Photography does not exist anymore!
The title of this essay is a bit provocative. Nevertheless the bottom line is clear. Most people assume that digital photography (a huge misnomer) is simply photography by other means than the use of film and chemicals. Take a camera body from the film-based era and substitute a sensor on the spot where the film gate used to be located. Then proceed as if nothing else has changed. This attitude is not only widespread it is the conventional wisdom worldwide. Being universally accepted does not make it true. If that were the case, we would still believe that the world is flat or that the world has been created six thousand years ago.
The essence of film-based photography is not only the fact that the mechanism of capturing an image and fixing it in a silver halide grain structure creates a final picture that can hardly be altered. The fundamental issue here is the fact that the laws of physics create the image, in particular by the characteristics of light rays and the interaction between photons and silver halide grains. Photography is writing with light, and fixing the shadows. Human interaction and manipulation are minimized and reduced to the location, viewpoint and moment of exposure by the photographer. Reading the new book about Cartier-Bresson, the Scrapbook, makes one aware of that peculiar and forceful truth that photography is not only intimately linked to the use of film, but in fact depends for its very existence on film.
Some days ago Jim Lewis wrote an analysis about John Szarkowski and noted (I quote in full): “In the years just before Szarkowsky retired, the best of photography underwent yet another deep change, becoming integrated into the broader concerns of art in general, influenced by conceptualism, performance, painting. It is only slightly overstating matters to say that there's really no such thing as photography anymore. It simply doesn't exist, except as one of many ways to make something that counts as art;” Many pioneers in image making did not believe in photography as a distinct medium requiring special skills (one is reminded of David Hockney who has held the same position).
Recently Jonathin Lipkin, has stated that same position: the transition from film-based to sensor-based photography is not a simple change in technology, but a fundamental change in culture and philosophy. Everybody can create technologically perfect images at this moment: the powerful post processing software will take care of all technical hurdles that the film-based photograph had to master. I am not claiming that the mastery of the craft is the essential element of photography. What I claim is that the relation between craft and result defines the result: the medium is still the message.
The best way to understand this difference is to take pictures with a film-loading camera like the M7 and the sensor-provided M8. Handling of both cameras is quite similar, but mentally and in the workflow there is a world of difference. Andre Rouille, La Photographie, needs 700 pages of densely written French to get to the core: “On montrera que l'improprement nommee 'photographie numerique' deborde totalement la photographie par sa matiere, son mode de circulation, son fonctionnement et son regime de verit - seuls certains usages la relient momentanement encore a la photographie proprement dite.” There are indeed a few uses of the digital camera and its software manipulations that are close to the essence of the classical film-based photography. It is possible to select a number of products and to adopt a certain workflow that is close to the heart of what constitutes the classical film-related photography style, exemplified by the Magnum photos, but not restricted to that approach. It is truly bad that the Leica company has been totally occupied with the transition from film-based to sensor-based image capture and is forgetting its heritage of great silver halide photography. The recent issue of the German magazine Geo has a portfolio of classical pictures, several made with a Leica camera and Tri-X film.
This is great photography that can evoke strong emotions such that one wishes to grab the M6/7/MP and run to the streets.
It has been noted that the prediction that photography is dead has been prematurely made. I am afraid that this prediction is false.
Law of physics
It has been said about the films of the late Ingmar Bergmann that he carved his images in celluloid. This is true in a physical sense. The scene we want to photograph exists and is real: the scene emits electromagnetic energy that is collected by the lens and is transmitted as wave fronts that are captured on a recording medium consisting of silver halide grain clumps. Image formation then is physical and the image recorded by wave fronts in the emulsion layer is molded and fixed in the structure and distribution of the grain clumps. You cannot change this imprint and the recorded scene is physically represented in the grain structure by the physical wave fronts interfering with the emulsion layer.
Digital image detection with pixellated solid-state sensors is based on a reconstruction of sampled images and is recorded electronically. There is no one-to-one relationship with the original physical scene.
Of course it is possible to take pictures with digital cameras and to create prints that are indistinguishable form silver halide prints. And you can take pictures with a DSLR or an M8 or a mobile phone in exactly the same way as Cartier-Bresson worked.
The attribute painting is connected to a certain technique and a certain set of materials. Even if you take pictures that look like paintings (the preferred style of the early 19th century photographers), no one would mistake the result for a painting. And the word 'photography' had no meaning or did not even exist before we had the technique to write with light and fix it permanently n a medium.
With digital imaging we may start with an image that is created with light rays, but once it is recorded electronically as an image file, we are free to manipulate the numbers with software and the original relation to the scene is lost.
