Photo Project: Digital Has Put the Fun Back Into Photography

When I was younger I was gripped by a real passion for photography. Here was something that was, without doubt a creative and artistic pastime, and yet it was egalitarian – an art form that was accessible and available to all.

It was true, though, that entering the world of the SLR camera was always a little frightening. You couldn’t just pick up the camera and shoot – odds on nothing would come out. There were new techniques to master and a whole new vocabulary to get to grips with. Old, and experienced, photographers seemed to live in a mystical and un-penetrable world. As a young student of such things I sat at the feet and worldy-wise master who talked of: f-stops; Ansell Adams’ Zones’; dodging and burning and the importance of light meters. And then there the perennial debate. Where you a black and white man (for it was always male-genedered in those days) or a colour man? If you were a black and white man, you had learnt the skill of operating the photographic enlarger and – more than likely – you were always accompanied by the lovely aromas of photographic chemicals. But, if your preferences were for colour (always a second class option) then you had to dread carefully. The ‘real’ photographer was a student of transparency film or slides. No serious photographer mucked about with colour prints, expect to give to granny as a Christmas present.

Back in those days money was tight and yet that was no bar to photographic quality. My low end Pentax and Olympus cameras were affordable, although they took a while to save up for. But while these cameras were at the bottom of the ranges the worked in the same way as their more expensive siblings and used the same lenses.

I would happily take my camera out for a whole day excursion. Sometimes I’d take to the hills and other times to the more mellow environments of the local canals and leisure footpaths. Or I’d walk around the city. One of my favourite days out was to simply walk into the city centre, capturing the change in neighbourhoods, buildings and peoples.

While living in London I loved the way I could visit a gallery, study the latest ideas or techniques of the best photographers, and then head back into the streets and try the same myself. My favourite haunt was the Photographer’s Gallery on Great Newport Street, a rambling, shambles of a place that somehow managed to unite a number of old shop units to create a number of gallery spaces and a great café, I spent hours at the Photographer’s Gallery. It is still there today and still keeps some of the atmosphere of those pioneering days.

If there was great fun to be had in taking the photographs there was just as much fun to be had in the darkroom. Again, you could spend a fortune on darkroom equipment. But you didn’t have to; pretty decent gear was available at a reasonable price and second had stuff had often been looked after with great care. I would happily spend a while evening or afternoon working on one of two prints, changing the contrast of the print, burning in exposures to great different moods and cropping the print in different ways to increase the drama of the scene.

Rather inevitably, I suppose, technology came to dominate and SLR cameras became more and more advanced. They were supposed to be simpler to use but I just found they just gave you too much to think about. I lost the use of my darkroom and found that shooting lots of colour transparency film was far too expensive. My interest in photography began to slip. Eventually my Olympus OM4 – which had been a wonderful top of the range buy – was obsolete. It was difficult to maintain and key accessories such as lenses became harder to find.

So, I kind of fell out of love with photography. I did, though, follow the development of digital from a far. As prices tumbled and quality increased I decided to take the plunge and forked out for the then new and exciting Nikon D70 camera.

By this time digital had come of age. What a revelation this camera was. Digital SLRs are a bit pricey but once you’ve got there, well, there are no film costs. You can shoot as many pictures as you like. Those that don’t work can just be deleted. In the old days – even when you bought your film in bulk – there was always caution about shooting too much. Yet it is shooting picture – lots of them – that helps develop skills.

Doing away with film was a great liberation. But there was better to come. I soon realised that a really good editor such as Photoshop took me back to the days of the darkroom. Once again I could play with an image for hours, cropping, burning, changing the colour balance and so on. And those colours! I never made the transition to the home developing of colour; it never really looked right. The joy of colour was the wonderful, vivid, images of the transparency. You may remember Paul Simon’s song in which he urged he Mamma not to take his Kodachrome away; I knew exactly how he felt.

With Photoshop you have nothing less than a digital darkroom on your desktop. And it’s a darkroom that works in colour, not the muted colours of old prints, but the vivid colours that are reminiscent of Fuji and Kodak film.I guess it is really Photoshop that has made me fall in love with photography al over again.

These days there really are some amazing digital cameras on the market, not least in the affordable compact ranges. But to really push things on you will need to invest in a Digital SLR. And to get the best out of this you will need to invest in a really powerful editor such as Photoshop. But once you take the plunge it is worth it. And with photoshop there’s no smell of dodgy chemicals (or tell take burns in your shirt sleeves).

It is this move from the compact to the world of the SLR that seems to be the focus of most of the emails I get about cameras. So, this new – and occasional series – will start by looking at some of those questions that I get asked most often. I’ll put them together as blog posts, collating them together as they develop. This will mean that it will be easy for you to comment, add your own advice and guidance, and generally make things more interactive. Maybe we can also create a Flickr group to pool our shared, reference, photos?

Anyhow, lets see how it goes.

I’ll start with the debate about compacts and SLRs? What’s the difference and why is it worth trading up?


  1. Andy I know what your saying about photoshop, but I see it used to make a shot look far from what was seen – to be honest it makes dishonest photos. I mentioned this on Chris Townsend’s site not long back. His point..”Any alterations made during this process are designed to make the photos look more like the scene. I never add anything or remove anything or change the colours”..was a great way of summing up what I’m trying to say here.

