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Changes in Photography

Photography has changed tremendously and continuously in the past fifty years.

First there was the advance from black-and-white to colour, then the introduction of 35mm cameras, then in-camera light meters, automatic exposure etc, then there was auto focus and finally digital photography.Yet none of these ways of taking photographs has disappeared. Black-and-white is still extensively used, medium and large format is still the choice of some professional photographers (even some wildlife photographers), hand- held exposure meters are still used by the professionals, as well as manual exposure metering. Nor have manual focus and light-sensitive/ emulsion film been discarded.Although it is very important to keep up with technology, knowledge of all the above-mentioned aspects is important for every photographer.

Black and White

Black and White Clouds
In black and white photography you need to get a solid black, a pure white and all the shades inbetween

In black-and-white photography, photographers are forced to look at their subjects in a particular way, thinking how the image will look without colour.

It is important to have all the tones of light intensity in every image. When you photograph in black and white you should have a black shadow point, a white highlight and all the shades of grey in between.

Exactly the same applies to almost every colour photograph you take. Ansel Adams did not simply walk around photographing scenes.

It took him a lifetime to develop the skills to do so successfully – to see. Something nobody since has been able to match.

Medium and Large Format

With the improvement of film, the popular camera formats have changed. First there was the changed fro large to medium format, then to 35mm, and finally to the smaller digital sensor format. Nowadays 35mm digital cameras are considered equal in quality to medium format film cameras, and medium format digital the same as large format. Photographing with medium format film cameras is a great challenge, because they are difficult to use. They are heavy, you must use a tripod at all times, the field of focus is very small and medium format film is expensive. So when you photograph with a medium format camera, you are forced to think and to plan. You cannot just walk around and use it as a point-and-shoot camera.

Manual Light Meters

Many professional photographers use only manual light meters. In 1998 I was fortunate to be part of the international photographic team that accompanied the Camel Trophy contestants in Chile. I was very surprised to see that all the photographers use their cameras exclusively on manual exposure mode. They would set the camera to spot metering, take a reading off the subject and do a manual setting. Then they would compare the reading to one from a hand held incident-light meter, and take the average to calculate the exposure. They would also use the basic principles of exposure, such as the f16 rule (where the shutter speed is the same as the ASA for a normal sunny day. I.e. for a 100 ASA film the shutter speed would typically be 1/125 second on f16 on a sunny day) By using this rule one can calculate typical exposures. I looked at the photographers’ films, and every single image was correctly exposed.

Leather backed turtle
Use manual to set the exposure of the background

For wildlife photography this method is mostly impractical, as one is usually working from a vehicle or a hide, which makes it impossible to use an incident-light meter.

Occasions when I do set the camera to manual to do the exposure, are when I use fill-in flash for a subject in the shade with a lit background. I do it like this to try and get the subject lit exactly the same as the background.

For instance, I recently photographed a leather-backed turtle laying eggs on a beach at Sodwana, with a moonlit background. There I set my camera to manual, took the exposure of the moonlight reflecting off the sea, and used a flash to fill in the foreground.

The first camera I ever used was a Pentax Spotmatic. This had an automatic built-in light meter, but you had to set the aperture and speed to have the image correctly exposed. This helped tremendously in getting a feel for exposure.

That is why a photographer like David Allan Harvey still uses a completely manual Leica M6 when doing work for National Geographic. This camera is a range finder, i.e. you do not look through the lens, which makes focusing as well as seeing depth of field very difficult. Yet the photographs that he produces are mind-boggling, in that they are created with different set of rules, because he uses this camera. The camera forces him to think, and not just shoot away as most of us tend to do.

Auto Focus

Use auto focus to your advantage
Use auto focus to your advantage

And then there was auto focus. As with digital, there were very negative reactions when it first came out. Some stubborn photographers believed that it would never take off. But it obviously did, in a big way. And with it came problems as well. Suddenly most photographs published have the subject right in the middle, because the focus point is mostly set in the middle. So although it greatly increased the chances of getting excellent action photographs, it had a negative influence on compositional aspects of photography. And as with all technology, there are photographers that tend to use their lenses extensively in manual focus. Frans Lanting often uses manual focus. Also, with short lenses it sometimes is handy to use manual focus instead of auto focus, for the accuracy of focus is not as critical as with telephoto lenses. It also gives you another compositional dimension, as you are able to use selective focusing.


And finally there was digital. Digital is the biggest revolution yet in photography, for it has significantly changed the rules. Suddenly you are not bound by the limitations of chemical film that has no shadow detail, has only a limited dynamic range designed for typical outdoor photography, and the colours needed for photographing on a perfect sunlit day. Suddenly it is possible to change the white balance, and to increase the ASA without losing colour saturation. But with digital photography came a very large number of problems. What do you work towards when you colour-correct an image? When you have a slide, you can fix the scan so that the scan looks like the slide. But now you have no reference. Also, what are the “correct” colours? When photographing with film, very late afternoon photographs taken in warm light came out with a pleasant orange cast, because the film was made with a colour temperature for daylight photography in mind. So should a late afternoon image be that orange? Is that how it looks when you look as a scene in late daylight?

What is happening at present is that repro houses are colour-correcting digital images using the same principles as they would use with film. But the rules have changed. Personally I do not think that the repro industry has yet come to terms with this new way of colour correction. Suddenly a person who was not at the scene where the photograph was taken has to fix the colours of a RAW file, but has nothing to work towards. And then elephants come out green and the shadows blue.

So in the era of digital photography, the person responsible for the colour correction is now the photographer, for only the photographer knows what the subject looked like when he photographed it.

This means that the photographer is doing not only his own developing, but also his own repro work, making his office time much longer. The danger is having inadequate computer equipment, with no calibrated monitor etc., but when that is adequate, there is total control over how the image will look when reproduced.

To be able to do your own colour correction properly, and to be able to photograph successfully, it helps to have knowledge of all the above aspects of past photography methods. In my view that is almost as important as keeping with development. When you use a modern camera on its fully automatic settings, you will get perfectly exposed and focused images. Like all the other million people photographing like that. You will get good images, but to get great images you need to understand where photography came from. The more you learn about photography, the more you realize how much there is to learn. Then there is no ceiling to development. The ceiling comes into play only if you make the camera think for you. Because even today, cameras are still pretty dumb.

This article was written by Heinrich van den Berg

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Heinrich van den Berg

Heinrich van den Berg is a working professional who has won the Getaway Fuji Wildlife Photographer of the Year. If you are a keen photographer and wish to see more of his work and read about his latest book, visit Heinrich’s website.


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