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Well Begun is Half Done

There's an old saying that the "second half" of photography begins after you press the shutter release. But what you do in-camera lays the foundation for that work to begin. For the best results possible, both halves of photography matter, but that doesn't make them even.

I'm a big advocate of getting the best capture possible in the field. I know where I learned it. Any serious photographer who grew up using film learned the same lessons I did. Unless you could afford and learn to master a home chemical darkroom, you had little control of things after pressing the shutter. I sent my rolls of film off to Kodak and hoped for the best. If I had done everything right in the field, I might receive a pleasant surprise when I got the slides back. If I hadn't, well, better luck next time. But today, photographers have more options. Some still strive for perfection in-camera because they dislike the drudgery of toiling away on their computer later. Others get into the power of the digital darkroom and grow to depend on it, only aiming for shots that are "close enough" in the field. Which describes you better is left as an exercise for you to mull over, but so that you don't sweat the homework too much, I'll give you a hint now. Both halves of photography matter, but because we have greater control over the second half today than we once did, that doesn't make the first any less important.

By shooting digitally today, we can see our work right after we capture it so we can make any needed adjustments and fine-tune our settings while still onsite. And cameras today have improved in so many other ways since those days of yore. Multi-point focus detection, multi-point metering, and even muti-shot bracketing are all relatively recent innovations. But even the most powerful tools are only as good as their operators. Yes, it is worth taking your camera off fully automatic sometimes. Skillful use of manual control can yield results your camera never dreamed of on its own. Your creative vision gives you an edge. Use it to the fullest.

But don't neglect the second half of photography. I regularly see online postings by photographers showcasing their work, declaring that the image is "straight out of the camera." Setting aside the benefits of such an accomplishment for the moment, let's first consider whether such a thing is even possible. Whether we're talking about a film camera or, more likely, a digital one, you'd be hard pressed to see much with no processing. A roll of film would appear blank (and would likely be ruined) if viewed before being developed. Chemical reactions allow the latent image to materialize from nothing. And a digital photo is no different, with only the medium varying. The millions of photosite photon measurements latent in a raw capture require significant computational power to become an image. And more technical wizardry still to squeeze into the jpeg ultimately presented online.

There's simply no avoiding it: viewing an image straight out of the camera is impossible, regardless of the photographer or his tools. The only question to be asked is whether you accept the defaults of how that transformation from film grains or pixels takes place or use the opportunity to optimize the results by controlling some yourself. Whether we're talking about Ansel Adams in his wet darkroom laboring to pull the best photograph possible from his film or you and I hoping for a digital result that looks the way we remember it, the story is the same. Some well-considered tweaks in the darkroom can significantly affect the final appearance.

And the current generation of darkroom software is capable of far more than mere tweaks. Moderate mouse dexterity is all that is necessary to clone out unwanted elements and add new ones. With just a few clicks, you can apply programmed "looks" to transform your source material to suit your mood. Click again, and you can replace the sky entirely. Knowing that they can wield such power once they get back home, some photographers grow dependent on software to perform miracles. Becoming complacent, they argue they can "fix it later" in Photoshop or Lightroom. I'll admit, sometimes in the field I'd like nothing more than just sitting and watching a sunset, but my quest for perfection means I have work to do. Photographers who count heavily on Photoshop and the growing list of applications that augment or replace it are often more laid back in the field since all they need is something they can work with later. But as good as modern software is, it isn't magic. Detail not captured due to exposure problems, camera shake, or underperforming gear simply won't be available to sharpen and optimize. If you like what software can do for a good source image, think of what it can do for a great one.

The title of this week's article comes from an ancient Greek proverb, often credited to Aristotle, that much depends on the beginning of an endeavor. I admit I was familiar with the maxim but had to rely on Google for the backstory. Whatever the source, it's helpful to keep in mind when shooting. You can re-edit the same digital file as often as necessary to get what you are after, but you have only a limited window to capture everything possible in the field. So while both halves of photography matter, I still opt for focusing on the first. I have images I shot years ago that I've revisited with improved software and skills to make them look better than I could have thought possible on my first attempt. But I may never have the chance to reshoot some of those subjects. Looking at the captures from some of my missed opportunities reminds me of why I still strive for perfection in-camera. Both halves of photography matter, but I know where I'd put my money if it were a contest.

Date posted: July 31, 2022


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