Previewing the options
Photographers used Polaroids for many years to preview an exposure. It wasn’t instantaneous, but it gave a quick two-dimensional rendering of the scene. Unfortunately that technique was expensive and was most suitable in a studio situation with a large format camera. The ability to instantly see your image after it is recorded is a great advantage of digital photography and it changes the way a photographer conceives their final image. The use of the Polaroid was the precursor to the LCD panel that is standard on most digital cameras today; the use of Polaroids informed the design of the user experience on digital cameras. The invention of digital cameras was informed by 150 years of user feedback on camera equipment.
Instant review gives the photographer in-field feedback on how the image is coming together. It’s not just a matter of evaluating exposure and color. The photographer can see how effective their composition is while they are still in the act of creation. Just like a painter would respond to each stroke of paint on a canvas, the digital photographer has the option of responding to the image in-situ. Unlike the painter, whose strokes are not erased easily, the digital image can be deleted and retaken. In fact what happens is that the photographer is able to engage the process of creation in a continuous transaction between what is being visualized and what is being captured on the CCD panel.
Previously, one of the distinct characteristics of photography was that there was not a continuous dialogue between the artist’s gesture and the result – the photographer was operating blind to the actual record of the light on the film. The photographer could imagine what they were capturing as they fired the shutter, but they were, in a sense, liberated from having to immediately evaluate the result. The gesture of the photographer was restricted to things they could see through the viewfinder, such as the focus, edges of the composition, and how long they chose to make the exposure. But the liberation came from the fact that a photographer had no choice but to shoot away, encouraging them to move quickly, try different perspectives, and a variety of exposures. The romantic image of the photographer seems to jump from the slow judicious and meticulous image set-up of Ansel Adams to the fashion photographer firing away with a camera / machinegun at their subject.
There is an inevitable impact on the creative process if the photographer chooses to preview (or post-view) exposures. There is the interruption in the creative process as the photographer switches to evaluation mode. There is an immediate comparison between what the photographer might have envisioned the image to look like, to what it actually looks like on the small LCD panel. That aside, the photographer is likely to engage themselves in a Q & A session of “what if’s”. What if the exposure were darker? Framed differently? Focused differently? And so on.
When a photographer begins to engage the image evaluation process, they leave the creative act momentarily. Think of the photographer’s change in relationship to their subject (whether person or object): their gaze shifts down to the LCD panel and away from their subject – the visual and psychological connection is broken. The rapport with the subject is disrupted and temporarily suspended. Once done, the photograph shifts back into “create” mode. If we make the inevitable comparison to painting, there is quite a difference, because the artist is continuously engaged visually with the canvas, constantly shifting their gaze from subject to depiction, or if not, reacting directly to each mark. The digital image is a separate entity; it is in a handheld box and exists alone in an ephemeral collection of electrical charges, separate from the subject, author, and as yet not an object. The camera is an in-between device, temporarily holding a bank of images waiting to be evaluated, transferred, adjusted, combined, then, perhaps printed. There’s a long way between the moment of recording and the object.
Recording vs. Making an Exposure
Digital cameras don’t really make an exposure, rather they make a scan of the light focused through the lens. A silver negative is the result of an organic process; the light has a physical impact on the state of a frame of the emulsion-coated acetate. The state of the charge-coupled device that is making the scan records information about the intensity of light, shadow, and color, and then passes that code to the memory card where it is stored. The digital image does not exist as an object until it is printed; until then it is a code being stored on a hard drive and displayed on a monitor – a code that can be manipulated in an infinite number of ways.
The recording aspect of digital photography makes the medium more process-oriented then object oriented.