What’s So Great about Digital Photography?

Before digital cameras, the only way to get a digital image was to take a picture with a film camera, get the film developed, then have the photographic print or slide digitized using a scanner.

Digital cameras eliminate the time needed for developing and scanning. When you own a digital camera, you can skip the darkroom and go strength to the desktop.

Photography, Then and Now

Before we take a closer look at digital photography, let’s pause and take a look back at photography’s roots.

The term photography has been around for little more than 160 years. The word is derived from the Greek words photos (light) and graphein (to draw) and was first coined by scientist Sir John Herschel in 1839. Two scientific processes, one optical and the other chemical, combined to make photography possible. Interestingly, both processes existed for hundreds of years before photography was invented.

The Optical process: Using Light to create Images

The equipment that became the foundation of modern photography was nothing like today’s cameras. The forerunners of today’s cameras were created from darkened rooms. Light came in through a small hole in the room’s window shade or wall, causing an upside-down image of what was outside to appear on the opposite wall. This device was called a camera obscura, which means “dark room” in Latin.

instantShift - The concept of the camera obscura
This is how a Camera Obscura works

The concept of the camera obscura has been around for thousands of years. It is believed that the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), knew the principle behind the camera obscura, as did the Arabian scholar, Hassan bin Hassan, who in the tenth century described in his manuscripts what can be considered a camera obscura.

Later, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) wrote about the uses of a camera obscura and depicted one in a drawing dated 1519. During the same period, a Venetian named Daniel Barbaro recommended that the camera obscura be used as an aid to drawing and perspective. And in 1558, Giovanni Battista Della Porta wrote a book called Natural Magic that told of the camera obscura being utilized as a tool by draftsmen and illustrators. From that time onwards, it is thought that many artists employed the camera obscura, including Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) and British artists Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), first president of the Royal Academy of Art in London, and Paul Sandby (1725-1809), a founding member of the Royal academy.

As time went by, the camera obscura grew similar in size. Made from a wooden box, it had a lens attached at one end and a mirror at the other. The mirror was positioned at a 45-degree angle, with a glass plate above it. By placing a piece of thin paper over the glass, an individual could trace the image projected there.

instantShift - The Camera Obscura
The Camera Obscura above is in the collection of historical apparatus of the National University of Ireland in Galway. It was used for sketching; the tracing paper was placed on the missing glass inside the folding hood, and a 45° mirror inside the box reflected the image onto the paper.

The Chemical Process: Bringing Images to Paper

In the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle, a chemist and founder of the Royal Society, reported that silver chloride turned dark under exposure, but he mistakenly believed that it was exposure to air-rather than exposure to light-that caused this to happen.

During the 1700s and 1800s, several peoples were experimenting with photosensitive materials. One of these, a German physicist named Johann Heinrich Schulze, discovered in 1727 that light could be used to change substances. He experimented with silver, nitric acid and chalk, and found that bright sunlight turned the mixture to black. Although his discovery, in conjunction with the camera obscura, provided the basic technology for photography, it was not until the nineteenth century that photography came into being.

In the early 1800s, Frenchman Joseph Niepce discovered that exposing bitumen, an asphalt-like substance, to light caused it to harden. He coated metal plates with bitumen, and then exposed them to light inside a camera obscura. After an exposure of eight hours, the plate was washed and dipped in acid, which etched the exposed metal. The last step was to coat the plate with ink and strike it on paper, producing a print of the original image. Niepce named this process heliography. Niepce is regarded as having produced the first permanent photographic image.

instantShift - The first permanent photographic image
View from the Window at Le Gras (La cour du domaine du Gras) was the first successful permanent photograph, created by Nicéphore Niépce (born Joseph Niépce) in 1826 at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes.

At about the same time that Niepce developed heliography, another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, a successful commercial artist, was experimenting with the same process. Niepce and Daguerre formed a partnership in 1829, but Niepce died a few years later. Daguerre continued to exposing the silver to iodine fumes, creating a silver-iodide salt that made the plate photosensitive. He put the plate in the camera obscura and exposed it to light. The silver-iodide darkened, but eventually the entire image turned black.

Quite by accident, deguerre found a solution to his dilemma. One day he left an exposed plate in a cabinet where mercury was stored. When he removed the plate, he realized that the developing had ceased and the image had stopped darkening. He named his invention the daguerreotype. When Louis Daguerre showed the first daguerreotypes to the public in the winter of 1838-1839, Parisians were amazed by the amount of detail they contained. Some likened looking through a telescope. Daguerre’s rival for the title of inventor of modern photography, William Henry Fox Tablot, had his detail of a daguerreotype.

