By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RECENT HISTORICAL SHIFT FROM ANALOG TO DIGITAL in photographic tech seems, on the surface, merely an evolution in image storage, or the shift from film to memory cards. However, looking back thirty years on, it’s actually about a whole series of reinventions, with few present-day photo systems left untouched by the revolution. One huge difference I notice more and more is the camera’s journey from an externally-driven device to an internal one.
Consider: in the analog era, new or emerging widgets or functions were introduced as outside add-ons to the camera. Flash was originally achieved with the addition of a whole extra arm and bracket. Automatic winding of film was first achieved by bolting on an auxiliary cradle that contained batteries and gears to engage with the camera’s internal systems. Light meters were separate devices. Lens effects were modified externally with the attachment of screw-on filters. Even before the arrival of digital tech, all these functions and more were engineered to become integral to the camera: in short, they headed inside. This trend accelerated tenfold as the film era ended, and we are still in the sweep of that enormous surge today.
Above: a cheap and easy softening effect, done in-camera in a few seconds, but somewhat buried within several layers of your device’s submenu listings.
As computers have become more and more compact, it’s become easier to move more and more functions inside the camera, rendering many old external attachments obsolete and allowing designs to be smaller and sleeker, hence more portable. In the case of mobile phone cameras, even the physical bulk of the lens has been re-engineered into virtual invisibility. Here’s the tricky part: cameras are now packed with so many options that it’s possible to shoot with our devices for years and not only not use all of said options, but to actually be unaware that they’re on offer. User manuals now largely exist as virtual downloads, meaning that many of us don’t read the entire thing, and so it’s not unusual to fall into the habit of using the same ten basic functions for everything, and forgetting that a solution to a particular shooting problem lies mere inches away, tucked inside a menu sub-folder.
As an example, I had to be reminded that the image seen here was cheap and easy to achieve, since it’s just a quick application of an artificial softening filter within the “filter” submenu of my Nikon’s “retouch” folder. The effect was easier to control than with an old-school screw-on filter, and cost me nothing to try. Consider how many even more exotic controls and effects lie essentially hidden within the guts of even the most modest digital camera, and you can see how mastery of our increasingly more sophisticated devices can be elusive if we don’t take the extra steps to learn how seamlessly they’ve been woven into our camera’s vast inventory of tools. The move from the bulky add-on appendages of yesteryear is a blessing, but only if we understand how manufacturers have solved the same old problems that used to be tackled outside by brilliantly heading inside.