Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Technology Ruins Photography

Through immense advancement of technology, photography equipments have evolved at such blindingly quick pace that a camera that rolled out in production a month ago would smoke any cameras produced three years ago. Much thanks and praises to pixel-peepers and measurebators, we have cleaner and cleaner high ISO performance, faster frames per second continuous shooting, and higher megapixel resolution being squeezed out from the black little box we are so fond of calling, the camera. So is technology necessarily improving photography? I am not referring to the gear and tools only, because cameras and lenses alone do not fully define the whole equation of photography.

Yes, we have better and more powerful camera release after release, but the core of photography, the essence of what it used to be has been eroded. Lets not do the comparison too much between the film and digital age (gosh when will this debate end) but I am looking closer to the occurrences more relevant within the past 5-6 years of DSLR photography development.

How technology ruins photography:

1) Automation. Just click, think later.

The camera these days are so intelligent, you can hardly get anything wrong with a wide variety of automatic controlled settings at your disposal. There are the ever so convenient scene modes, if you are shooting portraits, just select portrait-mode, if you are shooting landscape, there is even a pre-set for that. If you really feel so lazy, just set the camera to full auto. I noticed a trend of many new-comers to photography merrily snapping their cameras away without even the slightest thought of lighting considerations, the composition and the subject content in the photograph itself. They don’t really care if their photographs carry any significant messages, or how would different parameters such as narrower aperture or different white balance setting would affect the outcome of their photographs. They just want to snap. They pay little attention to what is happening before clicking the shutter button. DSLR these days are so “perfect” that it is really difficult to screw things up. I-Auto, with Auto ISO control, with the 1000000 points continuous tracking AF system.

Gone were the days when new photographers learned meticulously everything from the basics, starting with manual controls of the exposure (setting aperture, shutter speed and ISO combination manually) and also doing manual focus to understand how the focusing of the camera actually works. These days, the finger does more work in clicking the shutter button in trigger happy mode than the brain.

So the question is, are you smarter than your camera? Are you the photographer, or the camera?

Perhaps in the future, the word photographer will be replaced with “camera-man” instead, more fitting because it is the man that just clicks the camera, not a man doing photography with a camera.

2) High ISO phenomenon

For the weirdest reasons, high ISO has become the governing factor in deciding which camera ranks better than the others. When I picked up photography, I was using a lowly budget compact camera (Kodak CX-7430), with the range of ISO settings at 80, 100, 200 and 400. I used ISO80 and 100 most of the time when the lighting was good, ISO200 when I was indoors, shooting with flash and I almost never used ISO400 at all due to the horrible noise output. When I upgraded to a DSLR in the year 2008, I was shooting with E-410 and then E-520, and I slowly bumped up my ISO usage from 200-400, and marveled at how clean ISO400 can be on a DSLR in comparison to a compact camera. I only used ISO800 for emergencies, and never even used ISO1600. That was two years ago. And now, talk to that new kid who just bought a D7000 or a Pentax K-5. All they shot would be images taken with ISO3200 and ISO6400. And they raved on how beautiful their images were, as if by pushing the ISO limit can somehow miraculously produce beautiful results. This trend is starting to disgust me. There have been so many arguments going about on how people would favour this camera over that camera just by comparing ISO performance.

Gone were the days of starting with very low ISO settings for optimal images. New DSLR users these days worship anything that shoots in high ISO.

I really do not get why people are so obsessed with high ISO performance of a camera. Great your camera can shoot clean ISO1000000000 image. So what? You think that makes your camera more superior than others? Ok, even if your camera is better (just because of that high ISO mumbo jumbo), you think your photography skills will be improved by constantly shooting at high ISO settings? I shoot mostly at low ISO settings, will try my best to minimize the use of high ISO, and I too, can come up with the results that I have intended.

3) Technology vs Old School Photography Approach

I admit, older cameras have more restrictions, and limitations. However, as learning and improving photographer, those limitations often pose more benefits than disadvantages. Everyone has to start somewhere, any photographer will have to pick up the basics, and slowly improve and grow over time. It is during this learning curve that the growth of the photographer is extremely important, because the learning process will determine his overall style and characteristics of his photography approach. Photographers nowadays have very different approach in learning. For example, why use flash to improve the lighting when you can shoot noise free and clean images at ISO6400? Why worry about the white balance setting when you can shoot RAW and then apply the settings later? There is no need to compose properly, really, you shoot with the ridiculous 18MP or 22MP sensor, and still have plenty of room to crop, and even the cropped images still contain remarkable amount of resolution. If all things fail, there is still Photoshop to save the day.

How about getting everything right in-camera? What about working around the situation and come up with creative solutions to overcome the problems?

