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Blessing or curse? The digital revolution in photography

Earlier, we took our films to be developed, ordered extra prints, stuck photos in albums. Today, many photographers use their darkrooms only for storage. Instead, people take pictures with their cell phone wherever they are and send them all over world in seconds over the internet. But what are the effects of the digital revolution on photography?

Digital cameras and cell phones with built-in cameras conquered the markets long ago. Many people communicate by capturing their immediate experiences as photos and sending them directly to family, friends and colleagues. In political crises and conflict situations, we have often seen in recent years the power of pictures and the ability to share them quickly around the world.

Talking pictures – the flood of digital images

The following statistics from July 2013 show the flood of information shared on the internet, compressed into 60 seconds:

The fact that every minute 20 million photos are viewed on platforms such as flickr and tumblr and 20,000 new pictures are posted is both impressive and terrifying.

The death of analogue photography

Like every technological advance, the triumph of digital photography and its devices has left victims. The media are constantly talking about the slow death of analogue photography – a term which ludicrously has only appeared since the digital revolution. All the companies producing cameras and supplies such as films, photographic paper and chemicals had to switch entirely to digital photography in just a few years. Some survived this upheaval, others failed. For example, the Konica-Minolta brand, with its long history, gave up the camera business back in 2006. The world-famous company Leica was also frequently on the brink of bankruptcy, but survived the crisis by developing new digital camera models.

Kodak: the inventor and victim of the digital revolution in photography

It seems particularly ironic that the inventor of the first digital camera, Steven Sasson, worked for Kodak, which for a long time was the world's leading manufacturer of cameras and photographic equipment. Sasson developed a 3.5 kg camera in 1975 which took an image electronically that in 23 seconds was stored on a cassette and after another 30 seconds was transferred to the screen of a connected TV. His bosses were initially unenthusiastic, as Sasson explains in an interview with Stern magazine: 'What I was demonstrating was a camera which didn't need film and didn't print the images on paper.'

Even 20 years later, when everybody else had long since responded to the changes in the photographic industry, Kodak was still concentrating on film, until it was forced to file for bankruptcy in January 2012. At this point the company finally managed to reinvent itself, and today it specialises in printing machinery. Even so, 100,000 employees lost their job. What does Sasson have to say about that? 'Technology moves on. Change and progress are inevitable, and unfortunately there will always be losers as well. On the other hand, there are plenty of new opportunities, for new products and for photographers.'

Dangers of the digital revolution

But these new opportunities also come with problems which did not exist before the digital revolution in photography. Children and youngsters are growing up as 'digital natives', and although it comes naturally to them, they are not always responsible when handling their own and other people's data and photos. Posting photos on social networks unfortunately also means losing control over who uses the images and for what purpose.

In addition, storing the constantly growing volume of data is a growing challenge for IT experts and data protection specialists, as well as for private individuals. Not infrequently, people lose all their photos – and with them the memories of vacations, family celebrations and other important events – if their hard drive crashes, because the photos are not backed up anywhere. And this would have been impossible with the good old prints that we used to store in boxes.

Digital photography in art

The digital revolution has also had a strong influence on photographic art. Many artists, such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff or Loretta Lux, exploit the technical possibilities of image processing using a computer in their work, as the film 'Die Fotografie nach der Fotografie' ('Photography after photography', in German only), produced for ARTE in January 2014, very attractively shows.

September 2014

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Comments

subhash mohanti
10 June 2016

The article is extremely well written. The observations are eye openers in many ways. It is true that the Digital era has created a more egalitarian society, but the quality is suffering because we have little time to linger and appreciate. Of course from the point of view of information sharing, the technology is a revelation.
It is important how we handle this revolution and let it not control our lives.

David Tei
10 September 2014

I have really loved the article and this takes me back to my childhood. The camera man was a celebrity in the society and sought after but with digital cameras, everybody can take photos.
The challenge I see in the migration despite the ability to take as many photos as long as have big memory space, it's the value attached to the photos. Initially we would take a lot of caution to capture a great shot which we have lost with cameras with even 2 Megapixels purposelessly taking photos, the quality is lost. People are not investing in the quality but quantity.
Socially, many relationships have been attacked by the instant photos and faster means of sharing the information. For security reasons you cannot tell who is taking which photos its usage thus the society is gradually becoming insecure. Though this provides more opportunities to address this challenge.
But I appreciate we are able to share happy moments like instantly and its faster to get help with specific assistance giving on time, saving lives.

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