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Photography in the digital age: what’s changed?

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro
A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. © Colin Munro Colin Munro Photography

A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. Photographing light coloured fish against blue water is one of many situations where you don’t want to use auto settings. Image taken with a Nikon D610 and Nikon 20mm in an Aquatica housing, while free-diving around Nuie Island, October, 2019.

When I was young, both the World and photography was much simpler. The changes that have occurred in the World would take more than a blog to describe, so I’ll stick to those that directly affect photography. Back in the 1980s photography was film, and cameras were electro-mechanical machines – and so fairly simple to understand how they worked.  In fact, I started out in underwater photography before ever seriously using a camera on land, and the camera I started with (a second-hand, mid-1970s vintage Nikonos III) was entirely mechanical, to all intents and purposes a slightly tweaked version of the Calypso-phot designed by the Belgian engineer Jean de Wouters for Jacques Cousteau’s La Spirotechnique  company.  Incredibly simple by modern standards, my Nikonos III had the great advantage that if the camera flooded during a dive, one simply took it apart – a very easy process – washed it with fresh water, left it to dry, and put it back together.  Good luck doing that with any modern camera!  A second advantage of my mechanical Nikonos was that taking pictures underwater wasn’t that easy, especially so in the dark, turbid waters of the Firth of Clyde where I was based at that time. That may be counter-intuitive, but if you actually wanted to make money from taking photographs, then you definitely did not want it to be something that could be done with little or no skill or training.  There was no light meter, so you had to base settings on experience.  Flash lighting ( a necessity in such waters) was manual only, so you needed to know the power of the flash, estimate the total light path distance and set your camera aperture accordingly.  Add to this that a film roll contained only 36 frames, and of course film could not be changed underwater.  Once the 36 frames were used up, that was it. Dive over.  The end result of this was that there were far fewer underwater images around in the early 1980s, and a pretty low percentage of these were actually useable.  Nowadays there are estimated to be around 6 Million active SCUBA divers Worldwide (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, 2019) and a fair percentage of those are taking underwater photographs.

Many of the changes in underwater photography over the past few decades have been replicated on land. Cameras have changed from being (relatively) simple devices for creating images on film, to hugely sophisticated instruments that convert light to electrical charge and so create and store digital images.  A modern digital SLR will produce images that are sharper and contain far more detail than the best 35mm film images of just a few years ago. They are also created at a far greater rate.    A total of somewhere around 25 thousand million photographs were taken in 1980, a vast number that is true, but compare that with 2017. Around 1.2 Trillion photographs were uploaded in 2017.  Gizmodo estimates that 300 million photographs were uploaded on to Facebook alone in 2019.  This creates two immediate problems for any serious photographer. Firstly, almost all of the millions upon millions of images that are online can be viewed freely, so why should someone pay for your images?  Secondly, even if they want to pay for your images, how on earth do you get people to find them within this staggery vast array of pictures?  These are the key problems facing pretty much all photographers trying to sell images nowadays.

The problems do not end there. Most images are licensed through stock agencies to print companies, newspapers or magazines (e.g. a licence is granted to use the image for a limited period of time or set publication or print run).  Back in the 1980s this could generate a serious income.  But now, not only are there many, many more images to choose from, but the newspapers and magazines no longer make the same profit from advertising as they too have lost out to the online world.  Almost all newspapers nowadays lose money, so they are looking for the cheapest images possible much of the time.  It is not possible to come out with a scientifically robust figure, but from personal experience and talking to lots of friends and colleagues, I estimate that – for similar levels of effort – the income generated from stock image sales is between a 1/10th to 1/20th of 1980s levels.   That does not mean you cannot make money selling images through stock agencies (or directly) but it does mean you will need to work hard at it and are unlikely to make your fortune doing so.

A black and white edit of beach and skyline, One-foot-Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Polynesia. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

A black and white edit of beach and skyline, One-foot-Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Polynesia. Monochrome for landscape is very much a personal preference. Generally it works better with high contrast images.  Nikon D610, Nikon 20mm, polarising filter. Aitutaki, October 2019.

One of the great things about modern DSLRs and mirrorless digital cameras is that they are incredibly powerful image-creating machines, with a huge array of setting controls, functions, custom-settings, menus and sub-menus that allow the photographer enormous control over the appearance of the final image.  But the awful thing about modern DSLRs and mirrorless is that they are incredibly powerful image-creating machines, with a huge array of settings and controls ……  so you get the idea.  Picking up a modern DSLR or mirrorless for the first time can be a very daunting experience.  Our cameras have never been better equipped to capture images that are incredibly faithful to real life or to create stunning artistic images, and yet the overwhelming majority are rarely used other than on auto mode. Fortunately, many people are motivated to get to grips with more of the full potential of the high tech piece of very expensive hardware they have paid good money for.  As a consequence many professionals, myself included at times, have made the shift across from solely taking photographs to teaching photography.

