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Photography's different in the digital age
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Forsyth County News
Thirty-four hundred digital pictures -- the measure of a delightful three-week sojourn in Croatia, Slovenia and surrounding countries. Now what?
Some aspects of life seemed so much simpler before we entered the “digital age.” My wife, Beverly, used to judge my enjoyment of a trip by the number of rolls of slide film I shot. Venice held the one-day record of 9 rolls of 36 exposures. But digital technology has changed all that.
The economics have made it so easy to press the shutter button at the slightest whim -- and to take multiple shots of a subject, from different angles and with different exposure settings.

One of our children estimated that, using an average of 30 seconds to process each image, I have a 28-hour task ahead. Yes, some images that are blurred will be tossed immediately, but most will be good and just deciding which to keep and which to eliminate requires time, particularly when chucking a good shot involves minor emotional trauma.

Additionally, some pictures will be enhanced using software designed for that purpose. The 30 second/photo rate, in essence, adds the equivalent of 3 additional days to the vacation. The good news is that it allows one to relive the experience and more firmly fix it in one’s mind. The bad -- it can drive you crazy, comparing one image with another and trying to put them into some coherent structure.

Life was much simpler in the pre-digital days. Then I used commercial development services. Once I had pressed the shutter button, my job was done. Of course I didn’t know what I had done until weeks later, when I got my slides developed.

There were at least two other important differences in this process. Although print film could be manipulated in the laboratory, slide film was much less flexible. Once that shutter button was depressed, “what you got is what you get.”

If, for example, the picture was underexposed, it was tossed. Not so in the digital age where the information captured permits many to be resuscitated successfully -- more time spent. Additionally, it is often tempting to “play” with an image, to achieve special effects. Additionally, there was a tangible cost involved with depressing the shutter button, and this imposed a discipline on the number of photos taken -- again, virtually gone with digital equipment.

I had preferred slides to print film for many reasons. First, it was cheaper, and, for the same cost, I could take many more pictures (that lack of discipline). I kind of subscribed to the monkey at the typewriter theory. Given enough monkeys typing at enough typewriters, one of them will eventually type something that makes sense in English. Take enough pictures, and some of them will be good!

Second, slides lent themselves better to presentations, since they could be projected on a screen rather than just passed about. And they offered the potential of extremely high quality images. They didn’t require photo albums for storage -- although this was offset by the fact that it was much more difficult to have a casual showing than with prints. But both slides and prints suffered from many drawbacks.

They were expensive, the film had limited shelf-life, particularly in hot climates and, if you were traveling for long periods of time, carrying an adequate supply took precious space. Later, when airport security became an issue, the effect of X-rays added further complexity. Not so with the tiny storage media of today’s digital cameras. In the space required for a single role of 36 exposure 35 mm slide film I can literally carry storage for thousands of pictures -- and then reuse that storage medium over and over -- and I don’t have to worry about shelf-life, heat or even airport security.

Photographs can be regarded either as a recording medium, for example, to capture trip memories, or as an art form. In the former mode, there is a tendency to hang on to everything. That blurred photo might be the only one you have to remind you of that wonderful meal you had in a charming restaurant in. Not so good for others to view, but how many trip photo albums are filled with pictures that “no one but the photographer could love?” But if one thinks of photos as art, it is not only the camera that is called into play, but all of the software that exists to enhance or modify the original images. Again, one can spend an enormous amount of time on a single image. A friend who does magnificent work combining multiple photos into panoramic shots spends as many as eight hours on a single effort. Again, the time factor.

The lack of discipline with digital photography can unconsciously create a perspective where one envisions the world as seen through a 1” x ?” viewfinder, or on a 2” x 3” LCD screen. And since can’t easily judge the quality of the photo on a tiny LCD screen, many travelers, snapping away, still don’t get to see what they have seen until they get home and look at their computers. The alternative is to carry a lap-top so you can review what you have seen each evening.

Storage is another area where the digital age has brought major changes. Bulky photo albums and slide boxes are no longer needed. Instead, terabyte-sized hard drives allow storage of gazillions of photos in the computer. But there is a downside. The process of keeping track of what is there can become overwhelming, and what will the future bring? Images recorded on print film, if properly cared for, are easily viewable. But when they are stored in a computer, who will even know they are there? And what happens when storage media change (like the transition from floppy disks to CDs)? Will equipment be available 50 years from now read the data? Of course one can always convert to new media forms but that has both time and cost implications.

Despite all the major advances in the art of photography, when it comes right down to it, most people are still happiest when the image  is printed on a piece of paper (or canvas) so that it can be enjoyed -- and we have wonderful digital printers for that purpose. But even here, digital displays are gaining ground. The world is changing around us, and as the digital age takes hold, we will undoubtedly adjust, developing new patterns and preferences and ways to take advantage of all that is being offered. Now let’s see what Croatia looked like -- just kidding! (But unlike a day or two’s turn-around for prints or slides, it may be several months before the task is done.)

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at