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Before we get into the technical aspects of choosing a digital camera and using it, let's think for a few minutes about photos, and the science, art, and philosophy of making them.
What Is Photography?
Is it an art, or a science? Is it a tool? Or is it magic? It can be any or all of these, depending on your approach. Photography can be a lucrative career, an engaging hobby, a means of self-expression, and an all-consuming passion. It can also be "none of the above" if you simply point the camera, press the button, and drop the results off at the drugstore for processing. At the very least, photography is the act of creating a photograph.
This brings us to the next obvious question: What is a photograph? We used to be able to define it as an image formed on light-sensitive material, chemically stabilized and projected on a screen for viewing or printed, negative to positive, on light-sensitive paper. That's not, if you'll excuse the pun, the whole picture. It's much more. Poetically, it's a moment frozen in time. It's your son's first wobbly steps, your daughter's confident stride as she crosses the stage to accept her diploma. It's the Grand Canyon at sunset or waves pounding the rocky Maine coast. It's whatever excites you, intrigues you, dazzles you with beauty. It's also what sells your product, identifies you for your passport, or illustrates a news story.
Even the technical definition above is only part of the story. Computers have changed the process, just as they have changed much of the rest of our lives. Digital cameras are replacing film cameras, even at the highest professional levels. And photo-retouching, once a skilled art, is now an easy, and in some cases, automatic procedure.
However, some of the basics are still true. You still need light and a lens to collect it. You need a sensitive surface on which to form the image. You need a shutter to control the amount of time the light enters the camera. You need a way to preserve the captured image and to display it. Why do you need these tools? Let's start at the beginning.
A Brief History of Photography
Photograph comes from two Greek words meaning "light" and "writing." A photograph, then, is the result of a process that converts light to an image. Over the past 180 years, the process has undergone a tremendous number of changes. The earliest known experiments in capturing an image with light-sensitive materials were performed by a French lithographer and inventor, Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. He coated a tin sheet with asphalt containing a silver solution and placed the resulting plate inside an artist's camera obscura, a device then commonly used for tracing landscapes and architecture in correct perspective. Figure I.1 shows a diagram of the camera obscura.
The light passed through a crude lens, often just a pinhole, and hit an angled mirror, which reflected the image on a sheet of ground glass.
Niépce left the camera obscura on a windowsill at his home in central France, and eight hours later had captured a fuzzy but recognizable picture of his yard and outbuildings. You can see it at http://www.niepce.com/pagus/pagus-inv.html. Eventually, Niépce pooled his knowledge with that of Jacques Daguerre, a Parisian scenery designer who had also been experimenting with light-sensitive chemicals.
By 1839, Daguerre had devised a much improved photographic plate. He coated copper sheets with silver, and then exposed them to iodine fumes to make silver iodide. After exposure, the plate was developed to bring out the image by placing it over a pot of heated mercury. The mercury bonded with the silver, producing a positive image. These early "daguerreotypes" could be used only for architecture and scenery or post-mortem portraiture. No person could sit still for the half hour exposure required. By the time of the American Civil War, glass plate photos were more common and the technique had improved so live portraits were possible. Figure I.2 shows a Civil War soldier in an original glass plate photo.
The inscription beneath reads "The Union Now and Forever."
Get a Lens, Friends...
Continued experimentation brought better images faster. The Austrian mathematics professor, Joseph Petzval, realized that Daguerre's crude camera simply needed a good lens. He designed a combination of convex and concave lenses that could be focused to produce a sharp image. Petzval had a sample lens ground and mounted in a telescope-like brass housing by the Voightlander optical company. The result was a camera that reduced exposure time to less than 60 seconds. This made the camera a reasonable tool for capturing images of people as well as landscapes and buildings.
The Voightlander company produced thousands of cameras using Petzval's lens design. Other optical companies began producing lenses, and the camera design evolved into a wooden box with a leather bellows on the front. The bellows made it possible to move the lens back and forth to focus the image on a piece of ground glass. The photographer threw a black cloth over himself and the camera body to block out unwanted light while he focused and replaced the ground glass with a glass photographic plate when he was ready to make the picture. This was the view camera, used by both professional and amateur photographers for most of the 19th century, and well into the 20th. It was large, heavy, and clumsy. The plates were extremely fragile, and until about 1880, they had to be made on the spot. The photographer carried his darkroom with him, coating the glass plates with silver salts in collodion (a glue-like substance). They had to be used wet, and developed before they dried.
