Is Digital Imaging Going to Stick Around?

Got ‘ya. 🙂 Sorry to disappoint, but this is not a rant against digital imaging or a plea for a return to the “good old days” of film. Digital imaging is a technology. As such it should be a neutral consideration. It doesn’t matter if our art if it is created “digitally” or by some other means.

It’s just a technology

Art, by its nature, is created with a medium using specific technology. Digital imaging is the currently popular medium and technology used by most photographers. If I were writing this 30 years ago, the medium would be film and no one would give it a second thought.

That is one reason I think it strange that people feel the need to qualify it most of the time. It is said to be digital photography using a digital camera and modified using digital post processing. To me that is putting undue emphasis on the technology.

Pushing the limits

Any medium or any technology has limits. Artists are inspired by pushing the limits of the medium. Whether it is painting or music or photography, a great craftsman knows the capabilities of the medium he is using. It becomes a game, a quest, to push the limits of the technology to create new art.

But photography is fairly unique in that the technology is advancing rapidly. I don’t think people are inventing new cellos ( well, there are the electronic ones…). The quality and capability of oil paints is probably improving slowly, but not being revolutionized. Digital photography is a much less mature technology and it is based on the electronic and integrated circuit industry, which is huge and rapidly moving. Consequently we tend to think of getting a new shiny gadget that pushes out the boundaries rather than learning the limits and using them as part of our art. That is a problem for photographers.

I love the quality of my equipment and the things I can express with it. But there is a tendency for most people to focus too much on the technology. The resolution, the dynamic range, the focusing, the low noise are easy to see as the important thing. I am glad these things are improving all the time. Too often, though, we get caught up in looking at what the technology can accomplish rather than focusing on what the artist is doing with it.

Art is made by an artist, not a camera

It is easy to get blinded by the brilliance of the technology and loose sight of the fact that ultimately, we should be talking about the art. Art is made by an artist, not a camera. An artist can make exciting art with a cell phone or a disposable film camera. Resolution and dynamic range do not make art.

I am delighted to admit that my main camera is a mirrorless 46MPix wonder. The image quality is remarkable. I will confess that in one part of my work I like super detailed, crunchy sharp images. But I also, more and more, find myself making extreme abstracts that are unrecognizable from the original capture. The technology enables this, because the images have such depth and fidelity to begin with that they can survive serious processing. Pushing the limits. The technology lets me do these things. It does not do any of them for me.

I love the technology and I make use of it, but it is not digital art, it is just art.

It’s not perfect

Saying that digital is just a technology also admits that is is not perfect. It is so good that it has displaced film, but it is not ultimate truth. Someday it too will be displaced by something else.

A digital image is simply an array of pixels. That means there are artifacts that become obvious at extreme magnification. The sensors are getting better all the time, but that is a built-in limitation of the technology.

A digital sensor can only capture about 14 bits of dynamic range (+/- 2). This is 16,384 brightness steps for each color. It is amazing how good this looks, but it is far short of the capability of the human eye. And the sensor is linear while the eye response is logarithmic. Again, the eye had a significant advantage.

Technically, current digital imaging products are the best photographic devices that have ever been made. Technically. That does not mean they produce better art.


Another important consideration for digital imaging is that it is and has promoted an ephemeral view of images. Digital images have fed the huge social media, entertainment industry, online viewing trend. People have become used to glancing at images for about 1 second or less and moving on. This has tended to devalue most images. Especially if they are on a screen.

I don’t believe this short attention span culture is healthy for the viewers or artists.

But there is a still more insidious problem with digital images: they have no physical presence. Did you at some time end up with a shoe box of family pictures that brought important memories back? Did you discover and enjoy a drawer full of negatives and old prints at your parents? Those do not exist any more.

Digital images only exist on your computer or in “the cloud”. E.g. once the computer dies or you stop paying for the cloud, they are gone. Totally. No record of their existence. A career of art, a lifetime of family memories can disappear in an instant.

This is a dark side of digital imaging.

Prints are even more important

Because digital images are so ephemeral, I believe it is even more important now to make prints of important images. Prints have substance, weight, physical presence. They seem much more real than an image on the screen. And they are.

A print is “permanent” – well, maybe 100 years for a good quality pigment print on professional paper. When you handle it it has weight and the image seems important. It is something that can be displayed proudly on your wall to view often and for others to see. It can be handed down to others later. A print is a real material thing, not just a bunch of bits.

Some photographers say an image isn’t finished until it is printed. More and more I’m coming to agree with that view.

Will it stick?

So, will digital imaging stick around? Sure. It already has. It is really hard to find film any more. Even harder to get it processed. Digital has become so clearly superior to the alternatives that it has displaced them all. That is not to say it does not have faults. Everything does.

But digital is just a technology. It will dominate until something better comes along. A technology does not make art. What an artist does with the medium is art. A super high tech digital camera is not a requirement to make art.

I would much rather be remembered as an artist than as someone who was very proficient with digital technology.

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