Digital cameras have made taking pictures easier. But, to mark the launch of our annual Photographer of the Year competition, photojournalist Jon Levy, editor of foto8.com, asks if that means we are becoming better photographers.
The chances are that you, like so many - myself included - possess at least one digital camera. Your phone naturally has one integrated, that little wallet-sized pouch you take on holiday and carry in your satchel holds one, and maybe even your computer has one hooked-up to it.
It seems as if over the last five years, there are unlimited ways in which digital photography has become part of our everyday lives earning the distinction of being the most prolific method of image capture today.
We may have become familiar with digital printing, file sizes and storage discs but do we still think in terms of photography when we take digital pictures?
I would suggest that we think about photographs more thanks to the ease of previewing images in-camera, on screen and printing at home. Looking at images and showing them to each other more often has made photography a universal, vibrant everyday language continually evolving and growing.
In many instances the public can be on a par with professional photographers, armed with a High Street-bought seven mega-pixel camera we can report from the frontlines of our own lives about the issues and feelings that we experience and want to express.
These days amateur photography sits alongside professional work in its ability to captivate and recount.
On the web, an explosion of personal weblogs and independent publications feature personal photographs and stories. Amateurs also find themselves cast in the role of photo-reporters on important national interest stories as well.
Shooting a greater quantity of photographs does not ensure greater quality
Take for example the infamous and powerful pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, or smoke-obscured low resolution phone-shots taken by passengers on the Underground after the London bombs. It's not that these images were never taken before digital photography was around but it was not taken for granted as it is today. Today we can pretty much assume that someone has it "on camera" thanks to the sheer number of devices out there.
So what makes an image "good"? In this new mindset of "cheaper by the pound" shooting a greater quantity does not ensure greater quality. Often the reverse is true: the ability also exists to create many more bad images and these no doubt will find their way into the myriad of websites, magazines and newspapers produced.
How then can digital photographers, taking lots of images and surrounded by imagery in their lives ensure that they produce original and compelling new photography?
Gaining new computer skills to manage your images, albums and collection electronically is part and parcel with owning a digital camera. In my opinion the secret to getting the most from photography and its allied electronic process lies in editing and archiving.
Cutting out the weaker distracting images from a set of pictures will immediately make the final selection appear stronger and have more impact on the viewer. Editing also forces photographers to think about the viewer's needs and choose images that are both required of the story and suitable for the intended audience.
More people have more devices than ever
Archiving is an equally valuable and necessary part of the process, which, in keeping with developments in digital technology, has been made more accessible to the average photographer in recent years. A variety of software now enables individuals to download, edit, catalogue, build and retrieve images from an electronic archive. These programs also often incorporate innovative ways to share and publish your images to a website or distribute it via e-mail.
Put simply, in order to make better images, take more pictures and edit, print and publish them so that you are sharing and showing your work to more people.
Receiving their feedback, be they family, friends or colleagues, can help you understand how your images are read and how you can make them more effective in future. In addition it must be noted that good photographers appreciate good photography and nurturing your interest by looking at other people's images can be an powerful and positive influence on your own work.
My main warning about digital photography concerns the ease with which image files can be deleted. Deleting files presents a fundamental difference between the old analogue archives and the modern digital ones.
A roll of film was a permanent record - one literally had a physical document of all the images from a shoot or collected over a number of days. Today though there is an obvious temptation to delete files and just keep the images one thinks are worth saving.
Avoiding over-zealous deletion is important firstly because images have a tendency to change meaning or take on completely new meaning over time and secondly because the contact sheets of old were a unique additional asset giving photographs a useful context - providing the photographer's daybook or timeline with the circumstance how a particular image was captured.
The mantra that I follow is: preservation, purpose, presentation
To permanently remove the apparently mediocre images from a digital archive would render this information lost forever.
The mantra that I follow is: preservation, purpose, presentation. This keeps my mind firmly rooted in photography and stop me becoming confused or obsessed about the digital technology.
Preserve and save your images in a systematic way allowing yourself the space and an easy method to add more images as often as you wish but be clear about the purpose of your photographs keeping in mind who your images are for and what you want your photographs to say. And finally think about your audience and how to present your best photographs be it in print or on-screen.
