Raising the Bar

With stark clarity I remember my first encounter with a digital camera. I was shooting (film) on a quail hunt in West Texas in 1999 when one of the guests showed me his new shiny new Konica Minolta with its ergonomically funky design and “state of the art” four megapixel image processor. He said, “The photo quality isn’t great, but being able to upload the images straight to my computer is pretty cool.” I fondled the machine and looked at a few images on the viewer and then handed it back to him. I withheld a vocal judgement at that point, but to this day I remember thinking, That’ll never catch on.

The cheesy staged puppy/decoy shot (circa 2001)

Ride with me now to 2004 when pro photographers were jumping like lemmings from the Nikon cliff in pursuit of Canon’s newest bell and whistle digital machine. I came close to pulling the trigger at that point but decided to wait on Nikon’s promise of a major digital announcement.

In April of 2005 I bought their D2X with 12 megapixels and a menu bank that was above my pay grade. A week later I took off to Florida for a magazine assignment. I told the editor that I had just bought a new digital camera and he replied, “Cool, give it a go, but shoot all the potential covers with film, we don’t want to see any of that grainy pixel crap on the cover.” Two months later, that issue was released with a grainy cover scanned from a slide, and eight pages of tack-sharp digital captures inside.

I never shot another roll of slide film after that assignment, and in the spring of 2006 I dumped all of my old analog gear on Ebay. Now, though, I’m wishing I’d kept one of the F5 bodies and a brick of film. Nostalgia, and all that.

While I fell face first into the digital realm, I could have never predicted how profoundly that technology would change the photography business. “This is bad for us, really bad,” said one of my old film mentors in 2006. “The flood gates are open now and we’re about to see the bottom fall out of our markets.” He was right, of course, and for a while I was one of many photographers who were railing against the massive influx of free and cheap images entering the markets. I’m still bummed that many see no value in a great image, these days, but over time I’ve found a number of positives in the migration from film to digital.

This pose is now illegal in Florida (circa 2003)

Notably, it’s the increased level of competition that I’m now happily embracing. Back in the film days, we shot a lot of grip-n-grins and other cheesy and cliched compositions. Why? Because they sold. No, actually, they sold like crazy.

Nowadays you can’t give away a grip-n-grin, and if you’re not getting wet, muddy, and sore in the back on your outdoor photo shoots, then you’re not producing images that anyone will care much about.

So what am I doing in this advancing era to prepare for a shoot? I’m browsing websites, and Google searching, and taking notes, and planning my shooting around angles and concepts that few others are getting. Now, obviously, that only works to a point. I know that because some of my recent digital oddities have been tagged by clients as “a bit far out”.

The timeless dead-goose hero shot (circa 1997)

While there are only so many ways to hold a fish, or frame a bird dog on point, or capture a tight casting loop against a cool background, I’m embracing the challenge of creating fresh material that stands on it’s own without too much pixel trickery. Without this influx of new talent, I’d be stuck in a time warp of repetitive compositions.

Old dogs can be taught new tricks (especially if you give them treats) so thanks to ALL OF YOU outdoor shooters who are thinking on your feet, chasing the good light, and nudging our creative thresholds to new heights. Without competition and inspiration, photography would be a really boring profession.

Note: To my horror, the cheesy staged puppy/decoy shot was still in my stock archive when I started this post. It has now been ceremoniously retired, and tomorrow begins another round of housekeeping.



5 Responses to “Raising the Bar”

  1. Amanda says:

    I have a couple of 35mm slr’s and film, I know it’s not the F5 but you’re welcome to borrow them to scratch that itch. Guess I must be stuck in a rut, as I still love a grainy film shot and completely untouched digital images.

    • Tosh says:

      Thanks, Amanda – I may take you up on that someday! And I hear you about the longing for simpler times. Somedays I wish that my editing only involved one decision: keep the slide, or trash the slide. It took me a while to figure out that a bad film exposure would never improve with age!

      • Amanda says:

        Now that I think about it I’ve got bellows too, if the itch is REALLY serious. haha!

        Honestly, the article you shared on over editing made my day. My editing only involves post or don’t post. I can’t get to a point where I process anything other than a watermark (and I wish I didn’t even have to do that).

        What do you mean a bad film exposure doesn’t improve with age? GASP!!! 😉

        • Tosh says:

          I once had a jumping tarpon image on slide that I was really fired up about. Sent it to a couple of editors that said, “nice shot but it’s a little soft”. Ten years later, after pulling it out, checking it with a loupe, and refiling it dozens of times, I finally threw it away because…it was a nice shot, but a little soft.

          • Amanda says:

            Those are always heartbreaking.

            I have a shot from the Fort Worth Stockyards of one of the longhorn being walked down the street. I was sitting on the curb and right as he got in front of me I took the shot and when I pulled camera away I realized he had snot hanging from his nose. I prayed that I got that and when I got them developed it was there but he is a little more shadowed than I would really prefer. Still one of my favorites though.

            Would love to meet up and go shoot someday. Always fun to see someone else’s “eye” on things.

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