#787. Digitization vs digitalization in photography – an opportunity in waiting?

#787. Digitization vs digitalization in photography – an opportunity in waiting?

Digital photography essentially replaced the chemical process in film with a discrete electronic process in sensors. That’s digitizing. The same can be said of scanning a negative or slide. File quality might not be the same, but the end result is a series of 0s and 1s, rather than a slice of processed film. Ditto CD vs vinyl.

 

 

Digitalization, on the other hand, is the process of making the possible best use of that digital format. It comes in various natures and flavours and addresses many facets of the user experience, ranging from quality to ease of use to innovative applications to lowering in costs to … much more.

Take post processing, for instance. Adobe were some of the first pioneers of digitalization. Photoshop brought to the masses the ability to emulate the work of someone like Jerry Uelsman without owning eight large format projectors or living on chemical fumes. Even without thinking about compositing, PS made the dodging and burning dance made famous by Ansel Adams so much easier and more repeatable.

And Lightroom, the grand daddy of pure player digital post processing, was the first to make this power accessible to all in a manner that emulated the darkroom processes of old, initially garnering instant love from old timers reticent to leave their Durst and Leicas to rust alone in the basement.

 

 

Beyond the obvious application of digitalization to photography that is post processing, there are many other avenues to explore.

Take storage for instance. If you admit that a Sony A7r3 has equivalent image quality to a Mamiya 7 (in colour at least) a $15 32Gb SD card gives you as much storage as 70 120-format films, enough to fill a small bag. A $100 2Tb external disk will back up 60 of those (provided you’re not a mindless numbnuts like me), the equivalent of several suitcases of film.

Then, there’s printing. As much as developing and printing B&W was a magical experience, printing colour was hard, in a darkroom. For practical reasons, printing large was out of reach for almost everyone. Experimenting was long and expensive. Get yourself a P600 at Xmas discount and you’re set to click’n’print from your bed, for a small fraction of the cost. Printing too is part of the digitalization of photography made possible by the digitization of the photograph.

Also, tagging is digitalization. You can give your give your pics 3 stars, label them by project name, assign a colour …

And communication between the lens and the camera can tell the post processing software how to best correct lens aberrations.

 

 

There’s probably more to find, along those lines.

Somehow, though, my gut tells me the photo world hasn’t completely got the digitalization memo yet. When you think about it, all that’s been achieved is a simplification of processes that already existed in the analog years. We could store, we could sort, we could post process and we could print.

It’s a similar story, camera-wise. So far, the Light l16 and the Zeiss ZX1 are the only 2 cameras I can think of, out there, that go beyond digitization and make some use of digitalization.

The post processing software universe is atrociously segmented, with every new entrant trying to replicate what already exists elsewhere (presets, edit sliders and miracle machine learning abusing its name), in numerous variations, rather than think out of the box about how to leverage digitalization.

Couldn’t we do more with our strings of zeros and ones?

 

 

Well, obviously, I can’t take much inspiration from the photo world itself, which seems intent on reinventing the wheel (and – judging by the ergonomic lunacy of digital cameras – making it square). But my guess is that interesting pointers can be found in other industries.

Anyone heard of data ? Data-based this, data-empowered that?

How about adding GPS tagging to photographs, systematically, for a start? Yes, some phones and cameras do (not always very well) and yes, some PP software can use that (not always very usefully).

 

 

Now, imagine if your editing software told you that 90% of your keepers (based on your star self-rating system) were done using this lens at that time of day and at these 3 locations. How would that help you become a better photographer?

Or that your 5 stars of 2 years ago had those characteristics but those of today have very different ones?

Imagine if said software found meaningful similarities between all the pics you trashed. Now, what would you learn from that?

Imagine if said software, back home, remotely told your camera “hey buddy, you’ve had success doing this and that in similar situations in the past”. Of course that would mean Internet capabilities that function and rear screens not from the 1850s. But hey, it could work.

Imagine if said software sent you hints from other users. Or stats about how other users process this type of image or what paper would look nicest. We old farts might recoil at the thought of sharing our precious knowledge, but the kids out there, that’s how they live. My son made it through grueling training by helping others. Others that would one day become competitors. Same thing for my daughter who spends her days helping others along in their architecture projects and vice versa. That’s how they grow collectively. Education is changing and maybe our learning of photography could take a hint?

What if, when about to print that photo of the Omotesando Hiroshi Sugimoto sculpture on Awagami paper, you received suggestions from said software about the best initial settings, based on the image and on the adjustments made by other users of that paper for images with similar tone distributions and tastes similar to yours? Now that would be real machine learning.