At about the same time that Daguerre was developing the daguerreotype, Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot was experimenting with a similar process. However, Talbot used paper instead of metal plates and produced a “negative” image. He then took the paper negative, waxed it to make it translucent, and photographed it to produce a “positive” image. He called the resulting positive-negative process collotype. Talbot is sometimes hailed as the father of modern photography, since the basis of the process he developed is used in photography today, but unquestionably Daguerre, too, was an essential contributor to photography’s development.

The Women’s Perspective

Although the originators of modern photography were mostly men, women were also experimenting with the photographic process during the nineteenth century. While William Henry Fox Talbot was developing the positive-negative process, his wife was conducting her own experiments, which she detailed in writing in 1839. And in major American cities, a growing number of women were working with daguerreotypes. In 1850, one periodical declared that in New York there were 71 daguerreotype studios, with about 11 women employed in them.

Women were attracted t photography because in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was one of the few professions deemed acceptable for their participation. There were also many women enjoying photography as a hobby. Camera clubs were formed, and various art salons began to exhibit the work of amateur women photographers.

One notable female photographer was Gertrude Stanton Kasebier (1852-1934). Having studied at Pratt Institute in New York, she originally planned to be a portrait painter. However, she became interested in photography while student and her first solo exhibit took place in 1896 at the Boston Camera Club. Soon after, she opened a portrait photography studio in New York City. Her work became popular and she went on to be a founding member of the Photo-secession group, the Pictorial Photographs of America, and the Women’s Federation of the photographer’s Association of America.

Although histories of photography may focus on the men who pioneered the field, it is good to remember that women, too, played a part in its early days.

Daguerreotypes’ Popularity Spreads

Daguerre’s process spread throughout the world, with the first daguerreotypes being made in America in 1839. At first the process of creating an exposure was quite lengthy. Moving objects could not be recorded, and it was difficult to obtain portraits.

instantShift - The first daguerreotype
Above is the first daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre himself, claimed to be the first to complete the full process.

Individuals in Europe and the United States began experimenting to improve the optical, chemical and practical aspects of the daguerreotype process to make it more workable for creating portraits. In 1840 Alexander Wolcott opened a “daguerrean parlor” in New York where he created tiny portraits using a camera having a mirror instead of a lens. Wolcott’s daguerrean parlor was the earliest known photography studio.

Josef Petzval and Friedrich Voigtander, both of Vienna, revolutionized the daguerreotype process. Petzwal produced a portrait lens that was about 20 times faster than had been previously used, and Voigtlander reconstructed Daguerre’s wooden box into one that was smaller and easier to transport. At about the same time, Franz Kratochwilz, another Viennese, developed and published a chemical acceleration process that increased the sensitivity of the developing plate. With these valuable improvements, exposure time was reduced to 20 to 40 seconds, and daguerreotyping became a flourishing business, especially in the United States.

Eastman Instrumental in Modern Photography

In the latter part of the 1800s, American George Eastman advanced the photographic process to such an extent that his influence is still felt today. In 1879 he invented an emulsion-coating machine that enabled the mass production of photographic dry plates, and in 1880 he began to manufacture them. In the early 1880s Eastman began experimenting with emulsion-support bases other than glass. Working with a colleague, he developed a roll film holder, a flexible film, and a machine to produce the film. They layered the film with gelatin emulsions on a paper backing, and then stripped off the backing after development.

By 1885 Eastman American Film, the first transparent film negative was introduced. 3 years later, Kodak was born, and the Kodak Camera was introduced. The camera, which sold for $25, came loaded with 100 exposures on a film roll. Once all of the film had been used up, the camera was sent back to the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Co. in Rochester, New York, for developing. One year later, Kodak #2, the first commercial transparent roll film, was brought to market.

instantShift - The first model of the Kodak camera
An advertisement of the first model of the Kodak camera from ‘The Photographic Herald and Amateur Sportsman (1988-89)’

The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Co. became the Eastman Company in 1889, and then Eastman Kodak Company of New York in 1892. In 1895 the Pocket Kodak camera was announced, followed in 1900 by the first mass-marketed camera, the Brownie, which sold for $1. And with the Brownie, photography was no longer the province of only a few. With its wide availability and affordable price, the Brownie camera allowed even regular Joes to take up photography. This was the beginning of Americans’ love affair with the snapshot.

