Art & Craft vs. Technology

Photo of snow-covered mountain in background with lake in foreground. While timing my visit to mighty Denali to coincide with the peak of the late summer color in the tundra, I was able to camp just a half mile from Ansel Adams Point. Fuji GSW-690, 65mm, Velvia.
Denali – While timing my visit to mighty Denali to coincide with the peak of the late summer color in the tundra, I was able to camp just a half mile from Ansel Adams Point. Fuji GSW-690, 65mm, Velvia.

Story and photos by Jerry Ginsberg

Because I always have something to say and am pleased to share many stories with people, I am often asked to address audiences ranging from the Garden Club of America to National Park visitors and staff to camera clubs. These talks accompany slide shows featuring some of my favorite images of our National Parks and other ‘Scenic Gems of America.’

The Questions

Once my prepared bloviating is done, we open it up to Q&A. The first questions that will invariably come from any audience are,

“What is your favorite national park?” and “What camera do you use?”

Let’s take these in order.

After a quarter century of traipsing through every single National Park and many other NPS units, I have come to what I see as the only logical conclusion. There can be no favorite.

Each and every one of these unique places has its own personality, its own features and its own individual reason for having been included in NPS protected status. Experience has taught me that there are natural and/or man made forms, rocks, objects and works in each of these very special places that are worth photographing and that still get my adrenaline flowing. Not surprisingly, the places to which I often most look forward to visiting are those that offer a significant amount of variety in their subject matter. To hear a more detailed answer you’ll need to attend one of my talks.

Firefall at Horsetail Falls. Made famous by the late Galen Rowell, this shot is possible only about 30 minutes per year – and then, only if you get lucky with the atmospherics and the snowpack. 645, 300mm, Velvia.
Firefall at Horsetail Falls. Made famous by the late Galen Rowell, this shot is possible only about 30 minutes per year – and then, only if you get lucky with the atmospherics and the snowpack. 645, 300mm, Velvia.

Choosing & Using Gear

Turning our attention to camera gear, I now get to sound off on one of my favorite subjects, craft vs. tools. As mentioned, I am often asked what camera I use. Some days I am sorely tempted to respond, “What brushes did Rembrandt use?” I only resist such an inappropriate response because it would be unjustifiably vain and boastful to ever compare myself to that great artist.

But analogizing his tools to ours really does fit the moment. It certainly isn’t the camera that makes the photograph any more than it’s the brush that makes the painting. It is, however, the eye that sees through the camera just as it is the hand that holds the brush that expresses the artist’s vision and brings it to the viewer.

Over time, I have met some photographers who really believe that if they had just that one more lens or just a few more megapixels, their photographs would be so much better.

Nothing could be less accurate.

Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado – When I first explored this spot just outside Page, AZ. a few decades ago, it was virtually unknown and largely deserted. It is now overrun with tourists and Instagram. APS-C sensor, 10mm fisheye.
Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado – When I first explored this spot just outside Page, AZ. a few decades ago, it was virtually unknown and largely deserted. It is now overrun with tourists and Instagram. APS-C sensor, 10mm fisheye.

Craft or Tools

Let’s explore a fundamental difference between film and digital photography. Way back in the film days, the camera body was merely a box used to hold the film. Yes, there were some differences among models, but at its heart, it was just a dumb box. The difference in technical quality came from the optical properties of the lens and the inherent characteristics of the film – the actual medium on which our vision was recorded.

In contrast, today’s cameras are in a sense not cameras at all. They are really computers. The lens is still on the front. We still rely on its optics to resolve the image, but it is the sensor deep within the camera that actually renders our vision. For those of us of a certain age, it’s like having the film built into the camera, digital card notwithstanding.

So while there is a measurable benefit in upgrading your camera body as technology brings us better sensors, film cameras remain basically dumb boxes.

While I presently own an even half dozen DSLR bodies with both APS-C and Full Frame sensors, some of my favorite gear to use is a system of 6×9 cm rangefinder cameras with a full complement of lenses that ranges from 50 through 180mm. This translates to 20 to 72mm on a 24x36mm frame. That equipment is now some four and a half decades old. Guess what: the images made with those cameras are every bit as good now as they were all those years ago when this stuff was on the very cutting edge of mechanical and optical technology.

When I see those big chromes on my lightbox, they absolutely sparkle. Yes, I am dependent upon both the glass of the lenses and the emulsion of the film as the tools with which to articulate my vision, but that is perfectly fine.

John Oliver Cabin – The first rays of early morning begin to advance through Cade’s Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Horseman SW612P, 55mm APO-Grandagon, Center Filter, Velvia.
John Oliver Cabin – The first rays of early morning begin to advance through Cade’s Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Horseman SW612P, 55mm APO-Grandagon, Center Filter, Velvia.

Best Practices

Using these cameras requires one to employ the very best techniques possible. While I know a fellow photographer who regularly uses a camera belonging to this system for street photography and achieves excellent results, my use of such a system is largely confined to my own specialty of landscape work. This means that I must familiarize myself with the light cycle in my location, judge the light, select my camera position for the best effect, and frame my composition very carefully. I am always on a sturdy tripod, releasing the shutter with a cable release, determining my exposure with the use of a handheld 1* spot meter and often attaching threaded and rectangular filters. Not to mention changing rolls of 2 1/4” film every eight shots.

Of course, shooting the same scenes with a digital camera might be easier, involve less manual labor and provide lots of feedback. That said, it is still critical to employ the highest levels of proper technique. After finding a great composition, we must still do everything possible to ensure the highest levels of stability, sharpness and proper exposure.

Vernal Falls – An oldie, but a real goodie. After crawling out on a large rock overhanging the falls, I saw this rainbow below me. 35mm SLR, short zoom, Velvia.
Vernal Falls – An oldie, but a real goodie. After crawling out on a large rock overhanging the falls, I saw this rainbow below me. 35mm SLR, short zoom, Velvia.

The slippery slope of relying on technology to save us from our own mistakes is always something to be avoided. Too often, I hear aspiring photographers slough off the need to work with care and precision with the tired old saw, “I’ll fix it in post.”

So regardless of how much the expanded capabilities of today’s great digital technology can do for us in terms of wide exposure latitude, instant review, high frame rate, variable ISO, fast autofocus and other great features, it is we photographers who still need to know and apply the best practices of our art and craft in order to produce our very best photographs.

Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition.  Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com or e-mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.