Returning to the original notion of celluloid carving, we may try to preserve the notion of photography in the digital manipulation workflow by conscious restriction of the manipulation options to exposure corrections and tonal scale changes. This would be the same technique as a digital scan of a film with minimal corrections.
paradigm shift! (2004)
Photography has always been described as the technique of writing with light. But now digital imaging is to become the new technique for the 21st century. The basic principle is no longer 'writing with light' or 'fixing the shadows', but manipulating numerical values in a large matrix of cells, every cell being a pixel. You can even create an image without using light at all. One could approach digital imaging as just being classical photography using a different mechanism of recording the scene in front of the lens. One can also interpret digital imaging as a paradigm shift in the photographic world. In science a paradigm shift implies a totally new way of looking at the same facts, based on a new theory of interpreting the existing facts and figures.
Let us return to the early days of photography around 1840. The new invention of recording the reality by using a light sensitive surface was seen as a great help for painters and by photographers as a means to emulate painting without needing the training of a painter. The first generation of photographers tried to copy the topics and scenes of the classical painters. It took a full generation before the true potential of the new medium was appreciated. And from that period on painting and photography went their own route. Painting became the best medium for interpreting the world with a liberated eye and for creating new visual experiences. Around 1900 painting had found new ways of showing what the essence of 'seeing' could be. Photography, on the other hand, exploited the mechanical nature of the photographic process and was at its best when faithfully recording the world without emotional involvement.
Digital imaging seems to be capable of the same fundamental shift in perception and technique as happened 150 years ago. The classical picture is the result of a single chemical process reacting with the silver halide molecules in the film emulsion. The final print is an accurate positive copy of the grain distribution of the negative film base. The final print is a single, stand alone product, which can be admired and exhibited on a wall. The digital image is the result of an elaborate manipulation by computer algorithms of strings of figures captured by a grid of light sensitive cells. The final result is tightly integrated in the whole universe of electronically distributed and manipulated files.
The digital image is a computer file in the same sense as a text file. It can be opened and manipulated by many programs and it has no fixed state. You can change the content at will and at every instant of time. You can share the image at every instant with millions of viewers at no cost at all.
Taking a picture with film and with a classical camera required expertise and knowledge. The latest generations of film-based cameras, like the F5 and the EOS1, were already foolproof tools that made photography almost risk free. The current digital cameras are a step closer to the old ideal of foolproof imagery. Ours is a visual culture, and without a good video-clip no song can make it to the hit lists. We can now take pictures with a wide variety of products, from mobile phones to cameras as compact as a credit card. And every picture will be good enough for the see-and-discard culture of today's generations. A digital camera is a commodity as is an MP3 player and a computer. The resulting pictures have no lasting meaning or try to delve beneath the whims of the day. They are part of the vast network of instant communication that is made possible by the internet and the mobile phone. Many serious photographers have migrated to the digital universe and take pictures as if they are still working with film-based materials. The digital printer has replaced the wet darkroom, but the results are identical to what could have been created in the chemical process. There is nothing wrong with this approach. This is the generation that has much in common with the first generation of photographers: copying the content and vision of the painting community. Photographers can make digital pictures that are identical to the ones that could have been taken with film-based equipment. They have chosen digital for reasons of ease of use, immediacy of results and cost effectiveness. But they miss the underlying and more powerful paradigm shift. This shift will transform the world of images in a fundamental way: the French philosopher Barthes noted that a picture had a heavy load of symbolism, as have words. Change the context and the word has a different meaning and symbolism. In the digital world, the image is just this: a symbol that needs a context to become meaningful.
The digital image, that computer file consisting of a string of values of ordered pixel grids, has infinite possibilities for manipulation and growth. The photographer becomes more like a painter, who can create his own world and can present his personal view of that world, without being limited by the opto-chemical processes of the film based technology.
There are exciting possibilities here for a new culture of vision and creative imagery. The transition from the film-based methods to the digital technique of photography is a final one. You do not simply change the technique; you step into a totally new world of imagery.
The whole idea that a photographer will use both digital and analogue photography as he sees fit, is abortive. When the choice has been made to migrate to the digital way of imagery, there is no valid argument to cling to film-based photography. The results are almost identical and there is no area where the film-based technique can bring added value to the digital technique. The approaches are as different as was painting compared to Daguerrotypie. Anyone who believes that both technologies, analogue and digital, can reinforce each other, overlooks the essential point that the change from analogue to digital is not a simple exchange of tools, but a shift in paradigm about the role of the image in today's world of communication.