Gone were the days when the learning photographer scratches his head to find answers to many limitations that he was presented with the older camera. Those who went through the struggles with the restrictions would actually grasp much deeper and stronger understandings on how the camera and lenses work, how to control certain conditions and come up with innovative alternatives to counter the problems they were being faced. Unfortunately, the photographers these days do not rely on their wit, but they depend too much on the capability of the camera that if they fail to get the shot, they blame it on the camera. “oh this camera’s high ISO performance is not that great, hence I cannot get a good shot in such dark scene.” Or “oh my lens does not come with Image stabilization, hence the photos are blur due to shake”. Really? The older generation photographer will never throw out an excuse of not having high ISO capability, or all those new tricks and gimmicks that new photography technologies have come up with. They used tripods and monopods, or placed their camera on sturdy surface for long exposure/slow shutter shooting. They have perfected their camera/lens hand holding techniques to execute a steady 0.5 second shutter speed handheld shot with not even a slightest blur. They master proper execution of flash to counter low light situations. They work around the weaknesses, they put their hearts and minds into making the photograph happen, even without the help of all the modern technologies.

4) Technical Obsession

The new generation photographers now have a whole new series of obsessive compulsive episodes that previously were unheard of. They barely scratched the surface of the long history of photography, yet they have come up with a new definition of what good photography should be. Those obsessions include pixel-peeping, bokeh-fetish, perfect white balance with zero colour cast and all sorts of technical perfection (no distortion, perfectly leveled photographs) being churned out just to justify and measure how good a photograph is. Yes, sadly photography, which was grand and majestic has been reduced to such unspeakable horror.

In photography forums or societies, even in all the modern photography magazines, emphasis were placed on getting technically perfect shots, and countless pages were dedicated to Photoshop on how to create that special effect. Everything centers on what the camera can do, instead of what the photographer can do. The constant thought reverberates infinitely on how to use the camera and Photoshop better, instead of how to be a better photographer. Technology destroys the soul of photography. I am talking about the part that sets apart and differentiates a photograph from otherwise, a mere digital file that contains millions of colored pixels. I am referring to the photography vision and artistic sense of the photographer. Not many new-comers to photography in this new generation put much weight in developing their artistic side of photography. Sad, but true.

I guess what I am trying to say here is, there is no necessity to rush in and grab that newest, coolest, most powerful, highest end camera out there. If the magazines, your professional photographer friend and the local camera shop sales assistant tell you that you have to upgrade, buy or dump your current camera system, you can tell them to flush their own heads down the toilet bowl. Seriously, the most powerful weapon in photography is not the camera, but the photographer. If you already have a camera, use it. Have more faith in it, and learn to bring out its full potential.

A more technological advanced camera does not guarantee you to be a good photographer. Using a better camera does not necessarily mean taking better photographs. Ultimately, let your photography work tell the world how good a photographer you are, rather than how good and technological advanced your camera is.


  1. I don´t agree, Robin! Technology helps photography. Sure, the mass of people point and shoot with expensive equipment they don´t really need. But p&s shooters ruled the world even in analog days. Tons of bad pics in shoe boxes all over the world!
    For those who are interested in photography, digital technology speeds up their learning curve. You can learn so much in short time (best example: Robin Wong). It´s amazing! Enthusiast people in their homes produce high quality photography you have only seen by pro´s maybe ten or twenty years ago...look at flickriver!
    Let the p&s shooters buy the high end stuff, you will have your benefit from that as the manufacturers are forced to evolve their technology further and further. This is not bad. Clean high ISO is not bad. Need it? No! Who needs GPS or mobile phones or TV shows?
    As long as you know what you need for your kind of photography, let others collect more and more gear..."it´s the economy, stupid!"
    Best Wishes for the (not so) New Year,

  2. Hi Sven,
    Thanks for the insightful input !! I really appreciate it. I guess it is just a little disturbing looking at the masses of people just blindly purchasing ridiculously expensive equipments, and they think that they know what they do. What I tried to say is that photography is a lot more than camera itself, and technology is not really helping to get that message across.

  3. And the more technology, the more the mass of people will marvel at how we manage to get beautiful shots out of our cams at base ISO, jpeg ooc, Aperture priority, without FD, SD, GPS, IBIS and lot of PP :-)

  4. Hi SvenReinhold,
    Nicely said !!

  5. Hi Robin,
    neednt be a technophobe.
    the picture is the end product
    as long as the new tech eases getting it, embrace it.
    (i wun be here if film still rules)

    if those jokers needs iso1000000 to get what you can achieve at iso100, laugh at them.
    its as if your bicycle as fast as their ferraris.

    ps, do keep those poisonous pics coming in.. A gd way to know what the e5 is really capable of.

  6. "the most powerful weapon in photography is not the camera, but the photographer."
    Good... technology just help to process a better photo only.

  7. Stop whining.

    Who cares about someones ISO?

    How long has photoshop been around? Get over it.

    Whining about scene modes? They barely do anything different and they surely won't "make" a good photograph.

    And if you don't care about gear why do you have a stupid list of your cameras on the side of your site?

    Lastly, your photography is some of the most boring I've seen, so you shouldn't talk about anything.

  8. Technology in photography enables me to make some money. I praise it. It is a great welcome. People still want to learn the old school ways. I teach close to 100 students within 1 year, and the instant feedback of digital is definitely a boon.

