Adult Education Classes
GH Nagai Photographics

A Casualty of the Digital Revolution

Gordon H. Nagai, Instructor

Once it was a mark of accomplishment with an accompanying sense of self-satisfaction to master the art of photography – when it was not elitism or overdoing the fine details of work with the camera, but a necessity in order to obtain excellence in one’s work. Consider an Ansel Adams or an Imogen Cunningham. The mastery of the dynamics and interplay between the two determining elements in a photograph, aside from composition and design considerations, that of light and shadow, was required. Without such understanding and mastery, one’s work too often reflects little more than the ordinary, and at worst, a sad excuse for a photograph. Creative composition and insight could be readily undone or undermined with poor lighting, with end results left unusable on the proverbial dark room floor. So it was once an achievement of great interest and intense investigation and study.
Amateur photographers, those who saw themselves just as chroniclers of family gatherings and events – birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and grandchildren – very often merely suffered with washed out highlights and murky under-exposed images, not knowing there was an alternative if they but knew how.

Come Lighting 101: This became the companion to the camera manual for all budding photographers who considered themselves artists and aspired to the art. Following in the footsteps of an Ansel Adams and others, artists pursued improved photography through the study of lighting. The work of serious photographers improved. Best of all, these photographer-artists came to know how to shoot a well-exposed image, and didn’t have to settle for poor results.
Along came the digital camera, and with it the digital revolution was launched - technology became the alluring god of this new age. “Impatient and want to see your results immediately?” Design engineers put a 3” LCD screen on the back of the camera, and problem solved. “Confused or bothered with ISO designations?” Not to worry – camera engineers developed settings that made these default decisions. “Worried about running out of film at a critical point in your photo shoot?” Ha…! Carry a spare battery or two and an extra memory card, and you can shoot to your heart’s content. “Unhappy with the way your photos turn out?” Don’t fret – you can Photoshop them later…! And there’s the rub…
With all the advances in digital technology, it appears the photographer, the artist, need not worry about, let alone ever need to understand, the intricacies and the interplay of light and shadow as they imprint on the camera’s digital memory sensor. Truth be told, an understanding of lighting is no longer necessary to obtain essential excellence in photographic work, because Photoshop and other digital image processing programs can save your work for you in post-production. As subtle as this part of the digital revolution was, this shift in thinking, it was a great loss to the art of photography. The tragic irony of this was that so many people weren’t witness to its passing.
So, why do I consider lighting an important study in photography? Of what value is it in the face of what is possible with Photoshop as a backup? For me, it isn't even a question.

  • As a self-proclaimed techno-geek I hate not understanding what’s going on, ever. I can’t stand it when I don’t know why something isn’t working correctly, or the opposite, not knowing how I got an image I truly like. I have to know. I need to know. It’s a drive to fill the gaps in my knowledge and understanding so that I remain master of my photographic domain.

  • As an artist, I won't show anything I produce to anyone else that is not to my highest standards. To accept anything less from myself than my best work would be anathema.

  • Obtaining the best original image is as important as ending up with an excellent image. Why give myself a handicapped and a lesser version, when with proper exposure I can be that much ahead, and post-production isn't an issue?

  • If I expose an image correctly, I won’t need to tweak it. If I don’t need to tweak an image, to me that’s a mark of achievement, of excellence, of maintaining my high standards.

  • I hate giving over any more control than necessary to the process of photography. I am the one who makes all the decisions about any image I take, and begrudge anything I have to let the process do for me. Ok, I do use auto-focus with my cameras, but that is only because at my age I can no longer manually focus reliably. That’s a concession I work with. And, I do use Photoshop, though minimally, to tweak my images, but I do so starting with my best work up front.

  • My work ethic won’t allow me to settle for less than my best effort, less than full measure – sorry, blame my folks. There is a great deal of satisfaction, too, with a job well-done. I learned that from my parents, too.

  • One demon in this whole process is laziness - I fight it in myself, and letting the camera and Photoshop determine the outcome of any of my images is laziness – not a good thing, that...

So, there you have it – why I believe knowing how light and shadows work, and demystifying their simplicity, are critical to the art of photography. - Eat your heart out Photoshop…!