I was recently talking with a friend about digital photography. As we discussed the differences between digital capture and film capture, I blurted “..I think digital photography is the worse thing that could have happened to photography as art.”
The conversation went on, “blah, blah, blah…” and we finally went on about our business. Later, however, I thought “why did I say that? Did I really mean it?”
Those of you who follow my blog know I consider myself to be among the shrinking class of photographers who still use film primarily. I use my Nikon D200 digital camera for some things, but if I’m taking a picture of something I think is important, I’ll use my Nikon F5, my Mamiya RB67 medium format (film) camera, or my Cambo 4×5.
But back to my topic: why did I say such a terrible thing about digital photography? Here’s a list of serious consequences that I think represent the downside to the digital revolution; you be the judge how important they are to the art of photography as you practice it.
First a caviat: I consider photography to be the technique of creating an image that depends on light reflecting off a physical entity(ies), striking a light sensitive surface, and thus creating a 2-dimensional representation of that physical entity. Significant manipulation of the 2D representation after capture can cause a departure from photography and into digital art (each artist defines his/her own limits in this regard.) While digital art may use a camera as a tool to create such art, I do not consider digital art and photography to be synonymous.
My other bias is that I also have a personal dislike for what we used to call “chalk and soot” in fine art images. These are large spaces in a photograph that are devoid of any detail in the shadows (soot) or in the highlights (chalk). In either case, such artifacts become distractions because our brain sees them as “unbelievable.” If you’re creating landscape photographs that have distractions, and there are many types, it will discourage many viewers from further engaging in the image. In digital terms, “chalk and soot” is the same thing at “clipping” at the extremes of the light spectrum.
So, here’s my list of reasons why I think digital technology, as applied to photography, has destroyed the art of photography:
1.Tiny, low resolution pictures are the norm. There was a time when most pictures we saw were at least 4×6 inch prints; and commonly 8×10 (the size of a magazine cover) and larger, and printed at 300 dots per inch or greater. The norm today is 3×3 (or less) shown on an excessively contrasty monitor showing us much lower resolutions of 76 dpi.
I believe one of the great human values that photography provides is the opportunity to see and explore real, factual subjects with much greater depth than is possible in the ‘blink of an eye.’ Studying a low-resolution 3×3 inch thumbnail on our display monitors is just, well, impossible. It’s a superficial study at best, and therefore misses the whole point of the value of photography in our lives. While many photographers who post images to the internet exceed 3×3 inch (thankfully), resolution is still largely limited by the display technology. To really see an image for what it is, you need to see it in print, big, and in Hi-Def.
2. It’s not about getting good pictures now, it’s about getting fast pictures. There was a time when most people who took pictures truly wanted the picture to be “good.” Sadly, the norm today is to snap the damn thing, get it up on Facebook to share, and don’t worry about fuzziness, poor lighting, distracting objects, etc. It’s fun to share, but the ease of taking pictures today that don’t cost a dime has certainly reduced incentives to ‘make a good photograph.’ If you want to see an example of my point, just scan a few Facebook galleries of your friends. I’ll bet you’ll agree with me that the vast majority are really bad photographs (but we’ll never say that in public; nor should we I guess.)
3. With a digital camera, “this is the best I can do”. There was a time when skilled photographers took great care to avoid distracting artifacts in their imagery. Proper exposure, proper placement of the camera, and proper selection of camera and lens were fundamental considerations any serious photographer made for every click of the shutter. Today it’s common to see artifacts such as distracting, featureless blacks and pure blown-out whites, fuzziness, photographic noise, and others that are typical with digital capture, even from experienced, well-known photographers. This is, perhaps, my biggest gripe: that serious photographers seem to have compromised photographic quality for ease in ‘picture taking.’ Some say digital is the form that today’s photographic art has taken. And based on the popularity of digital cameras over film cameras, perhaps they’re right…. but I hope not.
4. Digital is a plastic technology. Digital photography is very “digital.” Our eyes don’t see things in digital format, they see things in analog format. So does film, by the way, it responds to light in analog form. WIth digital image capture we get super crisp lines and sharp transitions between colors. Perhaps the best way of characterizing this effect is “plastic.” Yet our eyes see and interpret lines and colors having smooth transitions. If you want to produce images that most closely mimic what our eyes and brains see, you must capture the subject using an analog technology, not a digital one.
This list is a start. While digital technology has given us the ability to take and share pictures so much more easily than before (and this is a good thing, much like the Kodak Brownie introduction in 1888), digital’s popular adoption for fine art photography, and especially for landscape photography, has so far been overwhelmingly bad. As the technology develops further it may overcome its present limitations for capturing subjects having wide latitude, with minimal noise, and excessive “plastic” character.
But that day isn’t here….. yet.