What is a digital photograph?

December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the world of analog photography, distinctive mechanical and chemical aspects of cameras and darkroom materials determined what a particular photograph would look like. 35mm cameras always made long, narrow images. Pictures made in the Rolleiflex or Hasselblad were usually (but not always) square. A soft-focus lens made a soft-focus image. Certain combinations of chemicals, film, and paper would produce brown prints, while others would produce color prints, and still others would produce very contrasty black-and-white images. Inexpensive plastic cameras like the Diana would produce images that were soft and gauzy around the edges and fairly sharp in the middle. If you “cross processed” slide film in chemicals intended for print film, you got another kind of distinctive look.

But digital photography is different. My faithful Ricoh CX4, for instance, can produce “standard” color photographs. But it can also just as easily make brown sepia images, “toy camera” images, high-contrast black-and-white, soft focus pictures, cross-processed images, and more. Many new cameras come with creative imaging options like these. My other favorites, the Olympus EP series, for example, also offers many of these possibilities. And this is not to mention the vast array of post-processing applications that are available once a digital picture is in your computer. With a few simple clicks of the mouse, you can mimic the look of almost any type of film, from the sadly departed Kodachrome to push-processed Tri-X and gem-like Polaroids.

It’s possible to look at most kinds of analog images and make a pretty accurate guess as to how they were made—what camera, what film, what paper, what chemistry. Each kind of image was fully influenced and shaped by the equipment and materials that made it. There was what I call a “native state” for analog images, an inherent, fundamental state of being that spoke clearly of each picture’s origin.

My question now is, “What is a digital photograph?” Is there any longer a “native state,” when it’s possible for my Ricoh to mimic the aspect ratios of 35mm, 2 ¼ square, and the oblong of the 4×5 negative? When it can take a picture that looks like it came out of a toy camera, followed by a picture that looks like it was taken with a soft-focus lens, followed by one that looks like it was taken with high-contrast black-and-white film?

It’s interesting that today, so much of what we do in digital has to do with mimicking what we had in analog photography. We spend much of our time reliving what came before. But 50 years from now, when people look back at the arrival of the digital age, what will they identify as digital’s “native state?”

cross processed

soft focus

high-contrast black and white

toy camera setting


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