Why Digital Photography is Different

By Harold Davis

There is a great deal of effort put into the proposition that digital photography is—or should be—just like film photography, but with a different capture mechanism. This idea is that if you substitute a memory card for film you are back in the same place, and—voila!—“photography is photography.”

Camera manufacturers support the retro notion of digital photography by selling digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras that look for all the world like your father’s SLRs. Software vendors such as Adobe reinforce adherence to the norms of film photography by naming filters, presets and plugins nostalgically after film darkroom techniques. So-called photographic purists argue vociferously that anything that has been “Photoshopped” is not worthy of artistic consideration.

All this is nonsense.

As photographers, instead of looking to the past we need to embrace the future. Digital photography is an entirely new artistic medium compared to analog photography. It is a privilege to be actively creating at a time of innovation that requires flexibility, new skills, a new aesthetic and a new world view. Some film photographers of the twentieth century created great imagery and prints, but to merely echo their work without embracing the new possibilities of the digital photography medium is callow—like trying to be Beethoven long after the time for classical music composition has past (Beatles, anyone?).

So, what is the “new new” medium of digital photography?

It is many things to many photographers, obviously; but two themes dominate the work of gifted artists who understand this brand, spanking new medium. A digital camera is a lens placed in front of a scanner, with a way to digitally store and process the results (meaning a computer). Iphoneography takes advantage of this configuration by promoting portability: the mobile phone is the camera one always has with one, and with it comes an onboard computer that provides software for processing imagery on the fly.

 

Figure 1: Bored at a garden party, I snapped and processed this image on my iPhone. In my book The Way of the Digital Photographer a number of techniques such as using layers for enhancing iPhone photos using your mobile phone are explained (see pages 102-103, 144-135 and 184-185).

The other important trend is to move the processing off the camera, and to recognize the computer as an equal partner with the camera. By saving image data as RAW files, all the information captured by the camera at the time of the exposure is preserved. The computers inside a digital camera are neither fast nor powerful, so it makes sense to move image processing to an external computer. That way, images can be edited using large monitors and processing-intensive software such as Photoshop.

Whether the viewer knows it or not, almost all professional photos you see these days have been processed and edited in the digital darkroom. Light editing means minor retouching to remove flaws and perhaps some adjustments to the white balance, saturation and exposure. More extensive post-production work can effectively create entirely new images via such techniques as multi-RAW processing, High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging, compositing, and the application of filters and textures.

There’s no moral right or wrong for any post-production technique, except in certain contexts. With a photo used as part of a journalistic story, then a standard of honesty and non-manipulation does apply. But when a photographic print is presented as art, then how it was created may be interesting, but is essentially irrelevant to the merits of the work of art.

Figure 2: To create this image of a provincial capital of Cuba, I applied layers and textures as explained on pages 139 and 175-183.

The tools and craft of the artist are up to the artist, although any technique can be used well or poorly. For example, HDR is often derided for creating images with unrealistic and garish colors (HDR can also be used very subtly). If a photographer abuses HDR techniques so that the first response of the viewer is to notice the surreal colors and decry them, then the willing suspension of disbelief that is part of the contract between artist and viewer has been abrogated, and the photographer has not mastered their craft.

Speaking of craft, since digital photography involves camera and computer, becoming a masterful digital photography craftsperson involves mastering both aspects of this process: photography and software. Learning the creative possibilities inherent at the time of exposure is crucial, but no longer enough. Every digital photographer should want to get the best possible images in-camera. They should also know how to effectively process the data the camera has captured on a computer.

This leads to a feedback loop. As I explain in my new book from Peachpit Press, The Way of the Digital Photographer: Walking the Photoshop post-production path to more creative photography, knowing what you can do in post-production should inform the choices you make with the camera at the moment of exposure.

In The Way of the Digital Photographer I note that “with great power comes great responsibility.” What I mean is that absolutely every last pixel of the final image is under the control of the photographic artist who embraces the new medium of digital photography.

So you can’t go home again.

The photographer that controls everything cannot evade blame for a lousy image because “it was like that.” On the other hand, the creative photographic artist has post-production tools that will enable fabulous image making that beggar the possibilities available in the chemical darkroom.

The Way of the Digital Photographer explains the basic primitives of post-production work: layers and blending modes. The point here is to create a conceptually level playing field, because these techniques are used over and over again in most sophisticated post-production, regardless of the specific implementation. My book also explains how to work with the camera to process RAW captures, and shoot bracketed sequences of RAW captures for HDR. Finally, I show you some of the creative image “finishing” techniques that I use in my own work.

Figure 3: Starting with a view upwards towards the structure of a slot canyon, I used LAB inversions as explained in the case study on pages 160-163 to create this abstract image.

About Harold Davis:  Harold Davis is a well-known digital artist and award-winning professional photographer. He is the author of many photography books. His most recent titles are The Way of the Digital Photographer (Peachpit) and Monochromatic HDR Photography (Focal Press).

In addition to his activity as a bestselling book author, Harold is a featured columnist for Photo.net. He has been acknowledged as a Moab Master printmaker and is known as a Master Printer. His limited edition artist book Botanique was featured most recently in Fine Art Printing, the only magazine devoted exclusively to fine art photographic printmaking. Harold’s work is widely collected, licensed by art publishers, and has appeared in numerous magazines and other publications.

Harold’s technique and destination photography workshops to such diverse locations as Paris, France; Heidelberg, Germany; and the ancient Bristlecone Pines of the eastern Sierra Nevada are widely popular and usually sell out quickly.

 

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