Seeing the big picture
Thursday November 24, 2005
Cheap and simple digital cameras are turning the world of photography on its head. Will this revolution be the profession's biggest challenge, asks Tom Ang
The photographic coverage of the July 7 London bombings was an unexpected aftershock for media professionals. The realisation that almost every image seen on television news and front pages was captured by amateurs sent shivers down the collective media spine. It was confirmation, if any were needed, that digital photography had come of age. Thanks to sales exceeding 200m a year worldwide, including cameraphones, access to digital photography is all but universal among the urban population.
What is astonishing is to realise that the important changes - from nearly zero adoption to near-saturation of the market - took place in only five years. While the first patents for a filmless camera were filed in 1972, we had to wait until 1986 for the first digital camera system, the Canon RC-701. It was aimed at press photographers but its $27,000 price tag was hardly an encouragement. The first consumer digital camera under $1,000 arrived in 1994: the Apple QuickTake had a fixed lens and took 640x480 pixels (similar to the quality of an average TV screen). It was apparent that, while it was fun to get a picture without the hassle of processing film, the price was too high for image quality that was, to put it kindly, dilapidated.
It was not digital cameras that blocked progress. As with any new technology, the environment had to be conducive. Digital photography needed computers with fast processors capable of dealing with large files - one image file can be bigger than a year's worth of text documents. In the late 1990s, computers were being loaded with ever more memory, hard-disk capacity and extra software to encourage flagging sales.
Right time, right place
Digital photography took off only when, at the turn of the millennium, every computer could comfortably handle image files. As the market grew, manufacturing costs dropped. The adoption of cost-saving measures such as sharing components (the imaging chip, image processors, LCD screens and minor optics) between camera models also helped to drive down prices.
The impact of digital photography on modern life is in part due to marketing. Aggressive competition between camera makers has forced product cycles - the time between new models - to shorten. Replacement models are being announced almost before the previous camera has reached the market.
The arrival of each new model offering more features and more quality at lower prices means that consumers are the winners. And don't they know it: half of all digital camera sales (not including cameraphones) in the US and Europe are to those who already own a digital camera.
The intense activity has fuelled a parallel growth in technological awareness: it is no longer remarkable when a grandmother asks her teenage grandson to explain the difference between optical and digital zoom. Retired schoolteachers shop for cameras with a checklist of specifications in a way they would never have done for film-based models.
The increased awareness of the technology together with wide access to digital photography has, in turn, thrown the industry into disarray. The headlines - such as Dixons removing film cameras from its shelves, Kodak no longer making black-and-white printing paper and the near-extinction of household names such as Leica, Agfa and Polaroid - all signal the obvious changes.
The restructuring of the profession is more subtle, profound and distressing: experienced photographers are finding themselves marginalised, their darkroom skills discounted with a rapidity that makes the destruction of craft traditions by the industrial revolution appear snail-paced in comparison.
To join the digital world, these professionals not only have to abandon large investments in equipment and experience, they must retrain to use computers and imaging software. And as film-using professionals are supplanted by digital photographers, so their largely obsolete equipment can be bought for a song.
Working practices have changed. The industry has now dumped ultimate responsibility for image quality on the lap of photographers - amateur and professional alike. All the quality control processes formerly ensuring that you got good results when films were developed and printed now sit in your hands.
Not only is it your job to download your pictures, you must adjust or manipulate the image if you don't like the results, before printing it out on your printer. And if the results are not perfect, there is no one to blame but yourself.
After enjoying a brief respite from having to placate increasingly demanding customers, the industry woke to the horrified realisation that no one makes prints any more. From the happy days of a print made for every image captured, it's now one miserable print for every few hundred images.
This is particularly galling because we now take far more images than ever: stories of those who once exposed a roll of film per holiday but now return to find hundreds of images in their new digital camera are not rare. But we show the images on our computers using slideshow features of software such as iPhoto or PowerPoint; we attach image files to the emails we send home; we share our holiday snaps on picture-sharing websites.
