Commentary # 1 ~ November 2006
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Photography's Digital Battleground

November 2006

- by Craig Wassel

As a photographer, I am asked more than anything else “do you shoot digital?” I am always careful to reply: “I prefer film and pray it never dies, and I shoot mostly digital”.

It may sound like double speak. But with this response, I look for the opportunity to talk fairly about film vs. digital, and be and educator instead of an escalator in the battle between the two.

As I see it, there are two advancing fronts in this battle: One is really advertising's offensive on point-and-shoot camera users, and the other is film photographers’ war of words against the digital format (and not so much – I believe – against digital photographers themselves).

First – the advertising side.

As we know, the goal of advertising is to drive consumers to spend. I don’t have numbers, but I think it is safe to say the majority of manufacturers’ revenues come from selling point-and-shoot cameras, and not their high end professional models. To maximize their revenues, they must convince consumers that a new camera will deliver superior photographs than what they currently own. They have successfully planted the notion in the heads of many (if not most) point-and-shoot camera users that digital is superior to film in every way. Further, they have been just as successful at planting the notion that with each new generation of digital sensors and increase in megapixels (and the resulting new camera models), digital becomes ever more superior to film. Why is this notion not accurate? Read this article by Thom Hogan (link) and learn all about the "photosites" on your camera's digital sensor.

Experienced photographers know to look far beyond megapixels. And, I believe it is crucial for us to be educators about the advantages and limitations of both formats if film is to continue to thrive, and digital is to gain more respect. The differences have been covered ad nauseam in so many places that it would be redundant to detail them here. Besides, my point is that we should discuss those differences neither militantly nor with clinical blandness, but with the love and passion we have for our art of photography.

Mentioning the word “art” brings us to the second battle front: the offensive against the digital format.

As advertisers tout “digital” and “megapixels”, some film photographers counter with their own words, either online or in print. Some assert the digital format does not even deserve to be called photography. It is a fair and important discussion to hold, but I believe to say the digital format is not true photography is to overlook the essence of photography itself.

Why? Because experienced photographers also know too well that the camera – any camera - does not always see light or anything else the way the wondrous human eye can. A camera can produce either a very powerful or very disappointing result depending on what the photographer hoped for and envisioned.

The human eye can see the majesty of a beautiful sunset at the same time it sees the texture of the landscape in the foreground. All cameras – whether digital or film – have trouble seeing both these contrasted elements as does the eye. A camera may produce a photograph where the foreground is dark and lacks texture. Or, it may also show that same foreground with texture, while giving an overexposed sky that lacks the dramatic color of the sunset.

A photographer who knows this and understands cameras and light knows how to capture both. He/she may even intentionally compose leaving the foreground dark so that the colors of that sunset burst through and off the paper, leaving the viewer in awe of nature. As photographers, what do we want the viewer to see and feel when they look at a photograph, and how do we compose to achieve that? This is just one example of understanding photography. There are so many others, like knowing how focal length affects depth of field. Therein lies part of the art: the ability to not only recognize the extraordinary, but to also compose and capture it. Leading up to the moment the shutter is released, I don’t see the process differing much between film and digital.

Note that I specified “leading up to the moment of the shutter is released”. Almost without fail, this whole battle moves next to the topic of “digitally edited images”. Should they be disqualified as artistic and/or photographic, and are they dishonest? This is also a fair and important discussion to hold, but I feel the postprocessing workflow should be addressed separately from composition and pressing the shutter.

Is a digitally edited image still “photographic”? I believe it can be, and to refute it is to overlook that dodging, burning, and many other darkroom techniques have been used in film photography over the years. I remember watching my father in his darkroom create a stunning image of a seaplane sitting on the snowy bank of a frozen river. He retouched his photograph to give the seaplane yellow hue like it had in reality, but left the rest of the image in black and white. People were always captivated by that image, and wanted to know how it was done. Today, the same thing can be done digitally. I have done so many, many times myself, but I have only displayed a handful of the results. Why? Only a handful resulted in potentially captivating images. The rest looked like I was trying to make a below average photograph into something artistic and special. And therein lies another part of the art: the ability to differentiate between the ordinary, the good, and the extraordinary.

Lastly, can digital photography be artistic, and can it be dishonest? This is where digital photographers have to be most careful and most honest with the viewer if they want the digital format to earn and keep credibility.

Here, I will use one of my own photographs as an example – “Windmill Wonder”. This windmill is an historic national landmark in my area, so most locals are familiar with it. They know very well there is no 4th of July celebration at this windmill; no one would be allowed shoot fireworks off over a wooden national historic landmark (which cost $900,000 to restore) in the middle of a forest preserve. I am often asked how this photograph was shot, because it is not obvious that the fireworks were never there. I smile over the fact that this photograph - even enlarged to greater than 12 x 18 - is good enough that people can’t tell when looking at it from a viewing distance. But I am also completely honest with them. I explain it is a composite image, similar to the way double exposures are made with film cameras.

However, it was not just a matter of pressing the shutter twice. Between shooting the fireworks, traveling back across town to shoot the windmill, and burning parts of the image so that the fireworks appear to be behind the windmill, the entire process took more than 6 hours. Further, I am honest in stating that this was a completely conceived shot. I had seen many great photographs of this windmill, but never one at night. I thought this might make a captivating image. A moment later, I thought it could border on the spectacular to have the windmill in the lower left, with fireworks in the upper right and behind. It was conceived and shot to draw regional attention to my photography in a local art exhibition, but it was also a moment of inspiration. Is the result spectacular? That is for the viewer to decide. Did it work, and draw local attention to my photography? Like magic. A local gallery wanted to know how it was done, and I was completely honest with them as well. They followed up and asked to see more of my work, and now I am able to sell on consignment at that gallery.

So to conclude:

Does the digital format qualify as photography? Yes, and it has the same range of quality from the ordinary to the extraordinary as does film.

Can digital photography be dishonest? No. Only the digital photographer can be dishonest, but he or she is eventually found out. If you were to look at "Windmill Wonder" closely enough, you would be able to pick out some retouched areas. That doesn't bother me at all, and I actually prefer it that way. It keeps me honest.

Is digital photography artistic? It can be, but only if the photographer’s knowledge, skill, and honesty results in a photograph that is captivating and extraordinary in the eyes of the viewer.

Can digital replace film and darkroom?


And I pray film and darkrooms never die.

"While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph."

~ Lewis Hine ~

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". . . The differences have been covered ad nauseam in so many places that it would be redundant to detail them here. Besides, my point is that we should discuss those differences neither militantly nor with clinical blandness, but with the love and passion we have for our art of photography . . . "

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