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.


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.

Does DPI Matter?

People sometimes get hung up on DPI like it really matters. It doesn’t, at least not in the way you may think. The number of pixels matters. The scaled resolution of an image to print matters. DPI is just a setting and an indication of when scaling is required. Where I’m really going is to say an artist must be a craftsman with his tools and technology.

I get information from people all the time requiring image previews at a certain DPI. One client even required images at 72 DPI stating that it was for my protection – implying that a lower DPI image wouldn’t be copied or stolen.

The number of pixels is what is important. DPI is just a setting. You get it by taking the dimension of the image in an axis and dividing it by the desired print length of the axis. So if I had an image that was 3000×3000 pixels and I wanted to make a 10×10 inch print, 3000 / 10 gives 300 DPI. This is a good resolution for printing. I know from looking at the DPI that no additional scaling or interpolation needs to be done.

But what if I wanted to print that same image at 30×30 inches? In this case the DPI would be 100. I know that is too low. To print it well I should scale and interpolate it to at least 240 DPI. This is simple to do in Photoshop and Lightroom and various other tools are available to do it. So the DPI is really only useful as a metric to the person making a print or for a designer creating a layout. How did I know 100 DPI was too low? I have to know that. That is where I’m going.

What’s the use of even bringing it up then? Well, I believe it shows a certain lack of rigor or even understanding by the people using the digital products. Too many artists say “I’m not technical. I just do things by feel.” That is too simplistic in the digital world. It is great to say you’re more interested in the artistic outcome than the technology. I agree with that. But pixels and sensors and lenses are the tools and resources we work with to create. An artist has to be a craftsman who knows his tools well. He has to know when and how to scale a collection of pixels to create an excellent print. He has to know when and how to sharpen an image to make it look great without introducing artifacts of over sharpening. He has to know how to do black & white conversions. He has to know how to do color corrections and tone mapping to achieve the look he wants. These things are specific technical skills and require knowledge of what is being done and why.

I’m not saying an artist or craftsman must use the latest, best, most expensive tools. No, use the tools that you’re comfortable with and that work for you. But master them. Whatever your tools, you should be an excellent craftsman with them.

Constraints are Important

Most of us would say we don’t like constraints. But I believe constraints are fundamentally necessary for art and most things.

If there were no constraints, everything would be possible. There would be little or no creativity or learning because everything is too easy. Any art form I know of relies on its constraints. Take painting: paint on a canvas is (mostly) 2 dimensional, canvases are usually rectangular, they are (somewhat) constrained in size, they don’t glow or move or talk. In addition, each particular sub-medium of painting introduces more constraints. What you can do with watercolors is different from what you can do with oil.

Or consider a cello, one of my favorite instruments. It does not have the range of a piano, it is designed to play only 1 note at a time, it is relatively slow because it requires fairly large movements of both hands to play it. But it has a wonderful mellow sound that can produce very pleasing music, when played in a way to take advantage of the constraints of a cello.

Likewise photography is a very constrained medium. It is 2 dimensional, rectangular, static (I’m not discussing video), limited in resolution and speed, depth of field is limited, and so much more. Sounds like a real pain. Why even try to use this? Because great images can be made by recognizing the constraints and using them to advantage.

Consider the image above. Taken at night it required seconds to expose well. That would possibly blur the subjects. It was especially difficult since I did not have a tripod and an 8 second hand held exposure would just be a blurred smear of light streaks. Now, I sometimes like to do things just like that, but not this time. So by bracing the camera on a park bench and pressing it down firmly, I was able to get a sharp image of everything except the airplane taking off, which is exactly what I wanted. This uses the constraints of the medium to show the passage of time, something you could not see live.

A creativity exercise I use and recommend is to limit yourself to 1 camera and one lens on a photo outing. It will seem frustrating at first, but with practice you will learn to see just as you lens sees. You will automatically recompose things to fit what you have. It is exciting and freeing and it helps your creative eye by training it to use the discipline of constraints to improve your vision.

So stop viewing constraints as a hinderance. When you push against them it is an opportunity to improve as an artist, writer, teacher, employee, manager — person.