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Why Old School Photographers Think You’re Just a Spoiled Hipster

The Photographer

When you learned photography the hard way, it’s hard not to see the new generation as simpletons spoiled by the advance of tech. Today, we’re learning about the history of photography, and how hard it really was.

There’s a long history of technological advancements in photography. Digital cameras in particular have not only have improved image quality, but have also made photography more and more accessible to us, the common rabble, much to the annoyance of professionals and high-level enthusiasts. Is there merit to this argument? Let’s take a look today, and find out some surprising, very interesting answers.

So Easy, Even An Idiot Could Do It

Modern digital cameras really are ridiculously easy to use. Auto focus, auto white balance, auto ISO, auto aperture, auto shutter speed—you press a button, and they do the rest. You don’t have to know anything about light, don’t have to deal with developing film, nor with photographic papers. Even with a big, impressive interchangeable lens camera, you’re basically a kid spoiled by technology, making a precious art form accessible to the the artless common man. This attitude  is probably as old as the second generation of photographic technology, and it was just as grumpy and mean spirited then as it is today.

Hyeres_-France.-1932

And on the flipside of that coin, modern photographers often fail to understand the importance of great photographers of years past, and how the work they do is only possible because of the trails blazed by pioneers in the field years ago. The above photograph was taken in 1936 by a Henri Cartier-Bresson, an early 20th century photographer, known for his almost documentarian style of “street photography” that influenced generations of photographers.

In 2006, it was jokingly inserted into a Flickr in a group called “Delete Me,” where photographers post their images to be critiqued. It was almost instantly panned by the users there—“too blurry,” or “too grainy.” Spoiled by the advances of modern technology, the modern digital photographers failed to understand why an image should be anything less than immaculately clean and sharp, free of reticulation or film grain. By judging this work of art (which sold in 2008 for $265,000) by modern standards, modern artists fail to understand the importance of their technological advances, not to mention fail to understand the artistry of an important and influential talent. Today, we’ll attempt to bring old and young together to appreciate the clever advances of technology by understanding just how hard it used to be to take a photo of something.

Camera Obscura, Daguerreotypes, and The Birth of Photography

We’ve talked about camera obscura nearly ad nauseum, as it’s such a great illustration of the physics of how your camera works. But “photography” as we know it didn’t really begin with camera obscura, although early camera obscura can be thought of as a sort of proto-photography.

1280px-View_from_the_Window_at_Le_Gras,_Joseph_Nicéphore_Niépce

This is one of the oldest images taken with a camera obscura (the oldest image still in existence), developed with a process that uses pewter plate as an image plane. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce created this first permanent photographic image (sometimes called a Heliograph) by hardening bitumen, or asphault, on a pewter plate. Bitumen reacts to light by hardening, with a positive image created by a solvent bath. While Niépce had come up with a very difficult, but very clever way to capture and record light, the image quality was far from good.

1024px-Boulevard_du_Temple_by_Daguerre

The first image we might actually call “photography” was taken by Louis Daguerre, who is known not only an artist, but a physicist—pretty much the skillset it took to be an originator of photography. While we can’t credit Daguerre for inventing photography outright, he did work with Niépce on a chemical process that would become the “Daguerrotype”—what we know as the first viable method of creating permanent photographs.

Other inventors and clever people had contributed by independently creating early photographic methods (like Hércules Florence), although Daguerre is best known for his method, which was bought from him and made public domain by the government of France.

447px-Abraham_Lincoln-1864-3a13576v

Many of the hallmarks of this kind of daguerreotype photography were limitations of the medium. They were created on sheets of metal with materials that were not terribly photosensitive. Because of this, extremely long exposures were needed to get any sort of image at all—so subjects were stiffly posed, and rarely smiled.

Daguerreotypes also had the limitation of not being reproducible, as the image was captured directly on the surface of the material. This lead to the development of glass-based photo plates and negatives, which eventually could be used to print copies of images.

