Thursday, November 27, 2008

Technology marches on, and sometimes directly over

I love watching purists cave; it's almost a hobby. Most recently, it's been photographers. At one time, I knew a large number of professional photographers who swore they would never take digital pictures. Only with film could you truly capture the essence of a moment; digital photography is for grandmothers and amateurs. Then, they caved, in stages roughly like this:

First stage: okay, maybe I'll take digital photos, but only hobby shots -- no art shots, and no paid shots like weddings. Because digital is a nice toy, but not for real work.

Second stage: okay, maybe I'll shoot weddings in digital. It's more convenient, changing "film" is silent, and I can take a lot of pictures, and only use the best. Instead of taking 200 shots and showing them all to the client, I'll take 500, and only show the best 200. But I'll never Photoshop my work. Photoshop is for amateurs who can't take good pictures.

Stage Three: Okay, maybe I'll do a little Photoshop, just to correct lighting or maybe touch up red eyes or brighten up a dark image. That's not really cheating -- it's still art, just with error correction. But that's where I draw the line.

I even know a few who have made it as far as Caving In, Stage Four: okay, maybe at the family's request, I'll Photoshop the missing brother into the group shots. He couldn't make it to the wedding, and it's important to the family that they see him in the pictures. But that's the limit. No further.

And these people will stay here at Stage Four, mostly because there really is no next step with existing technology. Who knows -- maybe in a few years, they'll be rendering wedding photos entirely digitally, from stock shots of family members, or making members of the wedding party lose dress sizes, or Photoshopping all of the alcohol out of the reception shots to show to conservative, teetotaling family members.

I've also been watching DJs cave in to technology. They go from all vinyl, to vinyl and CDs, to all CD, to all digital. Even club DJs do this, transitioning from dual phono decks and a mixer, to a Serato Scratch box and a MacBook. And, as with photography, you can do so much more with the digital gear. You're in no way bound by your tools; whatever sound or effect you want, you can create with digital DJ tools. But purists still take time to catch up with the technology.

Caving in to technology isn't limited to photographers and DJs. I've watched woodworking artists do this with power tools, shifting from hand tools to power tools in stages, each stage accompanied by high-quality rationalizations. I've seen it happen with lighting techs, computer programmers (I know a guy who still codes in cobol by choice), writers (some of whom still work via typewriter or even handwritten manuscript), and even house painters. And sometimes, refusing to embrace technology can work to your financial advantage. I know a wedding photographer who charges more than average, and promises no digital photography, and people pay the difference. Some high-end club gigs require DJs to be analog and vinyl. Woodworkers advertise "hand-crafted" as a selling point. And it works for them. I doubt there's any advantage to analog, in terms of the product. In fact, digital work is often better than anything you could create analog. But, to a subset of buyers, it's less about product, and more about process. As much as product is important, they want to know that expertise went into the process; they want to know that someone's sweat went into the work. (This explains fashion, too -- it's less important how the shoes look, as long as the right name is on the box.)

And some of it is a matter of perception. I know more than a few DJs who are entirely digital; they bring all their music on hard drive and play it all through a digital audio interface. But they still bring cases of CDs and a big analog mixer into which they plug their digital converter. The first time I saw a guy bring a full digital system plus a mountain of CDs, I asked him if the CDs were just the music he hadn't yet uploaded to his hard drive. His answer: "It's all on the hard drive. The CDs and huge mixer are all marketing; if I just show up with a laptop, it doesn't look like I'm worth $200 an hour." He didn't want it to look like he could easily be replaced by a teenager with iTunes, so the analog accouterments are strictly to justify his pay rate. I suspect the same is true of most analog work; the simple wooden bowl doesn't look like it's worth $500 unless it's clearly labeled "hand-carved". And a photographer can be a lot sloppier if he's digital. There's effectively no incremental cost in taking five times as many pictures, so as long as 20% of your pictures are usable (or fixable via Photoshop), you're effectively the equal of the pro who takes fewer shots but does them all well. You can screw up a lot, if you've got the option of fixing it digitally. In fact, the only photo problem I can think of that's not easily Photoshoppable (is this a word?) is focus. You can't sharpen a fuzzy picture and make it look good, even with good tools.

Of course, digital has its dark side, too. It makes it much easier to make bad work presentable. Digital photography makes it easy to make a photograph with ideal color, beautiful lighting, and very poor composition. You can make smooth, perfectly curved wooden bowls that don't sit on a flat surface. You can digitally produce catchy, meaningless songs that are great to dance to, but that all sound somehow the same. Because what digital craft really does is shorten the technical learning curve. In a photo class 20 years ago, you started by taking your camera out, recording your settings (arpeture, shutter speed, et cetera), and taking a picture. Then you change the settings, record them, and take an identical picture. And you repeated this for a few rolls of film. You learn the tech end of taking good pictures, and it's a slow process. With digital pictures, it's much quicker to learn what your camera settings do (and, with Photoshop, the settings are less important; you can fix it in post). But technology doesn't flatten the learning curve for figuring what makes a good picture. A digital camera can teach you pretty quickly about exposure, or just let you skip it and use the automatic setting. But it won't help you learn about good composition. And it won't teach you the meta-skills that separate a master from an amateur. This might be why the best work still seems to be done by people who have mastered the analog, and then switch to digital. They keep their knowledge and taste, and expand their tool set.

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