When we put the current trends in an historical perspective, we see an increasing freedom from the prime directive of film-based photography, which states that the photographer should base his message on the selective reproduction of the scene in front of the camera. 'Reproduction' refers to the mechanism of recording the scene as it is, and 'selective' refers to the choice of the photographer of perspective, standpoint and instant of time. Digital imaging is no longer confined to this paradigm. You can create your own image of the world and you can even create your own world. To the extreme: you can at every moment in time, change the images you made in the past. Some picture agencies are complaining that it may be impossible in the future to get a good view of the past, as images are constantly changed to adapt to the tastes of the day or are erased as being of no interest to the current owner. There is a big chance that our current period in time will not be recorded as it really existed, because of the manipulation of the images to conform to the memories of those involved.
This change in paradigm is not restricted to images or pictures, but will affect the industry of photography. More and more mechanical components in the camera are being replaced by electronic elements. More and more customers want products, specifically designed and made to their individual requests. Niche products are one answer, flexible production methods are the second answer. The current practice is to produce products based on broad market research, manufacture the products, have the products on stock and try to generate a demand for them. The new model may be to have a brand name and a technology and let suppliers produce the product on demand and with very short production cycles to cater for the market changes in taste.
This trend will have serious impact on Leica as a production company. Their production runs are too small to allow flexible changes in models and specifications. But Leica is increasingly operating in the world of consumer electronics, where product cycles of 6 months are the rule. Leica cannot afford such a model: imagine that the new Digital Back would be available for only one year and then would be superseded by a new model with more features and a lower price. Technology is advancing in a breathtaking pace: two years ago, a ten million pixel chip would be serious stuff, now it is almost commonplace. Competitive advantages are difficult to realise and to promote in an increasingly volatile market. Traditional values may not count for much in the current electronic world, where chips are more reliable than mechanical products.
The current Leica line up of digital products does not indicate that they have as yet mastered the art of the new electronic age. But Leica has surprised market analysts more than once. The coming Photokina may be crucial.
">2004: the watershed year (December 30, 2004)
In 1981 Sony introduced the solid-state still camera. The technology of the CCD had been described in 1972 in a Bell Systems article and was seen as a major new device for solid-state imagery, primarily in the video domain. Geoffrey Crawley of BJP fame wrote a lengthy article to predict its use and future and compared solid-state imagery to the then dominant silver halide imagery. SSI and SHI might be more intelligent and fitting descriptions of the different technologies now being known as digital and analogue photography. But the times, they are changing sang Bob D. In the article by GC there is a prediction that in the future the supremacy of silver-based photography might be challenged. He also notes that when this happens, we may see new possibilities and a new scope to refresh that evergreen child-like amazement that we have actually made a picture.
Digital (solid state) cameras are now selling by the millions and are fully integrated in our new real-time world of instant and constant communication and distribution of images and text. But the child-like amazement is still with us. Take a picture and see it immediately at your camera screen: this is amazing and fun. Add to the camera a design style that fits with the i-Pod generation and we are able to understand the phenomenal success of digital cameras. The next generation of cameras will move into two directions: cameras will be integrated in mobile phones and there will be new software in standard digital cameras to make sure every single picture will be a technical success: well exposed and sharp whatever the situation. The digital camera will be an accepted gadget as a simple means to record any situation or object that triggers your imagination and emotion.
The Economist has coined the term 'phonography' for the new kind of imagery. The best selling products in the digital domain are the mobiles with integrated camera with 600 million units and in the film-based world the single use cameras with 400 million units. This kind of product indicates that the urge to record an event is emotionally and socially motivated and not part of the tradition of photography as trying to produce a work of art. Photography as a hobby for serious and advanced amateurs is dead and will be dumped in the dustbin of history. There will be of course a few diehards who insist on claiming that photography is not dead. And in a sense they are right: film will be used for many years to come and a sprinkle of innovation may be expected. The new Kodak Elite Color films offer amazing quality that is not yet possible with digital inkjet printing and new developers will produce superior results with Kodak Imagelink HQ films (read my articles on these films). But admit it or not, photography as we knew it and loved it, is gone and the new generation of photographers has a totally different mindset and artistic background that will generate stunning images, but not in the tradition of photography styles we knew in the previous century. HCB is dead and so is Avedon and Helmut Newton and even Susan Sontag is no longer among us.
The year 2004 clearly gave this message: digital imagery is as ubiquitous as mobile phones and as accepted as a medium of simple communication as SMS messages or email messages. Sales of digital cameras grew by more than 35%, film sales declined by more than 20%. The selling of film-based cameras is down to zero, and the new Nikon F6 or the hybrid Leica R9 with digital module will not change this trend. They will be swept away by a wave of digital products.
