There can be few photographers around today who haven’t made the move to digital, but it would be incorrect to conclude that the technical quality, or even the image aesthetic, has much to do with the choice.
It isn’t the perceived lower cost. Even though the expenditure on film and development has been negated, professional digital camera equipment is many more times expensive than analogue, and a skilled digital operator is essential for much post-production work prior to outputting the image to print or the web.
For some fields of photography, such as sport or photojournalism, the ability to take hundreds or thousands of frames at a single event using a digital camera is liberating as a kind of insurance against missing the key moment. For others, moving to digital hasn’t changed the methodology and the discipline instilled by film.
Simon Norfolk, an artist who has photographed war-ravaged landscapes, points out: “I was reluctant, initially, about the quality of digital cameras, but not now. More important for me is how I come across to people who are living through fear and horror. I used a beautiful-looking wooden 4x5 inch film camera until about a year ago and I didn’t look like I was hostile or a threat to anyone. I’m hoping that I still don’t. I set up my new digital-medium-format camera with a tripod and only shoot one or two frames.”
The move to digital from film was the last step in the photographer’s workflow to be become digitised. It has been a gradual process of acceptance and as much an artistic choice than anything else that depends more on how the image will be printed and displayed.
A print from a premium quality inkjet is no longer a barrier at galleries, but Norfolk says he still prefers C-Type prints from a Lightjet printer. It’s not that the technical quality can’t match the output, he says, but rather more to do with durability.
Moving to digital hasn’t changed the methodology and the discipline instilled by film
He has sent rolled inkjet prints in perfect condition to galleries in the United States and they’ve arrived with marks on the surface and tiny creases. But he admits: “The issues over metameric failure and ink absorption have been largely overcome and the image quality of the latest generation of inkjet printers is good enough for professional use.”
In contrast, wildlife photographer Steve Bloom, who has an enduring talent for seeing and capturing art in nature, agrees that the quality of inkjet printers and digital cameras surpasses that of the older analogue equipment. However, he recognises the pros and cons of working digitally.
His breathtaking overhead shot of zebra running in a swamp, made while compiling photographs for his books, Untamed, Spirit of the Wild and Living Africa, was recently used by Apple to highlight the quality of the Retina display in their new pro-laptop.
“I miss the emotive effect of grain in film images, but the switch to digital goes beyond the ordeal of carrying boxes of film, avoiding X-ray machines and the complexities of developing. We’ve been given this fantastic toolbox to convey more effectively,” he exclaims with exuberance in his voice.
Birth saw arrival of camera phones
In 1997 French technology innovator Philippe Kahn took the first camera-phone photograph by rigging together a digital camera and a mobile phone. He used it to send a shot of his newborn daughter Sophie to more than 2,000 people.
By 2003 more camera phones were sold than stand-alone digital cameras. Now millions of us are using them to transmit images and we are all potential citizen journalists.
When London was bombed in July 2005, eerie camera-phone images hit the front pages and, when Neda Agha-Soltan was killed during the Iranian protest in 2009, camera-phone footage brought her death and the revolt to the world’s attention.
Smart phones have made sharing images even easier with social networks, such as Facebook, tumblr and Twitter, allowing users to post them online instantly (via Twitpic or something similar).
A new wave of image-based apps has sprung up enabling photography fans to share images. Instagram was launched in October 2010, for example, and by August 2011, 150 million photographs had been shared on it. Users are now estimated to upload more than five million images a day.
Instagram also offers filters for selecting different effects, just as analogue photographers might choose films or papers. Filter-friendly apps are sometimes derided, but photographer Ben Lowy proved their worth when his Hipstamatic images of Afghanistan were printed by The New York Times Magazine in October 2011. As Kathy Ryan, the magazine’s director of photography, says: “The history of photography is the history of new technologies and tools.”