The Problem of Plenty


Some photographers recently opined, on a popular social platform, that digital cameras have made us lazy… that the process of learning is no longer available, or even all that important. Oddly enough, some of these photographers are from beyond the time when film was the only available option. Were they to experience analogue photography in those terms, they would have called it unbelievably arduous. I believe that digital technology has unshackled us from it all. It has offered us a variety of easy choices with instant results. It has also allowed us to move beyond, to allow us to spend more time exploring subjects in depth, and create more photographs, with greater detail, with greater ease than ever before.

Don’t get me wrong. I dearly miss the romance of the old ways of things. Of analogue, where mistakes were easy, and painful, and the learnings rich and triumphs joyous. Of loading and winding, of cocking and locking, of developing tanks and darkrooms. We ‘archived’ negatives, transparencies and prints. In today’s parlance, the term is cold and impersonal… ‘storage’. Nowadays, I am increasingly hearing of dead drives and corrupt storage, and thousands of images lost in seconds, within a few years of having made them. On the other hand, imagine my joy when I was sent a portrait of my father, by one of his exceptional students, made over thirty years ago on black & white negative film, and carefully archived. There was some real chemistry back then, literally and figuratively.

Adding choices to photography in the days of film meant a lot of work and learning. For instance, a roll of film was sensitised to a single ASA (or ISO), usually at 100 or 200. And if you had to reduce the exposure for a critical shot, or in other words, use a 100 ASA roll of film at 400 ASA, you would need to push-process the film. Simple enough for those who knew how, but difficult to perfect in our climatic conditions. And there were those who got this down to a form of art. Using this technique, you could extend the reach of your flash, shoot handheld in lower levels of available light, or perhaps even freeze action where things would have otherwise been a blur.

All of this comes so easily with digital cameras. There are plenty of choices to go around… ‘plenty’ being the operative word. A large number of options and techniques that once took a lot of reading, trial and error, days of waiting to know whether experiments were successful, thereby making failures all the more expensive, are now available to pick and choose out of a menu, with results immediately viewable.

For those who wish to practise photography seriously, the value of having too many choices is certainly debatable. I have always maintained that constraints are the key to creativity. When was the last time you used the Scene modes of your camera? Or experimented with White Balance settings? In all probability, you simply set everything to Auto. When you have choices, you end up with a level of comfort.

As practitioners, comfort is a very dangerous thing. With resources in plenty, we tend to believe that any problem is easily solvable and, therefore, our solutions are rarely efficient. Waste, in photography, as it is in real life, is a problem of abundance, of being able to afford more than we can consume, of releasing the shutter unnecessarily, just because digital technology conveniently allows us to do so. This is the problem of plenty. Of having too much. And a lot of everything is simply wasted, often without knowing.

The opposite of that is the oddly happy circumstance of having very little, where frugal innovation, inventiveness, and thought gets a chance to flourish. When the choices are limited, the real mind-over-matter phenomenon occurs. There is an expansion of vision, a grip on reality, and perspectives on possibilities. I am in love with that little window called the viewfinder for this very reason. This is a tiny slice, walled and framed. But I can choose the how and what, of the unlimited, magnificent world outside, is seen through that window. That’s the game and the fun of it! The true worth of a choice is in making an informed, deliberate decision, with the knowledge of all the reasons and in anticipation of a certain outcome.

Digital photography allows us the freedom to make pictures right from the moment we buy a camera or a phone. All we need is a subject to explore… one that we are in love with… a muse. With a muse, the photographs, however technically flawed, are almost sure to be interesting because our perspectives are bound to be unique. This is also what makes the ‘Auto’ mode, in a sense, doubly valuable. Set the camera to Auto, and then you are free to love your subject without anything else getting in the way. And often, that’s good enough. And that’s all that matters.

I do not mean to say that technicalities are unnecessary. But as long as we know of the possibilities, technique is incidental to what we wish to create. The end dictates the means, the destination determines the path. And yet, the craft of it defines the art. And well thought out practice is, of course, essential for beautiful craft.

This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Better Photography.