The Zen Film vs. Digital Scattershot Approach

How many photographs can you look at more than once? Not many, not many.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

(The following is a free interpretation of Forbes’ excellent Leica M Monochrom review by David Foster.)

Although the technical brilliance of modern digital cameras is undeniable, there’s also something about the ease with which pictures can be taken that tends to encourage a rather scattershot approach to photography. Elliott Erwitt, in an interview from 2010, made the rather inflammatory remark that “the digital age is indeed corrupting the world of photography.” The line was delivered, it should be noted, with the same deadpan humor so present in many of his photos.

Erwitt went on to say:

The problem with digital photography is that it’s too easy, and when things get too easy, people get sloppy, and sloppiness is not a good thing in photography. Even though photography’s fairly simple stuff… when it was non-digital, it still took a little bit of effort, a little bit of thought, but now I think a chimpanzee with a digital camera could get pretty good results as well… and that’s the problem. Too easy, too much, and not too much thinking behind it.

This is something of a sweeping generalization — albeit an entertainingly delivered one –, but even if Erwitt’s tongue is slightly in his cheek, I think it’s still a serious assertion and one worth thinking about, especially coming from someone with his undeniable eminence in image making.

There’s no denying that there are many, many photographers today working digitally who put a great deal of thought into their images, and who produce beautiful, moving, aesthetically sophisticated work, and that the unbiquity of image making tools in both highly portable and easy to use cameras, as well as in cell phones, have made photography more than just an artistic or documentary endeavor — it’s become a truly democratic form of communication.

To the legions of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter users who seamlessly integrate image-making into the crafting of the daily narrative of their lives, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Timeless -- a photo, however unspectacular and technically unchallenging, I can look at more than once: the last part of the old main road from Pyongyang to Seoul, just north of the heavily armored Demilitarized Zone. Before the Korean War, the two countries' capitals were just a two-hour drive apart. Nobody's allowed to travel this road since well over six decades.
Timeless — a photo, however unspectacular and technically unchallenging, I can look at more than once: the last part of the old main road from Pyongyang to Seoul, just north of the heavily armored Demilitarized Zone. Before the Korean War, the two countries’ capitals were just a two-hour drive apart. Nobody’s allowed to travel this road since well over six decades.

But Erwitt’s unquestionably right about how much easier it’s gotten to make photographs, and the unruly sibling of democracy — mediocrity — has very much cast its shadow over the enterprise of image making. The speed and rapidity with which a photograph can be made — and the non-physical nature of the media in which most of photography is presented (the overwhelming majority of photographs taken will never be printed) — tend to encourage a rather scattershot approach; a kind of infinite-number-of-monkeys-at-an-infinite-number-of-typewriters syndrome where one can click away with abandon secure in the knowledge (or the hope) that something usable’s bound to be stored in the camera’s silicon guts.

So you need something of a conundrum of a camera; a camera that essentially attempts to extend the, how shall I say, more traditional experience of making photographs into the digital realm. Being comfortable with the film paradigm often results in a greater mastery of the digital tools, though it may also be the case that there are universal physical realities about optics and image making that transcend the film/digital dichotomy, and photographers who work with film simply have to be conversant with those realities in ways most digital shooters don’t.

Though digital cameras get a lot right, it’s still true that some of the most interesting opportunities to take photographs occur in situations where lighting, depth of field and movement of one’s subject challenge the digital camera’s ability, and understanding the basics of film gives a photographer a skill set that translates very well to digital photography — if the camera is one that actually allows and encourages such a level of control.

It’s been my experience that Ansel Adams’ Zone System is totally unnecessary to understand for much of digital photography, but even the best of today’s digital cameras still struggle occasionally with exposure, and having a conceptual framework that takes the guesswork out of exposure is still a powerful tool.

There are excellent odds — speaking of statistics — that cameras with few controls are not your brand of vodka, even if you’re a serious enthusiast photographer or working professional photographer. The photography approach stripped down to its bare essentials involves a rather steep learning curve necessary to get the most out of it.

Over time, images will gain greater precision and clarity, but the biggest difference the “film approach” makes is not in how much data it gathers but in how it encourages a kind of deliberation and care in shooting that’s very much a rarity nowadays. We’re talking about an approach with a camera that serves as an “attitude adjustment machine.”

