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Photographic Culture, Don’t Lose It, Adapt To It


Do You Operate On Automatic Or Manual Mode?

Model in red dress

Kara poses for a natural light photo on her first photo shoot with me.

Back in the days of film, you’d find professional photographers prioritizing their time to include darkroom days, shooting sessions, and administrative time. Call it a part of the photographic culture, but, regardless to survive in any creative profession, you have to allocate time to production, marketing, and business and it”s ever evolving with today’s technology. Are we losing our photographic culture in the process? Perhaps the better question is, “Do you operate in manual or automatic mode today?”

Let’s start with production first. In the old days a professional photographer would either allocate part of a day, or an actual day, for processing film and printing photos. Depending on the type of product, such as slides for publication submission, or prints for clients to frame—the darkroom time itself was a process. That process included mixing chemistry, diluting chemistry solutions, bringing chemistry up to temp, rolling film in total darkness on stainless steel reels, the actual steps to process film down to agitation times and methods. Just rolling the film on reels required a special touch and feel technique and chemical temperatures sometimes required tolerance of /- a quarter of degree, especially for color processing.

From processing development the film would then go to drying while the photographer would start printing photographs from a previous shoot or assignment. It was always about utilizing time efficiently once you made the commitment to work in total darkness or under those amber safelight conditions. Then once the film dried, the photographer would cut the film into strips and “sleeve” the strips into clear plastic pages, sometimes to make “contact sheets” for later review with grease pencils.

These steps photographers took in the darkroom, from processing film to burning and dodging during the printing process helped establish a passion for the craft. In fact, we were often limited to 24- or 36-exposure rolls, there was no “spray and pray” time when working with film, it was not only too costly, as photographers we appreciated how a photo would come to life in that processing tray right before our eyes. In fact, I”d bet to say, this darkroom time not only made us better photographers, but it also taught us to appreciate every frame we took as we”d think like the film during our shoots, in other words, we would subconsciously think as we shot how our final prints would eventually evolve.

School House and Stop Sign, iPhoneography Instagram photo

Photo taken with my iPhone and post produced using an Instagram filter.

We were in a world of making everything count in the camera, where today, everyone has a camera if they own a phone, so we”re more saturated in a “happy snaps” world than an actual world of photographs. Has this easy automation on top of auto everything combined with Twitter and Facebook diminished the value of photography today? I”d say yes, but that”s just my opinion and some will argue to take a look at the new genre of photography called iPhoneography–there are some great smart phone shooters out there making a name for themselves on apps like Instagram.

Today if an iPhoneographer is not downloading their images in iPhoto or iTunes, the photographer removes his digital capture card and places it in a reader plugged into their computer. The downloading of images into either a folder or Adobe® Lightroom begins, usually taking just a few minutes and during that time the photographer then drinks their coffee while checking Facebook. If that photographer is on their social media toes, they make a tweet or two. Then the photographer brings in their best images to Adobe® Photoshop and begins post-production, often to include touching up blemishes, enhancing areas and even knowing the correct color profile space and outputting in the correct image resolution, web vs. print.

So in summary, let’s look at what we’ve lost in photographic culture terminology when it came to the darkroom days:

  • Chemistry (C-41, E-6, D-76, dilutions, developer, stop bath, fixer, thermometer, etc.)
  • Stainless Steel Reels (plastic reels, tanks, touch and feel of rolling film)
  • Agitation (technique for controlling contrast, shortening developer times, tapping tank to remove air bubbles)
  • Contact Sheets (carefully cutting film, sleeving in plastic pages, printing contact sheets)
  • Grease Pencils (crop marks, printing percentages, notes)
  • Safelights (solarization, working in dark conditions for hours, the smell of fixer, stop bath, lights on/off as needed)
  • Printing (contrast control with filters, burning, dodging with our hands)

Obviously we couldn’t work in a darkroom, or room of corrections, without shooting first, and that too has changed with digital technology. As an example, when is the last time you saw full aperture values (F/stops) on a lens barrel? Have we forgotten our traditional F/stops and what they represented? Why do we have F/2.8 and F/5.6 and not F/3 and F/6?

Full aperture values are significant for the Rule of Stops. They not only impact proper exposure values, but they help us understand light (think Inverse Square Law, Sunny 16 Rule) and depth of field (think bokeh). Today we simply chimp, and adjust either our shutter speed or F/stop to darken the photo to our tastes, though more technically trained photographers read their histograms and make the proper adjustments to ensure the highlights aren’t blown out while still maintaining shadow detail.

Flower Photo from the Virgin Islands photography workshop

Even though I was conducting a photography workshop in the Virgin Islands, I still take time to photograph what catches my eye, like this flower. Notice the “bokeh” effect created by the low aperture selection and a medium telephoto lens.

In the film days we called it, “expose for the shadows, print for the highlights” as film (negatives) is more forgiving than digital mediums due to a wider latitude to exposure error. Because of that, the new saying in digital photography is, “expose for the highlights, print for the shadow detail” or more commonly heard as, “expose to the right,” in reference to the fact that the highlight information is found on the right side of a histogram.

Rule of Stops
The Rule of Stops basically is often called the Rule of Exposure.  From our film days, full- or half-stops were determined by halving or doubling shutter-speeds or aperture values. By changing one, we affect the other, in other words, if our proper exposure called for 1/60th at F/11, then the equivalent to maintain the same exposure would either be 1/125th at F/8 or 1/30th at F/16. Here are some traditional, commonly used “stops” for helping you determine proper camera exposure:

Shutter-speed stops: 1sec., 1/2sec., 1/4sec., 1/8sec., 1/15sec., 1/30sec., 1/60sec., 1/125sec., 1/250sec., 1/500sec., 1/1000sec, 1/2000sec and 1/4000sec.