The paradigm shift as I predicted in a previous article has occurred and you must be blind to current trends not to see the shape of things to come. The importance of 2004 is showing the full impact of what the future will bring. Do we have to mourn the death of traditional photography? Not really: the icons are still there: we do admire Picasso and Matisse and van Gogh for their genius in painting and we can admire HCB and Salgado and others for their imagery, but we should accept that their way of viewing and capturing reality is no longer part of current culture.
The state at Leica Solms
The year 2004 also brought to the foreground what Leica users do not want to admit: the product range of Leica as totally out of synch with current consumer trends. An announced loss of 10 million euro in one quarter indicates the gravity of the situation. The consumer in the photographic world can be divided into two groups: the so-called 'prosumer', a word that is coined from pro-active consumer and not as is often assumed, the professional consumer and the advanced amateur, now designated as 'adam'. The prosumer seems to be at the edge of technology and wants to get the best value for money and therefore products that are easy to use in a world where time to learn the handling of a product is scarce and he wants products that are as cheap as possible. The 'adam' type of customer is interested in the combination of tools and results and has an emotional investment in high technology products. The classical SLR with its intricate mechanism demanded a fair portion of time and experience to get good results and part of the pride was the mere fact that a good picture could be made. Here the advanced amateur could explore his talents. The 'adam' in the actual world of digital imaging is more likely to be a person who is keen on using the newest technological tools and software programs. The more the burden of quality imagery is shifting to the stage of image manipulation (which can be quite satisfying in itself), the less important the basic tools like cameras and lenses will become. Leica cameras are very basic, but demand very high price. The Leica camera however fits uneasily in the current digital technology and culture: too expensive and its values cannot not be exploited to the extent that the pride of ownership will offset the selling price. Like it or not: the results of a Leica lens on an Epson digital camera (Cosina based Bessa) will not provide you with the satisfaction or pride that can justify the high price of the lens and the body.
Presumably the announced digital M will deliver better results, but the end of 2006 (indicated period of delivery) is two years ahead and with the current pace of technological advancements and cultural changes, one might really hope that the digital M will find an audience that is still interested in imagery of high technical quality. The recent interview in LFI with Ralph Coenen, the new CEO of Leica, shows that the Leica management tries to balance the product range of Leica between the conflicting demands for traditional Leica craftsmanship and optical excellence on the one hand and for exciting digital products to attract new customers on the other hand. Leica as a company bets its future on the quality of the imagery that is possible with the Leica products, SSI or SHI based. They do assume that the level of quality is higher than can be achieved with the products of other companies. Three question marks here.
Are the results indeed superior and if so, are customers interested in this level of quality? Will there be enough customers to pay this premium price in a digital-entertainment world that is increasingly focusing on the content of the message and not on the quality of the image? Will persons have or want to have the expertise, knowledge and inclination to master the craft that can exploit the Leica quality?
The state of the art of digital imagery in the year 2004 gives a clear clue of the shape of the world of imaging in the next five years. Leica has indicated that the company wants to be a niche manufacturer, but they have not yet given a clear indication what niche they want to occupy and what kind of customers they want to service.
The year 2005 will be crucial for the future of Leica.
There are three areas where the Leica management has to define a strategy.
Leica products are very expensive and the person who intents to buy these products needs to be convinced that the price level is justified in relation to the value delivered. In this area Leica might have a problem. In the digital world, it is very difficult to ask premium prices. Apple and Sony are companies that can ask higher than average prices because of design and features.
Volkswagen could sell for higher prices because of its premium brand and supposedly higher quality. But they did not improve quality but increased prices on the assumption that people were willing to pay that premium for the higher quality. But the competition improved their quality while VW at best stayed on the level. The difference in quality now did not reflect the difference in prices and VW is in trouble.
Leica seems currently to be heading into the same trap. The quality of the Leica products has not changed in the last years, but the selling price did increase and the competition has improved, and the prices have been dropping, thus narrowing the gap.
It has been noted at several occasions and by several groups of people, notably the staid Leica Collectors group in Germany, that the current product range is neither inspiring nor innovative. And these attributes are generating sales in today's prosumer world. Leica has quite long catered for the collectors market and a rich but classical oriented clientele.
