Digital media is completely changing photography. If you pit the conveniences of digital media against the aesthetic sophistication of traditional media, which is superior? The real question could be: to what extent can digital and analogue photography coexist?
Digital photography vs. analogue photography: is one superior to the other, and might there be room for both?
Digital media has made virtually every facet of modern life simpler, and the process of taking and sharing photographs is no exception. With digital photography, there’s no question that every aspect has become cheaper and more user friendly but, aesthetically speaking, what are the potential long-term consequences of digital photography supplanting traditional methods and media?
Hearken back to the days of daguerreotypes, when photographic images were burned onto a copper plate coated in silver. The process required bulky equipment, and was made all the more cumbersome by slow exposure times which necessitated that subjects sustain poses for up to 30 minutes. Photography was a much more tedious and expensive process in the 1830s. However, there were aesthetic advantages unique to that methodology (often hard to convincingly duplicate using digital image editing platforms) and the process was still largely about the physicality of the medium. Also, daguerreotypes had a fairly distinctive material presence because they were printed not on paper or card stock, but on metal.
Fast-forward to the present day. Photography (like virtually any other artistic discipline in the digital age) has become largely about instant gratification and embracing processes which de-emphasize the significance of physical media – which basically means that, today, most people don’t work with film unless they are a.) art school students, or b.) professionals who adamantly refuse to go digital for aesthetic reasons. Even though there are modern SLRs on the market which do produce stellar images, some purists maintain that even the finest digital camera can’t come anywhere near a film camera in terms of depth and general spatial richness.
We must also account for all of the robust — yet compact — interfaces which people have come to rely on in their day to day lives. More and more people are walking around with smart phones which are, of course, capable of capturing stills or moving images. What’s more, users have device specific channels (like Instagram and Vine) through which they can share this media with one another, all in real-time. While it used to be, during the medium’s infancy, that the subject would have to sit for 30 minutes (never mind the length of time that it would take to process and develop images), people can now take pictures, have an instantaneously “developed” digital image, and share that with friends all over the world in under 30 seconds. While the image quality is hardly professional, the iPhone 5, for example, at least has a camera with eight megapixels (and it’s been announced that the iPhone 6 will have up to 10 megapixels.)
While it’s still unclear how photo-specific social media channels like Instagram will affect the aesthetic sophistication of photography over time, there is reason to believe that social media is, in some ways, enriching public discourse surrounding photography as both an artistic and professional practice. It’s been useful for artists who work in other disciplines to share and promote their work.
People do feel passionately about this discussion, and they’ve taken to social media to hash out their feelings. For instance, data culled from social media aggregator Viral Heat reveals that many people on all sides of the issue use Twitter as a forum to discuss their thoughts about the interplay of digital and traditional media:
Social media has also proven to be a fruitful way for professionals in various industries — and not merely creative industries — to share photographic content in a meaningful way. For example, retired astronaut Chris Hadfield (who is also, incidentally, the first Canadian to perform a spacewalk) uses Twitter as a means of sharing wonderful images — some which he has even taken himself:
It is clear that there are still anachronists out there who favor traditional media (and physical prints) to digital photography. And while digital media has created conditions where purists are concerned about the gradual disintegration of formal techniques in photography, there are clearly those out there who are using contemporary media as a means of cataloguing and discussing classic techniques. What’s more, digital media has enabled users to share photographs in a way that they never could before.
There are also a number of filmmakers who have demonstrated the advantages of shooting digitally, rather than shooting on film. Just consider David Lynch, who struggled earnestly for nearly a decade to complete his first feature Eraserhead, but with his seminal Inland Empire, Lynch felt that digital media opened up unique opportunities for formal experimentation, as the preciousness of the material (by virtue of its cost) was no longer an issue, and Lynch was free to employ a “stream-of-consciousness” approach to shooting. During an interview with Reverse Shot, Lynch even went as far as to say that he was “totally embracing the digital world in sound and picture,” and the filmmaker claimed that he “can’t believe how much control and how many tools are available to us. It’s really beautiful.”
Is one medium (film or digital) truly superior to the other? Both have their unique strengths and weaknesses, but what’s truly advantageous for photographers now is that they are capable of integrating both antiquated and contemporary technologies into their studio practice. Novices can now harness the cost efficiency of digital media, but they would be wise also to learn more about the intricacies of working with traditional equipment, as that could only benefit their practice and strengthen their understanding of the rudiments of photography. Aesthetic considerations aside, it’s hard to dispute that both the availability of hands-on experience without a high cost of entry and the existence of a vibrant global classroom for learning and improving techniques are great things the digital age has given to aspiring photographers!