A Ramble on Photography Then and Now

My father was an avid amateur photographer. He owned a 35mm camera for as long as I can remember. He preferred taking slides and had box after box of them in his office. After he died, they inadvertently got disposed of before I had a chance to salvage them. I mourn the loss of that record of my childhood.

Being a photographer back then required a lot more effort than it does today. There were Polaroids and Kodak Instamatic cameras that made it easier to take pictures but even so, you had to wait for the shot to be developed to see if you got the picture you wanted. In the case of the Polaroid, the feedback was fairly fast, but with more conventional cameras it usually took days or weeks to get your prints back to see what you got.

In the case of the 35mm camera, my dad’s camera of choice, you had to decide what film stock you were going to use; color or black and white; what sensitivity to light (expressed in ISO number); what color balance. You had to measure the light illuminating your subject using a light meter. You had to balance the factors of exposure time (shutter speed), aperture size (f-stop), and the focal length of the lens. An amateur photographer had to be fairly well versed in the mechanics and chemistry of photography in order to be able to hope to capture his vision in a photograph.

Then there was the artistic side of things. Once you knew the details of how to take a picture, you had to learn how to compose a photograph. My college photography professor advised taking a lot of pictures. He said that you had to pay attention to what you did and the results that you got from doing it. This turned out to be hard to do,  given the lag between taking the pictures and getting them developed. It was also fairly expensive even when you bulk loaded your own film cartridges and developed your own film. Then there was the print stock that you printed your pictures on and the enlarger you had to learn to manipulate. That goes a long way toward explaining my dad’s preference for slides. There, the film that came out of the camera was the final product. No printing involved. Of course that meant that what you shot was what you got.

Contrast this with the state of photography today. We have at this point exceeded the quality of 35mm film with the current line of SLR cameras. We can immediately look at the shot to see if we got what we wanted. And with the cost and size of memory cards, we can take thousands of shots without having to worry about changing media. We can even take HD video with many current SLRs.

I wonder how this affects our attitude toward photography? There are still plenty of artists that express themselves through photography. This is evident even after just a few minutes browsing photo.net or flickr. The mental processes are still as hard to develop though. Even with all the automation available in the current cameras you still have to be able to see what you are looking at and select the image that you want to capture.

Of course now, with Photoshop and Gimp and the other photo manipulation tools available to us, what you shoot is not necessarily what you get. You have an even greater latitude for creative expression than the darkroom ever provided. Will this raise the standard of excellence for photography in the future? I hope so. And I hope to have more time to make pictures in that future.