September 21, 2014

Digital creep, even after shooting on film: The decline of prints

Now that I've started to make a little hobby out of photography, I'm noticing how pervasive the digital approach has become further down the line from initially capturing light on film rather than on a digital sensor.

These are differences of kind, not degree, and given how widespread the changes have been, they deserve more thoughtful study than just, "Well, neither of the two methods gives results that look horrifically awful, so the winner is the one that's more convenient for producers and consumers." In the hands of professionals, digital may not look awful, but it doesn't look better than film. (Everyone else's digital pictures do produce a weaker response in the viewer than their film snapshots from 20-30 years ago.)

Understanding the many ways in which digital has crept into the formerly analog world of still and motion pictures requires looking into each stage of the process from opening the shutter to viewing the final result — not only what differences there are between shooting on film vs. digital in the first stage. I've covered those differences at the capturing stage in two earlier posts here and here.

When you have your film developed, every lab will offer you the option to not have any prints made, but to receive a digital medium like a CD, USB, or external hard drive, which contains the final positive images in digital form, which were made from digital scans of the chemically developed film negative (more on that in the next post).

Of course you can still opt for prints on light-sensitive paper, just like in the good old days, but there must be a fairly large demand for a digital final product for it to be even offered, let alone as the first choice. Isn't the whole point of shooting on film to view the final result on developed photographic paper? My sense is that professional photographers who want to enter competitions or make a banner are more likely to still make prints on photographic paper, and that the hobbyists who shoot on film are maybe only half in favor of making prints, and half in favor of getting a CD of scans.

The CD option is cheaper than making the prints, but usually only about half as expensive, so I don't see that as the main reason a hobbyist would choose the CD. It is more likely due to the greater ease of digitally manipulating the images on the CD in Photoshop, if you didn't agree with the corrections made by the lab, as well as sharing them over the internet.

If you aren't so obsessed with over-riding the lab's corrections (which I would trust more than I would myself dicking around in Photoshop), and if you don't feel the need to share every single picture you've ever taken with everyone else in the world, then the CD offers no greater convenience.

And the price you pay is in displayed image quality — if they're on CD, you get to see them on an LCD computer screen of greater or lesser quality, perhaps or perhaps not set to the same monitor settings that the correction work was done under. Prints look striking on their own and do not rely on further technology to view them. For the handful of halfway decent pictures that a hobbyist might take, out of a roll of 24, it's no pain to scan them yourself later.

Amateurs wildly over-estimate the return on investment (in time, effort, and money) for using Photoshop to improve their initial exposures. Work more on getting a proper exposure next time, not about endlessly re-touching the majority of today's pictures that were less than you'd hoped for.

I also detect a huge drop in the attention paid to composition in the digital age — amateurs are now obsessing over light levels, contrast, color, etc., when they haven't even taken an interesting picture in the first place. With little room for post-processing in the film days, folks devoted more thought and effort to the skeleton of the image rather than its flesh, except for advanced photographers whose compositions came more effortlessly.

Here we see a parallel in the world of motion pictures, where scarcely 5% of theaters in America right now are equipped with optical film projectors. So even if you shot your movie on film, it will be projected from digital images on an external hard drive. That was a neat, cheapy idea for me and my friends during our freshman year of college back in 1999, when we used to sneak into a nearby class building at night, hook up a laptop to the digital projector in a small classroom, and watch the rip of a DVD on a much bigger screen than we could have back in our dorms.

But for making a trip out to a movie theater, wanting to be wowed by the experience, digital projection only offers a case of blue balls (while charging three times as much as they used to). I wonder how much of the drop-out culture among movie-lovers is an effect not just of the plot, acting, etc., of recent movies, but of digital shooting and projection. The drop-outs might not be able to articulate all of the many separate things that are turning them off visually. It's just a gestalt sense of how different — how crappy-looking movies have become since the mid-to-late 1990s.

One aspect that has been analyzed is how underlit the digital projectors are in practice, something that Roger Ebert among others remarked on a few years ago when the conversion to digital projectors had really begun to take over. Whether this is due to a different type of lightbulb in digital projectors, to leaving 3D lenses on them when projecting 2D movies, or whatever else, movies in the digitally projected age just don't look as brilliant as they used to.

In the next post, we'll take a look at digital creep at the intermediate stages of the photographic process.


  1. Digital photography seems to have made photography more accesible to the masses. Yet a photographer I know thinks it has also promoted mediocrity and made it harder to sift through and find good work. I wonder if this is related to a larger trend you see with cocooning - the Internet comes to mind, and all its bad websites and confusion.

  2. Photography was already in the hands of the masses way back in the 1990s, before digital took over. How else do we have so many shoeboxes full of pictures from the Midcentury onward?

    Only now we have not hundreds but thousands or millions of pictures taken and shared by a family... approximately zero of which are being archived by the family, let alone being re-visisted by the family afterward.

    How can that be -- shouldn't the top 10 pictures be a far more elite percentile when they're culled from 10,000 than from only 100? Why do they still look so weak and boring?

    It's because the mindset of people using digital vs. film cameras is different. You're shooting digital primarily to communicate information -- the who, what, when, where, why, and how regarding your lunch today. You're only capturing and sending that info via a visual medium because it's quicker and more convenient than typing out words.

    Your visual interest and the viewer's will not be engaged because that wasn't the point -- only to let the world know what quirky meal you had, at which quirky restaurant, in which quirky neighborhood, with which of your quirky friends, etc etc etc. It's the visual version of being a blabbermouth.

    In the film days, you didn't point and shoot every single micro-event of the day. You took it on trips, for events that were more intense than ordinary life, special occasions, and only somewhat to candidly capture daily life. Hence the subjects were of greater interest, and strike a deeper resonance with the viewer.

    This is not a difference owing to the properties of digital vs. film per se, but to the mindsets that people are in when they adopt digital vs. film. Digital is ultra-convenient, which puts people in a braindead state, while film cost more money and took more time to get the results, so folks were more selective and thoughtful about what they shot.

  3. As a side note, I have heard through acquaintances that photography as a profession has been devastated in recent years. Buyers (including businesses) are simply unwilling to pay a reasonable price for a photographer to do a shoot.

  4. I mostly take pictures of loved ones, but I notice when I do get my digital pictures developed, something just looks "off" about them, compared to old family photos. Must be a product of digitalization.

  5. "Buyers (including businesses) are simply unwilling to pay a reasonable price for a photographer to do a shoot."

    And even when they do get work, it's more and more freelance assignments than having been hired as an in-house photographer (newspaper, magazine), or being on the staff at a photo / visual media firm. Bye-bye to job security in "the gig economy."


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