Aperture values: F/2.8, F/4, F/5.6, F/8, F/11, F/16 

In summary, we’ve lost the value of true F/stops and what they represented when it came to exposure, but we’ve gained a new word for the photographic dictionary, bokeh, and now have to deal with white-balance plus shooting RAW vs. JPG. We’ve also lost the value of different film emulsions for desired effects, but we’ve gained HDR and Adobe® Photoshop.

So yes, while we’ve lost some skill sets, we’ve also gained others and that holds true with the marketing and business side of photography. Marketing and business often overlap and are less separated today, thanks to all the social tasks we must complete to compete. In film days, marketing was as simple as taking out Yellow Page and newspaper advertising. For local photographers, if your budget allowed it, it might even include billboard advertising along with flyers and most certainly business cards you’d place at local establishments like restaurants and beauty parlors. A photographer also maintained a photography portfolio or portfolios. The business side of things included payroll, billing, booking appointments over the phone or in person, plus cold calling over the phone.

Today it’s different in that we’ve got to establish social power (Klout) through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, Instagram, tumblr, Flickr and even uploading our photography portfolios and bios on tons of website directories and photography communities. That marketing might even include participation on Internet forums, commenting on blogs and most certainly, creating a business Facebook fan page. Blogging, tweeting, creating definitive Facebook pages, etc., require another skill set too, such as effective writing skills and even basic HTML knowledge while understanding layout and design.

Gone are the hand-carrying days of a 9×12-inch printed portfolio, instead we carry iPhones or iPads and some of our portfolios might even include a full multimedia production with sound and special effects such as dissolving or fading to the next image. Portfolios are a must online especially on your photography website and while in the old days, especially for commercial clients, you only showed your client the one genre of photography they were looking for, today you show all the genres of photography your able to provide.

Screen capture of my professional photography portfolio

It”s all about showing potential clients, that might stumble on your photography via a search engine because you practice good SEO (Search Engine Optimization), all the “categories” in your portfolio, not just one. The pro here is that a potential client can now see your diversity, on the other hand, the con can cause you to lose a potential client that doesn’t like the other genres you shoot, perhaps for personal or religious reasons—so you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t in some cases. Regardless, to survive today photographers must be more diversified than specialized, however, specializing extremely well in one style of photography might be effective for branding purposes and branding is always important to the business and marketing side of things.

Speaking of the business side of things, it’s easier and more economical to send out bulk emails (from an opt-in list and not spam of course) than going down the phone book and cold calling potential clients. Payroll is more automated thanks to accounting software vs. actual ledger entries and even payroll is electronic too, instead of physically cutting checks. Booking appoints are automated online where the customer can actually enter the information for you with the right website programs. Not to mention, having email sign-ups for your updates and newsletters allows you to create an email list, and that’s gold.

Army Helicopter Photo, Sling-loading

I still remember developing this negative and printing this photo in a U.S. Army darkroom.

In summary, we’ve gained the ability to reach a larger audience, ten-fold, via the world wide web and we’ve even got metrics to measure our results, such as Google Analytics. We can build our brand faster and the power of the pen (keyboard) is mightier than ever—but it can also get you in trouble as often too much is shared on the Internet, if not by you, by a jealous competitor trying to take you down or an unsatisfied customer. Not everyone understands there are always two sides of every story, so in essence all it takes to lose a potential customer is one bad review online. However, your online portfolios are available to more people than before and if you simply showcase your best work, that alone can cancel a negative review as everyone wants a great photograph, not a mediocre picture.

What we’ve lost is that “personal touch” as printed words often sound harsher than spoken words so emails, especially if not worded properly, can send the wrong message. Heck, your “about page” on your website can cause misconceptions too if you’re not paying attention to what you’re really trying to tell the world. One of the most annoying things I see on photography business websites is when a photographer claims they are the “President” or CEO of their own photography business—unless you’re Ritz Camera, Calumet or B&H, with hundreds of employees, that claim to fame is more harmful as it sends the message across that you’re egotistical about power. You’re simply a skilled photographer and own your own photography business and your photos should speak for you, not some title that soothes your ego. People don’t like people on power trips—it’s more resentful than respectful.

Basically, it’s about prioritizing your production, marketing and business side of photography while remembering the roots of photography. Understanding past and present photographic culture helps too, like the concepts, fundamentals and principles of the art form. Establishing social power is also important, provided that you understand the social culture and how it can react at the drop of a hat.  Being a photographer is not about the automatic mode on a camera, it’s about feeling confident you can shoot in the manual mode effectively, with confidence, while maintaining an Internet presence—now that’s a joint culture many don’t fully understand and very few have mastered.

I close by saying, please don”t forget our men and women armed service members, their families and friends. This holiday season many will not be together as they protect our freedoms around the world. God Bless them and their families, Rolando.




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  1. I enjoyed this article.
    Brought back memories or my darkroom days in my home lab.



    • Thank you, and I hope you enjoy our photography community too!


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Welcome to (Lens Diaries™), a hybrid photography blog with social flair. The photoblog provides photo tips, photo tutorials and photo diaries by professional photographer, author, writer, speaker and social media consultant, Rolando Gomez.

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