Are We Losing The Art Of Tonal Creativity In Our Landscape Photographs?
Agfa Ultra, Yosemite, 2004
Last night I was browsing through a couple of my favorite books on landscape photography, and a few of my favorite online galleries, when I realized something. Often times when I’m viewing images online I can spot digital capture from a mile away. To be precise, I can usually tell when an image was captured in RAW and processed in Adobe’s Camera Raw program. (Lightroom and Bridge both use the same engine.)
The tones, the way highlights and shadows are “recovered”, seem to exhibit the same processing habits of many digital photographers today. Images seem to be homogenizing. And no I’m not talking about milk, I’m saying that they’re all becoming very similar, to the point that it becomes un-inspiring if I am not careful.
Some of the time, that is. Other times I see an image in a book and I could swear it was captured on Fuji Velvia (slide film) yet lo and behold it was captured on a very common DSLR that I’ve used before. So, I don’t always guess right. However it is definitely a one-way road. Some digital photography masters can achieve a look that matches that of a particular film, or at least the image is just so timeless that I would never discern which digital camera, or what RAW processing software, was used. However I have never, ever seen a film image and thought “Oh, that looks like it was captured on a Nikon D800 and processed in Lightroom”
“Nikon, please figure out yellow / green!”
So what is going on here? In my mind at least, I feel that many photographers are getting out of touch with a finer sense of tone, and the art of playing to the strengths and weaknesses of whichever medium they’re using. Instead, they blast every image with maximum detail retention and color accuracy. Sometimes this is a good thing, of course, but sometimes it results in a boring photograph.
I have to wonder: what ever happened to using the dynamic range of this or that film as a creative tool, instead of considering it a disadvantage? What ever happened to letting an intense color totally overpower an image? This is part of the art of photography, if you ask me… If your camera’s “sensor” couldn’t handle a scene, you picked your emphasis and let the rest of the image fade into subtle shadow, or be overpowered by a bright color. Indeed a graduated filter here and there could be useful, but my point is that each metering decision, each exposure choice, was much more critical and even a part of the creative process.
Fuji Velvia Film, British Columbia, 2005
Agfa Ultra Film, 2010
Fuji Velvia Film, Corona Del Mar, 2007
I’m not even sure if this is a “film versus digital” debate. Really, it’s not about your medium of capture, it is just about how you use it as a tool. Digital is certainly capable of amazing, artistic results. However, here is what I suspect. Digital is capable of TOO MUCH, sometimes. We are being hit with information overload, and sometimes this is not conducive to maximum creativity.
Dynamic range on many of the latest DSLRs is what, triple that of slide films? And yet slide films are still considered to be a respectable, even superior choice, for any landscape photographer who is into large format photography. Also, RAW White Balance control is so vast and arbitrary that it often causes us to completely forget about how colors were originally represented in a scene.
In short, we just do whatever we want with our images, almost as if they are just the foundation of a CGI art piece.
Fuji Velvia Film, Corona Del Mar, 2007
Agfa Ultra Film, 2006
Again, don’t get me wrong, digital photography in general is an incredible tool. In fact I wouldn’t be where I am today without it, I am eternally grateful for it, and I plan to continue to use it almost exclusively.
There is no denying that digital photography, with its information overload and incredible levels of post-production potential, is the ultimate learning tool. It can aide both in technical and creative learning, too. The instant feedback can help someone who just barely picked up a camera become a world-renowned photographer in just a few years’ time.
I just think that sometimes, less is indeed more. It’s part of the reason why portrait photographers (and many others of course) use prime lenses. Working within a limitation is a key ingredient in nurturing creativity. So why do we go so crazy in post-production, trying to make every single tone in our image do exactly what we command it to do? True perfection, sometimes, can get boring after a while.
You could argue that this is exactly what great landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams did- they commanded precise tonal responses from every part of their images. Very true! So what turns today’s incredibly powerful tools into a disadvantage, sometimes?
I’m not entirely sure, but I hope that an awareness of all this will inspire me to continue a pursuit of photographic creativity and individuality.
I still use Adobe Camera Raw every day, both to pay my bills and to pursue my creative passions. (Sometimes the two align, and others, not so much.) There is a camera geek inside all of us, and I do enjoy obsessing over shadow detail or corner sharpness even when I know an image will probably never get any further than Facebook or a 4×6 print.
However some of the time I feel like I’m missing a piece of the puzzle. Have I lost touch with the subtle art of deep, rich shadow tones and bright highlights? Have I lost interest in the technical challenge of thinking creatively within the limitations of a particular medium, be it film or digital? Sometimes, yes. Other times, hopefully not.
Believe it or not, I actually still shoot JPG sometimes, and/or I shoot RAW and then use Nikon’s View NX 2 software to “pretend” as if I’ve shot JPG. Sometimes I’ll even shoot streetscapes / travel photography at ISO 1600 or 3200, even if there is plenty of light for me to hand-hold at my base ISO. Not because I’m trying to be an elite “artiste” oor re-invent the wheel, but just because it’s kinda fun to see the results.
So, experiment. Limit yourself. Can you get your final image with just a single click, and the picture styles etc. that your camera offers? You might have fun, or you might even re-discover a passion for basic photography…
Nikon D300, Seville Spain, 2008
Nikon D300, Sea World, 2007
Fuji Velvia Film, 2008
Nikon D300, in-camera processing, 2008