The digital revolution that we are experiencing promises technology that can create new ways to visualise and record our world. I've got mine, now all I have to do is plug it in and charge it up in time to shoot the sunrise.
Jon Levy is founder and editor of Foto8.com and EI8HT magazine.
As far as I am concerned the best thing about digital photography is that you can take many more photos of the same scene than when using film, simply because the average person doesn't have the resources to shoot reels and reels of film. I am probably little better as a photographer now I use digital, but I can shoot hundreds of shots of family occasions, throw away the rubbish (although I agree with the comment above, don't be too ruthless about what you discard, storage is cheap) and end up with a few fantastic shots that are worth printing for the family album.
Steve Ames, UK
I own a Digital camera, which I have used on a number of holidays, a SLR and a Phone with a camera. I have never used the camera in the phone. In normal light conditions I do use the Digital but it does take time for it to switch on and focus. It is good for landscapes when there is no rush to take the photo, but there is not the flexibility in use in low light conditions or when a particular effect is required. I must say that I still prefer using my old SLR especially when flash is forbidden and the actual taking of a shot is very quick. Another point is that with the growth in digital cameras second hand accessories for the SLR are very cheap. Now is the time to buy!
Jim Harmer, Basingstoke, England.
I would be lost without my digital camera. I find I now take a lot more photographs than I did with a film based camera. I am not restricted to 24 shots and I dont have to keep my fingers crossed a shot has turned out, sometimes waiting many months until a film is full enough to send to the developers - I can check important shots there and then, retaking if necessary.
I find I keep all the photos I take, storing them onto CD for future reference. However, I still print some out as I find watching photos on a PC rather restrictive. We dont all have access to a PC 24/7, but a printed photo can be carried with you in a wallet, purse or in a locket. I also find myself making several copies of a photo (something that was costly with "film" photos) and using them in scrapbooks where I can record my thoughts and memories of special occassions.
Sarah, Chester, UK
I think with digital photography, you don't need to have as much skill. This is because if you make a mistake, you can easily view the photograph and delete it or change the photograph on the computer using photoshop etc, such as, if you notice something in the background that you dont want, you can easily remove it. However, with film photography, you try to be more careful by paying more attention to detail, such as what is in the background and cropping into your subject etc, to what you want in the photograph, cause if you have made a mistake, then that is it. This then encourages the photographer to better their skill level in their photography, by paying more attention to detail.
Kevin McNeill, Skelmersdale - England
A great article & perceptive. We are a British family currently living & working in Canada. I have recently become a convert to digital photography & consequently have 2 redundant SLR cameras. Part of me "mourns" their loss, whilst a bigger part recognises that with 2 small children who never sit still digital photography makes life so much easier!! I am currently debating buying a digital SLR to try & get the "best of both worlds". I would be interested to hear your comments on the benefits of this & your view on whether 8M pixels is really much better than 3.34!
br />Tim Lang, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
Volume does not equate to quality, and the throw away and delete nature of digital photography doesn't help much either.
There are few if any contemporary photographers of the stature of Adams, Weston, Brandt - yet there are a far greater number of photographers around. In time I think digital will mature and find its place, and chemical based photography will largelly go away. But probably not entirely, just as oil painting and watercolours have hung around a while too. The discipline and thought processes that go into producing a good photo remain in place, and the insantainity (if such a word exists) of digital will find its own aesthetic in time too.
alan pelz-sharpe, groton, usa
Digital photography means we take better pictures but are NOT better photographers. I was overjoyed at the praise I received for my first photography assignment at university, almost 10 years ago. I'd used the cheapest, oldest SLR camera available yet produced the photos that our lecturer liked the most. I had to put a lot more thought and consideration into a shot before clicking the shutter. Now, like most digital photographers, I shoot first and delete later. I'm very pleased with the results from my all-singing, all-dancing digital camera but feel like I'm doing less work.
Tony Coleby, London, England
Digital Technology has not made anyone a better photographer. It has just increased the "Point and Click" Mentality of those people that don't want to learn the artistic or technical side of Photography. You know the kind - Self confessed Experts - when all they can do is repeatthe technical info from the label.