Mr. Eastman's Invention
Meanwhile, the early motion picture camera made use of the same sort of photographic emulsion on long reels of cellulose acetate film. The film emulsion was more sensitive, and exposure times were only a fraction of a second. In 1888, George Eastman put the two ideas together and produced the first handheld camera, the Kodak #1, which used rolls of film instead of glass plates (see Figure I.3).
The Kodak #1 had a 1/25-second shutter, a fixed focus lens, and two rollers that moved the film. It took round pictures.
It was small enough to carry around, about seven inches long by four wide, and four inches high. It held enough film for a hundred pictures, and when the roll was finished, the owner sent the camera back to Eastman so the film could be processed and printed, and the camera reloaded. Eastman's snapshot camera turned many thousands of people into amateur photographers, recording everything from family picnics and trips abroad to train wrecks and fires.
Because cameras could easily be carried to news events, photographs replaced etchings and lithographs in magazines and newspapers. Despite all this, the only really drastic change in photographic methods occurred in the 1950s when Edwin Land introduced the "Picture in a Minute" Polaroid. Impatience, coupled with technological advances, brought us a step closer to the digital camera. The Polaroid incorporated developing chemicals into the film. After you took the picture, you pulled the film past a roller that squeezed developer over the exposed film. A minute later, you peeled off the picture and coated it with a combination hardener and fixative. It took only a minute to develop.
It IS Rocket Science!
It was NASA who gave us our first look at digital photography. Back in the early days of the space probe, engineers needed to find a way to send the pictures from TV cameras on rocket ships back to Earth. TV signals could travel only relatively short distances with normal transmitters, but a radio signal at specific frequencies could travel much further. The TV signals could be digitized, converted to ones and zeros that could then be sent by radio, received back at NASA headquarters, interpreted by a computer, and translated back to grayscale photos. Visit http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/spotlight/opportunity/images/MIPL_Moon_first_ 040707152943.jpg to see the first close-up of the moon, taken on July 31, 1964.
Space Frozen in Time
Sensitive film and the mechanical shutter brought about the first big revolution in photography. Instead of the long exposures that Daguerre's plates required, the photographer could freeze a runner in motion, a crashing wave at the seashore, or a fleeting expression on a young girl's face. He or she could literally make time stand still. It was, and still is, magic. Typical digital cameras today use shutter speeds of up to 1/4000th of a second. That's fast enough to freeze almost any action. You can catch a hummingbird's wings in mid-flap, or a cat in mid-pounce.
The concept of freezing time is an important one. A fast shutter speed can capture motion that the eye can't see. For this reason, high-speed photography is often used to document industrial processes that happen too quickly for the naked eye, such as the potato chip cooker shown in Figure I.4.
Pictures help pinpoint the cause of mechanical failure.
Freezing time also makes it possible to keep records of features that change over time. To a parent, few things are as valuable as those pictures of baby's first step, first birthday, and all the other "firsts" on the way to growing up. As adults, we all love to go back in time with the family album, looking at the scenes and familiar faces of many years ago. The camera can reproduce the past more faithfully and more permanently than our memories. Even when the pictures are fuzzy, poorly composed, or badly exposed, they are still precious to us because of the times and people they represent. They have frozen an instant in time that had a particular meaning to us. However, unless the picture is clear enough to speak to someone who doesn't know the people in it, or who wasn't at the event, it may be perceived as a failure. If your pictures will be viewed by a wider audience than your family and friends, you must make the "message" as clear as possible. In Figure I.5, the photographer took this picture to the Health Department to document the mess in his neighbor's yard.
Documentary photography: He's attracting rats and mosquitoes, and the neighbors don't appreciate his lawn ornaments.
Finding the right moment to click the shutter is often what makes the photograph a success or a flop. In taking pictures that are time-dependent, the trick is to catch what Life magazine photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as "the decisive moment." It's that split second when the action is at its peak, when history is made, or when the revealing expression crosses the subject's face.
To the photojournalist, it's the second when the assassin's bullet strikes, when the plane explodes in mid-air, or perhaps when two world leaders reach agreement and shake hands at the summit meeting. Some of these moments can be planned for. Others depend on luckon being in the right place at the right timewith the camera aimed toward the action. Amateur photographers, as well as the professionals, can sometimes catch these "lucky" shots. The photographs of President Kennedy's assassination are a case in point. All were taken by amateurs who happened to be there and have their cameras ready.
