March 21, 2010

How Analog is Digital Photography?

Alsterfleet Hamburg
Photo taken with an iPhone

The alternative title for this post could have been: I now love my iPhone even more!

Actually, I was generally very happy with my 3G iPhone. But when it comes to taking pictures it pretty much stinks.

Maybe I am too demanding, but only 1 in 100 pictures that I took with the iPhone turned out in a quality, that I would actually dare to post it online. And those acceptable shots were generally taken in very good lighting conditions. Microscopically tiny image sensors and cheap plastic lenses can do no miracles. The images often turn out noisy, smeared and seriously lack contrast and sharpness. And they do so in a very ugly digital manner. I have gotten accustomed to not even bother to take out my iPhone when I would like to take a photo and don't have my DSLR with me. And that is really sad because I always have the iPhone with me...

About 20 years back I actually enjoyed shooting with cheap plastic cameras on film. I used to have a Lomo camera and the images came out in an unpredictable "artsy" way with thrown off colors and contrast that I really liked. But like many photographers I jumped on the digital bandwagon and rode the digital wave to perfection and happiness.

Digital photography has come a long way. With 20+ Megapixel on full frame sensors and lightning fast auto focus capability, it has become quite easy to crunch out very high quality images out of modern DSLR's. But as much as I enjoy this high image quality, I sometimes feel the urge for imperfection and a bit more of a manual creative trial and error.

To me photography is art on a never ending learning curve. And art develops when you keep exploring. Part of exploring is to try out new equipment and techniques and these come usually in stages. I have seen different stages of photography. Maybe you find yourself or someone you know who is in one of these stages:

Stage 1
You have a point and shoot digital camera and snap occasional photos of flowers, cats and family

Stage 2
You want to print these images and learn to use the basic photo editing tool that came with your camera or computer

Stage 3
You feel like the little point and shoot camera limits you in what you want to do. If you just had a DSLR camera your images would look as good as ....... (fill in the name of someone you know who's photos you like)

Stage 4
You bought an entry level DSLR with a kit lens and thinking about making a living off of photography. Set the camera to auto mode and Ansel Adams - here I come!

Stage 5
You think that your photos look crappy! So it is not all about the camera after all? You feel the need to learn how to take better photos. You read photoblogs, buy a book on photography and attend a seminar. You start to shoot more in manual camera settings to get more control over the image. You are learning the rules of composition and the images look straight and clean. You buy a 18-200 better grade zoom lens to cover the whole focal range.

Stage 6
Your photos look better now but you want to learn how to use a serious image editor to get them to look more "wow". You read photoshop "how to" blogs, buy a book on image editing and attend a seminar. Now you are (over)editing most of your images to show off all the tricks that you've learned. 

Stage 7
You are comfortable with your images and apply only reasonable post processing because you know that too much editing does not always make an image look better. Your friends start to say that you are a good photographer. You now feel limited by the creative capability of your mega zoom lens and buy a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens.  You start to imitate styles of photographers that you like.

Stage 8
You use the 50mm lens most of the time and never shoot above f/2.8. You pay close attention to separating the main subject from the background by a shallow depth of field and a beautiful blurry bokeh. You start breaking the photographic rules that you have learned and shooting angles and colors start to get wilder. You shoot with manual exposure most of the time. Generally these image would not end up as image on a postcard of a major tourist attraction that many people would buy and send to their grandparents. But maybe the small artistic bookstore around the corner would be interested...?

Stage 9
A more serious DSLR (Full Frame) and more prime lenses (24mm, 35mm, 85mm, or 135mm) are on the shopping list. You have enough experience to know what to do in almost any photographic situation. Your images are pretty much perfect. That feels good but also a bit empty. You need new challenges

Stage 10
You went to a flea market and picked up a 30 years old analog camera and had a hard time to find a store that still sells film for it. You go through your first roll of film and catch yourself constantly looking at the back lid of the camera after each image. You realize each time that analog has no preview LCD screen. You have a similar hard time to find a store that still develops analog film and you are excited like a six year old on Christmas morning when you are handed the first envelope with your developed prints. You are disapointed like that 6 year old after Christmas morning when the content of the stocking was not what you wished for when you look at these unexposed images. You hate yourself for not knowing how to correctly insert a roll of film and got unexposed images. You research the internet to find a manual on how to correctly load a roll of film into the camera and start shooting your second roll of film. (Honestly, this happend to me). Now you are probably back at stage 7 on the photography stage scale but you feel like someone just beamed you back to stage 1.

