Commentary # 30 ~ April 2009
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Digital's Decline and Demise?  -  Part II :

Your Medium Does Not Matter

April 2009

- by Craig Wassel

Most of us have read many times and stated in various ways across the internet:

"Your camera does not matter".

The maxim has merit, but has been rephrased and recycled so many times now that it is suffering the stigmas of a cliche. If we read enough forums, sooner rather than later we will come across a poster requesting opinions on what gear to buy; more often than not, someone will not be able to resist replying that the camera does not matter, and suggest the poster learn how to take photographs first and worry about the gear later.

Just like I did not do in Part I of this commentary (Digital's Decline and Demise - Part I: Future Shock), I am not going to offer the internet another "does your camera matter" essay. It won't take me to the point I want to make. However, I will say this: For those of us who earn money with work behind the lens, we need to know what our clients' needs and expectations are and make the right choices to meet or exceed them.

With that out of they way, there is another more interesting question I began addressing last month in part one of this commentary in March: Is digital declining and dying as a medium used by serious photographers? I am writing about this question because I find intriguing that some of the very photographers perpetually reminding everyone that "your camera does not matter" are telling us that it is. They tell us that digital cannot equal film's output quality, and even seem to suggest that the notable absence of any new sensor technologies or significant pro digital bodies at the 2009 Photo Marketing Association Show may be a signal that digital has given us all that it can give.

Maybe they are right.

For example, take a look at the top image in the column to your right taken by my photog friend, Ed. Ed is a very accomplished photographer, but I feel his camera did not deliver for him on this shot. The dynamic range leaves something to be desired, and it suffers from a lack of sharpness. It's somewhat noisy, and the auto-white balance looks to have failed, resulting in a blue-green color cast. There also seems to be significant deffraction. Yes, this shot could have been so much better if only it had been made using a different photographic medium more suited to quality night photography.

Now, those of you familiar with this photograph see right through the sarcasm and the joke. I am not friends with famed photographer Edward Steichen who made the photograph. In fact, Steichen's famous "The Pond - Moonlight" was taken in 1904 and made with light sensitive gums on a 42cm x 40cm plate. In 2006, "The Pond - Moonlight" fetched one of the largest sums ever paid for a photograph: $2.9 million and change. You can read more about Steichen and this photograph at this Wiki (link).

If we just critique the individual elements as I did above, I may be "technically" accurate in what I note is "wrong" with Steichen's photograph. What is "wrong" with my critique, however, is it gives no consideration to the rather difficult to define but very real spirit the photograph has. The photo just "works". It has a feel and "it" factor, and a surreal beauty in its imperfection. That is part of why it is valuable.

It may sound like I just wrote my own little "your camera does not matter" sermon though I said I would not, but I really didn't. Think about my critique of the photograph again. Isn't it possible to take a digital camera and make images that are noisy, grainy, soft and marred by deffraction? Isn't it possible for us to make a photograph with a similar look and feel on digital instead of light sensitive gum or film? Yes, potentially.

There is a more to why "Pond - Moonlight" is so valuable, though. It is one of the earlier examples of color print photography, and only three originals are known to exist. If Steichen were alive today, he could make a much "better" quality photograph with greater sharpness and clarity and color shooting Velvia and using a state of the art 4" x 5" view camera. What is ironic is that this hypothetical photograph would be worth LESS for lacking the antiquity and novelty of the original "The Pond - Moonlight". Sure, it would still be worth more than photographs you and I might take, because he is Edward Steichen and we are not. But it would not sell for nearly 3 million dollars.

So what is also ironic to me is the photographers who spend countless hours and words reminding us the camera does not matter also spend countless hours comparing the color, contrast, sharpness, and grain of film and digital. Their conclusion? Shoot film when your photography matters and when you need the best possible quality. Again, I agree that if you earn money behind your lens you need to know what your client expects and choose accordingly. For the majority of the work that all of us do, though, does that really mean film is the only logical choice?

For the majority of the shooting we do, what gives a photograph most of its value? Does most of it come just from measuring dynamic range and grain and sharpness and color and contrast and how large we can print it? What is more important - the medium or the moment?

Case in point: I photographed a confirmation this month. A young girl delivered a witness statement, in which she spoke of her classmate and friend who had just lost a battle with cancer. She is seen at right in the second photograph. She broke down as she spoke, and everyone in the room felt her heartache. I was moved as I photographed her, I am moved when I look at the photograph, and I am moved when I see the reactions of those who were there when they look at the photo. The value is in the captured emotion of the moment, and that is what matters most. No one cares if it was shot on Agfa Scala or digital.

The debate still remains if digital does now will ever match film's output. If you have your doubts, go back and read part one of this commentary from March (link), and re-consider the short vantage point we all often have.

For me, if I am to believe the camera does not matter then I also have to believe that in most respects the medium does not matter. I am continually looking for those moments to click, and if I find them and release the shutter, the medium does not matter.

" . . . There's no particular class of photograph that I think is any better than any other class. I'm always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don't give a damn how it got made . . . "

~ Minor White ~

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" . . . So what is also ironic to me is the photographers who spend countless hours and words reminding us the camera does not matter also spend countless hours comparing the color, contrast, sharpness, and grain of film and digital . . . For the majority of the shooting we do, what is more important - the medium or the moment? . . . "

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