The Digital Debate

instantShift - Traditional film cameras vs digital cameras

Which are better: traditional film (analog) cameras or digital cameras? This issue is hotly debated, and it appears that the definitive answer will remain elusive for some time. Depending on whom you talk to, digital cameras are the be-all and end-all, and everyone who is anyone is rushing out to buy a digicam. But there are diehard traditional photographers who are quick to maintain that the quality of photographs produced by digital cameras cannot match the quality provided by a film camera, at least not at the same price point. In a nutshell, these are some of the specific points being hotly debated:

  • Are digital prints as good as 35mm prints? Some folks think digital prints are actually better! With a 2-megapixel camera, digital prints can rival 35mm prints in quality. Working with a good printer, you can produce astounding images.
  • The ability to edit on the fly is one f the main draws of the digicam. Rather than having to wade through poor shots and discard them, you can quickly delete any bloopers from your camera, leaving only the cream of the crop in memory.
  • It’s just plain fun. There is something tremendously appealing about using a digital camera. It’s partly the instant gratification that comes from being able to upload your memory card immediately after a shoot. It also known that you can effortlessly share your pix with anyone, anywhere, thanks to the internet and e-mail. Free photo-sharing websites also make it enjoyable and easy to share photos with online albums.
  • The chance to have some creative recreation with your photos using a software program is another strong draw of digital photography. No more darkrooms. Now with the help of your computer, you can enhance your photos in a million different ways. Or you can make greeting cards, illuminate personal or business newsletters, or add pizzazz to your website.

Now for the flip side:

  • Film is available everywhere; memory cards are not. If you are traveling far from home, it may not be as easy to pick up more memory cards as it would be to buy more film. And it’s certainly not as cheap. You can’t just pop into a convenience store to stock up on memory cards. If you are travelling to a remote area, you won’t be apt to find CompactFlash or Microdrives available if you need them. Instead, you will need to make a rather substantial investment in memory before ever leaving home.
  • Many photographers believe that film still offers better resolution than digicams.
  • Digital cameras run into problems when you are shooting in low-light locations. Film offers greater sensitivity to light, allowing the photographer a greater chance of getting a good shot in low light. With your digital camera, you may need to add extra sources of light in order to get a good photo.
  • Digicams run into parallax problems more frequently than film cameras.
  • There are more lenses available for 35mm cameras. Fewer lenses mean fewer ways to be creative with your digicam.
  • Film cameras provide quicker shutter response than digital cameras, resulting in better sport and action shots.

Benefits of Going Digital

Not everyone needs, or wants, a digital camera. If you are satisfied with your film camera, you may not want to purchase a digital camera. This is especially true if you do not own a computer and are not planning to purchase one soon or at all. But there are some distinct advantages to digital photography, which you should consider before making your decision. Many folks find that it pays to have both a 35mm SLR camera and a digital camera. Here is why digital photography is so appealing:

instantShift - Benefits of Going Digital

It’s the wave of the future

Using a digital camera means experimenting cutting-edge photography. About every 3 or 4 weeks, a new model digital camera makes its appearance in the marketplace. And digital cameras’ capabilities are expanding at what seems like the speed of light. In fact, remarkable audio and video machines are being manufactured.

No more film

With digital cameras, you don’t need to spend money on film or agonize over what type of film will best meet your needs. And if you are careful with your camera’s storage, you will never again find yourself wanting to take that beautiful sunset but powerless to do so because you just used up your last roll or film.

Big savings

No more film means no more processing costs. Think of the amount of money you will save over the course of a lifetime on processing alone if you go digital. Although the price of a digital camera might be higher than the price of a comparable 35mm camera, not having to continually invest in film represents big savings.

Instant gratification

As soon as you shoot a picture, you can immediately check the image. The immediate gratification of digital photography sure beats the time you used to spend waiting for your film to be developed, or developing it yourself in a darkroom. Also, being able to check your shots while in the field means you can delete “outtakes” as you go along, leaving you with only the best images at the end of the day.

Creative control

Even with the all of the benefits described above, one of the main reasons a photographer is swayed to purchase a digital camera is for the creative freedom it provides. Buy a digital camera, and your computer acts as your digital darkroom, allowing you to manipulate your images in a variety of ways. For instance, you can eliminate red eye, change the background of a picture, add or subtract images, turn black-and-white image into color, crop or rotate your picture, and undertake hundreds of other modifications-all with the click of a mouse.

