The transition from film camera and TTL (through the lens) composing was disorienting at first. Rather than planting your eye close to the viewfinder, it was necessary to hold the camera away from your face to frame the shot, level the horizon, then release the shutter – if relying on focus and exposure according to the camera’s calculation. Going from a time when shutterbugs with quick reflexes would pull a camera up to the face and snap a shot to the seemingly ubiquitous cellphone today, at first it seemed clumsy and slightly comical to see a photographer composing by waving the device to a suitable angle and height, perhaps using one hand to shade the view screen from glare or shading the lens itself from distracting light. But now it seems normal, non-threatening, and sometimes expected that someone will stick out their arms this way and snap a picture to share or possibly to print.
There are a few things that cause a sense of losing creative control when abandoning film and committing to digital. One is being able to rotate the lens barrel to pin-point the focus. Another is the velvety black space of the viewfinder that makes the scene and frame so vivid. To a lesser extent, the mechanical control of exposure by manually adjusting f-stop ring or shutter speed dial is also a transition to make when interacting with camera via touchscreen. The handy depth of field marks on the lens barrel (hyperfocal distance guidance) of film cameras can be worked around with some digital cameras, but on others this functionality is lost for the most part.
There are some control settings on cellphones and even the consumer and pro-sumer levels of digital camera. Touchscreen for main point of focus; exposure compensation over/under; sometimes optical zoom to change the focal length. Even more film-like is the experience with a d-SLR since the viewfinder presents a very similar composition space. The manual exposure and manual focusing selection makes the overall experience most film-like of all.
In his 2012 book, Photogaffes [photographs that turn out to be social or cultural gaffes], Richard M. Chalfen collects personal instances from many contributors from the recent era of transition from film to digital camera to cellphone photography. Each form has its high and low points and the people who have contributed visual moments from their lives to the book present a very wide spectrum of way that camera use is affected by the changing technology and the changing society, too.
Why does it matter if composing by viewfinder instead of LCD screen at arm’s length? One difference seems to be peripheral vision: the screen composer is aware of the surrounding scene and perhaps may consider stitching 2 or more frames into a panorama, immersive scene. By contrast the deep black space of viewfinder composition imposes a kind of tunnel vision that blocks out distractions and encourages single-minded focus on a central subject. Another difference is the role of camera in social interaction. When shots are taken from arm’s length, it is easy to reverse the camera to make a selfie. Those were infrequent in the film camera days, although self-timers and tripods did make it possible for a photographer to squeeze into a picture. The range of subjects that are suitable to capture and sometimes to share has grown wider with digital (low cost, Internet connected) and LCD screen (arm’s length but still within the scope of one’s own personal space) photography, compared with TTL shooting on film or on memory card.
What philosophical lessons can be squeezed from this essential change to photography composition and, by extension, change to seeing the world? First is the difference between arm’s length composition and the camera viewfinder that separates the photographer from the scene; a mediated experience that cuts out distractions from the viewfinder and thus from the finished composition. The picture taker who relies on the LCD screen to adjust focus, exposure, frame, and release of shutter remains much more aware of the context of the picture-taking experience; somehow the act of making a picture is more publicly present and (potentially) responsive to the people who are there.
Then there is the expanded vision of a person composing on the fly and positioning the camera at various points before releasing the shutter. Since the peripheral awareness is inescapable at arm’s length, the photographer perhaps is more amenable to panorama pictures to convey the widest experiential space. On the other hand, the viewfinder composer considers each shutter release to be a finished work; a complete statement, rather than something immersed in a wider place and moment.
Finally there is scope of what constitutes a photographable subject. People who are accustomed to the controlled and soothing space of a viewfinder will be accustomed to well-defined subjects that can be framed and captured as a distinct statement. By contrast, more casual point-and-shoot photographers may be less concerned and less readily able to access the controls over their picture’s exposure, depth-of-field, and shutter speed. Instead of a well-defined subject, the more casual shooter may be interested in conveying a memento of an experience of a place and time; the purpose is to bring back memories rather than to communicate to viewers in a carefully composed way.
By reversing roles, so to speak, and putting (d)SLR into hands of casual shooter and then putting point-and-shoot cellphone camera or digital camera in the hands of an enthusiast or professional photographer, perhaps each will still be able to make the kinds of pictures that they are fond of. But the design of the viewfinder does tend to focus the mind and encourage careful composition, while the LCD screen does tend to encourage more casual composition and shutter release. So while the technology does not always cause some types of composition, at least it does make certain habits easier than others to practice. And so the lesson is that form-factor does play a part in coloring one’s experience of composing pictures. By extending lens to brain, perhaps it is possible to say that form-factor of one’s lived environment (architect F.L. Wright’s quote, “a house is a machine for living”) also affects daily and lifetime habits; the kinds of activities, ideas, ambitions, problems defined and solutions suggested that a person contends with. Going further with the camera & life metaphor, the difference between capturing a set of well-focused, carefully composed scenes versus a more casual collection of mementos of less controlled composition could be interpreted with regard to camera and also with regard to life trajectories: well-defined complete subjects versus more casual and incidental experiences that range widely.