Stage 11
You shoot more rolls of film and make notes on what worked and what doesn't. You do not look at the missing LCD screen on the back lid of the camera that often any more. You may even start to develop your own rolls and black and white rules. You definitely have a scanner by now and scan your negatives by yourself.

Stage 12
You go through phases of styles. Loving each while it last's but feel like that you need to develop you own very unique style. People start to recognize your images by that style. You shoot digital and analog according to the project that you are working on. Who knows, maybe you turn pro and become rich and famous.

So where do you see yourself right now? ;-)

I feel like I am currently caught somewhere in an analog stage. I just love the look and feel of analog. The grain (noise is digital, grain is analog) and the color shifts in analog images just have that look to it. I can't really describe it but I find it very pleasing - maybe even soothing.

Will I get rid of my digital SLR camera? No way! But I want to get better at shooting analog.

And this is where I come back to the iPhone and its image quality handicap. As for most things today, there is an "App" for that. Many creative developers and photo enthusiasts have created downloadable programs to give the iPhone images a more creative and sometimes even analog look. The image quality from some of those programs technically degrade contrast and dynamic range of the iPhone photos even more. But some can produce whacky images that could have come out of a 35 year old plastic camera with a long expired and color shifted film. I love these programs and have been using my iPhone camera more in one week than in the past 2.5 years. If you have an iPhone and want to try out some creative stuff, just go to the photo section of the App store. There are plenty of photography Apps for many different styles and start playing and exploring untill you find something that fits your style - or the style that you like right now.

So how Analog is Digital? Judge for yourself. I took today's images during a 30 minute lunch break close to Hamburg's town hall. And yes, I do think these whacky colors are actually cool :)

Allianz office building Hamburg
Photo taken with an iPhone

Alsterarkaden Hamburg
Photo taken with an iPhone

Che statue as part of an art exhibition on Rathausmarkt
Photo taken with an iPhone

New office building in a 60's style image quality
Photo taken with an iPhone

Office entrance with reflections Neuer Wall Hamburg
Photo taken with an iPhone

Roman soldier statue on Rathausmarkt (he's with Che)
Photo taken with an iPhone

Rathausschleuse controls the water level of lake Alster
Photo taken with an iPhone

Staked chairs - no outdoor service today
Photo taken with an iPhone

Two towers that were build more than a century apart
Photo taken with an iPhone


Buddy and Krista said...

Pretty humbling reading this when you are in Stage 1. Well done...

HamburgCam said...

Buddy and Christa, I have seen images on your blog that are far beyond stage 1! :-)

And maybe I'll get to it in a future post, but technical perfection is nothing without creativity in photography.

An image needs to tell a story, and your photos always do.

scoodog said...

Great posting! I share your thinking and have been loving my iPhone camera and using it more than my DSLR. The Hipstamatic app has taken me into a whole new world of "analog" digital photography and I am loving the results.

N. said...

I enjoyed reading your story about stages. :)
Sounds very familiar to me, except I never bought a dslr but skipped that whole step and dropped into film photography.
Those photos look nice, sure, but its lame that what is nice about the photos is made by a piece of software which renders it automaticly.

Meg said...


Steve said...

Wow very interesting!

jose calderon fotografias said...

Alemania sois el numero 1

ulli said...

wunderbare stimmung!

RSA Online said...

Wow your iPhone photos are actually really really good. I wouldn't have thought an iPhone could do that :)

summerhathway said...

This so interesting to one see the photos.

John said...

Great Start taking pictures in Stage one nice Learning Stories.....