Wednesday, September 12, 2018


My Olympus gear

THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION WAS COMPLETE by the time I was laid off by the free daily. It's not the most revolutionary thing that happened to photography in the last twenty years; it's close, but the wild changes that transformed the business (and the art) of photography happened alongside some other trends, some economic, some social, some aesthetic. All I know is that I had a ringside seat for it all.

When I started my gig with the free daily as the interim photo editor I still used film and my desk featured a much-used (and occasionally cranky) Nikon Coolpix 35mm film scanner. When the paper sent me to Peru I went with the very nice Canon 35mm SLR that I'd just bought, assuming that it would hold me over for a few years until they'd ironed the bugs out of usable digital cameras. The bugs were ironed out in less than a year, and I barely ever used the camera again.

The Canon cameras I used at the free daily

When Jodi, my editor at the free daily, put me back to work as the paper's photographer they bought a consumer level digital camera for me to use. In a couple of years it had become inadequate to the task and they replaced it with a much better Canon - a prosumer model that was in my hands for most of the time I began to start thinking (very quietly) about myself as a professional photographer again.

One of my beats at the paper was writing a technology review column, which meant that I had new digital cameras in my hands all the time. I reviewed digital SLRs and point-and-shoots by all the major manufacturers, including Canon, Nikon, Kodak, Panasonic, Leica, Sony and Olympus. The churn was pretty fierce as every generation of camera added new features and nearly doubled the size of the image sensors.

Some of the cameras I reviewed for the free daily

There were some interesting experiments - I particularly liked the Olympus E-330, which did away with the hump of the viewfinder prism somehow - but the basic form of the DSLR didn't end up really changing, and digital cameras on the market today still ape either film SLRs or Leica-style rangefinders.

It took me a lot longer to figure out how and why a digital image was different from a film negative. Some of the work I was processing as a photo editor at first was shot on film and scanned to digital, but while it very quickly became wholly digital, it was hard to concentrate on the difference in the heat of deadlines and the new speed and convenience of doing away with film processing and darkrooming.

Harbourfront, Toronto, 2011

It wasn't until a couple of years after I'd been laid off that I had time to think about how digital photography was visibly different from film. The catalyst was the shot above, taken while I was walking around the city's old harbour while on assignment for blogTO. It was a shot I took when the view caught my eye - the sun barely burning through a midday haze and giving an eerie light on a bunch of upturned boats by a sailing school.

There was a time when I might not have bothered taking the photo; I tried to keep my expenses as low as possible when I was a freelancer and, combined with my frugality, I might not have wanted to waste any frames when I had to save film for a job. That was the first thing that changed with digital photography.

I had hoped that the shot would turn out well when I snapped the shutter. It helped to be able to preview it on the LCD screen on the back of the camera, which let me know that I had something to work with before I was at home and in front of a computer. Taken together, it's hard to deny that digital photography gave me a control and confidence from the moment I took the camera out of the bag that I don't think I ever had with film, and for that I was grateful.

And finally there was something about the quality of the image - the lack of grain and a peculiar luminance that I began seeing in digital photographs as soon as the resolution passed a certain threshold and became competitive with higher ISO film at the very least. It's hard to explain, but I don't think that the shot above would have looked the same way even if I'd taken it on a roll of slide film. There's something about the way a digital photo arranges itself on the pixel level that it took me a long time to anticipate when I worked.

Olympus gear, 2018

When I was laid off I had to return the Canon SLR to the paper. I had developed a nice relationship with the PR company that worked with Olympus while writing the tech review column - I really liked their cameras. After the lay-off I contacted them to say that I had a whole bunch of Olympus gear that I was either finished with or hadn't had a chance to write about yet, and asked them how I should return it to them.

It goes without saying that I was pretty broke after being laid off, and both unwilling and unable to budget money for a new DSLR. That could have been the end of my photography career - again - but Olympus' PR told me not to worry. They said the gear had been written off anyway, that I should keep it, and thanks for all the good press I'd given them over the last few years. I think they might have felt sorry for me.

It was, in any case, an incredible gift, and if I believed in such a thing, it was almost a sign that I shouldn't give up on photography, even if my circumstances had never really been worse. I have used these cameras happily and often over the last decade, and I still have a feeling of fondness and regret when I pull them out of their bag now, having just made the switch to Fuji mirrorless cameras.

Man covered in bees, Canadian National Exhibition, 2011

The image above is perhaps my best argument for digital photography. I only rediscovered it in my files a couple of months ago, and the original didn't look much like this at all. Shot in harsh late morning sunlight with my Olympus E-30 at the media preview day at the CNE for blogTO, it was originally a horizontal 3/4 shot, in colour. The background was distracting and the light a bit harsh, but with a lot of work in Photoshop with the clone tool and serious manipulation of layers, I was able to produce something that looks like a studio shot.

You could, of course, manipulate film images. It required hours of work and costs in paper and chemistry even if you didn't end up re-photographing the photo on the way to making a relatively seamless composite. It was the sort of work I tended to avoid then, but rarely shy away from now - the creative options available with a digital image are almost limitless, and it's made me a more technically competent photographer than I could ever have been with film.

There have, of course, been major changes to photography that have nothing to with cameras and more to do with the way we produce and consume photographs. They have been, by and large, proof of the most extreme scenarios imagined by Joseph Schumpeter's "Creative Destruction." The launch of Instagram was over a year away from the lay-off that changed the direction of my "career" once again, but that's a subject for another post.

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