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Thursday, October 27

Internal v. external visualisation

We've all read plenty about the pros and cons of digital and film photography. The discussions usually revolve around sharpness, grain versus noise, fine detail, etc. Or they relate to the mechanical side of things: plasticky, but undeniably high performance computers-with-a-lens-out-front against finely-engineered brass and glass precision tools.

What I haven't read about, though, is the effect the two different forms of "capture" (that's another word we never used before the advent of digital) have on the photographer. And it's proving at least as far reaching for me.

Digital imaging improved my photography, I've no doubt about that. The LCD screen is a great teacher. It's like having a polaroid back with an endless and free supply of film that can be used to check exposure and fine tune composition. The problem, though, is that it's an external form of visualisation.

When I was shooting regularly with my Nikon D700 there were few occasions when I first formed the image in my mind's eye. Usually, I would be attracted to a particular line or form in the landscape or a quaint juxtaposition of elements. Out would come the camera, a judgement would be made about the lens likely to be needed and then I'd start shooting on program, dialing in whatever exposure compensation the histogram suggested would be beneficial. Often it would take quite a few exposures before I arrived at one that was satisfying. I used to think of it as "working the scene". Now, I'm not so sure it's as noble a pursuit as all that. (I'm not knocking digital here because I've taken a lot of good photographs with the D700, some of which I probably wouldn't have got with a medium format film camera - such as hand-held low light pictures or those requiring especially wide or long tele lenses).

But, having spent the last few weeks shooting only film, I'm beginning to "see" the image in my head again before I commit the exposure to film. That's internal visualisation and is, ultimately, more creatively satisfying than digital's scattergun approach. Of course, I could be on my own here. Maybe digital shooters do visualise things before they click the shutter but I somehow doubt it. Why would you when you can see the scene in 2D in a moment's time? Perhaps some of you reading this can chime in here. Am I the odd man out?

I feel like I'm slipping into familiar territory again now when I'm out with the Rolleiflex. Today, for instance, I spent about 40 minutes shooting a couple of pics in a nearby wood. I must have looked a funny enough sight to people walking their dogs as, wearing a long green parka (it was a stormy day), with a tripod in my left hand and a Billingham bag and a metal flight case* slung over my left shoulder, I stood for what must have been a good few minutes staring at a tree.

There was method in the madness, though. The tree was backlit by not-too-bright clouds and I imagined it's soaring branches recording as dark outlines against the light sky. Visualisation was key and then I had to work out the technical aspects. I'll post the pic once I've developed the film and write some more about it then. The point is that I'd worked out the whole thing (hope I'm not tempting the developer gremlins by speaking about it at this stage!) before even setting the SL66E up on the tripod. I took just two pics at different shutter speeds to capture wind blown branches. God knows how many digital files I would have fired off.

It's a good place to be as a photographer - comfortable with my equipment, happy working out all the nuts and bolts of focus, compensation and exposure and doing what artists** do best - visualising their creations. A commenter on a previous post suggested I was "entering the zen side" and that's probably true - if a bit mystical for a Scotsman!


* My equipment breaks down into two camps - portable and not-very-portable. The easy-to-carry outfit is my Rolleiflex 2.8F and Konica Hexar AF in a Domke F-803 satchel. The "beast" comes in two parts: the SL66E and 80mm Planar, exposure meter, filters, etc, in the Billingham 225 and my 40mm, 150mm, 250mm lenses and bellows lens hood in the flight case.

** It's OK, I'm not getting all high-falutin' on you here. I'm using "artist" in the generic sense rather than out of any idea of personal grandeur - although I can always hope.

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