Can A Pixel Say A Thousand Words?

I decided to be totally selfish for Christmas this year. I strategically dropped the I-spent-$7k-without-asking bomb on my wife on Christmas Eve morning while shopping at the mall so that the surrounding crowds would serve as human shields. It didn’t go over well at first.

When we moved from our primary residence to our vacation home this past July it necessitated downsizing from 3000 square feet to just over 1000 square feet. Since I tend to collect more ‘memorabilia’ than my wife, everything of mine had to go up for grabs—or into a dusty, unconditioned storage unit. Her leverage was masterful. In the end, my only non-negotiable item was fifteen years of slides and black-and-white film taken on six continents from three book and dozens of magazine assignments.

Old film is like vintage red wine. It can only age properly under ideal conditions of temperature, humidity, and light. You can’t store original film in a dank basement or up in the attic at 115 degrees. This is a quandary that pixels and cloud storage drives—and virtually every Millennial—need not know a thing about.

The other problem with 40,000 slides and negatives is spatial. Volumetrically it’s the equivalent of the floor to ceiling filing cabinets in your accountant’s office. In a 1000 square foot almost-‘tiny’ house it’s 10% of your floor slace.

That $7000 was spent on digitally scanning all of those 40,000 slides and negatives after fifteen years onto a hard drive the size of a pasta box. My wife’s rage turned to joy when she realized that her Christmas present was never having to live with ten filing cabinets of film in the living room again.

What I still can’t square up with is that my life’s history is now stored in that pasta box. I recently read about an Australian woman whose husband died tragically after they got married. Shortly after that the woman accidentally deleted all of the photographs she and her deceased husband had taken over five years as well as all of her childhood family photos.

She later wrote, “I do worry that, when I’m older and – hopefully – have children, I’ll wish I could show them pictures of me when I was younger, but maybe it’s better that I can’t step into a time machine. In the days before digital cameras, photographs naturally aged, faded and wrinkled in parallel with the person who took them. That’s the natural order of things.”

If my house burned down 40,000 points of time in my life would be lost forever. Thankfully I still have 450 pounds of slides and film stored in ten filing cabinets in my father’s climate-controlled attic, slowly fading and wrinkling like me. Call me old fashion but that’s still the one back-up I believe in.

A few other musings on the current state of photography from an almost Millennial who learned to shoot in film:

It Will Always Be About The Basics—It doesn’t ultimately matter how a photograph is captured, stored, and shared. The greatest photos will always still be about light, glass (lenses), composition, and time (motion).

HDR (a.k.a High Dynamic Range)—Learning how to shoot photography with slide film is the equivalent of learning to swim with arm weights. It makes something that’s already hard even more excruciating to master. Unlike traditional print and B&W negative film (let alone the human eye), slide (positive) film can only capture a very narrow range of contrast. One and a half stops of usable light in photo-speak. In layman’s terms that’s why professionals say don’t shoot in the midday sun when the shadows are deep and the highlights blazing. The old-school work around to this was carefully selecting the ambient light in which you shot, such as twilight or a bright overcast day, which significantly narrows the extremes of contrast. A bag of cleverly graduated filters could also allow a slide photographer to trick the film into seeing a more balanced latitude of light (which is what your brain effectively does through your eyes).

Today, there’s a magical button on every digital camera with three game-changing letters called “HDR” or High Dynamic Range. In this mode, your camera takes two or more frames of the same image at different exposures to balance the highlights and shadows and instantaneously blends them together on your view screen into a single (multi-frame) image. This was a master’s art in the darkroom decades ago. It was still an art form in Photoshop in the early 2000s. Today if your phone doesn’t have HDR it’s already outdated.

The Thrill Is Gone—The greatest thrill of photography when it was originally shot on film (which was as recent as 2004 for National Geographic) was always the waiting. You’d take a few hundreds rolls of film to the Ukraine or Antarctica, shoot and bracket like crazy, and pray that you nailed just the right exposure of just the right composition at just the right time. Then you had to get it back home on four flights through customs X-rays that were manufactured during the Cold War. The last hand-wringing leg was to trust your creative life to UPS or FedEx to finally get the original film into your editor’s hands seven thousand miles later. Some of the photos I am most sentimental about have more to do with the act of getting them back from the edge of the world than any masterful light or composition.

When your slides were finally returned to you you’d throw them across the light table in a quasi drug-addicted frenzy. You never forget a photo that you know you had to nail. I have slides that I saw on the light table for the first time, pulled back immediately, and jumped to the ceiling like I had just won the NBA championship. Because I nailed it. I also have slides that I still obsess over twenty years later that are perfect in every way but just slightly out of focus from a tiny hand twitch when I hit the shutter that I’ll never get over. These days you can correct for almost any photographic imperfection digitally. You can’t create focus where it didn’t exist in the first place.

One of the primal  joys of photography for me has always been the challenge of capturing a fleeting moment in time while never being able to see the final result in advance. It made it like sport. You had to commit. No second chances. Today one of the original thrills of photography has been permanently deleted by View > Move To Trash? But it saves a lot of money in film.

Drones And Remote Technology—Few things will revolutionize photography and videography in the coming years more than drone and other forms of remote photography. Fifteen years ago I paid eight Italian climbers to rig seven suspension ropes across a 200’ wide and 1000′ deep glacial cave so I could hang in the middle to get a single photograph. Today I could shoot 100 frames from ten different angles in five minutes with a drone.

Storage—Every technology-based business today, photography included, is rightfully obsessed with storage whether its data or power. And the present and future capabilities of every handheld technological device, cameras included, in turn is dependent on the speed of development of both. Barely a decade ago I had to figure out how to get hundreds of pounds of AA batteries to Patagonia, South Africa, Antarctica, and the Amazon to power cameras that required another five hundred pounds of film to store the ‘data’. I could sail to Antarctica today for six months on a single memory stick and a handful of rechargeable batteries.

The one thing that hasn’t changed however is nature. Modern electronics and freezing rain don’t readily mix. So don’t throw away your manual Nikon and the last few rolls of Kodachrome just yet. It might be all you have when that once in a lifetime photo comes along. On second thought—you can just use your phone and hit the HDR button.

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