May Adobe reign as ruler of the digital age: Photoshop is King!

Those of us who have become fully digital, certainly owe homage to that which has made us poor shooters into artists, at last. Of course, that bit was tongue-in-cheek, so don’t get excited yet.

This is a review of where we are coming from and to whence we hopefully go. Let’s start with film-based photography. If you think the multitude of filters, actions and tools in Photoshop is complicated, the age of chemistry and silver halides was virtual alchemy.

In days of yore, the average person took snaps that were processed and printed by someone else. Relatively few people were capable of processing and printing their own photographs. Advanced amateurs and professional photographers learned the techniques and carried the equipment that could produce images that could be made into big prints or placed in publications.

The average person did not want to carry around big heavy camera equipment, so consumer-level cameras had to be small and light and simple to operate. What the DIN, ASA or the current ISO rating was remained a mystery for the professionals to consider. Consumer cameras had fixed lenses with one f-stop value (the size of aperture or opening of the lens) and one or two shutter speeds. They also had a flash synchronization plug and a shutter setting for that, but the flash was an attachment that held an expendable bulb that fired only once. Just before the advent of electronic strobe flash, one could use flash cubes that contained four bulbs in one container that rotated to an unused bulb each time one bulb was fired.

These small cameras produced images that looked pretty good in a 3” by 5” snapshot. Sometimes, with a combination of luck and the right light conditions, a consumer could have a shot that was enlargeable to bigger sizes. Amateurs usually carried slightly bigger cameras using larger film and their results could be even better.

Film came in two basic varieties: Transparency (usually called slide film) and negative. The negative was generally used to make snapshots and prints. The transparency was intended to be projected for viewing. Of course, by various means a negative could be turned into a transparency and a transparency could be used to make a print; and one film was marketed that could produce both types with one exposure. Transparencies, by the nature of their being intended for projection, were also much used for magazine color reproduction.

The pros and better amateurs carried bigger cameras or more complex small cameras with interchangeable lenses, filters, a variety of films, tripods and monopods, light meters and flash guns.

There were a few things most photographers learned that continue to be true, although somewhat changed in nature. The bigger the film, the bigger the final image could be. The higher the number of the film rating in DIN, ASA or ISO, the faster the exposure could be made but the grainier the final image would be. Grain was the structure of the silver halides clumping together to make the image. As technology changed and silver use was reduced or eliminated in some film chemistry, the clustering of dyes made dye cloud formations that did the work of silver, but the term “grain” continued to be used.

Then came the digital era. It did not spring up fully formed, but sneaked up on us. It started with the process of preparing images for publication. A scanner could record the data of an image and reproduce it electronically. Now, this technique had been around a long time in a basic form, as newspapers had to develop a way to transmit images over wire service lines. The advent of everyday use of computers made it possible to convert an analog electronic signal into digital information. Soon enough the fact that an image could be changed by manipulation of those little no and yes bits of information began the form of photo editing that we use today.

First film was scanned and converted. Film manufacturers rushed film into production that was idealized for scanning, but the doom of consumer film use was quickly coming. The camera manufacturers quickly developed sensors that were small enough to fit in camera bodies and replace film entirely.

For a brief period of time, the cameras were almost back to what the first amateur cameras were like: Small images that were only good for snapshots, 640 by 480 pixels at most. That didn’t last long. The pixel wars began and the end is not yet in sight.

You can carry a camera phone or a pocket camera and take cleaner, more printable images than professional photographers could using the first pro digital cameras available at the turn of the 21st century.

Professionals, in the meantime, have leaped into multi-megabytes of digital imagery and gigabytes of storage capacity. Newspapers and magazines have gone almost exclusively to digital imagery, while top professionals waver between film and digital.

Based on previous history, it appears unlikely that film will cease to exist. It does seem that it will become more an art media than ever before, joining sculpture and painting as niche forms of expression.

And many professionals will have a couple of old favorite cameras tucked away that might come in handy one day.

Read the Part II.