Not only that, it means having a sense of the effects of aperture and shutter speed on image sharpness, blur in moving objects, depth of field — the whole host of factors most photographers, or maybe I should say, “people taking pictures” — are happy today to leave to the algorithms on the chip in the camera.

There is something incredibly bracing about not having a camera do your thinking for you; you’re in the driver’s seat of an unforgiving, high performance machine that has the ability to record what your thinking process is when you shoot with unbelievably high fidelity.

Yes, even a digital camera toned down to the film approach becomes a niche machine that can bite back hard if you don’t know what you’re doing but then, so is an F1 car. Every image you make is not just a photograph of something outside you, it’s also an exposure of what your level of involvement is with the image making process.

What all this means is that you have to pay attention — film approach, like the wooden bat wielded by a Zen monk to smack meditators across the shoulders, is a goad urging you to a higher degree of mindfulness and an immersion in the quality of light in front of you that you don’t usually get — at all — from today’s “thinking” cameras.

If Elliott Erwitt’s assertions are true, they’re true because in taking the man out of the loop, most digital cameras reduce us to careless, passive drones, pointing cameras at whatever catches our eye, for whatever reason, and hoping for the best.

The biggest benefit of the Zen film approach aren’t the more photographs you can look at more than once, but how photography reconnects you as a photographer to the world around you.

Or why not just… Zen digital.

  • I called it Digital Glut years ago, and I’ve just stopped looking at most of it. Thanks for your insights.

  • PWL

    Have to agree. I like digital–shoot it most of the time–but it really does make shooting too easy. Used to go to music shows with three 36-frame rolls of film, and I’d always come back with something–now, if I don’t watch it, I can end up with 200-300 images. This can lead to burnout in the processing stage…and I do wonder if it is causing some slackness in my photography skills.

    So every now & then, I have to break out my film camera, and shoot like I used to do. There’s something I can only describe as “tactile” about shooting with with film. And I like the fact it allows me to slow down, rather than going “pedal to the metal”. Also, the images have a little more “value” for me, since I have to work that much harder to get them. Gotta admit, I still only feel I’m really photographing when I’m shooting film….

  • Leading to the question how much better images much more expensive gear produces… That’s right, good digital gear IS expensive compared to pre-digital gear.

    I’d bet that if in the right hands a disposable camera can shine. Maybe I just found another topic.

  • PWL

    Well, that’s the old debate in photography: which is more important in making a good image, the photographer or the camera? Myself, I weight it 75% the photographer and 25% the camera. I have no doubt that great photographs can be made with cheap gear. After all, many of the great photographs taken by great photographers were taken with “no-tech” gear, by our lights.

    But I do think that as you get better as a photographer, you do want to use better gear. It’s like being a guitar player starting out with a Sears & Roebuck Silvertone guitar: it’s OK when you first start out, but as you get better and your tastes become more discriminating’ you want something like a Martin.

    When I first started shooting, I started out with a humble old Minolta X-370. But as I get better, I wanted gear that would keep up with what I was doing. In my defense I didn’t get into Leicas for the snob value: I learned the hard way you can’t shoot acoustic music acts in a tiny club with an SLR (and expect to live). So I picked up an old Leica M3 as the solution to the problem, and it’s been off to the races ever since (the damn things are addictive…)

  • Sam Kanga

    I tend to agree with Elliott Erwitt. Although there were always sloppy or lazy photographers, now, unfortunately it’s easy to post images for the world to see. It’s not just a case of “well you don’t have to look at them”, you can’t get away from them. They are on even the few photography blogs that I follow, and it makes me realize that people think anything is good. There is nothing wrong with being a photography enthusiast – we all are.

    To those who are working at improving their photography, my advice is to keep shooting, look at the work of photographers you like, or inspire you, read about their work, edit, edit, edit your work (I know it is hard to edit one’s own work), and keep shooting. If you can, ask someone knowledgeable to critique your work. You might be shocked, but it’s a valuable experience.

    There is a general lowering of the idea of what a good image is (I mean no matter what style: documentary, journalism, studio, on-figure, off-figure, etc.). Unfortunately there are not a lot of knowledgeable photo editors out there now too, so that doesn’t help.

    Here’s a secret: The type of camera doesn’t matter, a good photographer will get a great shot or story no matter what they have at hand.