Is Digital Imaging Going to Stick Around?

Distorted view through a screen

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.

Ephemeral

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.

Ansel Wasn’t an Oracle

Rusty Truck

Ansel Adams famously said that the negative is the score and the print the performance. Ansel was one of the great lights of 20th Century photography and his writings are generally very good. In this case, though, I think this famous quote has become a little outdated by technology changes.

I love this quote and have been guided by it for a long time. As I began to understand it more deeply, it was empowering. For a long time my work was basically a documentary or reportage style. It was very literal photography of scenes in the natural world. I even for a time subscribed to the false doctrine that if an image was altered in any way it was no longer pure and virtuous.

Ansel’s quote helped me understand that that had never been true and was not a worthy or even useful goal. At least for me. I truly believe that the negative (raw file now) is only a start. It usually must be perfected by the artist to become art rather than just a record of something.

The darkroom process

Let me talk a little about the darkroom process, as I understand it. This is so I can contrast it to the current workflow. I will confess that, although I built a darkroom in my basement, I only ever used it for a few black and white images. About that time I discovered a new program called “Photoshop”. 🙂

The image captured on film is generally considered “read only”. It is never modified. There are exceptions to every rule, but this is by far the typical case.

The extensive set of transformations and modifications that can be applied to the negative in the course of printing are done in “real time”. That is, it is a dance involving adding or holding back light from certain areas during the time the paper is exposed to light. It can also involve variations of development time or chemicals and even manual operations like bleaching or spotting of the print.

Given this workflow, it is completely appropriate for Ansel to describe it as a score that will be performed by an artist. The outcome will vary somewhat with each performance, depending on the feelings and inspiration of the performer. Each print is a unique creative process.

The digital workflow

Fast forward now to the current generation of digital imaging. Digital imaging is wonderful in too many ways to list. I absolutely believe it is superior to film in almost all important respects. There is no reason for most artists to ever want to go back to film and chemicals. Your mileage may vary, but that is a personal artistic decision.

One of the places where digital processing is most different is in the post processing to complete the image. The raw file (the “negative”) is processed in the computer using software like Photoshop.

The software allows extensive, non-destructive manipulation of the image. The great dynamic range captured by modern sensors now gives us far more information to work with and more freedom to transform the image. It is easy to remove distracting elements, composite images together, and vastly change the tone and color profiles and even exposure.

Ansel had to select a type of film to use prior to taking an image. He also had to use color filters to change the tonality of his black and white images. It was a guessing game based on lots of experience. He called it “pre-visualization”. Now we retain all the color information until processing time and we can convert to black and white via multiple types of software transforms and with extensive control over tonality. Much more subtle artistic decisions can be made. He would have loved it.

Furthermore, these changes are built on the computer and recorded as a complete package. All the modifications can be done slowly and I can backtrack, undo things I don’t like, try alternatives, even easily create multiple versions of an image.

The “performance” aspect of Ansel’s darkroom manipulation now becomes a considered, one-time transformation. All the artistic decisions are immediately seen on my nice color corrected monitor. I can study the effects at leisure and decide to change them. When I am done, I have virtually a finished image.

The print

It almost sounds like printing has been reduced to a minor step. Not so. It is still a complex artistic process. But again, the digital world gives many new options.

Choice of paper is a big deal. It controls a major part of the look of the resulting image. A glossy Baryta has a very different look from a matte watercolor paper. Paper with varying textures and base color can be selected.

This is assuming you are printing yourself. I recommend it. It is a joy and it connects you with the final product. But many other options are available. You can have your image rendered on canvas, metal substrates, acrylic, transparencies, cloth – too many to list. All vary the look and potential use of the final image.

But the thing that is ultimately the most different from film days is that the artistic result has been determined prior to hitting Print or sending the file to the producer. Each time you print the image, the results should be so repeatable as to be indistinguishable. As Alain Briot said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek I think, this is one of the problems with printers: they do not need our help in any way while they do what they do.

So, in a way, a print is like a good illusion. The magic happens before we ever see the print appear. This is a huge contrast to the film days where creating a print required a virtuoso performance in the darkroom.

Was Ansel right?

I believe Ansel was completely right and very insightful when he wrote this famous quote. Like with many things, though, time and technology changes. Since he was describing a particular technological process, it is not surprising that it will change.