BMW motorcycles made a painful change in the sixties when migrating from the full swing models to the first modern series of motorcycles, the famous /5 series. With this modelrange they catered for the classical BMW customer with a hint of modernity. The trusted BMW clientele would certainly appreciate traditional values and BMW produced very fine motorcycles with a unique style and culture. But the clientele shrank and production fell to 15000 units. Then a new management created a radically new productline, alienating the classical buyers, but attracting a new public. They now sell 90.000 motorcycles.
Harley Davidson stayed closer to the original roots, but has been able to transcend this culture to an ever expanding class of people who feel attracted to the style and substance of H-D products. They reflect a lifestyle and not a single product.
But Leica does not operate in a clearly defined niche of the market. They have a group of loyal customers that will buy everything that has the Leica brand name, even if its technology and properties are not competitive in the market at large.
The Leica products that offer digital technology can be defined as adaptive products and not as innovative products. Leica does a fine jog in providing their loyal customers with digital technology that may be proven, but is certainly not exciting. The Digital Module gives the user of R-cameras a chance to dip his toe in the digital waters. Technologically speaking it is already obsolete, compared to what the competition has to offer. Leica may be right in the assumption that the products they have on offer will be acceptable to their loyal customers, but if, and this is not a big if, the R-user wants to embrace the digital world in depth with current technology (image stabilisation, autofocus, high speed continuous shooting) he has to move outside the Leica world. This position is comparable to the BMW position with the /5 to /7 products.
And aspiring customers do not find exciting products in the Leica range: the D-lux and Digilux-x series are adapted Matshusita products, where the premium price is not reflected in perceived quality advantages: the VW position. In the past Leica designed products not for traditional customers, but for users who needed the best products for a job: making war pictures in Korea or Vietnam, or documentary pictures in harsh environments like slums or deserts or tropical forests. One would buy a Leica because it was the best tool for the job. Now people mainly buy Leica products because of its quality (the Hermes approach).
Its undoubtedly superior optical qualities are not visible in many situations and its mechanical engineering, once the envy of the world, now has been challenged by modern automated production technology and CAD/CAM design advantages.
Mechanical and optical excellence.
It is in these areas that Leica has a strong card. The precision engineered mechanical camera and lenses do deliver stunning performance. The main question that has to be answered is the benefit and necessity of this level of precision. Zeiss designs lenses that are cheaper and not far beyond Leica in performance, thanks to the technique of design relaxation. Cosina produces mechanical and digital cameras in several disguises (Rollei, Zeiss, Voigtlander and Epson). The Cosina products operate evidently in a different quality range than the Leica products, but the Cosina quality will suffice for most users.
It will be most interesting to observe and evaluate the coming competition from Zeiss optics and Cosina digital cameras. 2005 may be the year of the dragon for Leica.
The Leica management needs to give a clear message to the current and prospective customers that investing in high precision products is worth the trouble and money. It is not enough simply to state that Leica aims to be active in this area. It has to answer the question why we should need this quality. The answer is very relevant in the digital domain, where the picture files can be manipulated and enhanced in thousands of ways and any optical defects can be corrected by clever software. But the film-based product line (M and R cameras) needs a sprinkle of evangelism too. The current drop in sales reflects a saturated market and a dearth of new customers who are willing to embrace the Leica engineering quality and optical excellence.
In the period from 1970 to 1980 Canon produced the best mechanical SLR-cameras that engineering could design and having climbed this mountain, they did ask themselves the question how to proceed from there. The answer was created in the period 1982 to 1986: new technologies were needed to make a quantum leap in terms of technical capabilities. The rapid advances in the field of electronics and major changes in society require a new concept: this was the EOS of course and later the digital camera range, based on EOS ergonomics and quality. In that same period (1982 to 1986) Leica introduced the M6, a slightly more modern version of the then 30-year-old M3. It is impossible for Leica to make a giant effort and pull itself out of the water at its own hair as baron von Mnchhausen once did. But without a major investment in marketing and evangelism to promote the values of the Leica excellence in optics and engineering, in combination with an explanation why these products deserve a premium price, the marque may end up in too small a niche. Leica often refers to the success of expensive mechanical watches as the guiding principle for their own strategy. But the social standing and culture of mechanical watches is not comparable to the world of photographic instruments. This analogy will not help to define a strategy for survival and growth.
Let me end with this reflection: to exploit the Leica excellence in optics and engineering one needs to invest heavily in time and expertise to master the subject. I use Leica products since 1987 and started to do serious research into its capabilities from 1993. I have not yet grasped all fine aspects of the performance of Leica lenses and I have not yet explored all possibilities to transfer this knowledge into photographs that reflect this quality. The Leica Academy only delivers the basics of Leica technique. Without investment form Leica to help users exploit the capabilities and help them get a feeling of pride in using Leica products, the claim that Leica is investing in quality engineering is not convincing as a future viable strategy for recovery.
