Wednesday, 11 July 2007

What is a camera for?

Alley View, Perouges, France, June 2007

After reading the post over at the Landscapist on the differences between analogue (film) and digital workflows I got to thinking about the true nature of a camera, especially digital. I read the original post he refers to (by Colin Jago) and somewhat agreed, but reading Mark Hobson's comments I'm not so sure any more.

It seems to me that the point Colin makes regarding the need for software, monitor etc to really view a digital image suggests "truth" in film. that might be the case for slide/positive film but a negative needs a print (and by implication, chemical interpretation) to get to the image. Even then, the slide needs development.

For me, the digital camera is nothing more than a means to capture data: both the spatial data (framing the image) and the colour data (in the RGB storage). the aim is to capture as much as possible without losing anything. My ideal is a low-contrast capture fully exposed to the right: all the data contained in the high value bits. That gives me the greatest opportunity to develop the image as I saw it. The shots illustrating the post demonstrate an example: at the top the edited version; below, straight from the camera.

For film, I'm slightly more limited. There is a certain degree of colour interpretation built-in through the emulsion and the development. don't (and am not going to) do my own development so I'm at the mercy of the lab. Fortunately, scanning allows me to make adjustments and if I've used an appropriate film type there should be minimal effort needed to get from the developed film to the final image.

I just don't buy into the idea that the camera is the be-all and end-all of the picture making process. It doesn't capture truth in any sense that I could define it. If you shoot black and white, that's definitely not the case and everyone perceives colours slightly differently.

I like the "light tight box" definition of a camera: a means of transmitting light information to a capture medium. It is then up to the photographer to reveal the image, much as a painter does by applying oil to canvas. At the non-artistic end of photography (e.g. journalism) there is the added constraint of minimum adulteration but the photographer still interprets the scene both in composition and in colour rendering.


  1. Martin,

    Thanks for the link.

    Please don't read more into what I said than is there. No mention of 'truth' at all in the original.

    For me, the digital camera is nothing more than a means to capture data.

    Quite, but the issue that I was (am) grappling with is that you can't see that data without an interpreter, and that adds another level of complexity between observation (pre shutter) and the print.

    Good software and good monitors do their best to minimise this extra problem, but much software, and many monitors, are not good. Programs that offer colour editing controls but which do not show colour-accurate previews are quite common, for example.

  2. Fair point. On the other hand, (assuming the print is the ultimate goal) the potential to be able to see exactly what you are going to get, given your caveats about colour management, is a possible improvement over wet chemistry. Now I do have the possibility of knowing what the print will be before commiting ink to paper.

  3. Och, lots of improvements over wet chemistry :-)

    I would quibble with your use of the word 'exactly' but soft-proofing does greatly cut down the trial and error part of the final stages of producing a print. In the end, though, you aren't going to be entirely sure what the picture will look like on paper until you are actually holding the print.

    And of course, once you've got one print, further prints are easy, and are accurate reproductions of the first.


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