Is digital ruining photography?

January 6, 2016


When I went through some old family albums recently I made an interesting discovery. I saw, to my great surprise that the images taken 15 years ago were actually pretty good and by no means as bad as what I'm used from family pictures today. The images had an interesting subject, were following basic photography rules and were generally pretty nice and interesting to look at. I would even go so far to say that they are actually telling a story.

In contrast, when I look at pictures that were taken just a couple of years ago, my general consensus is - who gave that camera to a monkey? There are a ridiculous amount of images that no one will ever be willing to go through and they are all very similar – similar in the sense that they are similarly poorly made and extremely boring to look at. Now the striking comprehension about this discovery is that the images twenty years ago and two years ago were made by the same people. So I'm asking myself – What happened?? Why were the very same people who were able to capture interesting memories just a few decades back now producing nothing but uninspired rubbish?

To get to the bottom of this question I tried to think about what has changed in the meantime. I believe photography is like riding a bicycle – you never forget how to do it, so a sudden drop in people's photography skills is hardly possible. What has changed however is the equipment, although in a seemingly antithetic way – cameras are now much better than they used to be.

The psychological effect of digital photography

Better equipment should result in better images one should assume. But let us think about the main differences of cameras now and then and of the resulting psychological effects on the photographer.

The main and striking difference is, of course, that cameras used to shoot film. If you were born after 1990 this thought may seem strange to you but seriously – not such a long time ago you had to put film into your camera so that images could be recorded. You could only fit about 24-36 images on one roll of film and after you used it you had to buy new film. That's right – you had to invest new money after only about three dozen pictures taken. But it gets worse. The exposed film wasn't even your finished photograph – it was just a negative. Unless you had a ton of necessary equipment (including a darkroom and some poisonous chemicals) and the required skills (only few people had either), you had to give it to somebody who would transform the negatives in actual printed pictures – and that would cost some more money. So to sum up, taking pictures was a fairly costly and elaborate endeavor just a few years back.

If you think about the simplicity that modern digital photography offers, you're probably glad that you didn't live to see the photographic Stone Age I described above. And you're probably glad that you can take all the pictures you want FOR FREE. Isn't that right – you press a button, you see an image on the screen, you upload it to facebook, you title it "I love sleep because it's like a time machine to breakfast." or "I eat my tacos over a Tortilla. That way when stuff falls out, BOOM, another taco." and you're done. And the best part is that this doesn't cost you a thing.

Or at least that's what you think.

I see it a little different than that. When the opportunity for a great picture presents itself and you are unable to take an appropriate picture you lost way more than a few Euros. You potentially failed to capture a unique moment, something that cannot be repeated.

The awareness that analog photography costs money makes all the difference. When people only had one roll of film they thought real hard about how to get the most of the next image. Before I waste a lot of words on that thought just take a look at the following illustration:

I think this graphic describes the essence of modern photography perfectly. (Source:

During my research on this topic I also found a related info graphic that I don't want to keep from you:

If you think I'm using these stolen illustrations just to cover up my lack of relevant images on this topic, you're god damn right. (Source:

What can you do to create better images?

I was very young when my dad taught me the most important photography lesson I got to this day. When I was first allowed to take some pictures with his Canon A1 he told me: "Do not cut off people's feet". Sounds trivial, right? Well, it isn't! Look at the images you, or your friends and family takes and pay attention – I'm sure you'll find a lot of examples where the feet are not on the image. Of course this is not actually about feet but about paying attention on what you want to have on the image and equally as important, what you don't want to have on the image.

Once you have mastered paying proper attention, you're about 60% there. There are some famous rules how to create images like the rule of thirds or leading lines, but let me tell you that knowing rules is not important. Important is to think. Think about what you want to show and express with an image. That may not make you an artist, but you can definitely call yourself a decent photographer.

People do not pay attention because they believe in the delusion that they can always take another picture if this one doesn't turn out. It's free after all, right? They unfortunately do not realize that this strategy is destined to fail if NO ONE of their pictures turns out. Thinking about what you want to capture is not optional, it's essential.

There is no need to shoot film if you want to take good photographs. In fact, I wouldn't want to shoot film – photography wouldn't be my hobby if there were no digital cameras. Digital gives me the possibility to experiment and have great control over the outcome at very little cost and comparatively little effort.

However seeing digital photography as an opportunity to take no real responsibility for the images you create with the mindset that it's free anyways is a grave abuse of this great technology and leads to a plethora of crappy pictures.

My advice is to make use of the best of both worlds. Take utmost care while taking pictures, make it a conscious process – do not let the autopilot take over – just like you would if every exposure cost money. On the other hand experiment and try again as often as you please. You will be amazed how much better your images get – without investing real effort!

Thanks for reading!

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