">Respect for the image(march 12, 2005)
Respect the image!
Recently I had an extended exchange of opinions between Harold Merklinger and myself about the main cultural and technical differences between recording pictures in solid state or on celluloid. We agreed that the essence of photography (recording and manipulating a photographic image) has not been altered by the mere switch from one to another technical medium for recording an image taken with a photographic device. You can create stunning black and white photographs equally well with the solid state capture and image manipulation software as with the celluloid image and the chemical processing of the latent image. And in many cases no one will be able to see the differences or cares about the differences.
My recent review of the Epson R-D1 (a most traditional camera with a solid state heart) proves the point. But for the capture technology, the camera handles and feels like a mechanical rangefinder camera and its viewfinder is ways ahead of the electronic finders of normal digital camera or the display screens that double as a viewfinder and an image display screen.
And there should be no fundamental difference between the processing of a RAW file with image manipulation software (IMS) and the darkroom manipulation of selecting grade and exposure time. The end result is a photographic print that can inspire or evoke whatever emotion the photographer wants to extract from the viewer. But no one can deny that there is a difference between a virtual image recorded as a computer file and amenable to endless IMS operations and the physical image fixed in a gelatine layer of silver halides.
An interview with Tomohisa Ikeno, the designer of the Nikon F6 caught my attention. He sees the principal difference between digital and analogue photography in the approach to the image. He notes that the essence of film's appeal can be summed up as 'the value of unique pictures'. Or in other words: respect for the image. Solid state pictures are recorded as binary files on a digital medium, as example an SD card. Taking pictures is free of charge: there is no cost involved: you can take thousands of pictures, view them and discard them without any cost involved. The power of the IMS allows you to become quite nonchalant about the inherent technical quality of the images: any defect (so it seems) can be corrected. Look at the threads in the newsgroups: people pride themselves in improving bad images. Operating proficiency with Photoshop is a basic requirement for creating digital imagery. There is nothing wrong with this shift from pre visualising an image and post processing an image file.
But it breeds nonchalance and carelessness and disrespect for the values of a unique picture.
The mental train of thought is different when you know that you have only one chance for a good picture and it will cost you money to take that picture or you can take as many pictures as you wish for nothing and you can correct any deficiencies in any picture with the use of IMS tools. Your approach to picture taking will change when you use the rigorous approach of etching your vision in celluloid or when you use the relaxed approach of recording a sequence of images that can be manipulated at will as a computer file. Like it or not: the range of options for improving an image is much larger in Photoshop than when using the Focomat V35.
These reflections are more philosophical than technical. A chemically created print on Ilford Multigrade IV may look the same as a digitally created print with the Epson inkjet printer and the Epson inkjet paper. The method of production is totally different and so is the approach of the creator.
Style and substance of photography will change when the digital mood is completely ingrained in the attitude of the photographer. True innovations occur, as the Economist observed recently, when the user starts using the new technology for purposes beyond those for which they were originally intended. Camera-phones show the way and digital photography has to define its own profile: just emulating celluloid photography will not be enough. When photography was invented it tried to emulate painting, the dominant image culture. But its true potential was unleashed when it looked at its own technical potential. It was indeed this respect for the value of the unique picture that defined the photographic culture.
The difference between digital imagery and a photograph captured in solid state circuitry has not yet explored in full depth.
The battlefield of truth
Robert McHenry, a former editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, remarked recently that the notion that the internet with its abundance of information should be the last democratic market for ideas, is an illusion. The internet is indeed a marketplace for information, but it is often impossible to distinguish between fact and disinformation. Any opinion counts as equally valid. A cursory visit to any one of the Leica newsgroups will prove this point: opinions are free, but there is no competition between ideas and opinions for truth and fact-finding. Non-solid opinions and untrue facts abound because there is no mechanism for competition between true and untrue facts. When opinions clash or facts are unpleasant, people will shield themselves from the truth by starting a new group with believers or cling to their beliefs by disregarding anything that will contradict their views. Discussion groups become easily battlefields of ideologies. They should behave as platforms for competing ideas, where the love for truth and facts (the original meaning of philosophy) would guide the discourse. In reality most internet groups, discussion forums, websites and blogs are heavens of disinformation, supported by the common human characteristic that we all want to believe what we already know: changing your view is emotionally painful.
We need to approach the discourse about the future of photography with an open mind in order to see what is really happening. No one at this moment in the evolution can tell what direction digital photography will take. For now the novel use of the camera-phone seems to be a better guide to the future than the use of the digital SLR or the digital rangefinder for creating classical pictures.