For the professional, the honeymoon of sensual joy in reviewing pictures immediately and of not having to dash to the lab to get films processed has been replaced by a colder reality. The working day suddenly grew hours longer: with nightfall, we can't put our feet up. No, we sit at the laptop downloading images, captioning and backing up. And, if we are press photographers, we then have to edit the day's shoot before transmitting them.
Any attempt to gaze into the crystal ball will be obscured by the sheer number of images being taken. In 1998, 67bn images were made worldwide. We know that because 3bn rolls of film were sold. It is impossible to be accurate, but with a world population of digital cameras exceeding a third of a billion on top of millions of film-using cameras still in use, it is likely that more pictures are taken every year than in the previous 160 years of photography put together. In addition to the other pollutions we have unleashed on ourselves, we may well have to thank digital photography for giving us image pollution.
· Tom Ang is a photographer, broadcaster and author of Eyewitness Companion: Photography, published by Dorling Kindersley, £14.99. He was the presenter of A Digital Picture of Britain, shown on BBC2 and BBC4
Ghosts of the digital future
Thursday November 24, 2005
Anyone watching the Sunday night television series about the Pharaohs will be impressed with the data preservation techniques used 3,000 years ago, which have enabled their words and images to be viewed today. Because they wrote on stone, they had none of today's problems associated with viruses or changes in formats and storage techniques that threaten the longevity of our images.
There are more photographs around than ever before and, thanks to the growth of digital photography and cameraphones, there may well be more photos taken this year than in the whole of history. But how many will still be there 50 years hence, let alone 3,000?
This may seem a silly question to ask when we are being bombarded with wonderful, easy-to-use, websites offering to store online our digitised photos at the click of a button for nothing (for a list see www.andromeda.com/cgi-bin/photo/showsites.pl). Of course, there is a danger some of these could go bust in a few years, and there is also the question of privacy. Who is responsible if a newspaper publishes your private photos stored on a public server?
A survey by McAfee has found that 68% of adults archive their photos only in digital form - because it is so easy to do. But even if our snaps will still be there decades hence, it is an open question whether they will be in a format future computers can access.
One problem is recurrence of familiar failures that have consigned much of our past digital data to oblivion: the failure of a hard disk, scratched CD-Roms or changes in storage technology, from floppy disks to external hard drives, to CDs to DVDs, to USB devices.
Second, if photos are stored in several ways, some of them could include proprietary technologies that might be superseded 20 years on. Even if you use non-proprietary formats such as JPeg or Tiff, they do not, as Jeff Schewe (in PhotoshopNews.com) and others have pointed out, provide a format for storage of the unprocessed raw sensor data of which there are more than 100 formats from more than 15 camera manufacturers. Third, if you fall back on old technology and use a photo album, remember that ordinary digital photo printers do not deliver as long a life as old-style processed snaps.
For the moment, there is not really much alternative to multiple back-ups if you want to be reasonably sure your digital photos will be there in 50 years' time. This means keeping a copy on your hard disk, another on a CD, DVD or external storage unit or one of the burgeoning online storage sites, plus printed copies of treasured ones.
The trouble is it takes superhuman discipline to update back-ups regularly in multiple places, let alone ensure they are all labelled and dated so you are not faced with thousands of anonymous tags in future years. This may sound like a lot of hassle. It is. But it is worth doing it until all the preservation efforts around the world bear fruit - not least the $100m Library of Congress project in the US to preserve "a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations".
None of this should deter people from buying cameras or cameraphones. They are getting better and cheaper all the time and offer rich opportunities to record life as never before. We now have a wonderful record of Victorian life, thanks to so many early photographs being preserved. If photographers do not think seriously about digital preservation, there is a danger that the information revolution could turn into a new dark age. But if most of the photos now being taken are preserved, it will leave for posterity, as well as our own descendants, an amazing record of what life was like in the 21st century. It would be a tragedy if much of this were to be lost because of a failure to agree a common approach.