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Remember your Roots

In today’s age of digital photography, it’s all to easy to forget the basics, loosing our grasp on how to actually make a great image.

In 2005, I graduated with a degree in Film and Television Production from Full Sail University. One day a good friend of mine made a statement about shooting images of models without the use of a lighting setup. He insisted, “You must use lights to get a great image, you just can’t do it without controlling the situation. You can’t use natural light.” You can’t use natural light? Now, using a lighting setup is great. It gives you more control and balance with greater ease, but it’s not a must have. It was astounding to me that he could not use natural elements to manipulate a camera to create the desired effect without the use of post-production and special effects. At this point in the school, we had moved well beyond the basics of natural light and darkrooms, and he had moved well beyond remembering the basics.

Yes, I use lighting from time to time, and yes, I shoot everything digitally now. Mainly out of cost and convenience. But the basics I learned some 20 years ago shooting film still help shape the way in which I shoot digitally today. From the lighting to the manual choices of setting a camera up for a given shoot. At Full Sail’s film program one of the very first classes taken is a basic photography class. This gets you hands on with the basics, all the way down to the development and processing of your own images. That step in the program, to me, is one of the most vital steps in all of the schools courses. It gives each person a chance to greater appreciate the journey they are embarking upon.

It is my belief that anyone looking to get into photography, or anyone shooting now who has never shot on film, should go back and learn the basics. There are a ton of awesome digital programs, apps, and cameras that now correct for not “so great photography”. I use them, I use a lot of them, and I’m not knocking any of it. I just think there needs to be a basis from which to start. Shooting digitally allows you to shoot many images back to back. Don’t like it? Click here, delete, start over. The true beauty of digital. The convenience of instant review and adjustments. I love it. I do it all the time. But it still doesn’t compare to stressing out over each frame of film in which you’ve paid for but cannot review. Developing your own film is beautiful. Once you pay for the film, the equipment, the chemical baths, the photo paper, fumble around opening a film roll in the dark, bathe it, burn it, and dodge it all in order to produce a single image, you develop a better sense for what it means to be a photographer. It grows your confidence and knowledge, your skill and your quality.

In the recent movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, one of the driving points is that the Time Life freelance photographer Shawn O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) still shoots on film. Walter (played by Ben Stiller) admires Shawn greatly because he’s the “real deal.” Not only for the images he creates, but because the images were all created on film. Ben Stiller,in fact, shot all of Walter Mitty on Film. He said “I grew up in the 70’s. I remember reel-to-reel tape recorders and Super 8 cameras and just real magazines. It’s all going away. So this anaglog-to-digital transition that we’re in I think is sort of sad.” He continues, “Everything that everyone does now with digital cinematography is about trying to replicate the look of film,” he says, “Why do we need to replicate it when we can just still shoot on film? I’ll always be a film guy.” I completely agree, even if my wallet doesn’t allow me to fully agree. Hence my d610. I at least want that Full Framed Sensor even if I can’t afford to pay for pure emulsion over and over again.

This digital age has created a culture of shooters undercutting those looking to make a true living at photography. So, how do you compete with someone who shoots ok photography and charges a “buddy” rate because it’s their hobby? I guess you just do great work and in the end it will be known and noticed by those who actually care about quality images. Because in the end, you still have to have an eye for it. You still have to know composition with a natural sense of when to release the shutter. I’m always more proud of an image I saw and captured in a single click, than I am of the one I got from a burst of 20 straight. The image that happened in a moment, captured in an instant, and remembered for all time.

There is something to be said about what it takes to create a beautifully, well crafted, manually setup image in a single click. To know that all is right in the World. That you have just captured a moment that no one else noticed. But now, all can see. Understanding the basics. Patience. Control. Confidence. Natural Talent. Desire and drive. It is these things, plus hard work, that craft an art form. Photography is just that. An art form. Whether digital or not, please, remember your roots.

– Derek Keith

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