The real genius of the quote, and the reason I believe it is still useful, is to point out that the captured image is only the starting place. I am free to apply my vision to complete the image. Without that injection of originality, it is too easy for it to just be a snapshot.

How that is done is not that big of a deal. Art is a physical product and expressed via currently available technology. The technology should not determine an artist’s vision. Make it your own.

The quote was an observation by a great and experienced artist. It did not come down from heaven written on stone. Don’t be limited by changes of process or technology. Understand that it frees you to create!

What is the Cost of Digital Imaging?

An extensively processed image

Digital photography is liberating. We are not limited to 36 frames on a roll. It doesn’t cost anything to shoot an image, so shoot anything you see. Wait, is that true? Is digital photography really free? What is the cost of digital imaging?

The film days

Ah, the good old days, right? Not really. Almost everything about digital imaging is better. For 35mm cameras, which is what I will discuss, film came in rolls containing up to 36 frames. Yes, I know there were some weird specials, but let’s ignore those. A roll cost several dollars and processing it cost about as many more dollars. It seems like my metric was that it cost $.50 per frame. And that was in the 1980’s. In todays dollars that might be $1-2 per frame. After you finished a roll it took several days before it was processed so you could see what you got. Horrible. Primitive. Intolerable by todays standards.

Even a medium size memory card might hold hundreds of raw images and thousands of jpgs. The equivalent of that in the film days would be a large, heavy, expensive bag of film.

And when you were traveling with the film, you had to take it out to be x-rayed at the airport. If you were shooting “high speed” film, say 800 ISO or more, you had to put them in lead lined bags or try to get the agents to hand inspect them to prevent fogging by the x-ray machines.

Of course, when you go on a trip you have to carry all that bulky, heavy film back home. You usually did not want the expense of mailing them and the risk of them being lost in the mail.

What a pain. And I won’t even mention the cost and problems of a darkroom.

Digital solves the problems

Along comes digital imaging. The cost of shooting comes rapidly down and the quality of the images comes rapidly up. Very soon digital is clearly better than film. On Amazon today professional grade 64GByte SDHC cards are $12. That is unbelievable! A card like that will hold hundreds, maybe a thousand raw images. Say 1000, that makes the cost per image $0.012. And then you load them into the computer and erase and reuse the card. So the actual cost per image in virtually zero.

All is rainbows and unicorns. What can be bad about that?

Does digital imaging really cost?

Yes. A lot!

For one thing, for professionals, sensors now generate huge files and we need large, fast memory to capture them in camera. My current camera uses XQD memory cards. They are very fast, but a 120 GByte card costs $200 – on sale. That is steep, but not the problem.

Then there is the infrastructure problem on my computer. Loading all this data on the computer takes up a lot of disk space. My main storage is currently a fast 20TByte RAID disk. Since I am a fanatic about backup (seeYes, You Need to Backup“), the relevant data is backed up every day to another 12 TByte RAID disk. It is also backed up to yet another 12 TByte RAID disk. In addition, hourly Time Machine backups rotate to 2 other external disks. And then there is offsite backup… All of this gets expensive and requires a fair bit of maintenance. I’m drowning in data!

But that is still not the biggest cost.

Time is money

The true cost of digital imaging is time. Time to load, file, tag, grade, and process. It is easy to get completely buried in a backlog of images to process.

I’m mostly an outdoor photographer. Let’s say a productive day of shooting might bring back 400 images. That is about 20-30 GBytes of image data. Those have to be loaded in to the computer – I use Lightroom for all my image management. They have to be tagged by location and keywords added to assist in filing and locating. Then there is the difficult process of grading to filter out the best. My process involves at least 6 passes of review. Then there is processing of the best images. Since I am a fine art photographer, the images may be extensively processed, partly in Lightroom and partly in Photoshop.

At this point, maybe I have selected 20 images from the day’s shoot as my “keepers”. Doesn’t seem bad, but the true cost of this is several days of difficult computer work, maybe even a week, to handle 1 day of shooting. And it is quite possible that 1 or more of the images may require an extra week of Photoshop processing to get to my standard. I have been over a year behind in processing at times.

So, the main cost of digital imaging is the time to process them. If you are just culling through to find a few jpegs to post to Instagram, no big deal. But if you are doing fine art professionally, you can quickly get buried in computer work. It is a cost to count carefully.

Note

Let me know what you think and what topics you would like me to write about. I welcome your input.

