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When Technology Matters

For much of the past 15 years, the bulk of my photography has been done with black and white film, using a 4x5 inch view camera and a 6x7 centimeter roll film camera. The technology of those two types of cameras first appeared over 200 and 150 years ago, respectively. There have been some incremental improvements, but the basic way they function remains the same. Digital cameras, on the other hand, first appeared a mere 35 years ago!

If one visits an online forum devoted to film photography, they will find that a large number of threads, regardless of the original topic, degenerate into tiresome “film versus digital” arguments. Fortunately there are those who keep in sight the fact that it is the resulting image that is of ultimate importance, not the tools used!

As much as I enjoy the ritualistic use of older camera technology, I also enjoy using a digital camera as well. That said, under most circumstances, a practiced user could create a desired image using either film or digital cameras. But I recently made the image below using a digital camera, and several features of the camera were essential to getting the image. I think I can unequivocally say that the image would have been almost impossible to make with a film camera.

So what is depicted here, and how did I make the photograph? Unfortunately, I neglected to do the obvious – I should have had my wife snap a cell phone shot of me in the process of capturing the above image! We were at a parking lot after completing a couple hours of cross-country skiing. I spotted a smallish rotary snowplow parked at the edge of the lot, and went over to see if there was any photographic potential. I thought of photographing into the opening full of curved blades that pull the snow in before it is shot out over the roadside berm, but that view was too complicated.

I got down on hands and knees and looked into the gaping maw of the machine, and saw that at the very back there were some nicely burnished metal parts that might make a good photograph. (The tonsils of the plow!) But there were a lot of other parts in the way! I crawled in some, pushing my camera ahead of me. It was clear that it was dark enough in there that I was going to need a longer exposure, but there was no way a tripod was going to fit around all the parts. I was going to need to handhold the camera, risking getting a blurry image.

There was a horizontal metal part on which I could partially rest my camera. Using the flip-out LCD screen of the camera, I zoomed my lens in and out until I got the desired composition. (Pretty much what you see above – I did crop a little off the left side.) I then let the camera auto-focus and made quite a few exposures at various apertures. In the end, a number of them were usable due, in part, to the fact that the camera has image stabilization. Between that, and resting the camera on the metal part, most of the exposures were adequately sharp to convey what I wanted.

With one of my film cameras, I would not have been able to use a tripod, and the slow shutter speed needed would have resulted in a blurry image. Focusing would have been next to impossible. Could these things have been overcome? Yes, but with very great difficulty. In this case, a digital camera was the right tool for the job!

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