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Monday, September 20, 2010

Pixels Aren't Really Free

Sunset 9/13/10
© 2010 Simon Hucko

Practice makes perfect, and photography is no exception to that rule. One of the best things about the digital photography era is the ability to shoot a nearly unlimited number of photos without worrying about additional cost. Now anyone can burn through 100+ frames experimenting with lighting or a new technique or a different subject, whereas the expense associated with such an exercise 10 years ago limited things like that to film school and driven amateurs with a large slush fund. Not only can you shoot as much as you want, there's no delay between pressing the shutter and seeing the image. No waiting to finish off the roll and sending it off for processing (or spending a few hours in the darkroom yourself developing and printing) to find out that you missed the focus or exposure on an otherwise great shot. This, along with the ease of sharing and getting feedback on your work, makes digital photography an incredible learning tool.

It also makes you sloppy.

It doesn't matter if you get it right the first time. Or the second. Or even the tenth. Just keep plugging away until you get something good enough to rescue in your software editing package of choice. Who cares, it's all free, right? Not exactly. What about the time you spend taking multiple photos of one thing until you get it right? How about the time spent in post processing fixing stuff that you could have gotten in camera. And then there's storage, if you're one of those digital pack rats who can't delete a photo you're going to be snapping up hard drives and bogging down your computer with giant photo libraries.

But there's another hidden cost in there - you stop learning your craft. Why spend time on making the perfect exposure when you can correct for it with a slider in post? If you miss on composition a little you can always crop down on the image. (Hey, 12 million pixels have got to be good for something, right?) Horizon a little crooked? No biggie, just straighten it as you go. And sure, these are just little fixes that take almost no time at your computer, but they add up (especially when you're doing them for those 327 frames you snapped on burst mode). On top of that, you're losing resolution and image quality along the way. It's nice to have these tools available, but you shouldn't be relying on them for every shot.

I think this is why so many photographers who started on digital are "discovering" film (myself included). Suddenly every shutter press costs something (from a few cents to a few dollars depending on the film, format and processing). There's no image review with histogram on the back of the camera, so you have to get exposure right the first time. If you take a shot and then walk a few feet and discover a better angle, you've wasted that first shot. You're stuck with whatever ISO film you have loaded in your camera, so you have to make sure you bring the right stuff for the type of shooting you'll be doing. Every film has its own look, too (especially color film), so that needs to be factored in to your final result. The net effect of this is that shooting film is much more patient and deliberate than shooting digital. That clunk of the shutter is like an emphatic period at the end of a long sentence: film choice, composition, lighting, metering, aperture and shutter speed, focus, timing, shutter. Unless your budget allows for unlimited shots, you'll quickly become more selective about what and how you shoot.

What's my point? If you've never done so, shoot some film. Find an old 35mm film camera on ebay or craigslist for cheap (bonus points if it's all manual) with a 50mm lens. Buy a roll or two of film from somewhere that still carries it (CVS around here happens to have a surprisingly decent supply and they still process in-house). Find a way to meter if your camera doesn't - you can use your DSLR for this, or even sunny 16 (ie the force), and make every single one of those 24/36 frames count. Get some 4x6 proofs printed and see how you did. Scan them and share them here or on Flickr. I bet you'll be back for more. Not only that, but it will change the way you look at digital photography - you will simultaneously be incredibly grateful for the ease and speed, and learn to slow down a little and make your images count more.

Note: Getting addicted to film is a dangerous game. You start with a bargain 35mm camera, and before you know it you're processing large format sheet film in your makeshift darkroom in the basement. Don't say I didn't warn you...


[title of blog] on flickr


  1. Well said. I've been wanting to shoot more film, but I just can't bring myself to break my addiction to the instant gratification that is Digital. I could shoot a roll of film each week and still pay less than my friends with Starbucks addictions...

    Of course, even with digital cameras, the frames aren't free. By my calculations, I spent 2.4 cents on each frame that I took on my D300 until the shutter died. Sure, shooting 35mm film is about 20x more expensive, but since I'm in the market for a new shutter and/or a new camera, I think it's important for us to realize that even with digital, shooting sloppily isn't free.

  2. @ Matt - Good point, I didn't even go into the real costs of digital: upgrading camera bodies, memory cards, storage (backup), computers, editing software, time. I'm sure the economics still come out in digital's favor, especially if you shoot a lot, but there's still a real cost associated with it.

    Sorry to hear about your D300, it's a good reminder to make every frame count