">From photography to image engineering(may 14, 2005)
In a recent documentary by Arte, the German-French art TV channel the revival of the Super 8 film was exposed. Young filmmakers, in particular, seem to discover the peculiar characteristics of Super 8 in comparison to the now ubiquitous digital recording with the handycam. This is again proof of the classical adage that a new medium does not kill the previous one, just joins it.
When photography was invented, the most famous exclamation was that from this moment one painting is dead. The contrary happened and painting flourished as never before. It just had to re-invent itself and find its true self.
At first, the early photographers copied the classical masters and the style of painting. There were no other role models as we would say today. Photography flourished after the practitioners abandoned the approach of the painter and studied the inherent characteristics of the new medium. In fact they found new uses for the medium. The Economist has drawn attention to this fact when they noted that a true revolution is only possible when users find new goals for a medium well beyond the original ideas. This is happening world wide with the cameraphone and every day people find novel ways to employ the tools and the technique.
Today you need to master the digital imagery workflow and without software tools as Photoshop, Raw Essentials, Noise Ninja you are not able to get a decent image on screen or on print. What is happening behind the scenes is a true revolution. A number of photographers have simply switched from film emulsion recording to solid state recording and assume that the classical photographic virtues will continue to be valuable. This is no doubt true to a certain extent. As in the past it is possible for photographer sto make pictures that look like paintings and there are painters who make paintings that look like photographs. It is perfectly valid to make pictures on solid-state media that resemble the technique of recording an image on film emulsions. But doing this you are acting like the 19th century photographer who finds inspiration in the tradition of painting.
Photography means writing with light. Without light and an object reflecting light rays that can be captured by silver halide molecules, there can be no image. This is the essence of photography. Painting on the other hand can work from imagination and the painter only needs a brush and some paints to create whatever image he has in mind (literally speaking). Photography depends on what exists in front of the lens and freezes a scene in time. Painting has no sense of the time dimension. A photograph is limited in time and space. The decisive moment as it has been called is indeed the hallmark of a photographic image.
The digital image is a strange beast. It is not an image in the photographic sense: there is no negative to look at. But there is a tendency to refer to a RAW image is a digital negative. The sensor of the digital camera records luminance values in a matrix of 3000 by 2000 cells, called pixels. The numbers may be replaced by whatever size of the sensor you use. A pixel is dimensionless, whereas a chemical negative has physical dimensions. The meta data that accompanies every digital file, has information how the colour pattern is arranged and this info is used by the software to reconstruct the colour information of the scene. Inherently a digital image (file) is a semi-manufactured article. Without the meta data the file can not be interpreted. And without extensive manipulation by the software in the camera or the Photoshops of this world, the file is useless.
Many commentators in the digital scene will claim that there were many darkroom techniques to manipulate the original negative. That is true, but the amount of manipulation was and is limited. The essence of digital imagery is its unlimited potential for manipulation on the pixel level (in photographic terms that would imply addressing every single grain in the negative).
I am now using filmbased photographic recording and solid-state imagery in comparison and I find it remarkable how different both approaches are. There is still a widespread but futile attempt to try to demonstrate that filmbased images are better than the solid-state equivalents or the other way around. In a recent issue of the German magazine Fotomagazin there was an article that proofs that at the edge of recording performance the film based images have an advantage. This is also my own position: filmbased recording is still better than solid-state recording. Of course we can claim that current digital cameras can record a ten stop brightness contrast, but the current printing equipment cannot cope with this contrast range. And we can claim that resolution of films is still better than what we can get with solid-state imagery.
When we are arguing in this direction we miss the point! The convenience and the possibilities of solid-state imagery outweigh the slight losses in absolute image quality.
The whole idea of the digital imagery workflow points to a new way of working with images. When I take pictures on film I know the limitations and the possibilities of the material. And above all, I know that I am definitely fixing an image for eternity. Manipulations are limited. Of course I can take hundreds of pictures and hope that one if the images will satisfy my imagination or emotion about the scene in front of me. But the final image is still the fixing of the shadows.
