Vintage JPEG on the Fly

By David Vestal Back to


“I photograph on unplanned impulse when I’m moved by what I see. It’s not predictable. For me, acceptable imperfection is the price of spontaneity, and that’s often a good bargain.”

On Systems
In both traditional chemical and digital photography there are systems for photographing things that hold still while the photographer calculates. These include the Ansel Adams-Fred Archer zone system of pre-planned film exposure and development and a newer digital method that combines separate exposures for the subject’s light, midtone and dark areas to get optimum print tones and colors over the whole exposure range.

The results can be quite beautiful. Some digital virtuosi combine up to ten exposures, perhaps one stop apart. What skill! What patience! Although it seems to me that three well-chosen exposures should usually take care of the whole range. I don’t use such systems. I don’t have time for them. They’d be in my way.

What Some Photographers Work For
I think of digital photographers who insist on multiple RAW exposures for their gourmet photographic cooking as process junkies, often more concerned with doing technical things extremely well—and the more difficult and elaborate the better—than with getting good, well-printed pictures. A display of skill seems to be the main purpose. When their photos are not only impressive, but also reward the viewer by conveying feeling, that tends to be seen as an incidental bonus.

In this, our RAW-and-multiple experts remind me of 35mm photographers of the 1930s who were intent on superfine grain and great sharpness in their prints that could fool technically informed viewers into thinking they’d printed from large sheet-film negatives. Grain, for them, was a deadly sin, as was any out-of-focus area. Exotic film-developer formulas ruled, and the picture was secondary, a pretext for demonstrating expertise.

What Photographers Can Work For
The best thing about a small, handy camera is that it lets you shoot quickly and inconspicuously with (in film photography), some resulting grain and some lack of critical sharpness as the price of handiness. This is not always considered. Yet the photos from the 1930s that we see most and remember best are somewhat grainy black and white pictures, not always sharp all over, by photographers like André Kertész and Henri Cartier- Bresson, far more concerned with quick and accurate perception of something worth seeing than with its fine rendition in the print. And there was Eugène Atget, who was so old-fashioned that he kept on using glass plates, a big stand camera and printing-out paper, not always technically well, until he died in 1927, shortly before Kertész, Brassaï, HCB and Bill Brandt all photographed with small handheld film cameras in the same town. The fine rendition that these excellent, though relatively casual, photographers sometimes got, by chance or after long practice in their craft, is indeed a bonus. They liked the look of photos. For a parallel in painting, see Manet and Cézanne, among many others in the late 1800s. They really liked paint and dared to let their brushstrokes show, to the horror of academic painters of the French Salon.

Clearly visible grain in small-film photos looks as natural and right to me as the clearly visible brushwork of the Impressionists, and of Rembrandt before them. I neither seek grain nor reject it. It’s natural to its medium. I almost miss it in my digital photos.

In 2004 I got a digital SLR camera with a mere 6.3 megapixels of resolution. I knew that was OK because I’d seen Charlie Morrell’s sharp 11x14s from his old 3.2mp camera. Mostly I use non-zoom lenses on it, a 28mm f/2.8 and a 50mm f/1.8, and I keep it set on JPEG. The sharpness and fine texture of black and white prints from this somewhat crude camera surprised me. Except for its more limited exposure range, it’s more than equal to well exposed and processed Kodak Tri-X film. On auto exposure at EI 100 it’s good for almost any short-scale photo, though prone to blank out the whites when the scale is longer. That’s a present deficiency of digital photography. No doubt it will change for the better as the technology improves. My digital shots are equivalent to the slow, grainy black and white films of the 1930s, though far smoother within its compass. Like Kodachrome, it can’t tolerate overexposure. Well, I can live with that. For some unknown reason my digital camera sometimes misfires, shooting only after I’ve taken my finger off the button, which throws my timing off. I can live with that, too, though it costs me some good shots. Win some, lose some. What could be more normal?

If you’re wondering why my digital prints are all in black and white, the answer is, that’s what I do. The old joke: “Why is radio better than television?” “Because the pictures are better” has a photographic version: “Why is black and white better than color photography?” “Because the colors are better.”

JPEG at my camera’s default EI 100 speed gives me about a thousand shots on a 4GB memory card, so a common problem with film—that just when I see something I want to photograph, I’m at the end of the roll and must reload—hardly exists in digital. I put in a new card when the camera’s counter gets down near zero and I’m ready for anything.

The stimulus for this article was provided by a visit from Thales Trigo, a good photographer from São Paulo. When I told him that during a recent week in Paris I shot many misses for every hit, Thales, who was doing large-format digital photography very well when I met him in Brazil in 1996, told me that he shoots digitally just as he shoots on film, working to make every shot count. That made me feel guilty, but then I realized that on the Paris trip I photographed mostly when my subject or I was in motion. I shot largely from buses and from a boat on the river, and while I leaned from a high window watching people on the street below. There was no way to be deliberate. Much of what I want to photograph is in motion and must be grabbed. It’s there and it’s instantly gone. This is true of almost all my photos, even when it’s the weather in my backyard as seen from the kitchen window.

It all keeps changing. Therefore I shoot right now, right here, even if what’s in the finder is a firmly planted street or a cathedral. If nothing else changes, the light or my perception may change. It’s like mining: you process a lot of ore to get any useful amount of gold, except on rare occasions when you find a nugget. I never intend to miss, but still must shoot a lot of misses to get to a few hits.

Film or digital, there’s seldom any other way to get my best pictures, and their photographic quality sometimes suffers. When a rough shot works in spite of its faults, I’m pleased. When the photographic quality also turns out to be good, I’m even more pleased. I photograph on unplanned impulse when I’m moved by what I see. It’s not predictable. For me, acceptable imperfection is the price of spontaneity, and that’s often a good bargain.

Thales is right to shoot with careful deliberation, because that’s who he is. And I am just as right to take chances with JPEG on the fly. That’s who I am. There is no special virtue in either approach. One is as good as the other. Each works for the person it fits.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.