David Waterston, Sheffield
The idea that digital photography can make you a better photographer is not strickly true. Great photographers including Cartier Bresson took photographs with old film cameras. He descibed the "decisive moment" where the image is caught. It requires skill at prediction of the image. No amount of post shot digital manipulation can make up for framing the image correctly. However digital technology does allow enharncement of the image which has some benifits over the limited techniques in an old fachioned darkroom.
I have just completed a degree in photography, and agree totally with this article. Having researched and written a thesis on vernacular and family photography, I understand the significance of digital photography on our ability to record and produce good quality images. With a particular interest in the process of editing and constructing context and meaning of images, i have found in my own work that it is essential and beneficial to keep all images taken, whether they are digital or film. After all, regardless of the intended 'meaning' of your photographs, you never know what you're going to produce until you have them all in front of you! I believe that my best work is that produced and edited with an open mind. A very interesting article!
Grace Connell, Rayleigh, Essex. UK
I bought a digital camera a couple of years ago simply for taking pics of special occasions (birthdays, etc). However, the fact that I can see my pictures instantly has helped me greatly improve the quality of my photography and learn much faster. I have become more focused lately on the quality of my photographs, of their composition and uniqueness, and have become a part of the photoblog community (my site is http://goocha.blogspot.com). I am learning that photoblogging is a great tool to help me learn what works and doesn't work in photography, and I can get instant feedback on my photos from both professionals and amateurs. If I had stuck with a regular film camera, I would not be able to learn at such a quick pace, and would probably still be taking out-of-focus pictures of my friends.
Kate G., Wisconsin, USA
I thought I would never own a digital camera. I was a 35mm buff.
Now I have a digital camera, and can't believe what I had missed. I can take hundreds of pictures, and touch them up with photoshop software, and no need for chemicals etc.
Quick and easy.
Digital and 35mm are different art forms now.
Might as well step into the 21 Century.
Vincent Marshall, Toronto
I was a very keen wet film photographer in the 70s and 80s but divorce and a lack of time and money, put a stop to that. However, when I lived and worked in the States for a year over 2000/2001, I rediscovered my interest in photography though digital this time. Although my goal was originally just to include pictures in e-mails back home to family and friends, I soon got hooked again and became an early adopter of the digital SLR.
Back in the 70s, my dream was to have a camera with a Polaroid back so that I could see my shots instantly and a darkroom so that I could "work" my finished prints. Today, a PC, Photoshop and a digital camera, you¿ve got it all as far as the "process" is concerned but none of that can give you the vision or the eye it needs to take great pictures consistently and great pictures like great music, movies or books, do really shine out across the crowd and always will.
John, Burnham on Sea, UK
Over zealous deletion - my foot! Our 12 month old son has 3,200 photos to his credit - about 8 a day. A friend has 14,000+ of his pre-school kid. If I tempered mercy with justice, I bet I could get them down to a dozen.
Matt, Slough, UK
The popularity of digital camera makes us keep taking photos and more willing to share with others via blogs or perosonal online photos albums, which not only requires no buying rolls of films and improves our picture-taking skill but also gets close to our loved ones.
I agree with the sentiments expressed about archiving the images. Just think how many images are on hard disks, about to fail and failed, and these are also lost forever. There will be no drawer full of prints waiting to be opened as an Alladin's Cave of treasured images. We have now become very selective with what we print and the rest is, if lucky, backed up onto CD-R or DVD possibly never to be looked at again.
Oliver O'Flanagan, Dublin, Ireland
I am a fine art photographer committed to using black & white film and making prints the old fashioned way. Nontheless, I have a small digital camera and use it for taking snapshots and videos of friends and family and for making color photos while traveling on holiday. The little camera is good to have, but I like to think that I use it with the eye to composition that I developed from using a limited supply of film. When one can just click away without worry of filling up one's memory card, each individual image can lose its sense of importance and it is there that mediocrity can creep in if one is not careful. Will people raised in the digital age be as concerned, or will quantity rule over quality?
Dave Rudin, Brooklyn, New York, USA
I have yet to go digital; for the present I remain faithful to my trusty old Olympus film SLRs and my collection of excellent Zuiko prime lenses except for the Nikon SLR and zoom which I take with me on holiday. I don't mind keeping a sideboard full of shoeboxes filled with negs. They don't spoil.
