This is part 1 of a series. It began as a discussion on the merits of film vs. digital for capturing meaningful and lasting images, but ended up as a discussion on legacy in a digital age. I'd still like to address the other topic, so I'll have to do that in another post.
As most modern photographers do, I create my work primarily with digital cameras. I struggle all the time with the feelings of inadequacy, the ephemeral nature of the digital images, the perceived lack of legacy, and the difficulty in making images that capture the "feel" or "look" of nature adequately. Today, I'd like to talk about the legacy problem.
We are currently between a rock and a hard place in terms of image quality and legacy. Current-generation digital images will soon become obsolete and will not remain viable for future needs for very long. Film will soon become obsolete also, and increasingly difficult and expensive to obtain, print and develop. So where do we go from here?
On the one hand, we have film. Film scanners are getting better all the time, while film remains more or less static (but very high) in quality. The film itself is getting more expensive, harder to develop, and more scarce in supply all the time. I guess what I'm trying to say is, while film is a workable solution for a very tiny percentage of photographers trying to create a legacy of images, digital is clearly the future and while film will probably not become extinct in the near future, it will become so difficult, expensive, and hard to find as to make working with it a non-viable option for the vast majority of photographers.
Digital photography today is at a certain point of sufficiency, where we can make large prints from just about any of the current-day professional and prosumer digital camera bodies with a reasonable amount of detail. This is obviously a subjective point. If you are happy viewing your 40x60" print at arm's length, then the detail is impressive. If you want to shove your face into it or get out a magnifying glass, then you'll need many times the resolution that is currently available from mainstream digital sensors.
We can't assume that our digital files will survive, be editable, and be printable in the future. A quick look through the anals of technological history reveals countless mediums, file formats, and devices that no longer function or that are inaccessible. Just try reading a 5.5" floppy disc on your MacBook Pro, or opening that Claris Works file you made back in school. What about the photos you made on an early 0.3MP digital camera? You probably can't get to those either, and if you can, you wouldn't want to do anything with those primitive and low-quality files.
Here are my biggest fears regarding digital files right now:
- Photoshop, the world's dominant editing program, uses a proprietary file format owned by Adobe. Adobe can't even make up their own minds about how to make money off their software, and is constantly changing. Today, if you want to use Photoshop, you need a monthly subscription. It used to be version-by-version purchases. Now, the day you stop paying is the day you lose access to your images. I use layered, uncompressed TIFF files in Photoshop to help mitigate this somewhat, and export a clean un-watermarked JPEG file alongside for prints.
- All hard drives will fail eventually. Sometimes simultaneously and catastrophically. I personally lost over 1 million photographs to this several years ago when the simultaneous failure of two hard drives (primary and backup) resulted in a total loss of my entire image catalog. This was before online storage was affordable and available. But even today, you try uploading 2 or 3 terabytes worth of photos using most household internet connections!
- All online storage providers and social networks will eventually go out of business, be bought out, change business models, change management, change their legal terms, or experience some other eventuality that will cause you to lose the images you have hosted with them. Even if they remain, their terms of service may become prohibitively hostile to photographers. (This is already happening with several of them.)
A recent study I read claims that statistically, within the next 10 years, over 90% of all digital photographs being made today will not be accessible. They will be gone forever. This hopefully will not affect photographers, who should make a concerted effort to protect their images. But most people do not understand the risks of the technology they are using well enough to prevent this loss. Facebook didn't exist 10 years ago, and they own Instagram and Facebook, the two largest repositories of today's "photographic legacies." The iPhone didn't exist then either. Today, the top 4 most popular cameras in the world (sorted by images uploaded) are all iPhone models. In another 10 years, who knows what technologies and networks will exist? We do know they won't likely be those of today. We also know that all those iPhone photos don't even look good today in print or on very high resolution displays at full size. And even if today's networks and devices do survive and by some miracle of technology, money, and corporate politics manage to preserve your images, the web and the world will look very different in another 10-20 years than they do today.
If you are someone who cares about the images you are making, you need to be thinking today about where your images will be tomorrow.
Before we dive into some potential solutions, there is one more thing we must look at. The ephemeral nature of social media, the web, and digital images actively works against the creation of legacy. Instagram and Facebook, along with Flickr, 500px, and Google+ to some extent, all are designed for images to be "consumed" by being viewed for a few seconds, a "like" or "comment" button tapped or clicked, and then promptly forgotten and hidden to make way for the endless deluge of mediocre content that all these sites are known for. If we want our images to mean something, to have a lasting impression on people, we need to get them into a format and place where they can last and be remembered for generations. And social media isn't it.
I'm not saying to not share your work on social media, just not to depend on it to last. A good solution in this area for today is to own your own web presence. This generally implies having a website that you pay monthly or annually for (so it is not supported by advertising or controlled by corporate interests that do not align with your own). You should own your own domain name, and point people to that domain name whenever possible, rather than to your social media accounts. You should also print your work often and well.
This legacy problem is twofold: digital and physical. Let's look at some solutions to each of these problems from some other photographers, who typically address them in tandem, since the master images and the prints often go hand in hand. We basically need to either print our images to a very high quality, or preserve them digitally in such a way that they'll be usable in the foreseeable future.
