In recent years, digital cameras have outnumbered film cameras. This latest evolution
replaces the chemical way of recording images with an electronic, digital method.
But, does that make any difference?
The simple answer, unfortunately, is yes and no, which is not very helpful. Perhaps
it's more sensible to say that it makes a difference to some aspects of photography,
but not others.
The fact that you are recording the picture digitally, rather than chemically, makes
no difference at all to the decisions a photographer must make up to the point of
actually pressing the shutter. These decisions define a photograph more than anything
else about it, They are, where you place the camera, which direction you point it
and when you press the shutter. What happens after that is where the differences
start to arise.
In a film camera, you would now have a latent image that needed to be kept in total
darkness until it could be developed and fixed so the film was no longer sensitive
to light. If it was slide or transparency film that would be it. Negative film required
a second stage in the darkroom to make a print. Although you could make lots of identical
prints, the original slide or negative was absolutely unique. It could only be copied
by photographing it, which was never a 100% perfect process.
Digital images are different, totally different. They are, in fact, a list of numbers
that describe the colour of each picture element (pixel) in the image. They require
a computer running a display program that can translate those numbers back into colours
in order to see the picture. Most digital cameras can do this, which is why the most
obvious difference in digital cameras is that you can see the picture you have just
taken on the camera.
The consequences of recording an image as numbers, or digits, goes far beyond just
being able to see them instantly on your camera. For one thing you can copy them
- perfectly. This means making an exact copy in a way that could never be possible
with film. It means that a digital image is not unique (and therefore precious and
vulnerable) in the way that film was, as long as you have made a copy of it, because
the copies are perfect.
The fact that you need a computer program to even see a digital image is their biggest
drawback. However, in many parts of the world, home computers are becoming so popular
that, in some places, this problem is minimal. It is probably the case that the popularity
of digital cameras is directly related to the rise in the use of home computers more
than any other factor.
The "drawback" of needing a computer is actually a blessing in disguise. Once the
image is in the computer then not only can it be viewed, printed or sent, almost
instantly, anywhere in the world, but it can also be changed. After all, the image
itself is just numbers. This is meat and drink to a computer and just about any way
you can think of to alter a photograph is possible.
This goes way beyond anything that was ever possible with film. For example, lens
distortion was something you were just stuck with on film, but in a digital photograph,
it can easily be removed with a click of the mouse button. Of course, these are just
technical differences, the change that matters is the way all this affects people,
in this case, photographers.
Since the invention of the "Box Brownie" there have been 3 different types of camera
user. There are snapshot photographers who simply want to press the button and let
someone (or something) else to do the rest. At the other end of the scale are professional
photographers who demand maximum quality, speed and reliability from their equipment.
Between these two groups there are, for want of a better word, amateur photographers.
There people generally have the same needs as pros but, because they are not being
paid for their work are often limited in what they can do by financial considerations.
The actual change that digital photography brings about is very different for these
three groups and the reason has to do with money.
Professional photographers are the least concerned about costs, simply because, for
them, equipment is an investment that will bring a return. For this reason they are
the least affected by the change over to digital working. Another reason it that
the successful pro is not in any way motivated to change anything. If a professional
does "go digital", the first thing that they will want to do is exactly what they
have done before. This is why digital cameras made for this market are designed to
be as similar to film cameras as possible.
The biggest advantage digital working brings to the professional is that things that
were difficult or time consuming in the past are now much easier and quicker. Prime
examples would be photo retouching and printing. The fact that the original camera
material is no longer as precious as the crown jewels also removes an enormous burden
from their shoulders.
For the snapshot photographer, things are not vastly different either. The amazing
range of things you can do with digital images won't really be of much interest to
them. The simple digital camera is rising in popularity as it is falling in price.
This makes a big difference because the costs involved with film and digital are
Film snapshot cameras were very cheap but the cost of processing and printing was
significant and ongoing. Digital cameras are more expensive but the ongoing costs
are minimal. However, as these cameras have become cheaper, the overall cost of photography
has reduced. It is now cheaper to use digital even if you only take a few pictures
a year and especially if you have a computer at home.
The biggest difference the snapshot photographer will probably notice with a digital
camera is that they can see the picture they have just taken. Also, it's much easier
to frame your shot with a big screen rather than peering through a tiny viewfinder.
In reality however, there is almost no comparison between the two different types
In fact, the only components they share in common are the dark room inside (so they
can both be called cameras) and the lens. Light hasn't changed and the laws of optics
haven't changed, but everything else has. Apart from the two items mentioned, everything
else inside even the simplest digital camera is part of a computer.
The practical benefit of this is that taking snapshots is no longer quite the hit
and miss affair that it was with film cameras. Also, if a picture for some reason
hasn't come out, you know about it straight away and can have another go. You can
also delete the duff one and make room for a new picture.
It is the group of amateur photographers that experience the greatest difference
and benefit from changing over to digital photography. First of all in terms of the
costs involved, it's not just the price of the camera and film that matters. If you
were serious about photography, you had to include the cost of building or hiring
a darkroom. Digital photography only requires a humble home computer and printer
to accomplish anything you could ever do in a darkroom.
Anyone with a home computer already has the most expensive piece of equipment ever
needed in photography. Digital cameras for this market are still more expensive than
their equivalent film counterparts, but the price difference is now about the same
as 30-40 rolls of film and subsequent processing. This makes a big difference.
The difference isn't just in comparing the equivalent costs of the two types of camera,
but the ongoing cost of materials was always a limiting factor to the serious amateur
photographer. The professional can afford to shoot as much as they like to give them
the best chance of getting the shot they want, only the richest amateurs can do the
If there is one single thing that would help someone become a better photographer,
it would be to take lots and lots of photographs. There is no real substitute for
experience. The only ongoing cost involved in taking digital photographs is that
of a small amount of electricity. For the amateur photographer, this financial barrier
to improving their photography has been completely removed.
There is also the fact that all of the more complex darkroom techniques are now accessible
to everyone. Skills like dodging, burning or retouching, whilst not actually becoming
that much easier, at least can now be learned without the vast amount of expensive
materials that used to be wasted in the process.
Digital working has totally transformed the practice of photography for the serious
amateur. They are now free to do all the things that that were restricted in the
past. Either in practical terms, like building a darkroom or in financial terms,
like using lots of film. There is no longer anything that a professional would use
that is not available to all.