the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Alexander Gardner


Lefty O’Doul’s bar, near Union Square in San Francisco. Lovely place, great grub, but a dark cavern where light goes to die. Modern DSLRs allow this to be a handheld shot with a minimum of noise: 1/20 sec., 5/5, ISO 640, 18mm.


EVERY TIME I READ SINCERE ARGUMENTS FOR THE SUPERIORITY OF FILM OVER DIGITAL, the debate seems a little more lopsided on the side of sentiment than on the side of reason. The whole thing can make me a little….tired. As I write this, Arizona Highways has just released its annual collection of the fifty best images ever published in that august standard of print photography, and, yep, you guessed it, only about the last three images are digital. It’s an aesthetic bias which AH will only abandon once the entire rest of the world regards film as a quaint artifact of The Good Ole Days, but, God bless ’em, they are true believers. As for myself, I am in no huge hurry to see film go the way of the Hostess Twinkie. However, I do readily admit that it’s my heart casting that vote, and not my head.

Emulsions or pixels? Your preference still comes down to what you need to do and how you need to do it. That means that many of us will choose one medium or the other because it either enables or constricts our art… other words, a simply practical judgement, not one based on our fondness for what we are used to. Earlier this year, I applauded National Public Radio’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam (one of the first Civil War skirmishes to be photographically documented), by commissioning their own photog to shoot some of the same battle sites as Alexander Gardner had done in 1862, using the same kind of coated glass plate process. Were the results fascinating? Certainly. Are they likely to create a run on camera stores for collodion? Don’t hold your breath.

Photography is a constant process of knocking down more obstacles between what you are shooting at and the imagination you are shooting with. You need to keep the camera from fighting you, due to its inability to react, think, discriminate or judge the way that only you can. To that end, you have to be in a constant flow of improvement, simply because your mind is always traveling on a faster track than even the best camera, and that instrument must be corralled into helping, and not hindering, the task of getting your vision into that box.

One of the most helpful such advances for me has been the accelerated performance of DSLRs in low-light situations and the improvement in picture quality at increasingly higher ISO settings. In the film world of “ago”, if you wanted to shoot at 800 speed ASA, you had to have a camera loaded with 800 speed film. If you then, five minutes later, wanted to shoot at 100 speed ASA you would need to reload your camera with that speed of film, or have a whole separate camera that was loaded with it. And so on.

Not the best for flexibility. Or spontaneity.

Pellegrino’s Restaurant, Little Italy, New York City. Handheld. Street photography gets an amazing boost from cameras that feed on low light. 1/50 sec., f/5.6, ISO 640, 18mm.

This rocketing forward of the technology that gives us sharp, nearly noise-free pictures, handheld and at fast exposure times, in all but the most hopeless lighting scenarios, is now filtering down to even the most rudimentary camera phones.It’s not alarmist or false to declare that the days of the compact point-and-shoot are officially numbered. With ISO now delivering better results in so many shooting situations, I can now go nearly anywhere and have a shot at getting a shot. That puts me at a distinct advantage over the most proficient shooters and the best cameras of barely a generation ago.

Does that guarantee I’ll bring back a winner? Nope. But the point is, more and more, if I don’t get the shot, it’s on me.  I can’t blame my failure on balky technology, at least not in this particular case.

And it means I can spend more time shooting, dreaming, doing, instead of crossing my fingers and hoping.