Photography or image capture?

I’ve just been at a seminar led by David Rodowick of Harvard University on historicising virtual images in a cinematic context.  Whilst most of this is way beyond my own academic field and most definitely not something I’d want to pursue in any meaningful way, I had a brief conversation with him afterwards about photography.  He doesn’t talk about movies that are digital as ‘films’, arguing that there is something essentially chemical about film which is not present in digital imaging using a digital video camera, for example.

In a similar way, he said he doesn’t talk about ‘digital photography’, but about ‘image capture’, because ‘photography’ involves a chemical process, whereas digital cameras are recording data.  The data is manipulated and eventually turned into something analogue, otherwise we couldn’t see it (a screen is, after all, an analogue device).  Film, once treated in the appropriate chemicals, can be held up to the light and the image can be seen without this kind of manipulation (though of course, how the chemicals are applied, in what concentration, temperature and for how long has a profound impact on the resulting image).

Is it important to make this differentiation?  It is if we are thinking about how we visualise what we photograph and then compare it to how we see the end result.  In Torridon Bruce Percy described his workflow from taking the photograph on his film camera: he develops his film, and then scans it in on a high quality scanner, producing very large digital files which he can then manipulate in Photoshop.  These files essentially become his negatives, he said.  Thinking about Rodowick’s comments makes me wonder about the way they become his ‘negatives’ – after all, the tangible pieces of film are still the ‘real’ negatives (which I presume he keeps somewhere very safe!), and all there is on the computer is a collection of data – zeros and ones that can be re-converted into an analogue form in the right circumstances.

Half Dome, Blowing Snow - by Ansel Adams

Half Dome, Blowing Snow – © Ansel Adams

Ken Rockwell talks about ‘Real Raw’, meaning film, and if we think of the ways in which some of the great photographers have used film, we know that this is qualitatively different to digital image capture.  For example, we know that Ansel Adams used film, and so this famous image by him (‘Half Dome, Blowing Snow’ – click it to go to the Ansel Adams site where you can buy a print), is a digital scan of a piece of tangible film – the very same piece of film that was actually at the scene where this image was taken, in Adams’ camera. In a very real sense, the film ’saw’ this scene, which we couldn’t say about digital cameras!  The conversion of the analogue image to digital loses something… and many people feel this also happens with digital cameras, which is why so many people – myself included – still like film so much.

We can see this more obviously in the cinematic context: I recently bought a DVD of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ – originally shot on film, of course.  However, it has now been scanned into a computer in order to make a DVD – a digital method of reproducing a film (or perhaps I should say: a film-like experience!).  As digital technology improves, the archived film strip will be scanned again and again to obtain ever higher resolution and improved sound… but the ‘negative’, if you like, is still a tangible analogue substance – ‘Real Raw’.

Although for day-to-day photography thinking about all this is perhaps largely irrelevant, I think it is important to always remember that images coming from a digital camera (especially so-called ‘raw files’) are like a negative, but are not the same as a negative, which is a different kind of process and a different way of recording images.  So David Rodowick is right, I think, to talk about ‘image capture’ rather than ‘digital photography’ in contrast to film photography.  But for all practical purposes, it is perhaps simply something to be aware of when choosing the medium for capturing a particular scene (‘how will this work best?’), rather than necessarily employing this language in the everyday context of creating images.

P.S. None of this is to say that image capture on a digital camera isn’t a form of art – it’s just a different way of doing it than happens with a film camera.

P.P.S. I think I now realise more acutely why I dislike Adobe’s use of the word ‘negative’ in the name for their archival format for the raw files generated by digital cameras: DNG, for ‘digital negative’.  Of course, I still use DNG for my digital images…!


2 thoughts on “Photography or image capture?

  1. Marc de Ridder

    Sorry Michael, but I disagree and firmly believe that ‘digital photography’ is the appropriate and relevant term. In the true sense of the word, photography literally means ‘drawing with light’ and, although it has been associated and intertwined with film, negatives and chemical processing for well over a century, we must not forget that this has been merely our choice of tools to ‘draw with light’.
    On the other hand, I agree that the term ‘digital negative’ is not appropriate at all. A negative constitutes an inverted image and is only appropriately used for ‘negative film’. The raw file is not an inverted image and would therefore be more appropriately called ‘digital positive’, in line with ‘positive film’, more commonly known as slide film.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Hi Marc,

      as I understand Rodowick, he’s deriving his understanding from the idea that we watch a film, not a movie, and a film is made on, well, a strip of film. He’s then extending that to still photography, and perhaps that doesn’t work so well. I do think, however, that there is something to it – he’s referring not just to the etymological root of the word, but the heritage of usage, and that clearly suggests something to do with physicality, with chemicals and darkrooms. Going back to the root of a word is but one approach to discerning its meaning.

      However, as I said, for all practical purposes, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to use the term ‘digital photography’.

      I think the DNG thing is marketing, and nothing more: I think they’re counting on most people not knowing what a positive is, having had years of print film coming back from a shop with a strip of negatives. Otherwise we might have had DPGs instead of DNGs!



      PS I realise there’s a careless mistake in my post: I talk about Bruce Percy keeping his film negatives safe, but of course, he shoots Velvia, so that should be positives!

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