Lets take the digital out of photography

Ever since the first sensor was mass produced we have been considering and analyzing the differences between the use of film to darken silver grains compared to the use of a CCD to record light. In 2011 I wrote a series of articles on some of the differences between digital and analogue photography, including how we conceive an image, how we go about photographing in the digital format in a different way, how knowing what we can do in post-production influences our creative process, and finally how managing the organization of our photographs has  revolutionized how we view our photographic archive and consequently our perception of our images.

Now I’ve realized that there are several generations of photographers for whom the analogy to analogue is meaningless and digital technology has penetrated our medium so profoundly at this point that even photographers shooting film end up scanning their work for digital post-production.

It is time we stopped calling our medium digital photography and just called it photography.

The question is, what is photography then – what is and isn’t a photograph? Cameras come standard with the capability of recording images over time in high definition with sound; video cameras have come with ability to record still images for some time. Some photographers even combine both the still and a moving image by integrating an isolated element of video within what looks like a still image. The box that we use to record light has changed over time, but ultimately it still maintains the same function of capturing light as it reflects off of objects. Whether film or digital, it is still a mechanical recording where the hand of the artist is restricted to specific controls unique to photography, such as range of focus, amount of exposure, optics, framing, angle of view, and movement (stopped or in motion). These elements are the language of photography and have only been enhanced by the addition of digital capture over time.

In “Photography as a medium of reflection”, German photography critic Bernd Stiegler (2008), describes photography as a means of constructing and disseminating reality. He says:

Photographs continue to be visual reflections of reality; they are realism mediated by the medium and concentrated in images–even if this reality is a radically constructed one, at times consisting of nothing more than visual material generated and manipulated by a computer. (Stiegler, 2008, p. 194)

He further defines photography as a “reflective medium”. The more I thought about this I realized how the dichotomy between digital and film-based photography is false. There are many aspects of digital capture, post-production, and printing that have changed the creative process and workflow for photographers, but in essence no matter what you do, the mechanics of the process mean that any image is a reflection of a reality of some kind.

Whether you focus the lens, stop movement, blur movement, move in close, photograph a white wall or a magazine image using a camera phone, a pinhole camera, or a $35,000 medium format digital camera…in all cases you are capturing reflected light based on the light itself. There is no translation from one medium to another (observation to pigment) and as much as an artist might want to intervene in that record, any image at all on the sensor or on the film is the result of the impact of light. Even when we take the image into post-production and manipulate it by squishing pixels together, layering exposures to create an surreal range of tones, or montage images seamlessly, all in all, it comes down to an image originating and being constructed by light.

Stiegler goes on to point out that we will never be able to sever the link between reality and photography. While we dont’ believe in the objectivity of photography, and while the perception of the photographer and their audience are clearly in play, “we do still regard photographs as, in some way or other, our reality” (Stiegler, 2008, pg. 197). So, it seems to make logical sense that now is the time to ask ourselves if we really need the term digital anymore; if we really need to distinguish between silver and pixels. Photography is photography and it can encompass all new technologies.

-Douglas Barkey


Stiegler, Bernd. (2008). Photography as a medium of reflection (E. Kieffer & M. Christian, Trans.). In R. E. Kelsey & B. Stimson (Eds.), The meaning of photography (pp. xxxi, 211 p.). Williamstown, Mass. New Haven: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute ; Distributed by Yale University Press.

About Douglas Barkey

Director of Teaching and Learning Effectiveness The Art Institutes Photographer, Artist
This entry was posted in Creativity and Photography, Digital Photography, Photo Criticism, Photographic Technology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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