Photography 101: Making a Modern Photograph

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Digital changed everything about photography: cameras, lenses and processing. In 2009 I entered the digital age kicking and screaming—I was sixty-two years old. Before that I had been a film guy for fifty-five years having started at age seven.

I used many different cameras in my day, from simple box cameras as a kid to advanced Rolleiflexs, Leicas and Nikons (and everything in-between). But they all had one thing in common—they shot film. And digital didn’t and still doesn’t. Duh.

My first purchase was a consumer grade Canon Rebel XSi with two kit lenses—I didn’t want to spend a ton of money if I couldn’t master this new technology (and frankly I wasn’t sure that I could). I struggled at first—digital threw me for a loop. I was thoroughly versed and competent in photography basics and even advanced techniques but it was after I snapped the shutter and got the shot that I was at a loss. With film you just dropped off your exposed rolls at the lab and waited for your contact sheet. Once you got your contact sheet or prints you annotated your processing requirements and waited for your final prints. Easy peasy.

Image #1: Final Image After Processing

Not so much—the lab rats were the tech-nerds of their time and not always the best choice when it came to interpreting a photographer’s artistic vision. If you were strictly a black & white photographer you might go to the added expense and inconvenience of building your own dark room so you could do your own processing like Ansel Adams. Color processing was whole different animal and not for the faint of heart or broke of wallet (photography has always been a terribly costly hobby or profession). With digital came the opportunity for photographers to do their own processing at home and immediately. A real game-changer.

My younger readers probably can’t relate to an old dinosaur’s difficulty in learning new tasks (but you will someday). My older readers will know exactly what I’m talking about. In 2009 my computer skills sucked big time and mastering photography software like Lightroom, Photoshop or Photoshop Elements was a real challenge. Within six months I developed enough skill to know that I loved digital technology and would never go back to film. For the first time in my photographic life I had complete creative control—from the time I snapped the shutter until the final print was hanging on my wall. It was both a miracle and a gift.

Image #2: CameraRAW Image Before Processing

I quickly upgraded my Rebel XSi to the professional Canon EOS 5D Mark II full-frame DSLR with its Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom kit lens. I’ve stuck with Canon all these years and I have never regretted my choice—to see my current kit checkout What’s in My Bag. What I learned about digital photography is you have to know how to process your images to fully realize your creative vision—today 25% of my time is spent snapping the shutter on my camera and the remaining 75% of my time is for processing my CameraRAW images in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) and Adobe Photoshop Elements 15 (PSE15).

Field Notes: I photographed this image while on walkabout in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria this morning. You can see there is a huge difference between the unprocessed CameraRAW file (Image #2) and the finished processed file (Image #1). Whether viewers like it or not it’s still 100% my creation—from shutter snap to the final product. All creative decisions were mine and mine alone—no lab rats involved. That is the beauty of digital photography over film—I am in complete control. Two suggestions to improve your photography: if you’re not shooting CameraRAW files then start and learn your processing software inside & out. SFD

4 responses to “Photography 101: Making a Modern Photograph

  1. What a great testament to the joys of shooting digital, Stephen. I grew up shooting film too, and also had a hard time adjusting to my first digital camera — in part because the images were so crappy. But I’ve grown to love digital not only for the cost savings and creative satisfaction you describe, but also for the immediate feedback. No more waiting for the prints to come back to see whether I got the shot! Must compliment you on YOUR lovely shot, btw …

    • Getting immediate feedback is so cool. The waiting for prints used to kill me. And the frustration of trying to convey my artistic vision to a lab rat (although some of them were very good indeed) has come to an end too.

      • I used to be one of those lab rats, and it really was a challenge to execute the photographers’ visions. So one more reason to be grateful for digital, even if I did have to find another line of work. 😉

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