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  • Mike

Is 'photography' still a skill given that we have advanced DSLR cameras?

This question might sound ignorant at first glance. However if you consider the depth of the question, you will understand why it is important to address ans answer with compassionate understanding.

In the early days of photography the photographers had to have a lot of skill in a lot of areas. Some photographers would even have a grasp of chemistry enough to mix their own emulsions to put on plates. In some ways it’s a wonder at all that we have photographs from the early 1800s. Before George Eastman developed his box cameras, most cameras did not have an advanced shutter like we use today. In fact in my cases the shutter would be something opened by hand and the dead reckoning of the photographer would decide when to close it. As cameras advanced, proper shutters of various sorts were developed that would give the camera operator a more fine control to operate with. Early films used to have very low ISO numbers, sometimes into the single digits. With faster films came the need for shutters faster than a human could move their hand.

River Street, Maclean, N.S.W. - very early 1900s. Was the blur a mistake or a limit of the medium?

As films got faster and standardized, as variable aperture became a thing that could be controlled by the camera operator, so too came the need for ensuring correct exposure. Light meters had to be developed, coming into play around the time of WWII to match this advancement. Photographers weren’t just aiming at a subject and hoping for the best, they were carefully doing what a modern DSLR does in a few milliseconds.

Up until fairly late in the history of film did the average person have the ability to just drop their film off to have it developed. Many older photographers would develop their film at home, and then enlarge that film on their own to make “prints.”

Photographer developing at the Boston Camera club, dated 1893

Developing was an art form, one that we are losing. I’m not nostalgic even though if you follow this blog you see that I shoot a fair bit of film. Film is great, it’s amazing but digital is better in every way. In fact my workflow in the darkroom consists of popping the film into a developer tank and taking the lid of the developing tank back off to dry my film. Then the film goes into the film scanner into my PC. I would only work with enlarging film if I wanted to learn how and experiment. That whole process is obsolete.

With all these facts, DSLR cameras at first glance seem to solve all the problems of photography. If one sets the camera to full auto it will meter correctly most of the time, it will get a correct exposure most of the time, and it will output an image every time. There is no film to screw up, white balance can be tweaked in post if the colors are off a bit due to the shade of the light, and you can take a thousand photos without interruption if you have even a moderate SD card. To a layperson, or even those of you who are just starting, it would appear that the “skills” needed to do photography have all been replaced by an advanced camera, and advanced software in post. If you think this way, you are not at fault for being ignorant either. You are understanding how far photography has come in the near 200 years of it’s existence. You understand that the modern DSLR or Cell phone camera is almost mystical in what it can do. But here’s what you don’t understand, Photography is a skill, just like any other skill it too must be honed, even with modern DSLRs.

Compare photography to another skill, really any skill in a trade or artform. Let’s take being a great chef. In the early days of cooking man cooked over an open fire. Man invented things like pots to boil things, surfaces to sear meats, and methods of holding food over the fire to roast it. As time progressed man learned to season food to taste, how to cook indoors. In only the last 100 years man moved to the modern kitchen stove, and only in the last 30 years or so did the modern cook have a digital timer, a grocery store with exotic and fresh food, a microwave, and the internet to research recipes. When your mother cooked for you as a child I bet you never said something like, “Wow mom, you sure have a good stove."

Thanks to for this image.

When was the last time you ate a restaurant and said , “Their microwave makes the food taste so good.” Why not? Cooking food has never been easier than it is now, nor has it been more accessible. The answer lies in the fact that the quality of delicious food comes not from a pile of raw ingredients, but rather in the skills of the chef. Any good chef has a palette that knows when food is good, and when it is missing something. So too a photographer of skill can point the camera at a subject and decide that something is missing or needs changing.

Good composition and lighting will never be able to be automated in a camera. And for those of you who think such things can be fixed in post with software, you are gravely mistaken. Software can hide mistakes to an extent, but software only makes good photos great by bringing out what is already captured correctly.

A good photographer will set up lighting and framing of a shot in a way that will make for an interesting image. Like cooking, photography goes beyond the technical skills needed to get an image to come out of the camera. The photographer must have the skills to make the whole workflow of producing an image down to a science, they must have a vision for what they want before they snap the photo.

If you still aren’t convinced, ask yourself this. “Is writing a skill any more now that we have computers and AI programs that can generate sentences?” Why not? Because we no longer use typewriters or even paper? It may look like a writer is pressing fancy buttons on his shiny Macbook, but the machine isn’t creating the vision of the writer when they make an emotional string of words as part of a paragraph which is a small part in a bigger work.

Computers have even attempted to write a novel, to write dialog, and yet they do not compare to what a human that is skilled can. The computer isn’t even a crutch for a writer, it merely allows them more freedom and flexibility. You see a computer is just a tool that in the hands of a skilled writer can be used to create writing that can move people. So too is a DSLR, it can take images that will move people, but only if the person behind that camera has vision and skill.

Modern DSLRs have removed many of the ceilings separating average people from being able to take great photos. They have removed the cost of taking photos, and many of the skills needed to capture an image. But modern DSLR cameras have definitely not removed the need for thoughtful planning when it comes to taking a photo.

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