The Secret Magical Teaching Tool Of A Digital Camera

If I had to give just one reason why these days I shoot 100% digital and not film, it comes down to this.

With digital, you have immediate feedback about how your decisions in setting up the camera to make a photograph worked out. 

If the image is a disaster, it doesn’t matter. You can just adjust something – one thing – and try again.

Then, based on the outcome – what’s different, what you like more, what you like less – you can make further adjustments, and try again.

Until you get the shot you want – or what you feel is the best shot possible in the conditions.

When I was shooting film, I made pretty extensive notes about the camera, lens, film and location, plus any additional “treatments” like if I was using redscale film, or cross processing, or deliberately over exposing.

Then when the scans came back from the lab, I would have some way of identifying which combos made which pictures, and how that worked out.

But with film, I was largely in the dark about why some shots sung triumphantly and others failed dramatically. 

I could have made more extensive notes, such as the aperture or shutter speed, or focus distance.

And I could have made multiple versions of the same composition, say one each at f/4, f/5.6 and f/8, or 1/125s, 1/60s and 1/30s, and compared afterwards.

But to be frank, this relentlessly scientific approach would have interrupted the flow far too much, and spoilt the fluidity and immersion of the whole photography experience that I so treasure.

If I had have made these kind of notes though, I know I would have learned quicker, understood the basics sooner, and more clearly, and ultimately made a much higher number of keepers.


With digital, my learning was greatly accelerated.

Because I could shoot a picture of a flower up close at f/5.6 and see how shallow the depth of field was, and if needed, take another shot at f/4 or f/8, or f/1.8 or f/11.

I could photograph a flowing stream at a shutter speed of 1/30s and see how it looked, and whether I wanted to use a faster shutter speed to freeze the action more, or a slower one to enhance the flowing water effect.

I could try a shot in a lowly lit church at ISO3200 and f/5.6 to see if it was usable, or whether the resultant noise and grain was too ugly and I would need to choose ISO800 or 400 and a larger aperture to get an image I was pleased with.

These all amount to that same single, magical teaching tool of a digital camera – the feedback from seeing your picture there on the screen afterwards (and with some cameras of course, during composing).

It encourages us to experiment, to practice, to become better at knowing how to more consistently create images we like – and sometimes images we love.

And for me, that is a hugely enabling, valuable, and exciting factor.

What’s your favourite and most useful aspect of shooting digital? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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6 thoughts on “The Secret Magical Teaching Tool Of A Digital Camera”

  1. Interesting post and the instant digital feedback is almost a crutch sometimes. I often take a shot just to see where I am with my selection settings. In low light conditions it has become almost mandatory. Thanks for the heads up. g

    1. Maybe it can be a crutch if we never learn from it, and always shoot auto everything and let the camera always do the thinking.

      But I think if we choose to take more manual control, we learn with practice, and especially practice with the same kit. I know my old Pentax K100D DSLR won’t meter perfectly,but I know if I use my 35/2.4 DA lens and start with -0.3 exposure compensation, it’s going to be a good starting point, to then go up or down from there.

      Once the metering is ok, I can make decisions about whether the aperture or shutter speed or ISO are working, for the shot I want, and adjust accordingly.

  2. You know you could have DOF preview in a lot of film cameras, right? Not point and shoots, but good film SLRs all had that feature. And the ones that didn’t have it, like the K1000, allowed for the “hack” of just pressing the lens release button and… voilà, instant DOF preview.
    I do agree however that the learning process is much quicker with digital. Another thing that helps me a lot is the histogram – I like my pictures exposed well, so I often take a few pictures in different amounts of light just because sometimes the right exposure is not the one that has the right mood.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for your comments.

      Yes I used DOF preview all the time with film SLRs, which certainly helped me learn how the aperture impacts the DOF.

      But that aside, you don’t get any indication about exposure or colour (or lack of, with b/w) or contrast etc, whereas with a digital camera with a screen you see how the image will look before you release the shutter.

      Yes I usually have the histogram on for the review of the shot afterwards to help me out. I don’t like having it on whilst composing, it just gets in the way and detracts from the experience. Less is more in terms of displayed info!

      PS/ I think we have “met” a couple of years back on the Pentax Forums K10D and 6MP club threads, are you the same Chris?

  3. If it weren’t for digital I would’ve flunked out of photography a long time ago because I don’t have enough money. I’m a complete pretender half-wit who makes no apologies for his lack of talent and willingly awards total respect and adoration to film shooters, to the utmost maximum. Photography’s just an amazing thing I love, that’s all.

    1. Always great to hear how much people love photography, in any form they find most accessible for them. I drifted away from film for a number of reasons, but like you, one was cost. The Asda lab I used that could develop four rolls of film and scan to a single CD for about £12 all in sold their lab to an outside company who were more expensive, and to be frank, their staff only just about seemed capable of using those stand-alone machines you plug your phone or memory cards into to get instant prints, let alone developing film.

      There is a camera shop fairly local that still develops 35mm film but the cost amounts to around £7 per film, so four films are £28, obviously way more than Asda’s £12. It just priced me out really, especially once I started really embracing digital and found I could make photographs I love with a £15 digital compact or £30 DSLR. Or perhaps it pushed me more into the digital world.

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