Thoughts about digital photography


General Photography

I have been thinking about digital photography for quite a while, and I simply can’t help but feel that there are too many unresolved issues, which are brushed aside too lightly. I thought I’d write them down; and given that I started my weblog to keep an inventory of links with comments I thought I might as well write about it here.

You probably don’t want to continue reading this if digital photography is simply the greatest thing that ever happened to photography and people who see problems with it are just old-fashioned losers.

There is no doubt that “digital is here to stay”; that’s not even the point. So spare me emails that contains sentences like “just accept it” or “get over it” or whatever else you have in store when people aren’t behaving as sheepish as you think they should. I have been working with what we like to call modern computer technologies (of which digital photography is a part) long enough to know that while general resistance is usually futile, some resistance will lead to meaningful improvements.

First of all, the general claim about digital photography is that it makes photography easier; and that’s wrong already. If you don’t know what it takes to take a good photo, a digital camera will not help you. Now people will probably argue that you can then just take Photoshop and make the photo look the way you want it, and that only proves my point. How is spending a lot of time at the computer making stuff easier or even more convenient? So we can toss this silly little bit of misconception about digital photography aside.

A related argument that people always make is that digital photography makes creating photos easier because you can take lots and edit them on the fly. Sure. It escapes me how you can’t take lots of photos on film and then edit them - which is what the vast majority of photographers have been doing for many years -, but OK, it’s probably a little bit more convenient to edit digital photos because you don’t have to wait. And this is where it is getting interesting because, basically, the argument is that digital photography is better because you don’t have to wait. How is that an improvement? Since when is waiting bad? I’m serious! If you don’t have time and patience to do something you like to do why do it in the first place? If you want instant gratification shoot Polaroids.

This is typically where people then tell me that professional photographers only use digital. Well, first of all good for professional photographers! Those people have never had any problems with photography simply because they can afford to always buy the best photo equipment around. And here is where it is starting to get interesting. Professional photographers (and people who just want quick snapshots) have never had any problems getting their photos done. Those people who you might call dedicated amateurs are having the hardest time, and here I’m talking about people like me.

The problem for people like me is that I can’t afford to fork out many thousands of dollars to buy a digital back for a medum-format camera to get closer to the look that I can get quite easily with one of my Rolleiflexes. Of course, there is nothing that prevents me from using my Rolleiflexes… See, and that’s where it suddenly stops being fun, because the “market” is going digital (because that’s where the money is) so I’m seeing all those great films disappear, and the number of labs processing my film is dwindling. And this effect is getting worse and worse. Digital really is hurting dedicated amateurs quite a bit.

So I’m currently in a situation where I know exactly what kind of photography I want to do - and I know how to do it - but I’m finding it’s getting progressively harder to do it - as the “market” makes my tools disappear, and I can’t afford to buy digital equipment that matches what I currently can do using film. And frankly, if you go to a museum and you look at prints done by masters of photography you realize that you cannot get that kind of look with digital paper, especially not if you’re doing black and white photography. This is partly because of resolution issues - you seriously want to argue digital can compete easily with 8x10 negatives? - and because of the nature of the paper itself.

Now, you could argue that at some stage, digital will also catch up with that, but that’s another one of those arguments that’s utterly silly. I really don’t care about some unknown future. I don’t want to be a photographer in the future, I want to be one now. I know that in ten years I will probably be able to buy a digital camera that can do what my film cameras can do now as prices have come down etc. but I simply don’t care. As I said, I want to be a photographer now and not in ten years.

And while we’re at it, just let’s keep going. As it turns out digital photography is such a nice market that companies are now trying to use their proprietory kinds of image formats (this is behind the debate about what people call “raw”). If they succeed doing that the costs for most consumers will simply go up - as they will have to buy extra software to process proprietory formats - unless they stick with the same company for everything. Keep an eye out for that.

Another “nice” side effect of digital photography is that computer companies tend to “upgrade” their software and hardware so you’ll have to keep buying new stuff. For film cameras, this effect did exist to some extent - as geeks went nuts over which lens was really sharpest - but digital will easily take the cake. We will witness how digital photography will be like using a computer - you just have to buy a new one every two years if you want to benefit from advances being made. And make no mistake, companies will introduce enough “improvements” that will make you buy new stuff (incl. slight changes in image formats that will result in incompatibilities). As I said I have been using computers for 20 years now,and it still baffles me how the vast majority of people doesn’t appear to mind being bamboozled into this constant “upgrading”.

And finally, I want to mention just one more thing that I like about film. I just like the feeling of getting film back from a lab. I like the smell of it, I like the excitement of looking at it - if I compare that with looking at thumbnails on my computer that’s just not the same.

PS (24 June): Lest people misunderstand me: I am not against digital. I own a digital camera. But I am against the kinds of limitations digital photography is currently causing me, directly and especially indirectly.