How does the shift to digital photography impact the art?
The advent of the digital camera has made it possible for more people to snap photos, print, and share in the same way the internet has made it possible for more people to express themselves via the written word, and while the technology has made it easier for one to take a photo, it does not magically make anyone into a photographer any more than being able to post a blog makes one a better writer, or a writer at all.
To some extent one's tools can hinder or assist their work, just as typing on a computer allows a greater freedom of revision than chiseling words in stone, but even with limited tools great work can be achieved by great vision, and even great tools will produce poor work if the vision is poor. Walt Whitman had within himself the inherent quality to be a writer; putting pen to paper is not what made him so, and whether he wrote on paper or had a blog his words would still be sublime.
There is a confusion about the quality of digital photography which stems from the nature of a greater number of the masses, most of whom are not inherently photographers, now being able to add their snapshots to the pool of quality photography and apparently diluting and devaluing that overall quality.
First and foremost, lowering the bar of entry to expression for millions of people is to be celebrated. The primary purpose of expression is the fulfillment in the act itself, and whether or not the quality is “good” should not devalue the principle of enabling that expression. That said, there is obviously an obstacle of quality to overcome with regard to educating the masses and art-seeking public to sort through the mediocre and find the masterful.
If Ansel Adams were shooting today, his work would have to compete for visibility against the volumes of snapshots taken by the masses, but he would still be a photographer in the upper echelon, and he would have embraced digital, having predicted the evolution to digital before he died and exclaiming people would accomplish great things with it. Going digital would not diminish or devalue Adams' work because his work itself, regardless of medium, would still be pristine.
In photography, the greatness of the work is a combination of the photographer's technical skill, and his/her “eye” or vision to see what to shoot and how to shoot it, separate the best images from the lesser ones, how to process the image, and oversee the quality of the final product. These steps, the skill/talent involved, and the hours of effort from start to finish, remain the same whether digital or film. Let's have a look at each:
The ease of access to digital photography brings with it a large number of technically flawed photos taken without understanding the tool being used. Despite cameras continuing to improve their ease of use, photos can still exhibit blurriness, improper exposure, etc.
The difference in price from a $200 compact camera, $700 digital SLR and $3000 digital SLR is in part image quality but also additional manual controls for the photographer to exert over his/her images. Taking control of exposure, focus, aperture, shutter speed, etc. manually, all affect the look of the image just as selecting different colors affect a painting. Cameras do not automatically make artistic choices with regard to these settings; a photographer who understands the tool, does. In the hands of a knowledgable photographer these tools are exemplary.
With regard to the difference between digital and film, it is important to understand the only difference is how the image is recorded. In all other respects the cameras are mechanically identical and all principles of operating a film camera apply. In fact, film and digital lenses are interchangeable between digital and film cameras...because they are mechanically the same (of the 4 lenses I tend to use, 3 are actually film lenses designed before digital cameras...one being a 35 year old lens).
Seeing what to shoot and how to shoot it
A photographer with a great “eye” or vision needs the technical skill to realize that vision, else the output will be limited by technical shortcomings. On the other hand, the upper 10% of photography is technically proficient, but consists of the same repetitious shots of the Redwoods, an old wooden barn, a wheat field at the “golden hour”, the “senior portrait” shot, etc. with one photographer being indistinguishable from any other. It is only the upper 1% which have vision; a strong quality which makes them identifiably and artistically unique and valuable.
Vision is what enables a photographer to take a photo of Yellowstone Falls, which doesn't resemble 1,000 other technically proficient photos of Yellowstone Falls. Vision is what enables a photographer to see something of interest where others have missed it; “seeing” an angle and image composition others do not. A person can be trained to operate a camera proficiently, but vision can not be taught; only nurtured and refined.
The quality and type of camera used do nothing to create vision where there is none inherently, and great vision will produce great images regardless of the medium. This is part of the value of great photography regardless of the tools used. The value of a Da Vinci isn't whether it is a painting or drawing, it is in being a Da Vinci.
Separating the best images from the lesser ones
The photographer's eye also comes into play when sorting and selecting among the images shot. It is this refining intermediary step in which the photographer compares and evaluates images for technical quality and composition (balance, interest, “impression”, “feel” etc.), separating the great from the merely good and thus raising the overall quality of the final prints, rather than accepting mediocrity or sameness often deemed by others as “good enough”. Basic technical and compositional principles can be taught, but the higher end of this skill is either naturally present or it is not.
Processing the image
A photograph is rarely ready for print straight out of the camera and usually benefits from some correction, exposure adjustment, dodging/burning (selective darkening/lightening), saturation or contrast adjustment, etc. These are not Photoshop terms. These are darkroom terms.
Most everything which can be done on a computer derives from what has been done in the darkroom for decades. By far the most popular landscape film in use is Fuji Velvia which produces unnaturally rich and warm colors, paper selection in the darkroom alters image contrast, different chemical combinations in the developer produce different colors/contrasts, etc.
Ansel Adams made meticulous notes of the adjustments he made to each photo, and nothing was concretely “right” as even he processed his images differently over time, tending toward increasingly stronger contrasts in images he produced lighter decades prior. Many of his most famous photographs are strikingly different from the direct negative (the reality he shot).
Adams regularly referred to the negative as “the score” and the darkroom work on the negative as “the performance”, meaning the negative was a general place to start but open to the interpretation of processing it. This again is where the quality of the photographer's eye comes into play to discern what is aesthetically appropriate and beneficial to the image rather than distasteful and damaging. In digital, the masses have easier access to these adjustments and the lack of self-control lends to some of the negative associations of digital photography, but in the hands of a photographer who has an eye for processing, it is the difference between the great performance of a symphony and a poor one.
Overseeing the quality of the final product
The physical print itself is usually the final product and a good photographer cares about whether the print accurately reproduces the image as intended. Sometimes the printer's color calibration or chemical calibration is off, physical or processing blemishes appear on the print, the physical look and feel of the paper may not be right, etc. and the image will need to be reprinted. A good photographer also cares about the final assembly of the print i.e. where will it be displayed? Does it need to archival framed? etc.
There are many would-be digital photographers skipping several steps such as the sorting, processing and evaluating of the final product, but quality equal to what has been expected over the years as professional and valuable works of art is still produced in the digital medium...by those who devote the time, skill, knowledge and vision to it.