The Sensor

Rock in river, sunset

Putting up a nice safe technical post this week. What is the sensor and why do I care? If we just click the shutter button and expect to see magic happen on our screen, isn’t that enough? No, I obviously do not think it is enough or I wouldn’t be writing about it. The sensor is the heart of the technology of image capture. Without a great sensor none of this would be possible.

History

Going back, there was rubbing pigment on the wall of caves – Oops, too far. Photography as we would recognize it started in the early 1800’s. Motivated photographers had to mix their own chemicals and wet coat their own glass plates, in the field, in the dark, right before exposing them, then processing them quickly, in the dark, in the trailer they brought. Not for the short attention span crowd.

In the late 1800’s Kodak produced commercial coated transparent film, on a nitrate base. Keep it away from your candles – poof. A few years later cellulose based safety film was invented and replaced the dangerous nitrate film.

Around this same time roll film was also invented, so more than one exposure could be made before changing film. This was a contribution to most photographers. Leica’s adaptation of the 35mm film size and the development of an excellent, small hand held camera system greatly advanced the use of photography. In 1935 Kodak released one of the greatest advances in photography – Kodachrome film. Color photography was finally practical and it became very popular. A very large market for both color and black and white film developed with Kodak, Fuji, Agfa and many other brands vying for position.

This is not an exact history of the development of photography and all of its branches. The point is that the technology of recording images has always been central to photography and it has been a subject of heated discussion/argument by photographers. I have witnessed people almost coming to blows about Kodachrome vs Fuji Velvia.

Film Was Our Sensor

Most “serious” photographers had their 2 or 3 favorite films that they used regularly. They learned the characteristics of each well enough that they could predict the results. This is very important, because photography has always been a mixture of technology and art. How the sensor (film) records light is necessary to know so the artist can determine how to use it to achieve the results they want. Pushing the limits of the sensor technology was a common artistic effect.

But then photography’s “shot heard around the world” happened in 1975. From Kodak’s web site: “Kodak invented the world’s first digital camera. The prototype was the size of a toaster and captured black-and-white images at a resolution of 10,000 pixels (.01 megapixels).” From that trivial sounding start, Kodak killed it’s own business and the multi-billion film business around the world. Digital sensors forever changed the course of photography. And this was a good thing for photographers.

Digital Image Capture

Image capture in a digital sensor is completely different from film. Instead of photons of light causing a chemical reaction in the film, the photons caused the emission of electrons in the sensor chip. These electrons are accumulated over the duration of the exposure, then transferred out serially and sampled to “count” the electrons. From this, complex and high speed processing reconstructs an array of “pixels” (picture elements) which is so dense it fools our eye into seeing a smooth image. This constructed data set is recorded onto a memory chip in the camera. Then usually transferred to a computer.

Over the years, good engineering has improved the process so much that few people still argue that images from film are superior to digital captures. My personal transition happened in about 2004. I finally concluded that the Nikon D70 was at least at parity with 35mm film. That was a 6 Mega Pixel sensor. The image accompanying this post was shot with that camera. Now, when I look at a good quality scan of a 35mm slide compared to a capture off my 47 Mega Pixel Nikon Z-7 sensor I have to shake my head and marvel at the improvement of our photographic technology. Yes, some of this comes from greatly improved lens design, but the sensor is one of the biggest effects.

So with digital sensors I am free to push the limits more, to experiment more, to have more fun with photography, to post process to a much larger degree. Sensor development has removed many of the barriers of resolution, dynamic range, reliability, noise, etc. Photography now can be driven more by artistic vision than by a struggle to produce a usable image.

Do We Need To Understand the Technology Anymore?

Do we as artists need to know about the technology of our sensors? I believe YES. Photography is unique in being a strong mix of technology and art. A good craftsman cannot ignore either of them. These marvelous devices must be understood to be used to their full potential. Digital sensors have limitations and their own quirky characteristics. Dig in; understand the transfer curves; understand the dynamic range; understand the behavior at maximum brightness or darkness; understand noise; understand moire patterns. Understand other related things like the focus system in your camera. Nothing is trivial. But have a very high regard for the sensor.

Much more can be written about the sensor. I may in the future if requested. As an engineer I enjoy digging into the technology.

To the sensor developers at Kodak and Nikon and Canon and Sony and Fuji and all the others – Thank you!