This Big Sur sunset is from last Thursday evening, the final shoot of the Big Sur workshop I co-led with Don Smith. After several days of interesting skies, the workshop ended flat and cloudless. One of the great advantages to photographing sunset on the West Coast is the potential to capture the sun being absorbed by the western horizon. But a setting sun alone isn’t usually enough to redeem a boring sky, so, demoting the sky to background status I set out in search of an interesting foreground.
Sunset was about 30 minutes away when I found this weathered cypress clinging to the rocks above the crashing surf. Rather than continue wandering in search of other possibilities, I used the time remaining to familiarize myself with this scene I knew would work (a bird in the hand…). I set up my tripod and experimented with compositions, studied the behavior of the waves, and tried to anticipate the exact location of the sun’s ultimate exit.
When the sunset began in earnest I was ready with several compositions and my 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter (“reverse” because I can position its darkest zone at the horizon, where the sky is brightest). Having already visualized compositions freed my mind to concentrate on the surf and time my exposures to match each wave’s crescendo. As the sun dropped I “worked” the scene, switching between close and wide, vertical and horizontal, and different wave behaviors.
I talk a lot about "working the scene," and for whatever reason this concept raised a lot of questions in last week’s workshop. I love discussions like this because they take my brain places it wouldn’t otherwise venture. The conversation got me thinking about digital photography, and how the approach to capture differs from film photography.
When comparing digital and film, the first difference usually mentioned is the instant feedback digital provides. Of course this difference is huge, but I think of equal significance is that with digital, your investment is fixed when you purchase the camera (I realize I’m simplifying here, but you get the point). There is no cost associated with each shot, so it's easy to conclude that the more images, the greater the potential return on the investment. Film shooters, on the other hand, have a relatively small initial outlay. Instead the bulk of their investment comes each time they squeeze their shutter (each click costs money)—an unsuccessful shot is a failed investment.
Per-image film and processing costs forced film photographers to be selective with each capture, to plan, think, and execute carefully. Many digital photographers, especially those who came to serious photography in the digital era, often take hundreds (and even thousands!) of shots in a day with little or no thought. I suggest that this approach, while perhaps rendering an occasional success, ultimately produces mediocre photographers.
I'm not advocating against digital—the immediate feedback (among other things) digital provides makes it impossible for me to imagine returning to film. But I won't forego my film approach to photography. Treating each shot as an investment, and using the information provided by digital’s immediate feedback, is the surest recipe for growth as a photographer.
Could I have gotten today's shot with film? Perhaps, but not without a bit of luck, as my prime concern would have been getting the exposure right. Shooting digitally removed a major distraction by allowing me to know immediately that my exposure was okay. But I would have been quite lucky to capture it digitally if I had simply fired off frames without a plan. So while film may in fact be dead (or at least on the critical list), digital photographers would be well served to slow down and value each frame as film shooters have for over a century.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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