Evolution of Photography

You’ve probably seen a graphic* that was reproduced a couple of months ago on PetaPixel under the titleĀ  Evolution of Photography: Exposures Versus Keepers, showing a 120 film roll, an aluminium can for a 35mm cassette and a SD card with the captions ‘12 exposures6 are awesome; 36 exposures6 are awesome; 2,000+ exposures 6 are awesome.’

Amusing perhaps, but is it true?

Firstly, obviously not. No one ever got 6 awesome exposures on a 120 roll, certainly not consistently. If you were lucky you got one or two that would do the job (and using 6×7 as I mainly did you only got 10 exposures and with 6×9 even fewer. Not to mention my panoramic camera that took 6×12 images.) ‘Awesome’ was very rare then as now. And moving on to 35mm, if Henri Cartier-Bresson could only manage a dozen a year, us lesser mortals certainly weren’t hitting one in six.

Of course it does depend on your subject matter. The types of thing you take and where you are. There is certainly rather more likelihood of an awesome image if you are standing on the moon with a Hasselblad than if you are in my back yard with a digital point and shoot. Or a Hasselblad.

I spend a lot of time at the moment going through stuff I took in the 1980s on film, mainly 35mm, though also some 120 and 4×5. Most of the pictures that are worth preserving are so because of the subject matter, and I often find myself cursing that I only took one or two frames of a particular subject. Cursing too because looking at what I did take brings back to memory things or situations I failed to photograph.

Film then for me was expensive – even though I mainly bought it in 100ft reels and then loaded it in total darkness – 100ft would give me 19 cassettes with 36 exposures. I’d started using a bulk film loader which was more comfortable but meant that the last few frames of every film were fogged. You lost images by working to the very end of the film – and like fishing the ones that got away were always the best. Loading in total darkness – two nails on the wall to mark the length to cut – enabled me to get the most from that bulk film.

Later I got a little wealthier and could afford to take more pictures, and even eventually could give up bulk loading. And I learnt from looking at the contacts of a well-known Magnum photographer who showed me how he usually only took two or three images on a 36x film, working with each subject until he was sure he had got what he wanted – or until the situation dissolved. He taught me that working around a subject in this way was something that made professional work stand out from amateur efforts. I began to use more film too, some days perhaps ten or a dozen cassettes. And my work I think improved for it.

Comparing what I took back then on 35mm and what I take now on digital, the one thing that almost always hits me is how technical standards have improved. Colour is cleaner and more accurate, images are generally sharper (especially in the corners) with reduced aberrations, and we can work in conditions of darkness that would have defeated us with film. It isn’t just the change to digital sensors in camera, but also the processing in programmes such as Lightroom and the developments in cameras and flash systems. (Better focus and exposure systems of course also help with film – and are perhaps even more important when using film.)

I certainly make more exposures with digital than I used to with film. It’s a great relief too never to have to worry about running out of film and being caught in mid-change when the vital moment occurs. I think Winogrand when asked if he ever missed pictures while changing film said there were no pictures when he was changing film, which may be true at several levels, but I know I’ve missed opportunities. Now if I ever run out of space on a card it’s either because I forgot to format it after the previous day’s work or I need to go and buy a larger card.

I also take a rather higher proportion of usable pictures. But the number of ‘awesome’ exposures I make hasn’t I think changed very much, though perhaps there is some slight improvement. It really isn’t anything to do with the camera or storage medium but about opportunities and ideas. And if anything digital gives me a rather better chance of turning those ideas into images.

*(Originally it came from photographer Mason Resnick and was published on his blog in January 2014. His Mason Resnick’s Photography Journal is certainly worth keeping an eye on.)

One Response to “Evolution of Photography”

  1. ChrisL says:

    Frank shot 767 rolls of film, about 27,000 images for “America”.
    Those that made the edit were not necessarily “awesome” individually it was the finished product that was that.
    Just thinking out loud, and I’ve never hit six awesome on one roll or card either.

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