Andrew Sullivan’s piece in New York Magazine, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” mentions an impulse with which I’m far too familiar: “The immediate impulse — to grab my phone and photograph it…”
Only, in my case, the impulse is to reach for my digital camera, who faithfully rides shotgun with me wherever I go.
It’s not out of some unordinary obsession but instead comes partly from working as a reporter for two and a half years. I always had to be ready to respond to and document the next big moment or the next bit of breaking news, which could have happened at any moment in any place.
Eventually photography became a hobby of mine rather than just something I did for work. I ate, slept and breathed photography for as long as I could in a small town where not much happens. I would spend countless hours with that hunk of metal, plastic and glass in front of my face, taking photos of random things, random people, random constellations in the wee hours of the morning, only to return home and upload the photos to Adobe Lightroom for processing and editing (and in some cases, with the intention of uploading them to Instagram).
Today, almost anyone with a smartphone and an Instagram account (or a digital camera, for that matter) can be considered a “photographer.” Instagram (a portmanteau of “instant” and “telegram”), VSCO and a host of other social media photography outlets come with arrays of filters and editing tools that give Adobe Photography Suite a run for its money. On more than one occasion I’ve debated with myself as to whether or not Adobe was worth the monthly subscription cost when I could just edit photographs on my phone. I’m still debating.
For me, there’s little doubt that “online and automated life is more efficient” (Sullivan). After all, most photo-editing software is just that: automated software. Sure, you learn how the highlights and shadows, the lights and darks, the sharpness and luminance all work together to create the subtleties that make photography photography. But moving sliders around on a computer screen using Adobe Lightroom is far removed from the dying art of the photographic darkroom.
On another note, my digital camera, like most others, has built-in sensors that let me know if a photo will be too bright or too dark. So, when I’m shooting manually, I can make the right adjustments to the aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get a decent image. But, auto-mode (which is how I took photos for at least my first year of using a DSLR), eliminated the need to consider lighting, and so eliminated the tinkering with the camera’s settings that ultimately makes a successful and well-lit image.
Also, just like auto-mode has the potential to render manual mode near-obsolete, so has the digital camera made film photography a rarity. A local photographer, who has decades more experience than I have, once told me of the days of film, when there were no built-in sensors in cameras. Instead, the photographer had to pay careful attention to the lighting in the room and use his intuition and knowledge of his medium and of light to make usable images.
These days, I no longer have to rely on the camera’s recommendations. I’m now capable of gauging what adjustments need to be made. Although I’ll never catch up to that local photographer in years of experience, I’ve finally grasped the skills that inevitably arise with forgoing the safety net that digital photography provides.
It’s the letting go and diving right in that gives what would otherwise be a simple photograph the potential to become a work of art. And that’s an impulse I wouldn’t want to fight.