Sunday, April 24, 2005

Film Photography: For Better or Worse

My brother and his family recently returned from a vacation to Florida, so I went over to his house to look at photos from the trip. The pictures were all the typical shots you would expect to see from a vacation to the beach, Sea World, and Disney World. There were photographs of the kids splashing in the waves, of dolphins leaping into the air during a Sea World performance, and of the kids standing with some of the more popular Disney characters. In fact, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the pictures -- except that they were all perfect! Every single shot was in focus, the subjects were usually framed pretty well, and everyone was facing forward and smiling brightly. How does someone get all those perfect pictures from a vacation with children under ten years of age? That's not supposed to happen! Did my brother suddenly turn into a master photographer overnight?

The answer, of course, is that he has a digital camera. Because of the digital camera's preview feature, he can immediately examine the shot he took just seconds earlier. If he likes what he sees, he can keep it and move on. If he doesn't like the shot, he can delete it and try again. Even if my brother chooses to keep every image on the memory card, he can either use editing software to clean up some of the pictures prior to printing or he can simply choose not to print the ones that turned out to be less than satisfactory. As a result, the finished vacation album contains only perfect photographs. But is this necessarily a good thing?

In my opinion, it's not. Sure, digital cameras can save money in the long run because you don't have to print every single shot that you take. Digital cameras are also great for professional photographers who make a living from taking perfect pictures. But for family photos, I think a film camera is better than a digital camera in some ways.

When I look through photo albums from my childhood, I invariably come across pictures that are pretty flawed by today's standards. You know the kind I'm talking about. I either have my eyes closed, or my head is turned in the wrong direction. Or, what's worse, my head is cut out entirely and the picture just shows me from the neck down. Then there are the numerous shots of my dog's rear end because we couldn't get him to sit still long enough to snap a picture of his face. Or how about all the pictures where my brother is sneaking two fingers up behind my head in the classic bunny ears pose? No matter how many times my father warned him about the bunny ears, my brother always found a way to pull of his signature prank.

These days, I rarely see those kinds of pictures in family photo albums. I know that if my father had a digital camera back then, he would certainly delete the bunny ears photos and make us pose again and again until we got things just right. And that's the problem with digital photography. It can come off as being very stiff and staged, because it usually is. I miss the candid quality of my childhood photographs. My parents just brought out the camera, took pictures, developed them, and put them in albums. There was no previewing, no editing, and no deleting. We got exactly the pictures that we took, for better or worse.

Sure, the pictures from my childhood aren't perfect. But they have character and always call to mind a specific incident. How can I ever forget the time that my cousin Steve licked the frosting off the edge of my birthday cake before I blew out the candles when I have a picture showing the cake with a big bare spot on it? How can I ever forget the time that I cried on Christmas morning because Santa didn't bring the pony I wanted so badly when I have a picture showing my red, swollen eyes? I have a feeling that in this digital age, both of those pictures would have been touched up in Photoshop before being printed out. And then perhaps my memory of those incidents would not be so vivid.

I'm not saying we should all ditch our digital cameras and go back to shooting only with film. I love my digital camera and can't imagine doing that. All I'm saying is that we don't always need to strive for perfection in our photographs. Pictures should capture a moment in time and tell a story about that moment. I would rather have one candid, albeit blemished, moment than ten perfectly staged ones. Our lives aren't perfect, so why should our photos be?

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