November 19, 2013

In the digital age, will we have memorable pictures fit for an album?

I remember as a kid looking through boxes and albums of pictures when the scenes captured on film were scarcely in "the past." Say, the summer vacation, birthday party, or Christmas morning from a few years back. Whenever my family meets up where those pictures are being kept, we still look over them. Aside from those being better times -- mostly the '80s, and when my mom and dad were dating and got married in the '70s -- they are just more enjoyable to look at, out of context.

You can't say that about the gigabytes of digital pictures that you have. You hardly ever browse through them in the short term after taking them, and you aren't ever going to huddle around the laptop with your family and click through image files. Aside from those coming from less eventful times, they just look flat, harsh, and drained-out.

Here is one of the first results that came up for "family picture 2009" on Google Images, and sadly is not unrepresentative of what our pictures look like these days, albeit in exaggerated form to make the points clear. (Click to enlarge.)

Most notably, the light that should be shimmering on the surface of the lake in the background is blown out, near pure white. Worse, it's bleeding into the white clothing and blond hair of the portrait subjects -- you can't make out the contours of the girl's head who's wearing the blue shirt. This harsh area must take up about one-quarter of the entire picture, too. Nothing like a bigass spotlight shining in your face to make you want to continue looking at the scene.

There's not much range in the brightness levels either, which would have given it a more striking presentation. The lighting is more or less the same intensity, aside from that overexposed lake. Where are the dramatic shadows to counterbalance all that brightness?

The colors don't really jump out at you either. They're not Matrix-level bland, but they aren't vivid.

And everything looks realistically smooth, without the kind of grain that you see on projected film when you go to the movies. The atmosphere looks totally ordinary, hence will not tickle your senses or stick in your mind.

Now for a picture that belongs in a photo album. Here's one of the first Google Image results for "girls 1985" --

What a world of difference! The whites look pretty bright in the sunlight, but they're nowhere close to being blown out. If you click the larger version, you can make out the details of folds in the fabric of the tank tops, which would be wiped out into harsh, flat white space if this were shot in digital. And look at how much shadow there is at the same time, not just around where they're standing, but the darker cast of the trees way in the back, and the "inner" areas of the trees nearby that aren't at the outer edge catching sunlight. The lighting spans a wider range here, and it gives it a theatrical look.

Colors are lush, warm, and saturated -- welcoming -- and they don't look like something you could just pull up on MS Paint. It looks like there's a red or pinkish cast to the whole picture, too -- probably by accident, but what the hell, it makes it look special.

And there's enough grain to make the atmosphere somewhat hazy and dreamy. It just looks like a memory. Contrast this with the "you are there" photorealism of the first picture, which looks like it was shot for a news item in the local paper (who's going to remember that?).

I didn't say the second picture was going to be hanging in a museum, that's an irrelevant standard. It is the kind of picture that we'd all be happy to keep in an album and enjoy refreshing our memory by pulling it out and huddling around it.

In general, our film pictures look like a stylized portrayal of a reality that we're familiar with, while our digital pictures are more uncanny the more you look at them -- like strange robots coated with passable human skin, changelings of the people and places we thought we had recognized.

I plan to do a longer, mostly image-filled post on film vs. digital photos, as they really exist in our albums and on our hard drives, not hypothetically. In the meantime, here's some further reading on how the two media differ in ways that matter to real-life viewers:

120 Studio has a bunch of informative and lively essay-ramblings, such as this one on the incredible range of brightness that film can capture compared to digital, which easily blows out bright areas. It sounds analogous to the dynamic range in volume that's been lost during the "loudness wars" in the recording industry. He has two broader reviews of the divide here and here.

Here is an even briefer but information-packed guide to the differences from eBay.

And here is a photographer who experimented around with both media using the same subjects and environments. The film shots don't look quite as lush and slightly surreal as the '80s girls track team above, showing that film has changed quite a bit since then. But the differences with digital are still there.


  1. It's funny, I have been thinking about this same thing recently.

    I rarely look at the digital photos that I've taken over the years. They just sit there on my harddrive. There's just something I don't like about them, but I could never put my finger on it...