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. I prefer longer lenses for people shots.  It makes obtaining a shallow depth of field so much easier, but just as important, it provides some distance, so the subject is more likely to be behaving naturally rather than posing for the camera. Nikon D610 and Nikon 80-400mm 4.5-5.6D lens.

Teaching photography can be a rewarding process.  For one thing their is nothing like teaching any subject to make sure you really understand it yourself. Secondly, this is far from a static field.  The techniques I teach now have changed radically from those I taught  ten years ago, because cameras themselves have changed radically in that time.    Photography is a constant learning and re-learning process.  When digital photography began to supplant film based photography I deeply resented it.  Digital was precise, more automated; photochemical changes in silver halide crystals were not precise.  Film was ….. well, magic.   But the more I learned as a (initially) reluctant convert to digital, the more I appreciated that many of the skills I had learned in the previous 25 years were not redundant but actually quite transferrable and highly useful still in the digital era.  More than that, the limitations of my early mechanical cameras and the photographically challenging environment of the dark waters of Southwest Scotland meant that I was forced to really learn the basic principles of photography and how light behaved.  These basic principles still underpin photography using todays latest digital camera systems.

An Australian Flatback Turtle, Natator depressus, hauls itself up a deserted beach, Adele Island, Kimberley Coast, Northern Australia. © Colin Munro www.colinmunrophotography.com

An Australian Flatback Turtle, Natator depressus, hauls itself up a deserted beach, Adele Island, Kimberley Coast, Northern Australia. A wide-open lens helps isolate the subject from the background. A long lens allows nice tight shots without encroaching close on the subject and possibly disturbing her.  The arrival of a fallback on the beach was completely unexpected, but her slow progress across the sand to above the high water mark where her eggs would be laid allowed plenty of time for multiple shots to be taken.  I like this one because of the eye contact.  Nikon D610, Nikon 80-400 4-5.6D lens.

 

Despite all the advances, photography still remains the manipulation of light in order to obtain a sharp (mostly) and correctly exposed image on light sensitive media. The control we have in order to achieve that has expanded almost out of all recognition, but the fundamental variables: shutter duration, aperture size, ISO, lens properties and sensor dimensions are still fundamentally unchanged since the days of George Eastman’s Box Brownie developed 120 years ago.

Shutter speed control on digital cameras, what exactly does it do?

The LCD Display on a Digital SLR camera showing the shutter speed (here set to 1/30th of a second). This diplay may be on the top or back of the camera, depending on model. Colin Munro Photography

About a week ago I put up an article looking at looking at what the ISO control on a camera does, so it seems logical to cover the other camera controls that determine image exposure. So logically the place to start is with the first, most basic control, the shutter.  The shutter is basically light-proof barrier placed between the camera’s sensor (or film frame, if you’re old school) and the aperture through which light passes in to the camera.  But, and this is the key aspect, it is a barrier that can be opened for precise durations of time.  Now image exposure is determined by the amount of light hitting the sensor: too much light and the image is overexposed, too little and the image is underexposed, the correct amount and the image is just right (think of Goldilocks and the three bears).  So one way we can control the amount of light hitting the camera’s sensor is by controlling how long the shutter is open and light is allowed to pass through and reach the sensor, rather like controlling the flow of water in to a glass with a tap.

So what does a shutter look like?  various designs have been used over the years with different camera types and as cameras have evolved.  Digital SLR cameras (and film SLRs for that matter) use what is known as a focal plane shutter, that is a shutter placed directly in front of the flat area where the camera sensor (or film) is located.  These consist of a series of overlapping blades that lift and fall as the shutter opens and closes.  Compact, point and shoot, cameras generally do not have a mechanical shutter (as the focal plane shutter is) rather they have an electronic shutter.  Electronic shutters are an integral part of the camera sensor and primarily work by ‘turning off’  reading of the light hitting the sensor.

Focal plane shutter in a film SLR, showing mechanism.  Shutter CLOSED

Focal plane shutter in a film SLR, showing mechanism. Shutter CLOSED

Focal Plane shutter mechanism in a film SLR. Shutter OPEN.

Focal Plane shutter mechanism in a film SLR. Shutter OPEN.

Shutter speed. When we talk about shutter speed that we are actually referring to is the duration the shutter is open and the sensor exposed to light.  In most general photography these durations are only fractions of a second and, despite the spread of decimalisation, we still tend to use common fraction rather than decimal fraction notation (e.g. 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15th of a second).   Setting the shutter speed on a camera serves two purposes: firstly it determines how much light hits the sensor, and secondly it freezes or blurs movement across the image.

