Digital Is A Different Medium

by William Lulow

I used to think that digital cameras were just another medium, another way of recording what “traditionalists” have recorded for generations (at least since the 1840s) on film. Of course, before that time, drawing, painting, etching and sculpting were the only methods by which images could be made. But now, I have come to think that digital photography is a whole different genre of picture making. It’s not just another way of making lasting images, it’s different! The “digital revolution” has taken over almost completely. There are still photographers who swear by film, who maintain that it offers a truer rendition of a scene in analog terms. But, digital photography offers instant images, instant checks on whether you’ve made a good exposure and almost instant “fixes” if you haven’t. The digital revolution has made it possible for shooters to go out, shoot something and correct any mistakes in post production. Traditional photography had its “fixes” as well. It bred a whole group of film and print retouchers who were able to fix various problems with original exposures. But, if the lighting, pose, setup or concept wasn’t right from the beginning, no amount of retouching could save it. People today are transfixed by the ability to take pictures and have them available instantly for whatever purpose. So, the digital “rage” has taken the place of quality. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore if the image created is great. It just matters if it’s good enough to do the job.

Today, you really don’t have to “get it right in the camera.” There are programs to correct almost anything that goes wrong with an image. Of course, if it is several stops under or overexposed and there is not enough information in the pixels to create some kind of image, it may not be able to be saved. But, generally, the digital process is quite forgiving. What this has created, in my opinion, is a level of mediocrity. Many people think that because it’s a digital image, it doesn’t have to be correct from the start. There was a series of articles written on line recently about whether a light meter was a necessary tool. You might be surprised to hear several photographers say that it wasn’t necessary any more. You can just check your LCD and see if the shot is okay or not. I must confess that even though I carry a light meter with me always, I don’t always use it. This is partly because I have memorized light conditions after so many years of experience and don’t really need to use a meter every time, but it is also partly because I can preview the results right on the camera immediately. The thing that a light meter teaches, however, is how to set up ratio lightings or how to balance indoor and outdoor exposures. Without it, you would need one of those magical “programs” that does all this for you.

We have also become used to being able to publish our own photographs shot with our camera phones, on the internet almost immediately after they are taken. Often, these images are made without proper lighting and mostly done with little or no thought. So, digital photography has greatly speeded up the process of making an image. Because of this, many people don’t really think about the kinds of images they are making. This creates problems for those who are intent on improving the quality of their images. They don’t always see nuances of quality in images.  I think that in our digital world, it is important to think more like a “film” photographer even though you might be capturing something digitally.

By this I mean, that one should try to get exposures, compositions and things like depth-of-field elements the way you want them BEFORE you start recording your images. That way, the “fixes” you apply in post production work, will really help enhance your images rather than rescue them.

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I guess where I’m going with all of this is that new programs and digital “fixes” are great if you know what you’re trying to fix and why. The problem comes when people who really don’t know anything about photography learn how to apply the “fixes” before they learn how to make good pictures.