    I own an analog SLR from Olympus. I used to take a lot of photos back when I was in college and two years thereafter. I still look at those photos now-and-then. I don't know, the images just pop more off the paper. There's something that I appreciate in those photos, how it was one shot that I could screw up, so I had to make sure the aperture, ISO, focus, etc. were correct. I guess I worked for those great pictures, and years later I appreciate that effort.

    I gave the camera to my mom, who never uses it anymore. When I go home for Thanksgiving next week I'll be taking the camera back with me and start taking real photos again. I can't wait.

    Ag, you and I are the same age and had very similar upbringings, although I grew up in Upstate NY. I find myself becoming more-and-more disenchanted with this modern life. At first I think it's nostalgia when I recollect my youth in the 80s and 90s, but then I watch the movies, listen to the music, look at photos, and man, things were better back then. Unfortunately, I have major difficulties actually putting my finger on what troubles me. So thank you for pointing out all these things about modern technology, millenials, etc., that I knew troubled me, but I didn't know why.

  2. DdR,

    Fucking right, dude. I fucking hate digital photography. I'll grudgingly have to adapt because that's the standard, but when it comes to personal pictures, I'm sticking to film.

    Fuck this gay ass modernity. We need more fuckers like agnostic who can pinpoint the problem and articulate it.

  3. Great post man (wish I had more than that to add sometimes). Does anyone know how much a decent film camera costs? I find that a lot of people take digital pictures and just leave them on the camera, phone, or computer. I'm guilty of this myself.

  4. They have improved instant film cameras from Fujji which are a godsend to getting film prints in an era where getting regular film developed has been rapidly phased out and often of sub-par quality where available.

    The Fujifilm INSTAX 210 Instant Photo Camera gives pictures of good size and quality for under $60 shipped from Amazon.

  5. I'll be the dissenter on this subject. If you have a great digital camera you will take the clearest, sharpest pictures you've ever taken in your life and like a Polaroid can be viewed almost immediately. Gone are the days of developing film, a huge convenience and money saver. Having an iMac, the iPhoto program is great and I view the pics much more frequently then the circa 2000's envelopes I have of 35mm film in the closet. Lastly, people are sharing pics on ipads, laptops with ease among family and friends. I've recently undertaken a project of scanning all of my old film to disc for the safe deposit and then onto the Apple Time Machine for general viewing. Technology is remarkable.

  6. People "share" pictures online for informational purposes only -- to let others know the who, what, when, where, and why of what happened just now. For that purpose, pictures are quicker and more precise than words sent over the internet.

    Once the other people have acquired the information, they will never look at those pictures again. They've served their purpose.

    The pictures that you look over throughout life have some kind of meaningful experiences behind them -- a trip, birthday party, Christmas, little league, the changing of the seasons. They evoke an emotional connection we have to those experiences, so as long as we continue to remember those events or atmospheres, we will continue to resonate with those pictures, and enjoy looking them over now and again.

    Sharing pictures online, 99% of the time, is just being a blabbermouth in visual mode. "Hey, look what I'm eating." "Hey, look what clothes my child is wearing today." "Hey, would you believe this sign?" "Hey, aren't these socks the coolest?" Etc.

    There's too much pointless sharing in the digital age. To paraphrase what a wiser sage once said:

    "You know everything is not an image. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You're a miracle! Your images have NONE of that. They're not even amusing ACCIDENTALLY! 'Honey, I'd like you to meet Instagram Izzy, she's got some amusing images for you. Oh and here's a gun so you can blow your brains out. You'll thank me for it.' "

  7. "If you have a great digital camera you will take the clearest, sharpest pictures you've ever taken in your life and like a Polaroid can be viewed almost immediately."

    What counts as "great"? Whatever it is, it's worse than an equally "great" film camera from the old days. On 35mm film, resolution is higher, dynamic range greater (no blown-out highlights), and when shot on "regular speed" film (as ISO 100 used to be called), grain was finer.

    The only improvements with digital are convenience / efficiency. As it turns out, those have been traded off against image quality. The delusion about digital was that it was both more convenient and better-looking -- win-win!

    But no, it was just another depressing example of real-world constraints making us choose between having more of one and less of another, and the airheaded majority (pro and amateur alike) choosing convenient junk over a superior product that demanded moderate rather than minimal upkeep.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."