Kodak Made Photography Mainstream and Ruined it For All The Hipsters

You_press_the_button,_we_do_the_rest_(Kodak)

Photographers in the mid to late 19th century had to be very clever, very technically savvy people, and had to carry around huge supplies of hazardous chemistry and heavy glass or metal plates to take any sort of image at all. George Eastman set out to change that, ruining photography forever by taking it out of the hands of combination chemist/artists. The process was more accessible to a broad market audience, much to the chagrin of professionals and “old school” photographers. And thus, photography was ruined forever!

ekc130

Eastman’s first model camera was given the invented nonsense word “Kodak.” This name eventually became the name of his company, the “Eastman Kodak” company, and later, as we know it,  simply “Kodak.” Eastman was a clever inventor, and was responsible for many designs for easy point-and-shoot style cameras. However, his major contribution was the invention of photographic films in rolls, first on paper bases, then on cellulose. Even when film cameras started using color chemistry, these subsequent generations would be based pretty directly on Eastman’s cellulose model.

While there was quite a lot of interest in the Daguerreotypes (and similar monochrome photography), the advent of mainstream film systems lead to the market pressures that continued to push photography to create easier, more convenient products, as well as improved image quality along every step of the way. Don’t like carrying around heavy glass plates and chemistry? Here’s a film system so simple, anyone can use it. Don’t like loading your camera in the dark? Here’s a camera and film canister that can be loaded in broad daylight. Don’t like developing your own film? Send it to our laboratory, and we’ll develop and print it for you.

602px-Susse_Frére_Daguerreotype_camera_1839nikon

Fast forward some 200 years from the first photograph, and photographers are still complaining about how easy it is to take pictures compared to how it was in “the old days.” It would serve us all well to know that even the most old school of old school photographers probably isn’t coating and developing daguerrotype plates, and should readily embrace newer, more superior technology. And those of us that have little to no experience with the methods of the “old days” would be well served to know just how far we’ve come in just under 200 years of improved cameras, films, and photographic methods.


Image Credits: The Photographer by Andreas Photography, Creative Commons.  Hyères, France, 1932 copyright the estate of Heni Cartier-Bresson, assumed fair use. Pinhole Camera (English) by Trassiorf, in public domain. All daguerreotypes assumed in public domain. Kodak Kodachrome 64 by Whiskeygonebad, Creative Commons. Daguerrotype Camera by Liudmila & Nelson, public domain. All other images assumed public domain or fair use.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 02/23/12

Comments (13)

  1. MMSDave

    … and this one is where i like ya know skinned my knee on the porch when i was sooo falling down drunk like OMG!!! :) The trick is to create memories worth keeping.

  2. user

    I still have some Kodachrome kicking around, as well as some old Nikon’s and a Rolleiflex twin lens.
    Sold all my dark room equipment long ago (Cibachrome)

  3. Kerensky97

    Even if the camera does everything for you there is so much needed to know about photography the true artists can still stand apart. For example Cartier-Bresson’s pic above isn’t just a Grainy B&W shot it’s an excellent example of complex composition (follow the stairs to the biker as he sweeps across the picture), and using a few key elements in frame to represent the entire environment out of frame. You don’t actually see the buildings in shot but when I remember the picture in my head I swear I could see the narrow french alleyway around me.

    Fauxtographers can sometimes capture this on accident 1 out of 1000 pictures but it takes an expert to see and plan for a picture like that.

  4. Ben

    Thanks, i very much enjoyed reading this, it’s really good to have a bit of understanding on how things used to be in the world of photography. It helps better understand the technology we use today.

  5. Erwin

    I learned it the hard way, dark room for days, the smell of developer and other chemicals, but in 2003 I sold my doka, my canon A1, F1, AE1 and went to digital equipment, never looked back, I can replicate the old school photos in PS and Gimp, I still prefer monochrome images, but digital B&W is so much more “plastic” … the only thing I kept is my 6×6 Yashic Mat two-eyed camera.

  6. Charles Vaughn

    The anme Kodal in Eastman Kodak did not come from Eastman’s middle name nor a relative. It came from the sound that the “wooden” shutter made when taking photograph: ko dak’. I used to teach photography to Junior Highers and that was part of the history of photograpy that I included ina lesson plan. I garnered that information from a set of slides I purchased from Eastman Kodak.

  7. Photomandan

    This is great and of course I loved it. Funny thing is 99.9999999999999 % of the people who SHOULD see it, won’t. From everything to a GWC (guy/girl With Camera) to a fauxtographer, none of this really matters to them and they do nothing to strive to learn more other than point and push. Don’t get me wrong, technology is or can be a great thing, it can also create laziness and put people out of a job.

