December 21 2015
Digital photography provides exceptional tools for taking and sharing photographs, making this a golden age for photographers.
The advent of digital cameras means just about anyone can take a reasonably exposed and focused photograph and produce quality prints, even on typical home office equipment. This has disrupted the business model of many professional photographers, making it difficult for them to stand out from the madding crowd. They have to be exceptional, not just competent.
The digital influence has removed the exclusivity of the film darkroom. Photo processing has been democratised with powerful photo editing apps now available not only on desktop computers, but increasingly on mobile devices. These apps provide similar tools to the film darkroom.
The chemical processing of photographic film presented one of the greatest challenges to photographers before the digital age. The process is complicated and requires special chemicals and equipment in a lightproof room. Because film uses light sensitive chemicals the initial processing must be done in total darkness. The subsequent steps through to the final printing need a special low intensity coloured light that will not affect the printing process.
The chemicals are another issue, not only are they messy, the shelf life of some is relatively short, particularly for colour processing. This makes it expensive and wasteful unless you have a large number of prints to make, the domain of a professional photographer. Black and white processing is relatively simpler and the chemicals last longer than those for processing colour film. This is why many keen enthusiast photographers with access to a darkroom worked in black and white, even when colour film was the dominant medium.
The alternative for most photographers is sending the film to someone else for processing, and often a set of prints. Apart from the delay between taking the photo and seeing the results, the prints are usually made by someone who was not at the scene and does not know the actual colour of the light at the scene or the amount of light. The colour balance and brightness of the print are usually based on average settings. The final prints of scenes out of the ordinary may not turn out as photographers expected.
Digital photos on even modest inkjet printers can produce surprisingly good results. The processed file can be printed using a commercial printing service but the photographer makes all the adjustments before creating the digital file for printing. The advent of digital print on demand photo books offers a high standard of presentation compared to the traditional photo album. Digital photographers can have their photos printed on an endless variety of objects ranging from mugs to clothing.
Many digital photos are not printed, instead photographers use some of the many ways of sharing photos over the internet. This is a two way street for photographers. Viewing and analysing other photographer’s work offers an insight into what is good and can reveal cliches to avoid. This process is not about copying good photographs, rather it is about developing analytical skills to help you compose photographs. Browsing photos on the internet allows photographers to learn what subjects are already covered. This enables photographers to search for new approaches to popular topics rather than naively repeating a photographic composition.
Digital cameras store a wealth of information in the image file. This is the Exif data that includes the camera setting for each photograph, making it easy to see the results that each setting produces. Armed with this knowledge photographers can experiment with different photography techniques and camera settings. Then they can instantaneously review the results on the camera’s monitor screen or easily transfer the image file to photo editing apps on a computer.
This contrasts with the infamous photographer’s notebook or shooting cards. After each shot photographers read the settings off the camera dials and write them down. So when the photos are printed the results can be analysed with reference to the written exposure and focal length settings.
The reusable nature of digital technology for recording and viewing photographs means the cost of photography does not depend on the number of photos taken. The real extra cost comes from storing photos, especially as digital camera resolution increases, there is a corresponding increase in the photograph file size and storage demands. The solution is once the experiment is over, delete the photographs taken for it and freeing storage for some other use.
Since I bought my first digital SLR I have learned more about photography in ten years than I did in thirty years using film based SLR cameras. Some of this I sdue to the benefits of digital photography. Another factor was a mature age University Honours degree in journalism that provided theoretical tools for analysing images. Journalism also provides an impetuous as pictures make my articles more attractive to readers and publishers.
The digital revolution did not stop with replacing film in conventional camera bodies. Mobile devices include rapidly improving cameras and they make taking and sharing photos easy. There are photo sharing sites such as Instagram designed primarily for quick sharing of phone pictures.