The Photograph As a Communications Tool
As the saying goes, "A picture is worth a thousand words." Pictures speak to us. They have meaning. They represent reality. They convey emotions. They may speak of joy or loneliness, of pain, of friendship, or of good times shared. They may simply tell us what the recipe should look like prepared, how the sweater looks on the model, or what's inside a can of peas.
The difference between photojournalism and social documentation is often blurred. The photojournalist attempts to record what's there, what's happening, without imposing his or her feelings about it. Social documentary, however, has an attitude. The documentary photographer shoots a particular subject or scene because it may help to convince others of the need to either preserve or change the situation.
An example of this social documentation is the work of photographers Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange in the 1930s. They photographed scenes of poverty in rural Americathey showed the agony of a mother watching her children starve, defeat on the faces of the men in the Depression-era bread line, and the sorrow of a dustbowl farmer forced to pack up his family and leave his land in search of work. Their pictures, many of which were published in Life magazine, were a major factor in bringing about unemployment insurance and other programs to aid the poor and homeless. It was photojournalism, in that it documented conditions at the time, but it became a social commentary as well because the subjects were selected specifically to make a point about the unacceptable conditions with which they lived.
When you take a picture, you need to be clear about the purpose of creating it. Are you recording a scene for posterity, or are you sharing your feelings about the subject? Are you simply documenting what's there, or are you pointing out something that's particularly interesting or beautiful?
The Photograph As an Abstraction of Reality
Most pictures are of somethinga person, a place, a thingrecognizable as what it is. Others fit more into the category of abstract art. Depending simply on how it's cropped, the object in Figures I.6 and I.7 is either an abstract shape (possibly a nude model) or a vegetable. The object itself hasn't changed. What has changed is the perspective from which we view the object.
Object #1, up close. (Photos by Tanit Sakakini)
To a certain extent, all photographs are art, and all photographs are abstract. The nature of reducing a three-dimensional object to a two-dimensional image is by definition an abstraction. Reducing a color image to shades of gray is another abstraction. To an artist, however, abstraction implies something a bit more complex. The tightly cropped veggie in Figure 1.6 is an abstraction of the quality of "eggplant-ness." It has colors and curves, but it's not a specific, identifiable object, as is the other one in Figure 1.7. By removing some of the identifying detail, we have reduced it from an object to an abstraction of that object.
Object #2, from a distance. It's simply an eggplant.
The key to successful abstraction is to consider the composition of the picture. The lines and patterns and shapes of the objects photographed must be made to relate to the shape of the picture. It must appeal to the viewer. Abstract art, according to photographer Edward Steichen, appeals first to the emotions, and then to the intellect.
The sensuous curves and shiny skin of the eggplant are aesthetically pleasing. They catch the viewer's eye simply because they are pleasant to view. The pleasure, in turn, leads the viewer to wonder what the abstract object represents. We might find ourselves comparing the shape and texture to other familiar objects and asking ourselves, "Is it a flower? No. Is it some piece of human anatomy? No. Is it..." and so on, playing a game of "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral" until we finally realize that it is indeed, a vegetable.
Looking again at the curves of the eggplant, if it were some other color, perhaps a deep brown or silver, we would see it very differentlywe would try to impose some other reality on it. We might see it as a polished stone, or as a musical instrument.
Color Is Critical
Most of us see the world in color. Even those people who are said to be "color blind" usually see some kind of color. They might be deficient in the ability to see red or blue, so their perception of purple or green or yellow is also different. Seeing the world only in shades of gray, as photographers did for many years, is an abstraction of reality.
Of course, all photoswith the exception of three dimensional hologramsare an abstraction anyway. Very few photo subjects are completely flat. When you take a picture, you are flattening what you see onto a page or a screen.
Color helps us interpret what we see, and allows us to look at an abstract shape like the eggplant and decode it into something we can recognize. If your intention is to be as abstract as possible, you can often pitch your viewers a visual curve ball by changing the color of the object to something unusual, like making the eggplant turquoise blue or adding stripes. That is one of the more creative aspects of digital photography, and one that's very simple to do.
When you add a computer and the right software to your digital camera, you open new doors for creative expression. In the chapters ahead you'll learn how to choose and use the right digital camera for your picture-taking needs, and you'll learn how to improve your photos with Adobe Photoshop Elements 3, the streamlined version of Adobe Photoshop, which has been the choice of professional graphic artists ever since its introduction in 1987.
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