When I use the digital camera, I am definitely aware that the pictures are intermediate products, simply files that can be manipulated at will later on the workflow process. Using the Olympus E-1 as I would use the Leica M7 is simply a misunderstanding of the technique involved. Pressing the shutter of the M7 creates a fixed recording of a instant of reality, probably imperfect, but finalized. Pressing the shutter of the E-1 creates an intermediate product, a digital file that can be manipulated in many ways. Look at a Raw conversion program and see the infinite ways of manipulation of the basic image. There is no hesitation to shoot scores of images at will and to exploit your creativity from every possible angle and pose. Images are free and at no cost and every possible mistake can be corrected. As soon as you understand this, you note that a digital camera is a new tool that introduces a totally new way of creating images. The digital workflow supports this new way: as a start you can take pictures with a method that is essentially what the painter's sketchpad was in the past. You can start with a low resolution file which allows you take 1000 images on a 2 Gigabyte CF-card, take images as often and as many as you want (12 per second if you wish), at every angle and position, review the results immediately and when the results are what you had on your retina, you can delete the files, switch to RAW and create the real images. With the Raw processors you can look at the light table, adjust the relevant parameters, as saturation, colour, sharpness and dynamic range, and feed the files in into Photoshop CS2 where you can do additional manipulations, fix the parameters and do a batch conversion of every number of files you want. You can even superimpose two pictures, one with highlights corrections and one with shadow corrections to simulate a much higher dynamic range than can be put on paper.
The options are indeed limitless and go far beyond what the chemical darkroom can offer. Ansel Adams coined the term pre-visualisation to indicate that it is photographer's job to think about an image and to start searching for one. Henri Cartier-Bresson had a theory that you cannot create an image but have to wait for reality to evolve into a meaningful pattern that you can only capture at the right moment in time and place.
The emergence of the workflow approach in digital imagery makes these visions obsolete and this can only be applauded. It means that the traditional style of taking photographs is not appropriate for digital imagery. As long as we assume that digital imagery is photography with a solid-state sensor , we are like the photographer who tries to emulate the process of painting. The often-praised approach of hybrid photography (mixing film based photography with solid-state imagery) is as futile as trying to mix painting with photography.
Photography flourished as soon as the practitioners shrugged off the heritage of painting and started to use the new medium as a new tool with its own laws and possibilities. Digital imagery or even engineering will start to flourish when and if the practitioners shed off their heritage of photography and start to use the medium as a new instrument for a new language for visual expression.
It is really significant that in today's digital arena the traditional photographic companies are doing worst of all. Kodak has a new boss and sheds tens of thousands of people again and film sales are dropping not by the projected 10%, but by an alarming 30% a year. We all know where Leica is standing, losing money and changing bosses by the month. It is the stated goal of HP, once a staid engineering company famous for boring but reliable computer hardware, to become the digital equivalent of what Kodak stands for in the 20th century as the leader of chemical photography. Contax/Kyocera is dead; Pentax is struggling, as is Nikon and Konica/Minolta. The big names in digital imagery are Seiko/Epson, Sony, HP and Canon, as one of the very few of the traditional photographic companies who has made the transition from photography to image engineering. And on the horizon we see the names of Nokia, Ericcson, Samsung and others who promote the use of camera-phones as the means of image capture of the future. Some of the best-known names in fashion photography (Nick Knight is one of them) have abandoned the classical gear fully to concentrate on the images possible with the camera-phone ( 3 million pixels really suffice for full spread magazine images).
The digital workflow encompasses the whole range form creating the basic image file, manipulating the data with programs and printing the files to get printed images. The software-programs and the computer are at every stage necessary and an integral part of the flow. Extract the programs from your digital camera and it will do nothing. The more you rely on post-exposure manipulation with Photoshop, the more you are becoming an image engineer. This is fine. I am no Luddite to protest against new inventions. But with digital imagery we are in the business of constructing reality and no longer in the realm of recording reality. There will be hardcore traditionalists who insist on using the digital camera as a convenient means of doing traditional photography, but they will be soon outnumbered if not buried by the masses of persons who see digital imagery as one of the many instances of an integrated digital entertainment network.
In the end, it may be possible that true chemical photography, at least the BW version of it, will outlast the digital photographer, who will vanish in the world of digital imagery that is mobile, virtual and personal: mobile because you can do it every where you want, virtual, because it only exists in the camera and you can show it to anybody around the globe and personal because you can edit the digital file in any way you wish. Does this sound like a revolution? You bet on it!
Some trivia: the first digital SLR was a Kodak DCS-100 in 1991 with a 1.3 Mp sensor and $30.000 tag. In 1997 the Olympus D-6000L had the same size sensor and costs a few thousand bucks. In 1999 the Nikon D1 had a 2.74 MP sensor and a tag of $6000. The Canon EOS-1D from 2001 had a 4.48 Mp sensor and was introduced as the camera tthat set the top for sharpness and resolution. Now Canon has a 16 Mp sensor, but the claims are the same.