Shutter speed control on a film SLR, showing standard shutter duration increments. Colin Munro Photography

Shutter speed control on a film SLR, showing standard shutter duration increments.

The LCD Display on a Digital SLR camera showing the shutter speed (here set to 1/30th of a second).  This diplay may be on the top or back of the camera, depending on model. Colin Munro Photography

The LCD Display on a Digital SLR camera showing the shutter speed (here set to 1/30th of a second). This diplay may be on the top or back of the camera, depending on model.

Motion blur. Not everything we photograph remains perfectly still. So, the duration the shutter is open will also influence how sharp a moving object is, or whether it is blurred due to it moving across the field of view whilst the shutter is open.  This can be a person, an animal, cars, flowing water etcetera.   Mostly we want our images nice and sharp, with objects frozen in time, but sometimes we will deliberately allow (our induce) motion blur for artistic reasons or to give the impression of movement.  A further consideration here is that motion blur comes not just from objects in front of the camera moving.  If we hand-hold a camera (as opposed to mounting on a tripod) there will always be a slight amount of ‘hand shake’.  At faster shutter speeds this is not noticeably in the captured image but with very slow shutter speeds the camera will wobble slightly in our hands whilst the shutter is open. This results in everything in the image being slightly burred.  A general rule of thumb is to shoot at 1/60th or faster when hand holding your camera, for non-moving objects when using a standard lens (i.e. not a telephoto lens).  When shooting using a telephoto lens, or shooting fast moving objects (maybe motor sports) you will need a significantly faster shutter speed to freeze motion, maybe 1/250th of a second or possibly up to 1/1000th of a second depending on factors such as the focal length of the lens, the speed the subject is moving at and how close you are to the moving subject.

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ISO setting on digital cameras, what exactly does it do?

ISO setting on digital cameras, what exactly does it do?

This is part of an occasional series looking at the basic controls on a camera. It’s here primarily to supplement, and as a taster for, my beginners photography classes and one-to-one sessions. Some of the controls on a camera are fairly intuitive. Zoom, for example, controls the focal length of the lens and so the degree of magnification of the image (we zoom in, or we zoom out). Shutter speed controls the…er…speed of the shutter; well accurately it controls the duration the shutter is open, and so the amount of light allowed to pass through the shutter and impinge on the sensor, which in turn directly influences how bright or dark the image is. But ISO? Knowling that the acronym stands for International Organisation for Standardation doesn’t help that much either, and yes, I know it should be IOS not ISO (there are reasons but truthfully that would simply be too much of a digression to go there now, ask me after class :)). So if we simply accept that the name, ISO, tells us nothing about what the control actually does – then what does the ISO control on a camera do? Essentially the ISO setting works rather like the amplifier on a radio or CD player; it varies the signal gain to produce a brighter (for higher iSO values) or darker (for lower ISO values) without any changes in the amount of light hitting the sensor. Typically ISO values range from 100 (low) to 3,200 or 6,400 (high) on some cameras. These numbers are derived from film; with film cameras the film had a set sensitivity to light. Film that responeded quickly was termed fast film; film that responded slowly …. you’ve guessed already ..slow film. The film’s sensitivity could not be changed, so once it was loaded into the camera the ISO value of that film was then dialled in using the camera ISO control, allowing the film’s sensitivity to be taken in to account when exposure was evaluated by the camera’s light meter (or it would be dialled in to the meter if a hand held light meter was used). The ISO sensitivity in a digital camera is created very differently to in a film camera, but the same numerical values are used and they approximate closely to the changes in sensitivity to light that occurred in film. Essentially, the steps between each ‘standard’ ISO value represents a doubling or a halving in senstivity, depending on whether one goes up or down. So ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100; ISO 400 is twice as senstive as ISO 200, and so on. What does this mean in practical terms? Well, if a particular scene was correctly exposed at a shutter speed of 15th of a second at ISO 100, then (all other settings remaining unchanged) the same scene would still be correctly exposed at 30th of a second at ISO 200 (a shorter time the sensor is exposed to light, but a more sensitive ISO value) it would also be correctly exposed at 60th of a second at ISO 400. Okay, so what would the correct ISO setting be if the shutter speed was changed to 500th of a second?
Hopefully this explains how the ISO values influence image exposure, but why do we want this control? Well there are a few situations where it is useful but the fundamental one is that a higher ISO allows us to use faster shutter speeds. If we go back to my first example, a shutter speed of 15th of a second at ISO 100. A 15th of a second is very slow and likely to produce a blurred image, a) due to the slight shakiness in everyone’s hands and b) as people (or animals, cars etc.) move. By selecting a higher ISO value we can then change to a faster shutter speed where these problems will be greatly reduced (for the sake of simplicity I have not considered aperture values and have assumed they remain unchanged).

 

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