DIY
How My Digital Camera Made Me A Better Photographer

My family, exploring VermontI’ve always been the crazy picture lady. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Every family has one. My relatives know my camera is always nearby, usually tucked into the front pocket of my jeans. They let me snap away, giving me grief every chance they get, but shamelessly enjoying the batches of pictures that later show up on their computer screens.

I recently made my graduating son a ‘life book’, and had to dig through the 26 boxes of print photos I took before we broke down and bought a digital camera. Until I was forced to wade through those thousands of pictures, I had kind of assumed that I only really got out of hand, with the volume of pictures I took, the moment I finished reading the instruction manual for my first digital camera. Once I figured out I basically had free, unlimited film to work with, there was no stopping me. No more pausing to decide if a shot was ‘film worthy’. Before digital, there were only 24 chances to catch the right moment, and every click of the camera would cost me twice, once in film, and once in developing. Suddenly I could click all I wanted and not pay a dime more.

Even more exciting than the idea of never again having to throw those little yellow (expensive) boxes of film into the shopping cart, I became addicted to the preview feature of my digital camera. I could see, immediately, if I got the picture I was hoping for. Was the lighting right? Were my son’s eyes closed (again)? Did I actually catch my kid, mid stride, in his race, or was he just a colorful blur?

Right away I knew. I could delete on the spot, and make another attempt. Then, once I was home, and saw the pictures on the bigger screen of my computer, I could edit even more. I taught myself to take three shots for every one I desired. My own ‘rules of threes’ has rarely let me down.

It’s why the relatives think I’m a good photographer. They see my batch of pictures from the family picnic, and marvel at how I ended up with so many great shots. I try to tell them, “Look, I took 200 pictures that day. I only sent you the 40 best.”

My recent trip back to those thousands of print pictures in my rows of photo boxes reminded me that I used basically the same philosophy when I had a standard camera.  I definitely ‘over shot’ each event. For fifteen years of parenting we had only a film camera.  I never wanted to miss a moment, so I took, and had developed, a lot of prints. It’s left me with a daunting task in the near future, of scanning them into digital format.

And as I sort through them I see the reality. I took a lot of crappy pictures through the years. It’s actually somewhat encouraging. By the time I weed out the bad shots, I’ll only really have something like 18 boxes to scan. Every few thousand makes a difference.

I have a lot of pictures full of blurs. There are many backs-of-heads shots. I’m finding more and more batches of double prints, that weren’t good enough to justify postage to send to far away grandparents. It made me see just how digital photography has made me a better photographer.

Trapped somewhere inside my tiny little square friend is a built in photography instructor. He navigates me through the dummy friendly menus that scroll across my screen. He lets me play with features, snapping a shot in this mode, then in that one, and then never judges when I delete all but the one I was happy with. He just makes those bad ones go away, never to be seen again. Never to sit in a dusty photo box and be unearthed decades later.

I don’t have a fancy camera. Some day I’d love to own an SLR version, but for today, I’m perfectly content with my (second) Sony Cybershot.  It allows me to be the crazy picture lady, without turning into the crazy bankrupt lady. And it’s taught me, by instant feedback and a finger friendly delete button, how to take really good pictures.

 

 

Judy Berna

Judy Berna is the amputee wife of an archaeologist, the mother of four children, ages 13-22, and the author of her first book, "Just One Foot: How Amputation Cured My Disability." After living in NH, MO, D.C., UT and NY, she and her family have finally settled in a mountain town in Colorado.

13 Comments
  1. So has your digital camera actually made you (or allowed you to become) a better photographer? Or has it just allowed you to take a huge number of pictures, which inevitably results in a greater number of good pictures?

    • STH: For me, it’s both and the reason is always the same … because I don’t have to pay for the ones I don’t like. I love to take artsy pictures (which makes my hubby and kid nuts but they tolerate it) so I’ll take more pictures of the same thing with my digital until I get the one I really like. Also, I’ll be a bit more adventurous in the shots I take. Plus, there’s the added benefit of being able to carry the camera in my pocket that ensures it’s always with me. More pictures = more practice.

    • Judy

      I would have to say part of that theory is true. I do take more pictures, so I have a better chance of getting good ones. But the instant feedback thing has some benefits too.

      I immediately notice if a group line up is awkward. In the print film era, I’d only see it after it was developed, and not necessarily remember for the next time. I learn on the spot, about how composition is working, and retain more because it’s instant.

      I also have learned a lot about lighting. I’ve played with the settings on my digital camera more than I ever would have with a print camera. I can take practice shots, and see that the setting did or didnt work. I tend to retain more when I can see instantly that the backlight is too strong, or the camera is ‘struggling’ in the lighting (dusk).

