By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
In the 10 short years since affordable and practical digital cameras were first marketed, digital imaging has become the most transforming photographic change since Eastman Kodak invented portable roll-film cameras in 1890 and eliminated the need to coat glass plates with high explosives in a hot, horse-drawn darkroom.
Digital imaging is a major paradigm shift in the classic sense articulated by Thomas Kuhn in his seminal book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” A true paradigm shift is a fundamentally new and better way of organizing, understanding and using all known information about a subject. Well-known examples of paradigm shifts in the sciences include quantum physics, discovering how DNA affects all biology, and plate tectonics, which revolutionized our understanding of how geology actually works.
Paradigm shifts are particularly important because they point the way to previously unimagined techniques, knowledge and opportunities. So, why do I believe that digital photography is causing such a major reorientation of photography? Before answering that question, let’s consider the flip side of a paradigm shift, the gathering of all existing knowledge under a more spacious tent.
Digital imaging and silver-based film photography continue to depend on a great deal of shared knowledge, technique and equipment. Both use the same optics, or nearly so. The best digital cameras look and handle very much like film-era professional cameras, such as Leica rangefinder and Olympus OM-series film cameras. We still use the same shutter speeds and lens apertures.
Well-done “straight” docum-entary and fine-art digital photographs are virtually indistinguishable from silver-based photographs. What constitutes a technically good photographic print hasn’t changed, nor has the human eye and brain’s response to tonal ranges, subtle detail and color gradations. The subjects we photograph and how we “see” them has not changed a great deal, at least not yet.
In fact, the concepts underlying the fabled Zone System, the traditional gold standard for excellent, silver-based, black-and-white photography, can be readily adapted to digital cameras. Check my July 22, 2009, and July 29, 2009, Redoubt Reporter articles for details.
What’s changing? Traditional, silver-based photography first created a single “analog” original, a film negative or a slide. These are physical objects, not electronically stored digital information. As such, these analog originals are unique and technically irreplaceable because any reproduction, whether copying a slide/negative or making a paper-based exhibition print, inevitably introduces some degradation from the original. At best, careful copying and printing reduces, but does not eliminate, the degree of distortion and loss of fine detail, proper contrast and tonal gradation. Each succeeding generation of copies continues to irretrievably lose data.
Silver-based photographic negatives, slides and prints are by definition tangible objects. As a result, their distribution to a wider audience is limited unless, by some remote chance, they’re included in a paper-based publication like a photo book or glossy magazine. That’s expensive, with limited distribution. Compared to digital images, silver-based photographs, as tangible analog images, are definitely more limited in the extent to which they can be manipulated for artistic effect.
Digitally recorded information is easy to endlessly reproduce without cost or data degradation. It’s trivially easy to distribute throughout the world via the Internet. As a result, many digital images become ubiquitous in a matter of days, going “viral” in the idiom. That’s not possible for nearly all silver-based images, with a few exceptions — like the flag raising over Iwo Jima — exceptions that are memorable because they’re so few.
A major criticism of current digital cameras is that they fail to incorporate state-of-the-art Internet connection hardware. That’s become important, at least to consumers, in an era where visuals are supreme and there’s a demand for robust, immediate connectivity.
In stark contrast to the limited corrections and manipulations available with silver-based photography, digital images are much easier to alter and manipulate. That’s great when you need maximum control over the final appearance, or when you’re experimenting for artistic effect, but not so great when digital photos are needed as evidence in a legal proceeding.
Digital imaging has other practical advantages. Most cellphones now include some form of digital imaging and video. High-quality compact cameras like Canon’s S100 are truly pocketable and can go anywhere without fuss. Having a usable camera always with you changes the entire conception of photography from something requiring prior intent and preparation to a truly spontaneous action. That, in turn, changes what we can readily photograph and how we do so.
In fact, CNN recently laid off 50 of its experienced photojournalists because it receives so many timely and technically adequate free photos and videos of newsworthy events from lay bystanders. After 100 years as a respected profession, photography is no longer a financially secure one. It’s a profession that I would discourage my own quite talented teen from pursuing as a means of earning a decent living.
Film cameras could either make good still photographs or movies, but not both. All decent digital cameras now on the market can make both still images and 1,080-pixel or 720-pixel, high-definition movies. Soon, professional-quality 4K video will move downward to full-frame digital SLRs and then, ultimately, to consumer cameras.
Over the past 20 years or so, we’ve seen only incremental technical innovation and new features among silver-based technologies. In contrast, digital technology is still evolving at a rapid rate. Only 10 years have passed since two- or three-megapixel cameras were the best available to consumers, yet the still image quality possible with full-frame digital cameras now exceeds that of comparable, but far more expensive, prograde film cameras.
Existing digital cameras can be routinely upgraded with cool new electronically based features, like sweep panorama via free firmware upgrades over the Internet. Mechanically controlled film cameras can’t be upgraded at all. Silver-based film cameras still have one major advantage, though. Whenever an improved film comes out, it’s easy to upgrade a film camera’s image quality by simply switching over to the improved film. You don’t need to buy an entirely new digital camera body. Ultimately, though, I expect to see modular digital camera bodies with upgradeable sensors and image-processing chips trickle down from high-end pro gear, but not for several years.
Because digital image files can be recorded, erased and stored virtually without incremental cost, there’s no longer a financial penalty for taking an unlimited number of photographs. When each silver-based photograph cost real money to make and print, much of our editing occurred when we decided to not press the shutter release. Now it’s the norm to take even marginal photos, probably with several exposure-bracketing frames, and hopefully edit ruthlessly later. That’s not inherently bad, but failing to edit and discard your mostly banal or technically bad frames does result in both mental and hard disk clutter.
In perhaps the most telling sign of a major paradigm shift over the past several years, silver-based photography’s traditional stalwarts have mostly gone bankrupt, like Kodak and Agfa, or are much diminished, like Ilford. Good quality photography and videography is within easy reach of nearly anyone willing to make some effort. Images are now stored, distributed and viewed electronically in almost all instances. We’ve become a more visual society, using more images and fewer words, which probably increases our overall knowledge and comprehension, at least in some areas.
Taken as a whole, digital photography really is a major shift in how we understand and use imagery. A truly new paradigm is emerging and the cultural, artistic and technical vistas revealed by this technological shift are not yet fully apparent.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.