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The digital camera is the latest evolution in devices that can produce images using light. The very first version of this was the camera obscura, which can be traced back to at least the 16th century. It was simply a room where the only light entering was through a small hole. This produced an image of the world outside on the wall opposite the hole.

The words camera obscura mean "dark room" and even modern day digital cameras have a room inside where the light getting in is carefully controlled, which is why we still call them cameras.

The camera obscura could produce images but it couldn't record them. It wasn't until the early 19th century that we learned how to do that, with chemicals. This led to the second type of camera - the film camera. For over 150 years, this was the mainstay of photography as we know it.

The digital difference

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 very different.


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 of camera.


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 same.


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.