      So I think it still comes down to….YES, the digital camera has made me a better photographer, because I take more pictures, but MORE SO that I get instant feedback and correct mistakes right away, retaining that ‘lesson’ much longer.

      Judy

      • I’ve had a similar experience with my digital cameras; I got a point-and-shoot in 2003 and upgraded to a DSLR in 2009. Going digital made me unconcerned about how many pictures I was taking, so by sheer numbers I took some pretty good pictures. But I also took the time to compare the good and bad pictures and figure out what characteristics made the difference, and digital photos and computerized tools made that analysis easier.

        So I think that digital cameras alone don’t make a person a better photographer. Rather, digital cameras facilitate the feedback loop of “take a picture, figure out why it works or doesn’t, then take a better picture”, which makes a person a better photographer. Describing that feedback loop would have made a better article.

  2. Teresa H

    I feel the same about my Cannon PowerShot. It was a xmas gift from my parents one year. I’ve used it so much in the last 5 years. I should probably upgrade to a newer model but this one is still working. I love the freedom digital give you to play with pictures and to work on learning what you did wrong and what to try next time.

    T

  3. Alphanumeric

    I know how you feel in regards to cameras.

    I had owned an old clunky second gen Sony cybershot. I always kept it with me, unfortunately the case I carried it on my belt wasn’t a hard case and helping a friend move one day I shattered the LCD screen.

    I thought to myself to next time get a fancy schmancy D-SLR but after looking at the price tags I ended up getting a cheap fujifilm compact.

    And I’m perfectly happy with with it. The only grumble I have is it doesn’t have a really good zoom lens.

  4. You and I could be photography sisters so to speak. My friend Patricia Vollmer sent me to read your post today because it was ‘my story’. I post a daily photo each day to the SmugMug Daily Photo Community. That motivates me to shoot and process daily. Weekends with trips to the museum or beach or botanical gardens generate hundreds of shots. Seriously, I can so relate to every word you said.
    Best regards,
    Maryann

  5. Fernando

    There are only a handful (really) of professional and well known photographers that did one amazing shot after the other (and we know because the shots are in the negative, no tricks allowed there). But even them studied the set well beforehand, to make sure they took the shot at a good time and light. They also had incredible technique, which they learnt by doing large number of tests.
    The rest of the photographers? They take astounding number of pictures. I remember in the 90s I met a guy who told me that for a two-three day hike he would probably use between 100 and 200 32-shot rolls. That’s up to 6000 pictures!. Professional cameras include features like auto-bracketing in up to 5 or 7 spots, which means that each picture is taken at the settings chosen by the photographer, and then 3 f-stops above and below, just in case the best shot is not where the photographer thought it would be. Unless you are a genius, only a massive amount of shots will make sure that you end up with one good picture.
    In summary, digital cameras made you a better photographer because of the feedback, AND because they taught you to take many more pictures, just like professionals do.

  6. “Some day I’d love to own an SLR version” — You might look at the new generation of in-between cameras, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. They don’t have the through-the-lens optical viewfinder of an SLR, so they don’t need the big moving mirror, so they can be smaller and cheaper; but they still have big image sensors (for high-quality images) and interchangeable lenses. I’ve got a Panasonic Lumix GF2, for which I paid $500 on sale. In the SLR world, $500 might get me a low-end body, but not the lens; and an SLR would just be too heavy to be comfortable for me.

    Wikipedia:
    https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Mirrorless_interchangeable_lens_camera

  7. Lamont Cranston

    It sounds to me like the difference between digital and analog is that you still have your analog outtakes, but have deleted your digital ones, thus leaving you with, seemingly, more quality digital shots.

  8. I’m the crazy photo lady in my family and among my entire circle of friends (bested only by Judy!). I wonder how Judy and others manage all those digital files. My computer has a terabyte of memory and I’m pushing the limit. I’m terrified of losing my photos in a digital disaster so I do a lot of backing up to external hard drives and every so often I burn a DVD to keep off site. And I use Shutterfly to hold my favorite shots as another backup and for making printed albums. I hardly ever get prints of individual shots as they’d just end up in dusty shoe boxes. I use Picasa for organizing and viewing my photos on my desktop computer.

    How do y’all store, back-up, and view/organize your treasure troves of digital photos?

  9. Judy

    Great question, Bridget! I’ll maybe write a post, posing that question, and we’ll see what answers we get…

    I can explain my (flawed) system and then offer the question up to others. I’d love to know how others handle it too..

    Judy

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