Photography History: The Digital Era

So far, we’ve covered the pre-film and the film era, so no prizes for guessing what today’s history lesson is going to be about – yup, that’s right, the digital era is upon us, and we’re taking a look at history as it’s happening all around us…

Let’s launch into the third and final installment in our 3-part series: The history of photography: The Era of Digital.

The history of digital photography is one that is as much about the technology of digital photography as it is about the photographers themselves; it is a history of advances in image quality and the violent manipulation of images; most importantly, it is a history which is still being written.

Many photographers who established themselves during the era of film (such as Annie Lebovitz) have made or are making the switch to digital photography. Others, (including Yann Arthus Bertrand, famous for his amazing aerial photography) have resisted the change and cite several reasons why the older model remains superior. However, few will question the fact that digital photography has changed the status of photography and the photograph in our 21st century society.

Rise of the Digital Camera

Although the digital camera was not available to consumers until 1990, the most important technology behind digital cameras, the CCD or charge-couple device, was invented in 1969. CCD is an image sensor which allows for the direct conversion of images into digital data without a chemical process. In the begging the technology was mostly applied to video cameras for use in television broadcasts. In 1981, Sony came out with a prototype digital camera which could take still images and store them on a floppy disk. Over the next ten years, companies like Logitech and Kodak worked on their own models.

The first digital camera which was actually available for consumer use was produced by Logitech and was called the “Dycam Model 1.” It had onboard memory which could store thirty-two images at once and shot pictures in black, white, and shades of gray only. With a resolution of only 376 x 240 it wasn’t exactly impressive by today’s standards, but it did open up an entirely new world for digital photography.

In the nearly two decades since the first digital camera was placed on the market, digital technology has developed at an astounding rate. The resolution of just over 90,000 pixels of the original logitech model has given way to resolutions of several millions, creating cameras which can rival the level of detail offered by film based models.

For more on the history of the digital camera, try the following links; Brief History of Digital Photography by Bob Brooke, History of the Digital Camera on CNET and’s History of the Digital Camera.

Changes to the Industry

With improvements in technology, digital cameras have not only become more powerful, but they have become less and less expensive as well. Cameras with resolutions of two megapixels or more can now be purchased for under $100. While this may still be more expensive than some film cameras, the money saved in film, chemicals, and other development hardware is well worth it to many photographers young and old.

As a result, many companies have been forced to scrap or greatly reduce their film camera lines and up their production of digital models. As would be expected, photographers have met this news with mixed feelings. For many, this symbolizes progress and increased accessibility for photographic equipment, a sort of populist revolution (not to mention the impact on feature film makers, many of whom are making movies with smaller budgets than ever before).

For others, the advent of digital photography means the end of an era, quite possibly an era that they loved. And for those who still believe that film photography offers a level of quality unmatched by digital cameras, feelings cannot be wholly positive. Nevertheless, the industry has followed suit with demand and continues to move toward a more and more digital oriented business model.

Changes to the Art Form

The question of quality is only one of the controversial issues surrounding the ascension of digital photography, and perhaps not even the biggest one. In fact as time goes on, those who argue that digital photography offers an image quality which is not meaningfully distinguished from that of film photography increase in numbers.

But at the same time, the art form is faced with what is perhaps an even more interesting issue. As digital photographic technology continues to increase, the potential for the manipulation of images increases as well.

Of course, artificial manipulation of images is not unique to digital photography. In fact, photographers have been reworking photographic images since at least the 1860′s (one famous example is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in which his head has been pasted onto another politician’s body). However, the equipment required to perform this kind of manipulation was not widely available at this time. But in the last two decades, the digital camera has coupled with the personal computer to grant digital manipulation technology to the masses.

Some, photographers have used computer based programs such as photoshop as a means for creating new types of photographs based on principles of collage. Often, these remediated photographs purposefully draw attention to their “unreal” quality. However, others have used computers in order to cause photographs for magazine publication to look more appealing without making it explicitly clear that the image has been altered. As the monetary price for this technology has become less and less expensive, digital manipulation of published photographs is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Look at this study on Photo Tampering Throughout History by H. Farid for more information on digital manipulation.

Future Greats of Digital Photography?

Digital photography is still a young art form, and ultimately, it isn’t actually any different from film photography – the techniques are the same, it’s just the technology that’s shifting.

Having said that, I think that these are some of the young photographers who are currently producing compelling photographic work, often in the digital medium…

Michael Wolf

Wolf is best known for his photographs of cities, especially those of Chicago. Many of his photos attempt to capture elements of the city which are obvious, and yet which normally escape the eye of the camera.

Michael Wolfe at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Deanna Dikeman

Dikeman is slightly less well known, but has a very original style of depicting clothing. It is almost never shown on the body, but instead in the wardrobe. A photography that finds itself on the other side of fashion.

Deana Dikeman at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Johnathan Gitelson

Gitelson is an excellent example of how collage has been absorbed by the general practices of digital photography. His art has been compared to the comic book, and his playful/serious wit confirms this.

Johnathan Gitelson at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Tim Long

Long follows in the tradition of early 20th century realism with his “heartbreaking” photographs of the city of Havana. His work as a whole however, shows a great sense of diversity and a large scope of vision.

Tim Long at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Matt Siber

Siber’s work is an excellent example of the power of digital editing to act as a critique of the image and of culture itself. His most famous photographic series “Floating Logos” acts as a study of the icons of our time, Playboy, Denny’s, etc. Floating signs at gas stations litter his photographic vision of America.

Matt Siber at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Additional Information on Digital Photography and its History – Digital Photography on Wikipedia, Digital Versus Film, DMOZ’s Digital Photography Links, Digital Photography FAQ from Ronald Parr, Digital Versus Film Website and finally A List of Photographer’s who’ve Chosen to Revert Back to Film (they do exist!)

Haje’s History of Photography

The History of Photography part 1 - Before Film
The History of Photography part 2 - The Firm Era
The History of Photography part 3 - The Digital Era

Do you enjoy a smattering of random photography links? Well, squire, I welcome thee to join me on Twitter -

© Kamps Consulting Ltd. This article is licenced for use on Pixiq only. Please do not reproduce wholly or in part without a license. More info.