by Guy Lerner

The camera is becoming almost incidental in the photo-making process. But don’t go throwing away your cameras quite yet – you’ll still need them for the first part of the job, getting the photo. After that, well, that depends on what you aspire to in the brave new world of digital photography, but chances are your camera won’t be of much else use.

From old to new
In the “old days” of film photography, photo making was a relatively straightforward process. You’d load film into a camera, fish out the best lens possible from your bagful of lenses to capture the perfect shot as you’ve pre-visioned it, and head off to take the photo. You’d line up your subject, check the exposure readings, focus intently, then fire off a few dozen frames – cropping judiciously to get just what you want in the frame.

Once that shutter is pressed, most of the work’s been done. You pop the film from the camera, store it in a canister, and drop it off at the lab. Wait a few days, then back to the lab to collect the results, holding your breath until you know how your efforts panned out.

Were you shooting prints, you know the technicians in the darkroom have worked their magic on your exposures, balancing everything to look just right. As a slide shooter, there’s not much the guys in the back can do for you if you got it wrong in-camera, but by now, with thousands of frames behind you, you know how to get what you want on film, and your camera’s good enough not to let you down.

Fast-forward a few years, and the latest and greatest digital body has replaced old faithful film cam. You’ve still got your arsenal of lenses, but only use a handful because, shooting digital, you have far more control over what you can do with your photos once they’re in the camera.

You set up your subject the same way, and shoot off a few dozen exposures, only instead of shooting to improve your chances of success, you overshoot because it costs you nothing. Just by watching the histogram readings as each shot is taken, you know you’ve hit your exposure on the head. Zoom the preview and focus checks out fine too. All that’s left to do is download your raw files to the PC and turn them into artwork.

There’s the rub
The worlds of film and digital photography have, in that one step, diverged irreversibly away from each other.

For most photographers in the film world, the picture was “created” in-camera, and there’s not much more they could do once their film was exposed. For digital photographers, the fun begins after that shutter’s been pressed. The digital camera has done its bit – captured the subject and converted it into the ones and zeros that make up the source material for the artist to work with. The photo will now be “developed” in the PC, and that is a whole new ball game to where we’ve just come from.

Some people think of the PC as the “digital darkroom” but it’s much, much more than that. You can’t, for example, change the geometry of a photo in a real darkroom, but that’s only one of thousands of new tools the PC gives you. You can’t zoom into to the microscopic details of a real photo and change minute aspects of detail as you now can with the digital darkroom. In essence, what you get out of your camera is the marble from which you carve your masterpiece.

But if cameras are becoming “redundant” as I’ve suggested so far, why do photographers still vie for the best digital equipment their money can buy? The answer I simple, but not entirely satisfying: because the better the camera/lens, the better the “marble” the camera produces. In the right hands, the best digital cameras and lenses available today can just about do most of the work needed to produce the final artwork. So little needs to be done by the photographer once the photo has been loaded on the PC, that the extra expenditure pays him back tenfold in time saved.

Think Digital
My contention is that the photographer with more PC know-how and “lesser” equipment will be able to create an equal or better “photo” than the photographer with top-notch equipment and limited PC experience. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s something I’ve come to realise in my own work and in speaking with other professional and semi-professional digital photographers. I’ve seen artwork that has been reproduced in print at quality that rivals some of the best studio output available, and most of it is due to the way I it was worked in the PC.

In deciding what to buy, you’ll read lens reviews and ponder the differences in contrast and colour saturation produced by two rival lenses, one that costs $200 and another that costs $2000. The more expensive lens is touted for its ability to reproduce “accurate colours, vivid saturation and crisp contrast”. The cheaper lens will be demoted for producing average contrast and not enough “punch”.

Now take the photos produced by the same camera using each of these lenses, and with two small tweaks in Photoshop, the output from the cheaper lens is raised to better than that produced natively by the more expensive one.

This is just one example, and yes, there are many other variables that affect picture quality that I haven’t even touched on.

What I’m not saying is go out and buy the cheapest camera you can get hold of, because in truth you’ll short-change yourself and expect too much from your PC. What your camera (and lenses) must be able to give you is sharp, detailed, low-noise data – good, clean source material for you to work in the PC.

What I am saying is no longer do you need to go the extra mile (and extra dollar) to get the best equipment in the shop window, because the minute you press that shutter, you’ve really just started on the long creative walk that will end up with a beautifully framed masterpiece on your living room wall.

And in all that, your camera will have had a relatively small part to play.