Of silver halides and pixels

Matthew Rushworth
Matthew Rushworth

In an information-driven society, it’s often easy to forget how certain technologies have developed over time.

Photography provides an interesting case of how both its modern incarnation, as well as its “primitive” counterpart, can be weighed with equal consideration.

I wish not to argue for the superiority of film over digital or vice versa, but rather to provide an account of the ontological origins of both methods and consider the implications which can be derived from each.

As film and digital photography are not one and the same thing, each requires an understanding relative to its essence. Now, you may be asking yourself, what is it that separates film photography from digital, what makes them wholly different from one another?

The answer to this lies in the method of recording itself. Considering that, at the most fundamental level, photography is the translation of light into an image, film and digital represent different modes of translation.

In film, slides made of light-sensitive chemicals are inserted into a camera in order to record light. Light travels onto the slide and “burns” an image by physically altering the very atoms of the chemicals which are contained within it.

In this way, film photography represents the physical recording of an image by simply harnessing the light-sensitive properties of certain chemicals. The mode of recording is produced prior to the photograph, and exists independently from the method itself.

Digital photography is a whole other matter.

Like film, light is translated into an image, but instead of altering the structure of chemicals, light is translated into electronic signals and processed by an image sensor. These electronic signals are then interpreted by a built-in program that produces an image only when further processed by an imaging program.

In this way, digital photography represents imagery that is created by the subjective interpretation of light by humans.

The translation of light into image is produced within the confines of human interpretation, and thus is malleable. This is both a freeing and dangerous aspect of digital photography.

In the case of film photography, the image is dictated by all of the variables before the photograph is taken.

In digital photography, the image is dictated by all of the variables after the photograph is taken.

The implications are thus: we must understand that digital imagery is subjective and, therefore, dictated by the individual—or individuals—who produces that image.

Take a more critical eye at what you’re looking at—is this a record of reality, or one’s own interpretation of it?

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