instamatic

Don't worry, be snappy: Stop complaining about your digital camera

When one has done something long enough (and, for the sake of this particular argument, let’s say living can be reasonably counted among them) there’s a tendency to take the long view—we have some notion of where we’ve been as well as how things are now. Recent complaints about the state of Apple and photography have compelled me to take a journey down the historical highway in the hope of gaining some perspective on just where we stand in regard to taking and making images with our cameras.

Divine digital

Unfair though it may be to compare yesterday’s picture-snapping process to hiking 17 miles uphill in the snow, I’d like to put in a word for digital as it pertains to photography. As you old-timers recall, at one time our cameras housed strips of cellulose acetate or polyester covered in light sensitive material. When the shutter opened, that material captured an impression of the light shone on it. Before you could view your pictures, you had to remove the film, run it through a development process, and then create printed images from the negatives.

This took time. Lots of time. Lots of time when you weren’t pointing your camera at the objects you wished to capture. This meant that you had to have more than a small measure of faith that you knew one end of the camera from the other, as you didn’t have the luxury of snapping a shot and quickly looking at an LCD to see a preview of it (or pull up a histogram that offered clues on how to adjust the camera’s settings).

Additionally, film cost money. Unless you were particularly well-heeled (or took pictures for a living) you didn’t burn dozens of rolls of film hoping that one picture out of 100 was worth a damn. Instead you carefully planned your shots and, perhaps, shied away from the kind of experimentation that could result in a wasted frame (but far more interesting image).

film

Nostalgic though it may be, film was a pain to use.

While there may be those who prefer the look of film (just as there are people who prefer long-playing records to CDs or digital downloads), even the most traditional among us must admit that there’s something to be said for the ability to shoot and preview hundreds of images at a go. It means we can get realtime feedback on what we’re doing and, as today’s memory cards can hold hundreds of high-resolution images, we can afford to take chances. Rather than snapping one shot of your beloved feline and hoping for the best, you can now try for the ultimate kitty pic by shooting the creature from every angle under a variety of lighting conditions.

Begone, red bulb

photo chems

This? Really?

I like inhaling monomethyl-p-aminophenol hemisulfate and sodium sulfite in a sealed room as much as the next guy, but can we please give a shout-out to image editing on a computer? The process of developing photographs in a dark room was a black art (though, as someone who briefly took a stab at it in high school, an enjoyable one) and, like other elements of photography, could run into significant amounts of money.

Today we have an arsenal of tools that allow us to manipulate images in ways unimaginable in those dark days. Sure, some of iPhoto’s tools may be broad, even rough, but just imagine being darkroom-bound and tackling some of the tasks that those tools can perform in an instant (and that can be undone just as quickly)—particularly if you’re an amateur who wouldn’t know a dodge from a burn if one slapped you across the kisser.

The assets of organization

Once we had those printed images, we were obliged to do something with them. The retentive among us carefully culled the poor shots from the worthy and precisely placed them in photo albums—perhaps dotting the i by inscribing a caption beneath each one. The rest of us chucked them into a convenient drawer or shoebox with the idea that, upon our demise, our next-of-kin would discover them and exclaim “Wow, what terrible cameras and paper stock they had in those days!” and then throw them on the dustheap along with our sixteenth-edition Twilight novels.

It’s entirely possible to approach image organization in these same ways today. The fastidious among us will discard the majority of their pictures upon import with the idea that even pros miss more often than hit. And, with what remains, keyword and albumize like there’s no tomorrow. On the other extreme there are amateur shooters like me who—rather than taking the time to sift and sort—simply add more storage to house those precious “Your thumb’s in the way” moments.

But, thanks to efforts by Apple and others, we now have many in-between steps. Bright minds understand that when you have the ability to capture a nearly unlimited number of images, avenues for organization become umpteen times more important. And these minds deliver in the form of metadata that lets us tag images by date and time, location, camera, aperture … even by the people who appear in our pictures. With the help of this data and smart sorting schemes (Apple’s Smart Albums, for example), even lazy people have the opportunity to put their images in some kind of rudimentary order without having to make much of an effort.

I suppose we’ll see some kind of taste-filter intelligence come to photo-editing apps one day—“No, that’s a terrible picture. Unless you present a compelling argument to do otherwise, it’s going in the trash.”—but until that day comes, it’s hard to argue that today’s apps don’t provide you with ample means to put your images in order.

Images everywhere

With Apple’s recent unveiling of Photos for OS X (and the other-shoed retirement of Aperture and iPhoto) there has been a measure of panic from the short-sighted.

“I have 80 petabytes of images. How dare Apple force me to store them in the cloud!”

pic tweet

The ability to share images instantly is miraculous.

Putting aside the idea that cloud storage will be an option rather than requirement, can we stop the grumbling for a second to acknowledge that there’s something pretty wonderful about snapping an image on your iPhone and having it appear on your Mac and iPad moments later? Or that the notion of printing and mailing or even emailing an image to a friend seems positively prehistoric now that we can share images over AirDrop, Messages, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Insta-this-or-that ...

One of my greatest pleasures is tweeting iPhone pictures I take during my morning beach walks that tell the world “I am here right now. Stuck in a soul-deadening open office though you may be, take comfort in knowing that the tides roll in and roll out every second of every day.” This is a message more powerful than thumbtacking that same image to a bulletin board weeks later.

Picture imperfect

The point being, in regard to capturing, manipulating, and sharing images (as P. Simon is wont to say), we live in an age of miracle and wonder. Of course more can be done—more can always be done. As we accumulate scads of images our tools should perform faster and provide even easier ways to filter and catalog our pictures. Hardware and software will appear that let us manipulate images as if we were still standing in front of the objects we were capturing. And the tiny cameras that dot our mobile devices will eclipse cameras that we paid hundreds of dollars for in earlier days. This will happen. In the meantime, anxious though we are for more and ever-more, it doesn’t hurt to stop, stand, and appreciate just how far we’ve come.

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