Thursday, November 20, 2014

Have DSLRs Destroyed Family Moments?

People younger than about 25 years old have probably no idea what I'm talking about when I say this: Remember those old days of film cameras, when you snapped photos at a party, a family occasion, or a school reunion? Remember that sweet anticipation, that kinda scary anxiety to see how photos turned out? Sometimes the result was disappointing - photos that were too dark, photos that were too bright. Photos that were too blurry. Photos with all kinds of flares and ghosts. Some (hopefully most) photos were fine. And, almost with every film, there were a few photos that were not exactly "lost", but weren't too "successful" either.

Oh, how I miss those photos...

You see (and now my younger-than-25 audience can plug back in again), we live in the digital photography era. More still, we live in the digital SLR era. What does that mean? Well, read on and let me know if you recognize yourself in any of the things listed below:

- Ah, this photo isn't tack sharp (delete)
- Hmm, this photo has too much flare (delete)
- Yikes! I look like a doofus on this one (delete)
- Argh! This photo will look better if the vase was on the left side of the table (delete) - hey everyone,  wait a sec, let's try again!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not some sort of a film luddite - I'm creating art and making money out of digital photography, not film. But, we must acknowledge a few things. Digital photography has done this to people in general:

  • People are more demanding of themselves
    The Internet is literally jammed with photos. As a consequence of the upvoting systems employed by search engines and sites in general (e.g. Flickr), the more attractive-looking photos (that may or may not be great art) are very eminently visible. This creates an aura of "damn, everyone makes such great pics except me. I have to try much harder". Not that the general level of photography hasn't increased, on the contrary. I think there are many more great photographers today compared to the 1950s. But this has also created a distorted sense of what is a "good photo".
  • Immediate feedback on the LCD screen means immediate deleting
    I admit it, I have contributed to this. And there are good reasons to do that. I mean, who wants to have a memory card with hundreds of similar images, right? The problem is, every now and then you might delete something that is worth saving, even if not for artistic reasons. I have some photos of me taken by my mother when I was 8 or 9, and on one of them there is a funny flare across the frame, that looks as if a ray of light is cutting my body in half. Well, this photo is famous in my extended family. We call it the "Star Trek" photo ("beam me up, Scotty"). Is there any hope a photo like that would have survived in the digital era? I'm sad to say, no, probably it would have not...
  • Only the perceived best of the best photos end up printed (if even then)
    ...And, if against all odds it weren't deleted in-camera, it would never be printed. It would just lay forgotten in some hard-drive, probably never to be seen again. Just a sad series of 0s and 1s in a binary cemetery. I don't know the statistics, but I'm willing to bet less and less photos are printed today. We might have plenty of other printed materials (calendars, mugs, key-chains), but probably the number of people who print regular 6x4 photos has collapsed compared to the 80s or 90s. That of course means that you can very rarely see "unsuccessful" printed photos.

So, does it even matter?

Good question. I think it does, though. Perhaps the reason I think it matters is not the loss of "unsuccessful" family photos itself, but rather the fact that this happens without our conscious understanding. In other words, just like with many other things today, there is such a flood of sensory information (in our case, "perfect" images on the Net), that our perspective of photography is distorted. We become more demanding of ourselves (in ways that are not necessarily compatible with our individual talents, capabilities, or mere interest); we become less forgiving of others ("damn it mom, you ruined the photos at my graduation party!"); and, perhaps the most important element of all, we understand less and less photography as a medium to cherish memories. The photo of me being "beamed up" as an 8-year-old would have been deleted in 2 seconds today, and a second photo would have been taken. That second photo would not have flare or other issues. No funny reflections. It would have been a "successful" photo. A photo similar to all others. A photo without a soul

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