Digital photography has no elders

In traditional communities there was always that culture where elders passed their wisdom down from generation to generation. In the days of yore this was done by song and story telling, then by scrolls and tablets, then by books, then by radio, then by television… Now it’s by blog. What’s most troubling today is the relatively short span between one who considers himself new and one who considers himself experienced.

This is painfully true in photography. Since the digital age, unimaginable technical advancements have made fine photography more accessible to the masses. There are now more people wielding SLR’s today than in any other period of time in history. SLR photography was once the territory of those who had to know what they were doing with a single lens reflex camera, but with the massive growth of the SLR’s popularity an interesting phenomenon has occurred; most people behind a digital SLR today have never used a film SLR and have learned everything the know about photography from someone else who has also never used a film SLR.

So why would this matter? Because most of the marketing, product information, specifications and terminology are all derived from the film world. You see, back when Digital SLR’s were first working their way into the market place there was probably this perception that the resistance would be great. Lens focal lengths were given relative to 35 mm frame formats to help the film photographers better relate, sensor sizes were compared to film formats like APS-C and “Full frame” (35mm), and “D” or “digital” was affixed every product as though these two varying lines might coexist side by side for generations to come. I don’t think anyone really expected digital to take of quite as fast as it did.

This rapid expansion on the SLR industry left us with a virtual knowledge vacuum, which is not only devoid of any informed wisdom about the art and science of photography, but is continually sucking in misconceptions and inaccuracies from all over the webiverse. There just aren’t enough of those old school photographers around to teach the masses that have populated this new and exciting age of digital photography. No one benefits more from this black hole of photographic know-how more than equipment manufacturers. After a few short years of digital dominance the market is ripe for the picking. It’s not enough to get an SLR body in the hands of unsuspecting consumers, whether they actually need one or not. Now that they have the body they’ll need lenses…

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard the words “prime lens” thrown around by people who really have no idea what it is, I could have bought a new one myself. And this is where so much of the trouble lies. Right now it’s all the rage to buy a “prime lens” or a “normal lens” and the prices of these lenses is getting to be outrageous! I am here to tell you that the market for a prime lens was all but dead prior to the digital boom for all the opposite reasons that get thrown out as arguments to buy them today. The science behind zoom lenses today is incredible, making a zoom lens today comparable to any prime lens; many are equally sharp, equally fast and equally light, but best of all, zoom lenses are and always will be more versatile. These arguments are going on a quarter century by now and all the newbies are dragging them up from the dusty depths of redundant argument vaults as though zoom lens technology hasn’t improved in the last few decades.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good prime lens. I have boxes of them that I dust off once every few years to remind myself that a camera bag slung over my shoulder containing two or three fast, premium zooms sure beats the days of carrying three camera bags holding 20 to 30 lbs. of glass in each. People are getting duped into buying over-priced gear just because that’s what their flickr friends say they need or because Scott Bourne said “such-and-such a lens has a gorgeous bokeh”. If I read one more time about some Joe Blow getting a 50 mm, f 1.4 for their Cannon Rebel because they wanted a “normal” lens I am going to SCREAM (true photographers will know why, everyone else will have to do their research). Trust me, the conversion to digital has given me an overabundance of “normal” lenses that I paid a great deal of money for (the price differential between wide and normal, again, true photographers will know what I mean) over the years and none of them say 50 mm on the barrel. On the flip side I now have a killer collection of super telephoto lenses.

The digital aspect of this new era in photography is still too young to be looking solely to other digital photographers for your knowledge. If the people you are learning from have never been in the drivers seat of a 35 mm SLR or a 6×6 or 4×6 medium format then you are possible missing out on the some of the finer details of the art and science behind photography. There are a great many exceptions to every rule but the truth of the matter is the entire digital platform is built on the wisdom of an earlier generation that understood light because they had to, gave conscious thought to composition because it was a rule, knew the science behind exposure because cameras didn’t, used aperture settings for specific effects and shutter speeds for others… There is a generation of photographers who knew, more than anything else, that the camera that captures the light, but it’s the photographer that takes the picture.