Digital Photography

I have a confession to make. I haven't shot a single film photograph since 2008.

Whew, it feels good to get that off my chest!

Why would I feel guilty making such a confession? Probably because for years I thought of myself as a large format film photographer. It's been a big part of my identity as an artist. The advantages of large format photography are compelling. I was darn proud to be a large format photographer and used this characteristic to distinguish myself from other nature photographers.

In 2007 I bought a Sony α100 digital SLR camera and stashed it in my pack next to my 4x5 film camera. I began using it as a light meter and for capturing "snapshots" to complement my film photographs. Unexpectedly, I found myself enjoying the experience of using the digital camera so much that I had to make a conscious effort to put it down and set up the big camera. Sometimes I'd pack "light" and leave the film camera at home. As time went by I noticed myself using the digital camera more and more and the film camera less and less. I still used the 4x5 camera for capturing especially beautiful scenes where the limited resolution of the Sony α100 wouldn't permit me to make the kind of high-quality big prints I'd become accustomed to from large format film. However, the excellent quality of images from my digital camera combined with the uniquely rewarding experience of shooting digital (see below) made the weight and cumbersome nature of the 4x5 camera seem more onerous. Yet, it was still easy for me to justify using the big camera because of its capacity to capture images with the kind of resolution that was simply not possible with a smaller digital camera.

All that changed when Sony introduced the α900 digital camera in the fall of 2008. My big camera now had some serious competition. With this 25 megapixel camera and high quality lenses like the Zeiss 24mm f2.0, I found myself able to capture images that held up quite well in comparison to large format film photographs. I test drove the Sony α900 in Grand Teton National Park in December and was blown away by the results I obtained. The main (and increasingly, the only) reason for me to shoot large format film instead of digital - vastly superior resolution and detail - was suddenly less compelling. The many advantages of the Sony α900 over my large format camera became impossible to ignore, and since 2009 every nature photograph I have taken has been captured with a digital camera. As a result, these past few years have been the most successful and productive years of photography I've ever experienced.

There are many compelling reasons for my transition from large format film to digital. Below, I highlight those that have been most important to me. It is impossible to discuss them without raising the issue of "digital manipulation," which is becoming an increasing concern as modern digital photography makes it easy for unscrupulous photographers to "enhance" their images in a way that presents a fraudulent portrayal of reality. The flip side of this problem is the fact that digital methods may also be used to depict the natural world with greater fidelity than was possible with traditional film photography. As you read on, I hope you will appreciate the manner in which the ethical use of digital photography is uniquely powerful in helping skilled photographers ensure that their images do justice to the beauty of the natural world.

So, what's so compelling about digital photography that convinced me to shelve my beloved 4x5 camera? Read on....

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Another extremely useful feature of digital photography is the ease with which different images can be "stitched" together, or merged into a single picture using photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop and Autopano Pro. This process requires the photographs to be captured in a "stitching-friendly" manner by leveling the tripod, overlapping each frame by at least 25%, and using the same focus and exposure settings for each image. Unlike panoramic film formats like the popular 6x17 cm size (seen here), digitally stitched panoramas can be made at virtually any size. This allows photographers the freedom to compose panoramic images according to their vision, rather than fitting their vision into the fixed size and aspect ratio dictated by the panoramic camera. This advantage is nicely illustrated by this 15-photograph stitched image of Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park. When printed at its native size, this photograph is 2 feet tall and 10 feet wide!

Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.

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A unique and incredibly useful feature of large format film photography is the ability to apply camera movements to control the focal plane. The lens moves independently of the film holder, and the use of specific camera movements can help render the entire area of an photograph in perfect focus in a way that has traditionally been impossible with fixed-lens cameras.

Recently, a software program called Helicon Focus has been developed to replicate (and even improve upon) the effect of traditional large format film camera movements using digital capture. Helicon Focus creates a single, perfectly focused image from a combination of multiple photographs of the same image with different focal points. This approach to digital photography allows one to combine the advantages of digital capture with the capability of large format film cameras to render an entire scene in perfect focus. This macro photograph of cactus flowers blooming in Vedauwoo, Wyoming is the result of 9 images, each with a different focal point, combined in Helicon Focus.

Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.

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This image represents another example of exposure blending. Waterfall photography is often challenging because of the extreme tonal range. In this scene, there are bright tones in the cascading water, extremely bright tones in the clouds, mid-tones in the trees and foliage, and very dark tones in the rocks. If not for exposure blending, there's no way I could have produced a pleasing image of this scene. In fact, in the past I never would have bothered to try to capture this composition, as including the sky introduces far more tonal range than a single film or digital capture can handle. However, by combining the three images on the left in Photomatix, I was able to faithfully depict the beauty of this waterfall in French Creek Canyon in the Snowy Range.

Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.

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Lastly, one of the most compelling reasons to shoot digitally is the ability to quickly capture fleeting moments. When a landscape is illuminated with rapidly changing, dramatic light, shooting digitally affords one the freedom to move around and quickly capture multiple images, like this one and this one - both taken with 10 minutes on a July morning in the Snowy Range. With my large format film camera, I'd have had to pick one spot and hope for the best. The ability to use telephoto lenses to photograph wildlife, like this trio of antelope hanging out at sunset in the Sierra Madres, is another wonderful advantage of digital capture.

Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.

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This photograph, Medicine Bow Peak Trail, nicely illustrates one of the uniquely powerful capabilities of digital photography. The large image on top depicts the scene as it appeared to my eye. However, owing to the extreme tonal range in this scene (very bright tones near the sun on the right, deep shadows in the pine trees), it was not possible to capture the information necessary to take an acceptable photograph of this scene in a single shot. The bottom left image is the result of letting my camera's exposure meter "guess" at the optimal exposure. As you can see, the sky is washed out, the shadows are too dark, and the photograph is hardly worthy of a second look. If I was restricted to taking a single photograph of this scene with either a film or digital camera, this would be the result. In fact, I wouldn't have bothered to take a picture of this beautiful scene with my large format camera because I know that, owing to the limited tonal range of the slide film I like to use, the result could not do justice to the beauty of this landscape.

Digital capture offers a unique way of coping with the challenge of capturing scenes with extreme tonal range. "Exposure blending" allows the photographer to combine multiple exposures into a single composite image. Using this method, the photographer can take one image that properly exposes the highlights (bottom center), another that properly exposes the shadows (bottom right), and one or more images in-between these extremes (bottom left). Specialized photo editing programs like Photomatix allow multiple exposures to be combined into a single, high dynamic range (HDR) photo. The result of this exposure blending process is an image that overcomes the limitations of single-shot capture and is able to represent the incredible tonal range of the human eye. Put another way, HDR photography allows one to capture images that depict the natural world as we see it.

Does this process represent "digital manipulation?" Of course! Have I "enhanced" these photographs? Absolutely! So what? It is precisely because of digital manipulation and enhancement that I was able to faithfully depict the beauty of the Medicine Bow Peak Trail with this photograph. Blind adherence to the notion that the final print must match the film or original digital capture would ensure that a scene like this could never be properly photographed.

Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.

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As you can see on the Why Large Format Photography? page, this is what it looks like to use a 4x5 camera. The process is slow, cumbersome, but unquestionably rewarding in its own way. Much has been written about the virtues of the deliberate approach demanded by the use of a large format film camera. In my experience, being forced to thoughtfully visualize the scene in front of me, and carefully compose and focus each image prior to deciding whether or not to take a picture, helped me hone my eye for a good photograph and dramatically increased the percentage of images I considered "keepers."

That said, for me the only truly compelling reason for me to use a 4x5 camera is for the image quality. Despite the aesthetic virtues of large format photography, it is clear from my experience with digital photography that this method is also rewarding in its own right. With digital photography, one receives immediate and accurate feedback about each photograph. Is it exposed properly? Are there blown-out highlights? Blocked-up shadows? How compelling is the composition? Is the focus accurate? Did the wind shake the camera and blur the image? Mistakes can be easily identified, and quickly rectified by shooting again with the proper settings. When I find myself lucky enough to encounter truly extraordinary and fleeting light, instant feedback that that I've successfully captured the shot is priceless. With my 4x5 camera, answers to the above questions typically came weeks after the sheet of film was exposed. More than once, I learned after the fact that the film I received back from the photo lab failed to live up to my visualization when photographing the scene. At $5 per photograph including film and processing costs, this was often an expensive lesson. The instant and accurate feedback associated with digital photography avoids a considerable inconvenience with large format photography. And thanks to my large format photography background and learned tendency to carefully visualize and compose scenes before taking photographs, I am able to approach digital photography from a more disciplined and thoughtful perspective.

Beyond the rewarding experience of shooting digitally as described above, there are a number of other compelling advantagtes of digital capture....

Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.

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Digital stitching also allows photographers to create large, exceptionally detailed images with a degree of resolution that can meet and even exceed that contained in a large format film photograph. This highly detailed image was created by stitching 12 digital photographs together.

Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.