    I’ve had nothing but anger when I was called to do a job and after I told them my fee was told I was to expensive or that they would give out a couple of digital cameras to guests or anything along those lines.

    Sad as it is to say I stated feeling a bit redeemed when they I heard how bad the images wee or when they CAME BACK TO ME and asked if I could “fix” the images that were taken. This just got me thinking about karma and you get what you pay for.

    Even after all this was said I could still go on about photoshop and how people who know nothing about photography can manipulate an image and do great things things with it, but why bother. I know how to use it, but I also know if you don’t need to, why would you.

  8. JEB

    I hate elitist that think only so-called “professionals” can take good photos and I also hate people who are stuck on black & white photos! The world is in COLOR and that’s how photos should be taken!

  9. Peter H

    Photography is not really about the technicals. It is, or should be, about the “artist” or recorder. Most people don’t care to know how the picture got there, just that it did. All those old technologies have vanished and many cannot be repeated. Kodakchrome can no longer even be processed so if there are undeveloped images on its chemistry, they are lost.

    The prime advantages of digital photo technology are: instant feedback which tends to improve shooter skills, ability to “fool” around and learn, transferrability to other places/media thus saving it from getting lost in a shoebox, ability to send it to others thus making it more meaningful, and ability to conserve it. Of course, these only work if they are done. Technology won’t improve a disinterested technofreak/keep up with the Joneses type.

  10. Noko

    @Jeb:

    You sound like a jackass.

  11. runlevel0

    Not true on two levels:

    LEVEL ONE; Hipsters do use film, they call it Lomography and it is considered extremely hip.

    LEVEL TWO: A person with a camera is not a photographer, sorry. And a picture taken by a camera is not always a photography. A casual picture is a ‘snapshot’ a ‘photo’ is something that follows the rules of composition and the conventions of the art. Photography is still an art taught at the art schools or the press schools. You are not considered a photographer if you are not in the “milieu”, this means that you can in fact become a photographer without attending a school, but you still need to know how to compose, how to use lighting, etc, etc.

    And there is also another “But”: Most good photography requires a lot of investment fashion, for instance or artistic photography. If you plan to get your pictures published in a magazine you will usrely have to use a digital back at least, or medium format film… or 4×5 large format. Magazines like National Geographic do not accept digital images and only reluctantly medium format.

    It is thus not true what the title states: Real Photographers don’t consider anybody with a small compact camera anything but just a person with a small compact, exactly in the same way as a professional violin player would never consider a kid with a plastic harmonica a musician.

  12. runlevel0

    @JEB: Very good!
    You just skipped a few small details: The colours on an image are NOT REAL, they depend on how the sensor interprets them. For the sensor it’s just one and ceros and the rest is done by the taste of the guy/s who programmed the software to show the images. And then there’s the monitors (any idea what this gamma correction and colour profiles thingies mean? no?).

    The colour on an image is not real, it’s just that we THINK it’s real. Or else how do you explain the red vampire eyes on images, or why your girlfriend’s skin looks more thanned than normal. or Why this photo is bluish or yellowish when the day was perfectly lit ?

    Or what is this “White Balance” thingy?

    Forget it, we manipulate the colour in the pictures a LOT, the world may be in colour but not in the ones you see in a picture.

    AND: Why are there drawings in black and white? Or why do we write in two colours and not every character in a different one?

    The answer is simple: Black and White, different colour settings, split tones and any other thing that we may do with a picture is intended as a means of expression.

    We, the photographers DO NOT intend to represent the reality, we are doing something completely different that is called ART. And if not just explain me what Photoshop is for, or the whole CGI… ;)

  13. amanda

    completely agree with runlevel0

    i have to say that photography IS about the technicals as well. choosing the shutter speed based on what you want the photo to look like, knowing what effect it will have – as well as different lens choices and aperture – on the end product is really important to creating an image or work of art not just a technicaly correct photo.

    you can trick point and shoots into doing what you want but you have to know what you want and how to not let the camera take over. I have never been in a state of ‘flow’ in front of a computer but i have in a darkroom

    the Louis Daguerre first image was actually of a really busy street but because the shutter speed was so slow only the shoeshine and customer, who were standing still, can be seen.

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