    I still grind them with the old ways; teaching the wisdom of the lens, the ease of TTL flash ( yes, it is old), and looking at the light in zones.

    In the end, human curiosity is paramount. If the interest is there, they will come and learn, and nothing beats the old way of teaching photography.

    I have 8 students waiting in line this coming 2 weeks. I doubt it to be the same hadn't digital camera existed.

  9. Hey Kuan,
    Thanks for the compliments, I appreciate it. Yeah, shooting high ISO is not necessarily the best way to go, and people seem to have forgotten when low ISO is capable of.

    Hey Anonymous,
    I wont entertain you, unless you state your name, a preferably an email address.

    Hey Fahrur,
    I have no doubt that technology is important, how it shaped the world of modern photography, and the changes that it has brought. However, not many people care about what made photography, photography anymore. Which is indeed sad. Yes, we still go about telling people how the old school approach can be beneficial, but still, we see less and less of that these days.

  10. Oddly, I dislike those who complains a lot even though they own high end gears. Not like their photos are godlike like yours. Haha.

  11. Hi Chong,
    My photos are still at noob level la.... aahahah

  12. I have an old film Canon with only a 35mm f4 lens; I bought it from a guy so salty, he must've been around during tin-typing. He told me: start out with P, then go from there. :). My husband sold all of his most beloved CD's to buy that camera for me as a newlywed. I cherish that heavy chunk of metal.

    Now, I use an Olympus E-620 with ease because I had to learn speeds, lighting value, etc with the film camera. My Olympus is never out of M. I have fun with the 50mm macro, as well as the two kit lenses. I do not edit very much at all. I have Aperture 3, but have used it twice. I often wonder: at what point does editing stop and digital finger painting begin?

    For a peek at my amateur and under-edited photos, check out my blog or flickr roll. :).

    Flickr: jimsgal

    I like your blog, your pictures, and your insight. Cheers!

  13. Hello Yerttle,
    Thanks for your kind words, I really appreciate them !!
    Whoah, started from film was never easy. I never did actually used any film camera before, hence I was born into the digital age, where instant gratification has become a norm in everything photography. Less waiting, and almost instant results.
    I am sure you enjoy your E-620 a lot, it is a very capable camera. Thanks also for sharing your flickr and blog. Cheers

  14. Your photos, Robin, have a unique touch which is independent of technology. As Sven Reinhold wrote, modern times allow instant feedback of pictures taken. So people make better images with their tools. But all have similar techs and the Internet gets flooded with macro flowers and sunsets - boring and exchangable. In the course of time I got simpler, making 6x9 analog photos with a used Fuji, and recently bought a used Oly E-30. I sold a lot of hi-tech Canon Mark stuff to get the mind free for bringing skill and feeling to pictures. Wish you, Robin, many more of those good street pictures. They are amazing. KInd regards, Thomas

  15. Hello Thomas,
    Thank you so much for such kind words !! I really appreciate them a lot.
    Originality has been lost, thanks to technology, any ideas can be duplicated with ease. Nonetheless, as photographers, we do have to come up something fresh and new every now and then.
    There will surely be more street stuff coming up. Thanks again.

  16. Robin,

    I can understand your frustration, but I must humbly disagree when it comes to the high ISO phenomenon. While I do agree that it's annoying to see photos taken using high iso when low iso is appropriate, there are times when you'll need that fast shutter speed to freeze movement at a music performance. Some recommend using flash, but that kills the ambient mood lighting of a venue. With that being said, the only camera that could make me leave the E-5 is the D3s. However such a short percentage of my shots are at ISO6400 that it isn't a deal breaker for me. If I ever got to the point where I absolutely needed that high iso I would look to get the right tool to help me complete the job. However, most of my shooting doesn't stays within iso 100-1600.

  17. Automation: More time to think about the art. Let the camera take care of the craft. Click and click again.

  18. I've said before that digital ruined photography for me, but actually I think it was unnecessary technology because even as digital was coming in film cameras were getting bloated with stuff we don't really need.

    I jumped on the digital band wagon early on and soon found myself not taking photos anymore. A change in career was in part to blame but I really had fallen out of love with photography. Picking up a film camera a while back changed all of that

  19. I do agree. Anyone can take a so-so photo on a auto camera, then they can manipulate it to make it look 'cool' but is this really photography? Can they call themselves a photographer or should they be called a graphic manipulator? The real skill of being a good photographer is to go out with your camera on manual and take photographs which need no image manipulation or assistance from the auto settings. Work out your own f-stop, aperture and ISO to suit the image you are trying to capture otherwise you cannot be called a photographer as you are not doing the work - you are just a snapper.

  20. Surely you can't mean all technology. If not where do you draw the line? Do you like having a shutter or a lens, or would a pinhole camera with a piece of silver-coated copper be better. The progress of photography has a long history and to pick one point in time and say "after this point it went downhill" is very bold. If you had your choice which year would you freeze photographic technology. Me, I wouldn't I like all the options new technology gives.