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Digital Photography Essay Sample

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Digital Photography Essay Sample

Over the past ten years, more and more photographers both professional and casual alike have slowly moved into digital photography. Newspaper and journalism photographers were the first to move to digital due to its simplicity and speed of processing compared to film. Consumers are now flocking to digital, even hastening the demise of film, especially the 35mm format. An entire new industry has arisen in digital photography both with old names in photography like Kodak, Canon and Nikon up to newcomers who notably came from the computer and electronics industries like Hewlett-Packard, and Samsung. Even “elite” names in the camera industry have introduced digital products, from Leica to Hasselblad.

The main difference between digital photography and film photography is the type of recording device used. Film photography exposes an emulsion that triggers chemical reactions when exposed to light. Digital photography on the other hand exposes a CCD sensor which translates an image into an array of picture elements or pixels. Each pixel is a number that represents image data like brightness, hue and saturation for a small part of the image. The rest of the camera, from the lens to the shutter operation to the focusing and bracketing mechanisms is for the most part unchanged from film to digital.

The use of digital files to store pictures removes the intermediate physical medium to store the image. The photographer does not anymore hold a physical representation of the picture he or she took. Digital could seem ethereal or even unreal to someone used to holding and processing film. The electronic exposure of the CCD could appear to some as being unfaithful compared to the physical reactions that etch an image into a slide of film. To some, the lack of a tangible recorded media could be seen as a form of cheating. There is a perception that a long string of 1s and 0s (which is essentially what a digital file is composed of) is not as faithful to the image as a roll of film that was written with the actual light that came from the subject. Additionally, there are those who point out that even on a technical level, digital cameras lack the technology to faithfully reproduce an image to the same degree as film.

In the early days of digital, the faithfulness of digital photography was seriously in question. Computations show that to be able to have the same resolution as 35mm film, digital cameras should have at least 6.3 million pixels or megapixels. This was impractical in the early days as cameras having 6.3 megapixels were limited to the professionals and cost in the thousands of dollars. However that is not the case today. A majority of consumer level digital cameras already upwards of 6.3 megapixels with the high end consumer cameras having 10 megapixels or more.

There are still who say that even with the matching megapixel count that film still superior thanks to the higher dynamic range of film. To some degree this is true as dynamic range is still a major problem of digital cameras. However like the megapixel issue, there is nothing to suggest that technology will not be able to catch up to film. More importantly, technical comparisons between film and digital is already bordering on the esoteric, concentrating on details that are perceptible only to the most perceptive users using high magnifications. For the majority of users, such differences are imperceptible and the quality of digital is enough for their snapshots or family portraits. Sales figures seem to back up the idea that the majority of consumers are happy with the output of digital cameras as digital cameras reach higher penetration with every succeeding year.

It seems that content is more important than quality. A quick perusal of the iconic images of the 20th century shows this fact. Images of children running away from napalm strike in Vietnam, of US Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, of Marilyn Monroe posing on the first issue of playboy. These pictures became a part of the national consciousness not because of their lack of aberrations or lighting but rather because of their content. Similarly, the ease by which families could capture moments with a digital point and shoot far outweigh the image faithfulness produced by lugging along a “professional level” SLR film camera, processed in their very own darkrooms.

Because digital cameras already store their images in a digital format, they are easier to post-process in computer image manipulation programs such as the popular Adobe Photoshop® or the GIMP. Pictures taken with film could also be digitally manipulated if they are scanned first into a digital format. Photographing in digital removes the time consuming step of film scanning.

The ease of digital manipulation has led some to think of digital imaging as being less “pure” or as a form of cheating compared to traditional emulsion based photography. This is especially true of digitally manipulated images. Digital manipulation has made it possible to fix issues such as over/underexposure, composition and contrast with a click of the mouse. Pictures that could be considered unusable if taken with film get a new life inside the computer. This puts less emphasis on the skill of the photographer to make the shot as “amateur” mistakes are now easily corrected in post-processing.

More importantly, the ability of computer software to manipulate not only the aesthetics of the image but also the content of the image is a more suspect characteristic of digital photography. This goes way beyond adjusting the characteristics of the image into actually manipulating the image that the picture portrays. Indeed, the practice of editing image content has given birth to the neologism of “photoshopping”, referring to the popular image editing program. In its most innocent form, photoshopping is mainly used to correct broken pictures. Alternatively, a practice of photoshopping images for comedic value has arisen on the internet with several websites hosting humorous “photoshop contests”. However, on a more serious note, a newspaper photographer or editor could choose to do “photoshopping” to make the picture better or to “paint a picture” that the photographer has in mind but that the picture does not reflect. This would result in purposefully misrepresenting the truth which the photograph is supposed to show.