  2. Inspiring, Andy! Many thanks for starting this.

  3. Oops. I think Martin and I were posting simultaneously.

    I hear what you say about colours, Martin, and changing them, but I saw some photos the other day that blew me away. They don’t purport to be straighforward representations of a scene’s original appearance, so to that extent the photographer is aiming for something different from what we’re after when we seek, for instance, to capture a landscape, but WOW! Were they vibrant and exciting! When I saw them I began to think again about how long it might take me to save up for Photoshop 🙂

    They’re here:

  4. I know that some photos look amazing as photoshop has:burnt, layered, bamboozled and the like. What I am arguing is that is art and I’M OK with that – but on say a trip report, I for example write the report the photos should like the report be honest, and show what I viewed. Not have the cloud airbrushed out and made to look all wonderful when it wasn’t.

  5. Yup, I see what you mean.

    Taking it a step further, though, I suppose even that (i.e. significant alteration of trip report photos) is okay as long as people are honest about what they’ve done. I remember a few years ago seeing a series of pictures of Scottish mountains, and it was obvious that they’d been significantly fiddled with. As it happens, I found them rather ‘samey’ after the first few, and I prefer things to look natural unless they set out to be something entirely different, but clearly the bloke who made them liked them that way.

  6. Peewiglet (can I call you by a name?)Honest is the word – good word you put there, and hopefully a word that means something to the outdoor blogging world.

    Any way Andy I like this photo idea: so get writing and its appreciated.


  7. You can call me anything you like! Shirl/Shirley’s my real name, though 🙂

  8. “But to really push things on you will need to invest in a Digital SLR. And to get the best out of this you will need to invest in a really powerful editor such as Photoshop”

    Personally I don’t think you have to have a Dslr; there are many good compacts on the market that with give you the same manual control over the camera as a Dslr.

    I started out with a Zenith then move on to olympus and nikon camera but always hated having to lug around lens and all the extras.

    Nowadays I have a small canon compact and a larger (but not to large fuji which allow me the same freedom as my old slr.

    At present I can’t see me going back down the slr route.

    As for editors; photoshop is the daddy but there are also some good alternatives on the market, photoshop elements is normally good enough for the editing that most of us would want to do.

    Another one is GIMP it works similar to PS and best of all it’s open source so completely free 🙂

    I look forward to new series


  9. But to get back to compacts v. SLRs, as Andy suggested…

    I’ve just traded up. I don’t know enough yet about SLRs to be able to attempt a sophisticated answer, but the main, readily accessible difference for me is the ability to focus clearly on small things with the DSLR: flowers, insects etc. With my wee compact it was almost impossible to do that. It could well be that I was doing something wrong, but if so then I was doing it wrong with three compacts on the trot, and the DSLR has made it possible for me to get it right. In fact, it seems to be impossible to get it wrong.

    I also hope for greater depth when taking landscape pics, and look forward to being able to try out interesting new lenses, providing different sorts of perspectives (when I’ve saved up to buy one, anyway).

  10. Good discussion.

    George: You are right, you don’t need a DSLR to produce quality photos, but they do represent a step up and offer many advatanges.

    Martin: Photoshop is just a tool. Of course, you can manipulate colours and the image but there are many ways of looking at this. Firstly, as Chris says, you could use this to bring the picture back to the original scene – cameras do not produce accurate reproductions of nature. But you could always see Photoshop as part of a wider, creative, process. Is photography an art. Well for some now, but for others yes.

    I could manipulate images in a darkroom – and many people did. All Photoshop is – is a digital darkroom.

    George is right in pointing to open source alternatives. Many of these are being developed with the support of the arts community.

    If you want to step up your photography then Photoshop – or equivalent – is worth the investment. There are cheaper manipulation programmes but they don’t – in my view – come up to my digital darkroom criteria. I’ll try and illustrate all of this later in the series.

    Remember, this is for this is for those people who want to explore further. Many of you will be quite happy doing what you’re doing — and that’s fine as well!

  11. Ted Spiller says:

    Some interesting discussions Andy; perhaps I can add my pennyworth.

    The manipulation of digital photos using Photoshop can of course produce unreal reults, but this was always the case with film photography and the myriads of dark room techniques available – paper grades, filters, dodging, burning. The difference with Photoshop is that it is even more versatile and a lot easier to use (or misuse). So for both digital and film the key is the taste of the photographer, and tastes vary enormously.

    Digital has a surpising advantage over film; it is better for black and white photos, thanks to the range of greyscale options on offer – red, green and blue channels and different proportions of them.

    Regarding software I don’t think anyone has mentioned Photoshop Elements, which is much cheaper (10 times) than the full Photoshop but contains most of the tools that a photographer might want, except that is for the indispensible Curves feature (it has Curves but not as a reversible layer).

    As to DSLR v Compact, the pros and cons are much the same as for film SLR v Compact. I am sold on DSLR: more intuitive to use, better quality (larger) lenses, greater depth of field effect, you see what you get (and can see it in bright conditions), bigger and better sensors, better quality and control in general. DSLRs are more expensive, but probably better value for money, especially if you get a slightly older version. They are heavier but getting lighter all the time.

    Regards Ted Spiller

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