2008_366010 - Digital Darkroom

So Digital makes it easier … ?

Does Digital Photography make life easier, or does it just bring less certainty and more complexity?

“Digital Photography makes things easier”, or so they say. Any counter-claim is likely to be regarded as heresy by the zealots: an opinion that you are not allowed to have. “Away with you dinosaur luddite …” they would say.

Now it has also been known for this writer to exhibit cynical tendencies occasionally. Whenever I hear claims for technological advances, I am drawn to the practice of “seasoning” a cast-iron pan to make it non-stick, which pre-dated Teflon by several thousand years. We call it progress.

Let me be clear now that my main interest in photography is the image and its quality of expression. Equipment means little to me. However, there are some aspects of digital photography that I perceive to have made my life more complicated. Let me explain.

Fume Cupboards and Safelights

In days of old, when enthusiast photographers developed film and printed images in the darkroom, hours were spent in darkness in the presence of noxious chemicals, visual senses attuned to safelight, in the pursuit of craft. We could have contracted the whole process out to a printer, of course, but that was to sell our creative and technical souls down the river of fixer …

With the advent of digital imaging the process is much more accessible. No more darkness, no more fumes. “Hello spouse, yes I can come back to my masterpiece image later, and by the way have you seen what happens when I do this to the Curves?” Much more sociable it is. And when it is ready we just press print and out it comes. Marvellous.

So for the printers, digital imaging wins on sociability and environmental health grounds. But hang on a minute! Isn’t that the opposite of what I am suggesting? Apparently so. But things are not quite as they seem.

The Thing is …

Here is a photographer who has made 99% of all his images on colour transparencies. Unless we were in the minority who took pleasure in processing our own E6, we would drop a slide film in the post to a reliable lab and, two days later, back it came, ready to project. There it was, a frame of Velvia, the very piece of emulsion-loaded plastic that “saw” the light, tangible, real, the best possible quality.

And it was ready: ready for projection, ready for print. More convenient than digital imaging? Yes I think so. Why then?

What is relevant is that we cannot see a digital image without the intervention of a device or three, and it is, therefore, undeniably less convenient than a colour transparency! For slide workers the increase in complexity is substantial.

If I don’t want to print an image I project the digital file. But to get to the point of showing it to an audience requires an intricate sequence of monitor calibration, camera RAW conversion, colour assessment, jpeg processing, archiving on several levels, resolution calculation relative to the output projection device, projector calibration relative to the monitor, not to mention the three pieces of equipment: the monitor, a computer (maybe two) with appropriate editing and presentation software (that may or may not handle your careful image processing sensitively) and, last but definitely not least, a projector that might be obsolete by this time next week! If not a big investment in time and understanding then certainly one in capital expenditure.

Even for printers, the process of colour matching from camera RAW to monitor calibration to printer profiling and paper matching seems just as complex as the old ways of adding colour filtration to the enlarger according to the “printer profile” of the batch of paper being used. And since our perceptions are real only to each of us individually it could be argued that calibration is no more certain a process than variable chemical temperatures and development times.

Of course, there are already empirical comparisons put forward for the quality of slide film against a high-end digital image, but I do not want to go there; it is outside the scope of this discussion. However, a slide IS the finished thing, much more so than RAW, which still needs tweaking to account for the vagaries of display devices.

If you can’t touch it …

I love concepts and abstract thinking, and I usually dislike the “if you can’t touch it, it ain’t real” mode of thinking. So I am uncomfortable with myself for wanting a tangible slide in my hand instead of an abstract collection of data on magnetic media, which will become my image via several layers of processing.

Why? Because natural laws, illustrated by all paradigms that have changed world views, tend towards simplicity and elegance.

Complex systems eventually become irreducibly so and reach a point of criticality from which catastrophe is inevitable.

In my E6 domain at least, the world has definitely NOT become an easier place in which to work. Back-end processing complexity is the nub of the problem, because, as enthusiasts, we are told it has to be that way if we want the ultimate in quality. Given our subjective and relative perceptions, and that we can only measure the viewing device, I would argue that we are further from any idea of what quality is than ever. At least a slide can itself be measured.

Where it is happening …

So. What do I like about digital imaging? The ability to see results immediately on the LCD screen of the camera, for one, is a great freer of the creative spirit: no more slides in the bin we hope. And compiling slide shows (software requirements aside) is simpler and offers more creative options (once the image has been processed appropriately.

I also love the way that instant accessibility has come to vast numbers of ordinary folk who previously had junk prints made on the High Street. They can still make those prints if they wish, share images instantly via Flickr and Facebook, send them via their phones. Photography has really become a creative tool of the masses, and the quality of expression out there is extraordinary. New genres are springing up all the time.

A new breed of popular enthusiasm is prevailing. How many of the excellent photographers on Flickr concern themselves with monitor calibration and all the other giz? A small proportion I guess. Because their interests are still with picture making at the front end.

I still derive most pleasure from being out there, seeing, feeling, using my senses to interact with the world, and sharing my perceptions. There is enormous satisfaction for me in “getting it right in the camera”.

In that sense I feel more with the crowd than the enthusiast minority at the moment. And who would have thought I, of all people, would ever say that?

… Ken
(On digital conversion, Summer 2007)