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The 10,000th Frame: My first 180 Days with a Digital SLR

by Matt Kuchta | December 1, 2004

© Matt KuchtaA quick slide down the learning curve.

With all the advertising, hype, and testing, you would think that the last four years of digital SLR advancements have been the saving grace of photography. Everything is better with a fancy new digital camera at your side. So how could my own experience be any different? Read on.

Save for a few seasons with a Kodak instamatic, I used an old Pentax KM, a wonderfully built manual camera, for the first 15 years of my photographic education. With the exception of when I forgot to set the proper ISO, it produced fine pictures (what I would give to have known about “push processing” back then). The time spent making sure everything was focused helped me compose the scene, producing a fairly well visualized full-frame picture. However, upon purchasing a Canon Elan7 camera, the ease from automation was partially counteracted with interesting new “troubles” that popped up. Looking at my slides or prints when they came back from the lab, I realized they were byproducts of technology. This technology, designed to make photography easier, ended up making some things harder. Autofocus, film auto-wind, and eventually, digital technology, simultaneously advanced my potential and degraded my results.

Putting my latest slides on the light table, I was not as excited about them as I should have been. I was letting the camera make the images, not the other way around. Small subjects, securely plunked in the middle of the frame, endless rolls of birds with their heads turned away from me, and generally hundreds of static, lifeless images that may have recorded what I saw but made me wonder what it was I was trying to accomplish.

The purchase of a Canon DSLR in April 2003 magnified some of the issues that I first noticed with my Elan 7. My initial results weren’t always inspiring, but a few months’ work gave me some wonderful images. For me there just seemed to be problems inherent to the nature of the technology despite its benefits: the yin to the yang of my photographic karma.

In October of 2003, six months after purchasing my new 10D, I saw the frame counter approaching 9999. I wanted to make this milestone an opportunity to rediscover some of the techniques and ideas I felt I had lost after putting down my manual camera. It would be less about the image and more about the ideas behind it. Autofocus and the computer’s cropping tool would not dictate my composition but instead static subjects, single frame advance, and the entire viewfinder were in my mind. The images I began to create with this new discipline marked not only my growth as a photographer, but was also a watershed moment for me as an artist.

Autofocus does NOT mean Auto-quality

A camera capable of selecting an object to have it snap into focus is a double-edged sword. I found it easy to get tunnel vision and not pay attention to anything beyond those little squares in the viewfinder. Autofocus is a gift for the subject on the go, but a crutch for more ponderous situations. When previewing the depth of field, it’s easier to pay attention to the entire frame and eliminate the need for excessive cropping later. Ironically the inverse is also true: I will sometimes use my camera for recording images, scenes, or patterns that I may want to revisit later. The ability to quickly grab a shot in this manner and keep going has encouraged me to explore many offbeat and unusual compositions.

I can be a sloppy photographer

With a digital camera I was more likely to plunk the subject comfortably within the bounds of the frame and, without paying attention to the rest of the image, I would trim away all the unwanted stuff in image editing later. While this is not a problem in and of itself, it did make me feel my camera was a vacuum. With it, I would inhale all the interesting scenery and pick through the endless supply of compositions later. What success I had would be as much a result of chance and persistence than of any personal vision from behind the lens. For me, being able to see beyond the focus screen is not simply looking at all four edges, but taking the image in the viewfinder as a whole. With practice it becomes easier to see, but moving subjects are still troublesome. A moving bird is as hard to frame now as it was a year ago, despite my improvements in tracking. The ability to see beyond the subject takes practice and is not easy to do when your subject is darting about inside a thick hedge.

Small is big

There are times when cropping is necessary, as my viewfinder sees 95% of the scene, allowing unseen and unwanted elements to creep in. And even at 400mm, getting close to wood warblers and other small, active subjects is not easy. Small in the frame is all they’ll ever be at times. The key for me isn’t to ignore the surroundings, but to incorporate them artfully and make them part of the final image.

Don’t fill up the buffer on useless garbage

Henry Cartier-Bresson touted the importance of the “decisive moment” in street photography, the exact point at which gesture, posture, and glance come together. The same goes for nature photography. Large image buffers and room for numerous RAW frames on a digital media card aren’t excuses to hold down the shutter for everything. Editing 200 frames of garbage is a real pain. I had to learn to anticipate the action: a great blue heron lunging at a fish takes a fraction of a second. Getting a high frames per second camera to record the perfect instant by simply holding down the shutter isn’t as effective as combining the technology with the human ability to anticipate behavior.

Leaves © Matt Kuchta

By the 10,000th frame I had taken lots of pictures, many of which didn’t “work” for me in that they didn’t reflect my thoughts. By the rolling over of my camera counter, I was making a deliberate effort not to let the fantastic automations in camera advancements allow me to cloud my artistic point of view.

About the Author

Upon going digital, Matt Kuchta has become an avid nature photographer.

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