Digital Photography


General Photography

Gordon Coale - whose weblog is well worth the visit - sent me an email with comments about a recent entry. I didn’t disagree with anything he wrote but I thought that maybe I could just post some of my thoughts about digital photography. Some of them might be a bit provocative but sometimes, you don’t anywhere if you just take what they call “conventional wisdom” for granted.

Digital Photography is more than just digital cameras. - If you look at most websites about digital photography you’d think it’s all about cameras and maybe Photoshop. It’s quite obvious that this is an oversimplification. If you scan your photos - regardless of whether you own a digital camera - you’re doing digital photography. Most commercial photography labs use digital technologies for lost of tasks - such as producing prints from slides - simply because it’s easier to do and it’s easier to control.

Digital Photography is thus not inherently bad. - Purists want to make you believe that digital photography is not as good or valid as film photography. That’s nonsense. It doesn’t matter how you produce a photo. All that matters is whether people like the result or not. People don’t care about how photos are taken and/or produced. Just because certain photographic techniques take a long time and are hard to do doesn’t mean that the results from those processes are always “better” than anything you’d do digitally - even if the results look exactly the same. Right now, people might still be willing to pay more money for photographic prints than for digital ones but that difference will disappear, too.

Digital Cameras are overrated. - (Unless you have a high-end ultra-expensive one and know what you’re doing.) The number of myths about digital cameras is growing almost every day. Digital cameras are supposed to make life much easier and recently, on the BBC somebody even argued that digital cameras will improve photographic skills of the general public. Nothing could be further from the truth!

First of all, the general quality of photo labs has decreased quite a bit (excluding again pro labs). Most people get their prints done by people with measly salaries who do not have any basic photographic skills or education. All they know is how to operate some big machine where you stick in the film at one end and on the other end you get the prints. (Would you trust your car to a mechanic whose only knowledge of cars is that you pour in gas at one end and then, in most cases, the car drives?) Usually, when I look at what prints people accept for their money I’m amazed! Most people don’t even seem to see how bad the photos are that they get back - muddy colours, bad exposures, tints (usually purple)… So while photo technology actually has improved - even that is debatable but we don’t want to go into this - the quality of the results has got quite a bit worse.

So far, this trend doesn’t have anything to do with digital photography. When we add digital photography to this discussion nothing really changes. People are used to getting incredibly shoddy prints so usually, they don’t even notice how bad their digital prints are. And usually digital prints are bad - different reasons, same result. People don’t know how to operate their digital cameras, they don’t know how to fix the photos before they get them printed etc. But digital photography is so much easier, isn’t it? Well, is it? Apart from the fact that now you have to do a lot of the work that a photo lab would do for you if you had film - like uploading the images - what’s easier about it? What people usually say is that people now can choose the good images and delete the bad ones. Wow, that’s new! Did you know that when you use film you can actually throw away bad prints or - gasp! - even negatives? I mean physically throw them away? Try that at home! It works and it’s fun!

But who actually does this? Who edits his/her photos this way? Nobody does! Quite on the contrary! Because it seems that digital photography is so much cheaper people now take even more photos. And they load them all up on the internet. So instead of having to go to somebody’s home and be subjected to a realslide show there you now look at it alone, in front of your computer. Same boredom, but on a vastly less social scale. The actual quality of photos is decreasing and not increasing because the vast majority of people does not do what the “experts” believe they could do. And that’s a sign of our times. Let’s just keep all that photographic junk and let’s publish it all. OK, I’m getting carried away. I talked about an aspect of this some time ago.

Second, digital cameras have become objects like cell phones or computers. “You have to” buy a new model every year because every year, the new generation of digital cameras is so much better than what you currently own that it’s just emberrassing to use the old one. Needless to say, this doesn’t have anything to do with photography, this is just consumerism of the very worst kind. Unlike what the industry wants to make you believe digital cameras do not improve on these time scales. They simply don’t. Sadly enough, many websites about digital cameras almost exclusively deal with reviewing digital cameras. I think that’s pretty sad. Apart from the fact that the “reviews” are usually just free advertizing for the companies, the photographic aspects of digital cameras completely disappears. It’s very similar to what’s going on with cell phones now. A telephone used to be something that you used when you wanted to talk to somebody. Nowadays, cell phones can be used to talk to people but you can do lots of other things with them. For example you can send people little text messages. In case you don’t want to talk to somebody you send him/her a message. How useful! Or you can now take photos - did I mention colour displays and downloadable ring tones designed to really annoy the shit out of everybody? The thing is that I don’t mind technological progress at all. But I think there’s a fine line between actual technological progress and crap that’s just being added to milk the gullible consumer even more. And that’s basically the case with digital cameras.

But let’s talk about actual photography a bit more. I think that third, digital cameras in a wide range of cases are a bad choice for people who’re interested in creative photography. Provided you got a high-end model you can do pretty much everything you can do with a film camera - if you know how to do it. Some of the problems might be a little bit different but you really have to know lots of photographic techniques. But if you’re interested in anything that’s not run-of-the-mill you’re in trouble. Yesterday, I looked at a website where somebody had taken moody b/w photos. They looked nice but somehow, they all looked very similar. And sure enough, they were taken digitally - using a normal colour photo, converting it into b/w, and doing the Photoshop on them. What’s missing in digital photography is the kind of unpredictability that goes into a lot of photography. This is especially important if you’re interested in stuff like toy camera or Polaroid photography. Also digital grain doesn’t look like film grain. Digital technologies are too perfect. People are now getting back to using older or low resolution digital cameras to exploit the artefacts those cameras produce. That will be a whole new field of toy camera photography.