Walker Evans Meets William Eggleston, And Thoughts On Digital

Taken At The Millyard, Manchester, NH, Nikon D300, 17-55mm f/2.8

There are so many things about digital photography that are annoying to no end. Silly, pointless rules, such as “you MUST shoot in RAW”, you must sharpen last, you have to bring up everything out of the shadows, you can’t have any blown highlights, the list goes on and on. Add to the list when you get novice photographers on Flickr taking the “rule of thirds” so literally that you can almost predict where they will position their subject in the shot, and you have one interesting main subject, and 2/3rds of virtual nothingness. High Dynamic Range photographs, over-processed, with wonky colors, continue to flood Flickr. I just don’t get it. Why anyone shooting sports photography, with the higher burst rates of jpg, would shoot in RAW, with its much slower capture, boggles the mind. And yes, the RAW files are massive. Sell more hard drives.

William Eggleston was recently interviewed on The Today Show by Ann Curry, who is a Nikon and Leica photographer. The pioneer of modern-day color photography, he is brash, arrogant, and yes, a genius. His name has been coming up a lot lately on the Flickr boards. Walker Evans- master of the vernacular, he made things like signs, subway people, and everyday things we take for granted, beautiful and relevant. He shots SX-70 exclusively in the later years of his life.

As a photographer, I love to be inspired by such masters, even if the quality of my work does not even come close. It doesn’t. Additionally, while I love looking at photography from David LaChapelle, and Annie Leibovitz, it just isn’t my style. Yet, I love their work.

Back to digital- the crazy “you must’s” go on and on. Model’s faces are post-processed and skin smoothed to a pulp, to the point where they look like rubber.  Artifacts which normally would make for interesting imperfections in a photograph are clone stamped out. The obsession that new photographers have with “tack sharp” images needs to stop. Millions upon millions of fantastic images were made before lens technology reached its current state. A softer, well composed image, is much more pleasing than a “tack sharp”, boring one.

Many lengthy diatribes have been done on the “film vs. digital” arguments. This is not one of them. I shoot film and digital. Different tools, for different purposes. But, I love film. The image featured here was shot with my Nikon D300, 17-55mm f/2.8, and the ISO was cranked down to “Lo-1”, the equivalent of ISO100/ Digital tends to shoot “hot”, leans towards overexposure, and provides very little exposure latitude, certainly much less than film. The base ISO of the camera is ISO200- if I had shot this at that speed, it likely would have had lots of overexposure. Guessing that the base was set at Nikon to 200 because digital photographers seem to compulsively want to lift everything out of the shadows. The dynamic range of digital is poor- you really have to nail your exposures, or else you have lots of blown highlights, darker than normal shadows, and a wonky looking image. “But wait”, Dave Digital says, ” I can fix it in post.” Photoshop is not photography. It is a tool. Sadly, digital photography has become a consumer electronics industry, not an art form. And, the “its digital, it’s free!” mantra needs to be put to rest. Adobe software prices really help end that, not to mention new camera models every 6 months. It truly is insanity.

Stepping off the soapbox. And, shadows can help to make a great shot. Keep them.

7 thoughts on “Walker Evans Meets William Eggleston, And Thoughts On Digital

  1. Hey, like what you are saying. It is interesting how people get brain washed into believing film is not relevant and that digital is the fully installed perfect successor. As you said, “Different tools, for different purposes” thats what I’ve been trying to say to people. I use digital when I must and prefer film, but I do have the constant echoes of the digital users around me and every so often I get someone who has an extra weird reactions. They get very loud and treat me like a Luddite or something… “Hey, digital is better you know!” was shouted one day when walking through the Jamaica Plain area.

    Well, keep up the good work.

    • Thank you! When someone asks me why I shoot film, I simply reply that I love it, but do shoot digital on occasion. I have a Nikon D300 and a Canon PowerShot. It really is not an “all or nothing” proposition, as those new to photography always want to seem to make it. There truly is room for both, but I do not like digital as much.

      Did you get to see the Polaroid exhibit at The Hallway in JP?


      • The Hallway… darn, I was told about it by a photography friend. I didn’t see a listing of it on the sight so possibly missed it. I spend too much time tinkering with cameras rather than go out and shoot with them.


  2. I too shoot both and have a couple of (now getting a bit old) Canon DSLRs, the 1D Mark IIN and 40D. They do alright but I shot film for decades before I shot digital and I much prefer the way film looks. When I am going to shoot hundreds of shots I’ll shoot digital because it is simply more practical but for anything I want to print I shoot film. Digital is good if I’m just going to put it on the web for sharing.

    In a way it is too bad. With Ektar, Portra and T-Max/Delta films they sell today the film we get now is the best we’ve ever had! Put that new film in an old Brownie and you can get results your grandfather never could with the films available back then.

    Overprocessing of skin, HDR, I definitely hear you there. Post processing has gone crazy. Models that look like plastic Barbie dolls, ugh…

    Digital users will point to high ISO values as a reason to shoot digital but what they don’t realize is that digital and film don’t really work the same. DSLR meters read ‘hot’ to try and avoid underexposure. I had my 40D and my Mamiya out with Portra 400. Using the exposures suggested by the 40D (set to 400) yielded overexposed shots on Portra which isn’t too bad as Portra has a lot of latitude but you can get a shorter shutter duration or deeper depth of field by using a more appropriate exposure. This means you can often shoot 400 speed film when a DSLR needs to be used at 800, 1600 or even 3200 to keep up, to keep bad noise out of the shadows.

    Shooting medium or large format has greater resolution than any digital camera, even the largest digital back is just 645 size. You also get narrower depth of field with medium and large format.

    With all digital cameras there is a Bayer filter that was invented at Kodak (way to dig your own grave, guys!). With this filter there is in fact only color data on 1/4 of the pixels. This means the color resolution is actually 1/4 the total resolution which even with a huge full frame DSLR today means you really have 5MP of color data. With color film you instead have multiple layers to capture the colors so you get the full resolution. Ektar and Portra 160 are so fine that they can easily outresolve a full frame DSLR for sharpness, hues and tones.

    The regular grid of a DSLR image yields artifacts. The antialiasing filter tries to get rid of these problems with stair stepping but they end up fuzzing the image. So you have to sharpen it to make it look sharp. And remove noise… after all this much detail is gone but of course if you’re just going to use a skin liquefier filter anyways then who cares about detail, right?

    With new scanners you can scan a picture from 10 years ago and get a better scan than you could have gotten at that time. Compare this to a digital camera 10 years ago: images taken with it cannot be improved by rescanning today. Digital captures are at a fixed resolution the day you take them and processing can only take things away, it can’t add them back in.

    Both systems have their purposes. As a photographer you need to understand the limitations of each system so you can choose the best one for the job, or at least to know what you can and can’t expect in the end result.

    • I must say, for high speed sports action, digital is great. and, the 1.5 APS/DX crop factor is great for, say, a 70-200. It is my favorite little league combo for pictures of my son at his games!


  3. Agreed, I shoot too much in sports. There is no way I’d shoot that much with film. Perhaps I could re-learn waiting for the important moments but I find it simpler to pray and spray with digital to get the funny goal sequences and stuff like that.

    Best/worse portrait software (sorry for the guys who make it). The sample shot first in the gallery is a girl with cute freckles and of course this software takes them all away and also gives her a virtual nose-job. It isn’t her anymore! Isn’t there room for reality? http://www.portraitprofessional.com/gallery/?p=0

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