Share the joy

With your digital camera and e-mail, you can quickly and easily share your photographs with relatives and friends around the globe. And now many websites allow you to set up albums of your images for others to view at their leisure. Just imagine how pleased Mom, Dad and Aunt Isabel will be when you e-mail them the latest snapshots of your bouncing baby.

It’s good for business

If you’re a small business owner, a digital camera can be a lifesaver. For instance, real estate agents can quickly snap a photo of a property and e-mail it to a client or download it to their website. Photographers and journalists can send images to their editors, whether they’re in the next town or halfway around the globe. Antiques dealers who market their goods on auction websites such as eBay can download images and get auctions rolling the very same day. For many professionals working in a variety of businesses, a digital camera can become an indispensable tool.

The Other Side of the Coin

Even with all the benefits that digital cameras have to offer, these are some drawbacks to digital photography that you also should consider before running out and buying your own digital camera. Depending on how you utilize a camera, the level of skill you possess, and your dexterity with a computer, digital photography can seem heaven-sent or a total turnoff.

instantShift - Drawbacks of Going Digital

Image quality

To produce a film-like quality photo, a digital camera would need to be filled with so many chips that its price would be astronomical. If you are going to enlarge an image to poster size, you may be better off using an analog camera to take the shot. However, if you plan to use the image for a website or your personal online album, the digital camera will work just fine for you.

Darker images

Digital cameras are not as sensitive to light as film cameras. Outdoors, you probably won’t run into a problem. But indoors you may find that it is more difficult to get a decent exposure with a digital camera. Even with flash, you may need to add more lighting.

Distorted color

Sometimes a digital camera gets the color wrong. It won’t be drastic mistake, such as red lake or a purple sun, but you might get orange instead of yellow, or purple instead of blue.

From SLR to Digital

Silicon Film technologies, inc. has developed an electronic film cartridge, called (e)film, which allows a 35mm SLR camera to capture digital images. The electronic film cartridge is an insert that fits into the back of a 35mm SLR body. It uses 65 MB of nonvolatile flash memory to capture and store up to twenty-four 36-bit digital images and can be reused thousands of times. With (e)film you can go digital without the expense of purchasing a new camera, plus you can use all of the lenses, flash units, and filters you already own.

Commercial Uses for Digital Photography

The pros know that digital cameras can provide some benefits that analog cameras cannot. Here is just a sampling of how professionals in many fields use digital cameras and digital images to make their jobs easier and improve the work they do:

  • Photographers use digital cameras in the studio to shoot everything from fruit to fashion. They can quickly check the resulting image, and adjust as necessary. Once shot, images can be manipulated via image-editing software, and then e-mailed to clients and vendors.
  • Journalists love digital photos because they can be immediately transmitted to their editors via telephone lines or wireless connections. Once in the hands of their editors, the images require no lab processing; they can be used at once. The low resolution of digital cameras is not a problem for newspapers because they use low-res printing.
  • Scientists use digital cameras to take videos and photographs through microscopes.
  • Law enforcement agencies love the quick processing, easy enhancement, and online distribution of digital images.
  • Doctors and dentists find digital cameras handy for snapping before and after shots of patients. The results can be used for reference, attached to patient charts, or submitted with insurance claims.
  • Astronomers have used digital image sensors for years. In 1997 NASA’s Pathfinder spacecraft carried to Mars a surface rover called Sojourner. Two digital imaging sensors helped Sojourner negotiate the rough surface of the planet. The orbiting Hubble Space Telescope has a CCD detector with a 1,600 X 1,600 pixel array.

Is Digital For You?

In the end, it’s your call whether or not a digital camera is right for you. Once you’ve sized up your needs and considered both the pros and cons of going digital, you’ll be able to determine if a digital camera should be part of your future.

Although no one can predict the future, it seems likely that the trend of manufacturing cameras with more pixels will continue. Look for better resolution and higher-quality photographs. Also, camera manufacturers are likely to improve digicams so that the amount of shutter lag is reduced.

Image Credits

Like it? Share it.


  1. awesome article

  2. The way that you have explained about the greatness of digital photography is very interesting to read. Nice presentation.

  3. Really great post.I am very happy to read your article.Thanks a lot for the great article!

Leave a Comment Yourself

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *