Understanding the characteristics of the photographic medium has always been essential for a photographer in order to imagine the possibilities. A key concept for beginning photography students is arriving at a comprehension of the negative – positive process and being able to visualize the transformation of 3-D space and color into a flat black and white image. That is still the case in digital photography, but in addition, a host of new ways that the image can be addressed by digital means opens up even more complexity. The knowledge of the possibilities of digital manipulation influence the photographer at the time of exposure. For example, having had the experience of digitally manipulating the tonal range of an image allows a photographer to know that they will be able to isolate certain colors and tones in post-processing. Knowing how images can be blended influences framing.
This is also the case with silver-based photography, nevertheless, the almost limitless number of options and the ability to save and replicate the application of each process on multiple images provides a platform for conceptual development that extends the vision of the photographer at the moment of exposure. Digital manipulation adds to the elements that the photographer might seek and, in a sense, liberates her/him from the elements of nature. When an exposure is made on film and processed, the silver crystals have a fixed response: they darken or are dissolved. Processing and exposure manipulation can push or pull the contrast to some extent, but when you compare this to the pixel-by-pixel adjustments possible in digital photography, there is a clear difference. Pixels follow the rules of the programmer; they do not necessarily follow a fixed response. For example, in digital photography a typical option in-camera is to switch back and forth between black and white and color, or to take sepia-toned exposures. The result is that the CCD’s can be set to interpret the scene in any way that the programmer can imagine. Now, in the infancy of digital photography, programmers mimic silver-based traditions, but what will happen in the future as digital photography separates itself from the physical limitations of silver? The creative vision of the photographer is likely to be extended by customizing how the pixels interpret light. In the end, what defines photography is the imprint of light; the device or method used to record the imprint simply renders light differently and engages the photographer’s creative process in different ways.