It is easy to imagine how ethical issues could arise from the digital manipulation of photographs. Image processing could give a wrong impression of the photographer’s skill or even deliberately misrepresent the truth. Would a photographer winning a Pulitzer Prize deserve the award when the original image that came out of the camera was unusable and was only rendered usable in Photoshop? This has led some to think of digital photography and manipulation as a whole as a form of cheating. This cheating could be in the form of letting the photographer take pictures beyond his skill level by simply editing out his mistakes in the computer. More importantly, this cheating refers to the practice of manipulating the content that the picture portrays. They say that digital photography in this case is “telling a lie”.

On the contrary, the opposite could be said. Digital photography and manipulation is not cheating, rather digital photography and manipulation is simply a tool. Like any tool, its ethics is not a property of the tool but is rather a property of the user. Much like a sneaker is not a form of cheating when a wily student writes down a cheat-sheet in the soles of his shoes before an exam, the tool is not the cheater but the user is.

Digital processing surely does simplify the picture-taking process. It allows photographers greater freedom in composition and makes photography more accessible to anyone. Digital processing is not the only thing that rectifies mistakes in photography. Auto-focus, red eye reduction and auto-exposure mechanisms have been part of cameras even before digital cameras became mainstream. These mechanisms also rectify user error and makes the ability of taking quality pictures more accessible to people. If we call digital manipulation as cheating for allowing lesser photographers to produce higher quality images would also need to call auto-focus as a form of cheating. What is important is the quality of the image not the effort or talent put into it by the photographer. The iconic image of the flag-raising in Iwo Jima as an example was only taken by accident.

On another note, some consider digital processing as telling a lie. A photo that is simply post-processed digitally does not tell a lie.  Rather, a photograph that is post-processed with the intention of misrepresenting reality tells a lie, whether it used a computer or not. Image manipulation only became prevalent with the digital age, editing of images for propaganda or misrepresentation has been around longer. Pictures of Stalin with top NKVD officer Nikolai Yezhov had Yezhov edited out in successive prints when Yezhov fell from grace. Altering photographs for propaganda purposes also became prominent in the time period of World War I, newspapers would print edited photos of the Kaiser Wilhelm mutilating babies.

What is important is not the issue of whether the photo was edited in the computer, what is important is the purpose of the editing, whether the final photo still represents something that exists in real life. Especially in journalism wherein newspapers and magazines become part of the printed record of history, images should always depict real life. John Long, chair of the National Press Photographers Association’s Ethics and Standards Committee said that “if you can’t use the picture as it is, don’t use it.”

However, not all photography is journalistic in nature. Image processing is sometimes more than a tool to correct errors but rather also a tool for artistic expression. What would MAD Magazine be without its “rebranding” of popular products? Some artists may choose to purposefully edit their photos to produce a final image that conveys their thought. Much like a painter with a canvas, image manipulation allows one to produce images which may or may not be aligned with reality. One may even consider computer processing to be a democratization of art, allowing more and more people who may not have the artistic skill the ability to produce their ideas in an image form as long as they have the ability to use a computer. What is important is that the manipulator does not try to promote his images as representative of reality if they are not. Such activity will transform even the most innocent tools of art into tools of misinformation, tools of cheats and tools of liars.

Selected Figures

Figure 1: Adjusting color balance and brightness with Adobe Photoshop®. (Computer Screenshot. Image used in Photoshop is of Lenna, a popular image processing algorithm benchmarking picture.)

Figure 2: An example of an image that was “photoshopped” for comedic effect. (Picture found circulating on the internet)

Figure 3: Non-digital image manipulation. The left photo depicts Nikolai Yezhov, a leader of the NKVD beside Joseph Stalin. Nikolai Yezhov eventually fell from grace and was shot in 1940. Successive prints of the picture have Nikolai Yezhov removed.

Figure 4: Image of Golden Gate Bridge with the Lightning digitally added in post processing for artistice effect. (Sourc: danheller.com)


Daviss, Bennett. “Re-Touching Reality: Can Pictures Lie?.” 1990. Center for Media Literacy. 7 Jun 2007 <http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/article45.html>.

Dow, Stephen. “Digital versus Film: The Great Debate.” Exploring Digital Photography July 2002: 16.

Lester, Paul Martin. “Faking images in photojournalism.” Media Development Jan 1988: 41-42.

Royhab, Ron. “A basic rule: Newspaper photos must tell the truth.” Toledo Blade 15 Apr 2007.

Scientific Working Group on Imaging Technologies (SWGIT), “Guidelines for Field Applications of Imaging Technologies in the Criminal Justice System.” Forensic Science Communications April 2002.

“The Commissar Vanishes.” Newseum. n.d.. Newseum. 7 Jun 2007 <http://www.newseum.org/berlinwall/commissar_vanishes/vanishes.htm>.

Winslow, Donald R.. “Photojournalism Ethics: “The Problem Seems To Be A Lot Deeper”.” News Photographer June 2007.

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