Disasters like the London tube bombings aside, I see the advantage of digital photography especially in the speed and convenience with which the finished picture becomes available and can be published or shared -- everyone has access to a computer nowadays -- but the picture quality is still not the same, especially at higher speeds. If you're into serious amateur photography, stick with film. At the moment, the price of a basic tourist-class digital camera will buy you a film SLR with all mod cons and a lens that will leave your digital wonder floundering.
And finally, what will happen when the support medium your pictures are stored on becomes obsolete, as it inevitably will in ten years' time?
I disagree totally that digital has improved the average photograph. The cameras popularly available lack many features essential to making a unique image. No use of filters, no possibility to use a very wide angle, or a long telephoto, no special lenses like macro or shift, a very perceptible delay between activating the shutter button and the taking of the picture. When things move, like children, the instant shutter release is vital. The ability to take and delete later leads to a philosophy of shoot, shoot, without any thought of framing or waiting for the exact moment. I once knew a man who went out for the day on a photo expedition with an MPP Technical, one double dark slide, tripod, sanwiches, and a beer. The possibility of taking just two good photos in the day does sharpen up your perception and analysis of what you see. The ability of taking 100 shots per day does not make you a better photographer.
Reginald Cook, Chatte, France
This was a very interesting short article. I have chosen digital photography as a hobby that will take me through retirement, and was interested by Jon's comment regarding the way a picture's "value" changes over time; I will now definately be more thoughtful of the pictures I delete, rather than be selective of the ones I keep! (if you know what I mean). I have an Olympus C640 at the moment and intend to move up to a camera with a more powerful lens and with more manual options. I will also be looking at Foto8.com and EI8HT magazine, neither of which I knew about until reading Mr. Levy's article.
Barry Costello, Balfron, Glasgow, Scotland
The invention of the digital camera has provided a marvelous opportunity to learn the technical aspects of photography. Modern cameras can show you immediately which parts of your shot are over or underexposed. Good composition is another thing entirely. Lighting, framing and proportion all play their part to make a compelling photograph.
Stephen Hobley, Indianapolis, USA
Having been a magazine photojournalist since the early 70s and with the switch to digital I do not delete any images. Experience has taught me that editing later has revealed images of greater worth then originally thought.
W. Keith McManus, Philadelphia, Pa., U.S.A.
I use both digital and 35mm for my work. Digital cameras are making us sloppier photographers, not better ones. One could carelessly shoot 50 pictures in 5 minutes without giving it a second thought because digital images are free. Shooting film forces us to become more selective in the shots we take, and to spend more time on composition. While this is a little off the subject, there are no digital cameras for under $1,500 that have the capacilities of a $150 35mm SLR. While there are advantages to digital (convenience, etc.), the quality of photography is not one of them. Until good digital SLR cameras drop down in price to $200 or so, I'll keep shooting film. As of now, they can't. As far as archiving is concerned, there's no guarantee that todays JPEGs will be readable in 50 years. Film negatives will always be readable. I have a Fuji FinePix digital camera which takes great pictures, but 35mm still rules in the quality department.
Mike Garcia, Winc!
hester, VA USA
Has Word and computer era made us better writers or poets?
Of course not.Because to shoot a lot doesnt mean that you are better photographer. It is an additional element to be better but you also must have photographic and artistic education and talent. Quantity is never better quality...
Sotiris Zafeiris, London
I finally received my first digital camera this last christmas as a gift (5 megapixel, handheld. . . nothing too fancy), and I love it. I avoided getting one for a long time, as I felt the resolution of a digital camera was not up to par with that of traditional film. However, I find that my previous reluctance to "waste film" has disappeared and the quantity of photos I now take leads to better perspective and more interesting photos overall, which more than makes up for the slight reduction in image quality. I rarely delete anything, because I usually decide late that I wanted something I deleted.
John Nordling, Ames, IA, USA
When I started learning photography, the most useful thing I picked up on was that to take a good picture, you need to think about one thing: Composition. Having the latest tech on your camera is irrelevent if you can't use it. In the same vein, have modern word processers made us into better writers?
Paul Grant, London