Sunday, August 6, 2017

Digital vs. Analog

I alluded to some of these ideas in the previous remarks, but I'll expand on them here. This is, in part, me taking another swing at "everyone is wrong about digital photography."

There's a strong current of belief that digital photography is in a fundamental way different from analog photography, in its bones, its DNA, or something. I assert, every now and then, and now once again, that this simply is not so. The new observation I have made recently explains why:

Digital photographic technology deliberately copies analog photography's model. How shall we make a digital camera? Well, replace the small flat rectangle of light sensitive film with a small flat rectangle of light sensitive silicon, and we're done, right? Whatever we read out of the chip is the single first generation object, a direct analog of the negative. Then you process that in ways that are very much analogous to film.

Lightroom (the dominant tool for handling those first generation files) even calls it developing! Photo editors have tools called "burn" and "dodge" for crying out loud.

Everything is easier, more plastic, and you can undo a lot of it and do it over. You can "develop" the same "film" over and over in different ways. You can undo your "dodging" and do it again. And you can do it all easily, sitting on your increasingly broad behind, rather than sweating over trays of chemicals.

The only substantive differences, though, are those. The speed, the ease, the plasticity, the undo. All the normal stuff that happens when you translate something analog into the digital domain.

These things do generate cultural change. It's not that digital is somehow different in a magical way, it's that it's the same thing only super easy, which has led to the current state of things. Pictures are ephemeral, disposable, lightweight, trivial. Or at any rate more than they were. Polaroids were never that serious or permanent an object in our cultural consciousness, to be sure. But the digital picture is moreso.

Since taking, editing, and sharing a picture is so easy, that part is now the simplest part of a larger process of promoting a false image of your own life. Literally every other aspect of faking your life or anything else you want to present disingenuously is more difficult. The plasticity, the editablity, of the digital picture hardly comes into it. The girl who wakes up, showers, puts on makeup, blowdries her hair, and gets back into bed for the #wokeuplikethis selfie is literally a cliche. If you look particularly happy, relaxed, luxurious, people assume that you're faking it.

They still kind of trust the picture. Sure, it's got a filter, it probably wasn't that sunny out, and you're probably not as happy as you look, and you probably borrowed that cute bikini, and you cropped out your tummy for a reason, dintcha? But the picture itself is probably pretty much honest as far as it goes.

The big changes are coming. As computational photography comes along (and it is coming, make no mistake) we're finally dropping the analog model. The "negative" is no longer to be simple indexical capture of the image cast on a flat surface by a lens. It will be a fused, computed, result from multiple lenses, from multiple sensors, of data from various sources. The "negative" will be interpolated, annotated, guessed-at, filled in from here and there. It won't be indexical. It will be rich, literally three dimensional, filled with data and cues that will make it far more malleable than today's pictures.

The plasticity of the new "negative" will astound us. Dropping out the background will be a one-click operation.

"Here we are in front of the Eiffel Tower."
"Sweetie, can we make all the other people go away?"
"Sure!" <click>
"And maybe move us in closer?"
"Ha ha! Can you put us at the pyramids?"

And so on.

People already distrust photographs. Computational photography is going to take that to a whole 'nother level, as the editability leaps to new heights. We now treat the look of the picture as untrustworthy, because you can apply filters trivially. With computational photography the content becomes just as malleable. Now the indexicality of the picture, never truly present in a computed photo anyways, becomes discardable utterly.

Not only do we make the gloomy day look a bit warm and sunny, we can change the sailboat we're standing on to a much larger one.


  1. Seems to me that you're taking a very analytical, engineering line here, where you're avoiding any kind of personal opinion. Do you think that this approaching computational photography is a good thing, a bad thing, or something else? You appear to be uncharacteristically unopinionated :-)

    Personally it fills me with a deep sense of dread. Not in connection with anything as trivial as the hobby of photography, but instead because we seem to be accelerating away from all forms of attachment to reality.

    If it becomes possible to diassociate self-representation, or indeed any representation, so fundamentally from the physical reality which we live in, then little by little that physical reality becomes more and more irrelevant, to the point that we no longer care about it at all.

    Gloomy days, and more importantly, the reasons for them being gloomy, cease to give us any cause for concern or engagement.

    That's the level the computational photography is helping to take us to, and that level has GAME OVER written on it.

    1. You know, I don't seem to have an opinion on whether computational photography is good or bad.

      I feel your sense of dread, for sure. But I'm undecided as to whether it's warranted.

      Computational photography might turn out to be like video, an essentially new thing that dominates culturally, but ultimately leaves photography as such alone. Or it could genuinely replace it, in important ways. If we come to see it as "the same thing" as old school photography, we could be in trouble.

      Still mulling it over, I guess.

  2. "...uncharacteristically unopinionated..." ahahahaha!

  3. Well, the question of whether digital is less worthy than analog might be approached considering traditional, historical, cultural or artistic aspect of photography. As to whether they are two different things, I would say they both are and aren't at the same time (Schroedingers camera?;). I might compare it to wooden, standard drum sets and electric ones. While you are able to produce in many respects same results with both, I still think proper, old fashined is different and in a way better (worse in a way as well). I think we shouldn't be discussing this matter beyond the artistic. Profesionally, digital has became the only option, for a reason.