Both camera sensors and display technology are increasing at an astounding rate, and within 5-10 years the images produced by most current digital cameras will be for most practical intents and purposes obsolete, which is to say they will look terrible on most digital displays which will exist to view them on. This is especially relevant when you consider that few people print their images, and the vast majority of photographs being made today will never be printed. Displays of the near future will demand ever-increasing amounts of detail, and our cameras today just aren't cutting it in terms of future-proofing.
For example, by 2018, 8K TVs will arrive in people's homes. Those TVs demand a minimum of 33MP of resolution for a single frame of video! Virtually all Micro 4/3rds cameras are currently at 16MP, most APS-C cameras are at 24MP, and the most expensive of full-frame cameras are at 36-50MP – the only ones that will even be able to fill a still-frame! To put this in perspective, a still-frame of video today is 1920x1080px, or just 2.07MP
In order to maintain the relative resolution advantage that professional quality photography enjoys today, sensors will need to increase to a whopping 528MP resolution! Ironically, the only "sensor" capable of resolving that level of detail today is… an 8x10" film drum scan.
So what is a photographer to do if they want to leave a legacy, but they simply do not have that $200 per image to shoot large format? The way I currently see it, there are a few options.
Ben Horne and Alan Brock (as examples of large format film photographers who began on digital) have gone the large format film scanning route, producing files that can print to 40x50" at 300DPI. (See also Ben Horne's excellent YouTube channel here.) This solves the image quality problem, but not the cost or sustainability problems. This will eventually become a prohibitive solution. But for now, it works if you can afford it. It also transcends technology and its planned obsolescence by providing physical master files of the images that can be scanned with future technology to make prints using whatever print technology and mediums are the best available at the time of printing.
Ming Thein has presented the "Ultraprint" solution, which is a digital process for producing 700DPI small prints, up to about 16x20" or thereabouts. In order to achieve this level of detail, he typically shoots with a Nikon D810 body at 36MP combined with excellent and very expensive Carl Zeiss lenses, and stitches multiple images together in panorama fashion (merging several vertical images to produce a single horizontal image at far higher resolution). This makes a great legacy format, because the prints themselves are made at 700DPI, which is so high that it could be scanned and re-printed, or enlarged – making a new physical master of sorts, which transcends technology and all of its inherent planned obsolescence. This is very labor intensive, but not prohibitively cost intensive. It will also get easier with time as sensors arrive which will no longer require stitching to achieve 700DPI prints at his print sizes. To date, we have accepted 300DPI as the "norm" for high quality photographic prints. So Ming's pioneering of a more than doubling of this resolution is commendable and very relevant.
Guy Tal seems to have a third solution, or an anti-solution depending on how you look at it. And it is worth a look. (I can't recommend his book, More Than A Rock highly enough! It may just be the best book ever written on landscape photography. If you read one book on the subject, make it this one.) He is always something like a "zen monk" artist-philosopher of artistic nature photography, and I mean this in the highest praise possible. I look to him as an example in so many areas, and I feel he closely aligns in most areas with my own views on the subject. He says, if in doubt, do nothing. He chooses not to worry about his legacy, and feels that no one really controls their legacy in the end. So he just does the best he can with the best tools available for his purposes at the time, and lets fate take care of the rest. The irony of this position is that through his mindset, he has become a great philosopher, writer, artist and role model to other photographers. I feel his legacy will survive anyway because the texts of his writing are so easy and worthwhile to preserve, and the images he makes may just get to go along for the ride.
C.J. Chilvers has a take on legacy as well, and his is twofold. First, he – like Guy – emphasizes the importance of emotional and spiritual meaning in your work. (His book, A Lesser Photographer, is recommended reading as well, and can be read in a single evening. Though I don't agree with him on everything, his book is very thought provoking.) I wholeheartedly agree with this emphasis on significance. Once the images are significant in themselves, people will do whatever it takes to preserve them. If an image has no deeper meaning than aesthetic attractiveness, no one will care about the image enough to preserve it. In the end he, like Guy, says to forget about legacy.
Once you have a collection of worthwhile, significant and meaningful images, C.J. makes the case for preserving them in books. (He also references Garrick Van Buren's excellent piece, "If You Wanted to Ensure it Lasted 150 Years, You'd Choose Paper".) He regularly makes high quality printed photo books of his images, and distributes them to friends and family. This ensures the images are at least semi-regularly appreciated, and that they survive him and live on to be enjoyed by the next generation. This also helps to transcend technological limitations, in that the books become timeless heirlooms that exist in their own right, independent of the technology or corporate infrastructure that enabled their creation.
If you've made it this far, thanks for reading my rambling and somewhat in-cohesive thoughts. I'm still finding my voice as a writer, but I do know that I must do so as without words my images will not carry as much weight as they could.
This is not intended as an opinion piece so much as an open discussion of some of the struggles we face today as people capturing photographs of the things that matter to us. I don't expect anyone to agree entirely with these thoughts, as I sometimes don't know if I agree with them myself! I do know that I want my images to last, and that right now I'm not confident they will. So I'm putting this out there as a way to get us to think about these issues and how we can begin to solve them.
In closing, here are some thoughts:
• Print your work regularly and well, even if you aren't a "real" photographer.
• Focus more on human emotion, spiritual significance and lasting meaning than on technology.
• Don't rely on social media for your legacy. Own your online presence.
• Focus on getting your images in front of people who genuinely care about them and you.
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