'Thinking Like A Film Photographer' Doesn't Make You A Better Photographer In The Digital Age

The sentimentalism built up around film photography has created a straw man argument that needs to be put to rest.

Street photography can be rapid-paced, an art of framing within tenths of a second in order to capture the perfect moment. Unfortunately, there's an unhelpful trend today in the world of photography (especially in street photography) which is encouraging us to slow down, to think like an old school photographer.

I recently read an article in Popular Photography entitled "Take better pictures by thinking like an old-school photographer: Make every shot count." While it offered great advice, it got one thing very wrong: it didn't make any consideration for being able to take shots quickly to capture the perfect moment, the decisive moment, based on one of the benefits of the Digital Era - the sheer speed of the modern day cameras of the 21st Century.

The author makes an accurate observation but ultimately confuses the act of taking one's time with the technology of the day. The gist of his piece was that the old school photographers from the film era had to carefully consider each shot because "every press of the shutter button cost them a little over 50 cents, and having to wait until the roll was developed also meant there was no way of knowing, on the spot, if they had messed up. If they missed the shot, that was it." This is correct.

But this isn't: "If you want to take great photos, the best thing you can do is go back to basics and learn to see the world as a film photographer."

I believe that "the basics" were never based on technology and gear or hindered or enhanced by the exceedingly slow process of film photography. In other words, learning the art of composition, and learning how to pre-visualize, has nothing to do with the technology in one's camera, albeit film or digital.

Furthermore, I believe that learning "to see the world as a film photographer" is just plain wrong when you're shooting on modern DSLRs and especially on mirrorless. If the fundamentals in the photographer's arsenal are sound, then there's no reason why that the photographer shouldn't be the 'fastest gun in the West' when the situation calls for it. The art of photography has very little to do with how slow or fast one is capable of taking pictures or ultimately how many or how few pictures a photographer takes - nor the cost of producing images, nor on how much one prefers film over digital (or vice versa).

Let's flip the author's premise on its head. A painter could have written the following piece, having seen how quickly and recklessly film photographers crank out images: "Take Better Pictures By Thinking Like A Painter: Make Every Picture Count". Because after all, every painter is spending 20 times or more potentially on a painting than what a film photographer would on a single picture. The painter could have taken the film photographer to task by encouraging him to "get back to the basics" and learn to "slow down."

And what about the sculptor, upon seeing how quickly the painter produces a painting?

My point is that the technologies, the genres, have nothing to do with learning the basics of photography, the visual arts, how to pre-visualize, how to compose. It's a separate issue on a good day. On a bad one, it's a straw man argument that pits the skills and prowess of film era photographers against the shoddy and stupid picture-taking frenzied monkeys who snap off 20 frames per second in the digital era.

Yes. Let's get back to basics, by all means. Let's learn photography. But let's leave the sentimentalism for the film era out of the equation. It's not instructive. Instead, let's separate the fundamentals of photography from the technology the photographer will eventually adopt. Let the fundamentals of photography shine through, taking advantages of said technology and formats instead of pitting pitting one kind of photographer against another, straw man style, in order to communicate the importance of fundamentals.

Yes. Let's recognize the differences in workflows between film photographers and digital photographers. Let's remind those who take pictures today that there used to be film photography. Yes. Let's educate. Yes. Let's keep the craft alive, by all means. Let us too explore the new wonders we have at finger's reach in our modern cameras. Let's make use of our photographic fundamentals to make the best imagery possible, regardless of genre.

Yes. Let's think like a photographer.

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