There is no doubt that there is a craft to digital photography.
The basic principles are the same: focused light is permitted to strike a photosensitive surface for a measured amount of time. The way in which the light falls onto this surface is recorded.
The means of processing are also in some respects similar. With film, the latent image is revealed by subjecting the photosensitive layer to a series of chemical reactions which strip away that which is not desired, leaving that which is. With a digital sensor, the latent image — which at no stage is revealed until the image is displayed on a screen or printed onto paper — is recorded onto some form of memory device, from which it is copied when we download this recorded latent image onto a computer, a CD or an automated printing machine at the grocery store.
The skill set required to get the best out of a digital image is doubtlessly no less complex than what is required to get the best out of a film-captured image. A lot of the tools in Photoshop are direct metaphors of their darkroom equivalents — dodge, burn, crop — while others have absolutely no darkroom equivalent, and require their own mastery to use well (gaussian blur, unsharp mask, selection, layers, and so forth). Photoshop allows a competent photographer astounding fine-grained control over the appearance of the image, making him or her capable of producing virtually flawless material of stunning quality; one need only hang out on some of the high-end groups on Flickr.com to see what digital photography is capable of producing.
But in increasing our reliance on the electronic image, we risk losing touch with the roots of the procedure, and there is something very satisfying indeed to regard the ‘limits’ of the darkroom as nothing more than parameters, not limitations.
More and more I read about people ‘going back’ — not necessarily being latter-day Luddites, but trying to be mindful of the virtues of that which came before.
In mid-July this year, my father was buried at the roots of a tree. Only fifty years ago, that would have been regarded as being quaintly primitivist. Only a hundred years ago, that would have been construed as pagan, and three hundred years ago they would have burned the rest of us at the stake since proper Christian burials are in graveyards and nowhere else.
In this increasingly connected day and age, people are taking a step back, asking themselves whether all the advances of the modern age are really fulfilling their purpose — or rather, whether their purpose is really our benefit.
I like my computer. Perhaps even a little too much. It’s an excellent creative tool, and I do make my living with it.
But I can’t shake the feeling that writing with a pen, taking photographs on film with a manual camera put me more closely in touch with something more clear — and less ephemeral — than a ‘digital’ creation.