of photography, some of the most wonderful photographs are ones that are not technically excellent. They may be slightly out of focus or blurred from motion. They are not flashy or trendy, but they have survived the test of time. These are the images we find in books, on gallery walls, or on our desks reminding us of something that seems to transcend the medium. They contain artifacts and imperfections, but yet convey enough meaning that we enjoy seeing them again and again.
The best images are often the ones that don’t make much of an initial impact, but for one reason or another, we can’t stop looking at them. Could it be that like humans themselves, they contain flaws, something unsaid or a little mysterious, and in this sense they hit us deeper, closer to the core? These are photos that show life as it really is…unposed, raw, and at times gritty. These are portraits that bring out the characteristics of who someone really is without fake smiles, fancy lighting, or staged pretenses. These are landscapes that make us appreciate nature’s plan. These are images that tell a story or make us ask questions.
Its true. We all value images for different reasons. Some are struck by composition, others by the subject matter itself. Some enjoy brilliant, highly-saturated landscapes. Others prefer portraits with as much out-of-focus background as possible. Still others need context. At what point do we grow tired of seeing over-processed landscapes of Mt. Rundle or long-exposure photos of a pier? When will we get weary of seeing liquified barbie doll girls on magazine covers? When can we expect the next gallery exhibition of plastic-skinned newborns with alien eyes?
That’s what’s so great about photography. That’s why it’s so hard. If the search to find that something unsaid, to find a timeless truth was easy, we probably wouldn’t be as interested in buying all those new cameras that take better pictures 😉
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Where I live, it can be quite difficult to photograph landscapes due to the amount of forest and dense vegetation all around. In order to obtain depth in one’s images, photographers always think about the foreground, middle and background of their images, often trying to incorporate leading lines and an interesting foreground element of some kind. This calls for a bit of openness or expanse in the land. Particularly during the winter months here, that requires traveling on very unsafe highways great distances, or snowshoeing through a lot of rough terrain just to find any kind of open vista.
Probably my first love has always been photographing landscapes, but to compensate for the drudgery of the long winters, I occupy a great deal of my “off-time” photographing people in the studio. And interestingly enough, I’ve found that the techniques used for photographing nature or landscapes is often a complete reversal from photographing people.
It’s all about the mindset really and how we approach the process of creativity and “seeing.”
Back in the studio, one formulates many creative ideas even before the people arrive for their session. I do always rely on my instincts though, and may make last minute changes based on what I see seconds before the image is taken. But for the most part, the strategy is one of “attack”, positioning the clients strategically so that they look good, moving the lights around, measuring the flash ratios etc. The left brain is working overtime here. The entire time we keep in mind that these are people, not statues that we can simply re-arrange. They get tired, they can lose interest, expression, and a willingness to show enthusiasm. Therefore, we are always operating on a time clock with people. We are trying to complete our objective which is to grab a photograph that has meaning, and at the same time makes the clients look great.
In the field when shooting landscape or nature, “seeing” a photograph that has meaning is more about letting the right half of your brain take control. I have found so many times that if I go out intent on photographing a great landscape image, I will probably have a rough time of it. Focusing on a task is a left brain activity. In my experience, my best nature photographs are ones that came to me. I didn’t hunt them down. They simply offered themselves while I had a completely open mind.
To have an open mind requires one to let go of preconceived ideas, to stop focusing on having to get a photograph at all. This is where I always instruct my students to breathe the air, feel the coldness of your toes and the warmth of the suns rays as they spill through the trees. Look for the little things, feel the differences in colour temperature between sun and shade, and above all, put the camera down. When something speaks to you, you’ll know it. After that it’s just a matter of refinement, and figuring out how to make it work photographically. But you can usually rest assured that it will convey meaning, much more so than a snapshot. And, the worst thing that can happen is that you’ve enjoyed yourself.
Different strategies, different mindsets… But that’s just one more reason why photography is so interesting.