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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Rediscovering the art of traditional photography

When was the last time you used an actual camera to take a photograph?

A Bengal Eagle Owl at Emirates Park Zoo shot with a Nikon DSLR. Courtesy of Kevin Hackett
A Bengal Eagle Owl at Emirates Park Zoo shot with a Nikon DSLR. Courtesy of Kevin Hackett

The Apple iPhone, which has been with us for more than a decade, was not the first mobile communication device to feature a camera. That particular accolade belongs to Sharp’s J-SH04, a mobile phone launched in late 2001 that featured a primitive, 110,000-pixel digital camera and a small screen above its keypad. This displayed the user’s shots with a picture quality that, today, would have millennials crying with laughter.

When the BBC’s technology reporter, Jon Wurtzel, wrote about it at the time and asked readers what they might possibly use such a device for, the responses ranged from “I’m not sure what I would use this for if I had one, but I’m sure it would be useful”, to “great for spying. The camera could be held against a keyhole, and the images immediately sent to any interested parties”. A reader called Liz wrote that there were “infinite uses for the teenager, not entirely sure what the rest of us would do with one, though”. Wasn’t the pre-selfie era quaint?

These days the image quality available from what used to simply be known as a mobile telephone is as much a selling point as its ability to communicate. Billboards the size of houses feature photographs taken with iPhones, and countless bloggers and vloggers find they’re more than good enough to use for high-­definition video work that’s to be viewed on a monitor or tablet. In fact, when was the last time you used an actual camera to take a photograph?

Perfect photo op

For me, it was a month ago. When planning to take my 2-year-old son to the Emirates Park Zoo in Abu Dhabi, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be able to use my iPhone to take any photos because the image stabiliser had stopped working; the resultant shots were so blurred they could induce nausea. There was only one thing for it: I needed to find my old Nikon DSLR [Digital Single Lens Reflex], charge its battery and prepare for a day with that big hunk of black prehistoric photo tech swinging from my neck.

It had been a long time since I’d used it – even when I went to Australia four years ago for a month-long holiday, it remained in my suitcase for the duration, so good are the results we can all get nowadays using our phones. Simple-to-use image-editing apps have been a boon, too. In the rare instance that my iPhone’s automatic settings get it wrong, I can adjust exposure levels, contrast, saturation, whatever I want. And if the image still isn’t satisfactory, I can just make it black and white, with a bit of atmospheric grain added for good measure. At the zoo, though, as my son Benedict fed some grass to a magnificent giraffe, I was able to capture the magic in a way no phone right now could hope to.

Transferring some of the images I’d taken with my Nikon to my social-media pages, the comments from friends and colleagues were universally approving. And that was down to a number of factors: depth of field, focus and the sheer amount of image data that my camera can process with its sensor, captured through a lens made from the highest quality optics.

A giraffe at Emirates Park Zoo, shot with a Nikon DSLR camera. Photo by Kevin Hackett
A giraffe at Emirates Park Zoo, shot with a Nikon DSLR camera. Photo by Kevin Hackett

I’d rediscovered the joys of taking photographs with an actual camera that permanently record life’s most precious moments and resolved to make more use of this brilliant piece of equipment. One day, no doubt, a phone will be able to match this exceptional quality, but until such a time comes there won’t be a viable substitute for an actual camera.

Expert opinion

This is a message being shouted out loud by Dubai-based Tom Richardson, a professional photographer and filmmaker, who is trying to get people interested in traditional photography again. “It’s fantastic that you can grab a Dh1,000 phone and instantly take point-and-shoot photos,” he admits, “but with this there has been a decline in the true art of stills photography work. As great as it is to use a phone for photos, you don’t have the ability – unless you download third-party apps – to access the full potential of its lens and sensor unit. And even then you face massive limitations.”

He points out that the majority of phone cameras have a fixed focus length of about 24mm. “They rely on digital zoom [as opposed to optical], which leads to loss of quality in the final image,” he adds. “And the sensor is so small, by necessity, that it’s never great in the way it processes light and data.”

Frustrated with this dumbing-­down of what he considers a craft that’s being lost to digital convenience, Richardson has decided to offer one-to-one training to help others discover their potential behind the lens. “With a DSLR camera,” he says, “you have the option to change lens, get a better and sharper image from a full frame or crop sensor, and have a final product that is workable on a laptop or even a phone’s image-editing software. It’s key for people to learn to use proper cameras so they have the ability to get more creative. There is only so much you can do with a smartphone camera, but just having a basic camera body and a couple of inexpensive lenses means you can really unleash your creativity if you have the eye for it.”

Nighttime shots are difficult with a smartphone camera but a DSLR can produce brilliant results. Courtesy Kevin Hackett
Nighttime shots are difficult with a smartphone camera but a DSLR can produce brilliant results. Photo by Kevin Hackett

Building a framework

In other words, being able to compose and frame a photograph effectively is key to impactful photography – to be able to see, in your mind’s eye, what the image will look like either as a print, as an advertisement or on a computer screen. And it’s not something you can learn in a seminar. Much like the way you could learn the physical motor skills to be a sculptor, painter or other artist, yet fail to produce work of any note, your natural flair will be what makes a photograph truly memorable. And sometimes people find they have that completely by mistake.

Consider the case of Max Earey, another professional photographer, who travels all over the planet on behalf of some of the world’s leading luxury car and sports brands, and makes an exceedingly good living from what started out as doing a favour for a friend. Two decades ago, he was an outdoor pursuits instructor, and his friend, who needed some photographs taken while surfing for his sponsors, asked him (as he was able to surf himself) to “just take a few snaps”. He didn’t know one end of a camera from another, but duly agreed. The results were so good he decided he could make money from this newfound skill.

Using a DSLR camera, exposure lengths can be manually set to provide dramatic results of moving objects like cars. Courtesy of Max Earey
Using a DSLR camera, exposure lengths can be manually set to provide dramatic results of moving objects like cars. Courtesy of Max Earey

“I didn’t go to university, I didn’t serve an apprenticeship,” Earey says. “I just learnt what worked through trial and error. And this was in the days before digital cameras, a time when we shot with 35mm film, so any errors could prove costly – it was worth paying close attention to what you were doing – whereas now you are able to instantly check to see if your photograph is sharp and that the light levels are right. But the real art lies in framing a shot properly, and that’s something you never stop learning.”

Earey is rarely seen without his camera gear, which he has spent enormous sums of money on, but it’s more than a job for him – like many photographers he just lives for capturing the moment. He’s also more than happy to take snaps with his smartphone, but they’re really just memory joggers and, for anything else, he’ll reach for the real deal.

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“To be able to earn good money doing what’s also my hobby really is the best,” he smiles. “I’ve been to amazing places, seen unforgettable sights and met fascinating people, all in the course of my work.” Work, he reiterates, that he could never do with a smartphone camera.

Richardson adds that another thing dying out is people having their images turned into prints, and that it’s another area where a smartphone camera’s limitations are obvious. “If you print a smartphone image and compare it with one taken using a DSLR, you’ll notice a massive drop in quality and sharpness, even with a small-sized print,” he notes.

For both of these men, there’s something incredibly special about preserving moments in time and keeping alive the art of photography. “Overall,” concludes Richardson, “I believe that without proper cameras, we cannot really capture the true emotions of subjects, real light – the things that we take photographs for in the first place. The true memory.”