Not to take away the decision process from you, but to suppress the initial guesswork, save paper, save ink, save time …

 

 

Technology and humans have always had two types of relationships :

  • Tech replaces man. As in robots are quicker at sorting parcels. Or “man you should have seen this car stop, good job I saved your arse”. Or “let me focus that for you, your eyesight is barbaric and your reflexes make a sloth look positively stealthy”.
  • Tech helps man. As in “man, I’ve seen that a hundred times and this is how the other togs like you seemed most happy with the results”. Or “here’s a dashboard of your faves, maybe there are ideas there you hadn’t thought about?”

The two have always coexisted. The two can be used to make us better performers. Happier people. So far, in photography, they’ve mostly been used to turn us into fuel cells for the Matrix overlords. We’re not even pressing the shutter release anymore, smartphones take 100 pics before you click and use them for the final image.

 

 

Turning humans into zombies might seem like the easy way to make a fortune. Look at Facebook, after all. But it’s neither. Easy. Or a way to make a fortune. Nothing Facebook – or any other mass success – has ever done was easy. Making Machine Learning that helps people isn’t more difficult than making Machine Learning that makes decisions for them (who they want to hear from, what they want to read or listen to or watch, what they want to buy).

And it won’t make you a fortune. Facebook doesn’t sell Machine Learning. It uses it to optimise its harvesting of private information and mindshare to sell targeted adverts. People aren’t the consumers, they’re the base product. And Facebook access is free, not to be nice to the world, but to remove friction from the harvesting process and to accelerate the feedback loop that made it grow.

When you’re selling a product, though, it might as well do your customer some good. Preferably a lot of it.

 

 

And, although the world of traditional photo cameras seems to be crumbling, I see a tremendous opportunity in digitalization for a revival of non-phone photography. First of all, because I think the heydays of smartphone photography may be behind us. Three reasons for this :

  1. As I wrote before and as Adrian’s recent and brilliant article just reminded us, phone photography is, above all, about “joie de vivre”, that spontaneous joyousness of a point and shoot designed for utmost simplicity and fun. Not unlike the fabulous Polaroid machines of old. And, instead of milking this, phone makers are gunning in the opposite direction trying their best to make their cameras the highest quality possible. And the most complex, bloated with stupid emoji and other gimmicks that can only appeal to a 4 year-old.
  2. Like it or not, we’ve passed peak-social. There may still be vast untapped reserves of dinosaur juice in the Earth’s mantle, there aren’t vast untapped reserves of human consciousness to parasitize anymore. Sure, some growth can still be experienced here and there but the market as a whole has peaked. Social media are just fancy ad servers for naive marketing people. Instead of turning labour into lolly, they change human attention into mass media dollars. Breaking trust so repeatedly, raising advertising cost tenfold to fake growth and – again – making the user experience less and less fun by the day, is a sound recipe for a well deserved disaster. Phones being designed primarily for social, they can only see their photographic promised land dry up.
  3. Every recent innovation in photography and, in particular, in smartphone photography, has been about taking away the decision process from you. Take the Arsenal kickstarter. I bought (then returned) one hoping it would act as an intelligent remote control for the idiotic ergonomics of my Sony. But the kickstarter brief was all about making the perfect photograph for the user. If you listen to the photo world hype, we might as well turn into monkeys and let the camera do the thinking. Focusing, finding eyes, analysing the scene, setting aperture and the exposure, setting ISO, … But we’re not. Monkeys. And, sooner or later, all humans realise that life without creativity is unbearable.

Secondly, because the coming generation likes photography and technology just as much as the previous. But it brings along very different dreams and values. They are using phones (with growingcaution and distrust), instant cameras, Holgas, Pentax film SLRs, “new” Polaroid … They’re a creative bunch who don’t give a rat’s bottom about the ubiquitous 24-105 zoom, convience or Lightroom. They want to collaborate. They want to share. They want to create.

 

 

So I can’t help imagine a future in which cameras focus on three things : creating the best opportunities (fast AF, high ISO, high IQ, you know the drill), maximising the joy of user experience (you likely don’t know the drill because it’s mostly science fiction, these days πŸ˜‰ but, basically, just get out of the way) and collecting & sharing data as efficiently as phones.

And in which software focuses less on rehashing the same level zero features (presets and so on) and more on inventing high-level benefits of digitalization. It’s not rocket science. The know-how and tech are here. Have been for yearsΒ  (business intelligence anyone?) That vision could have been fulfilled long ago if anyone really cared enough.

One thing you could harness with this approach, just like Facebook, is network effect. The more users you’d have, the more value you’d create for each one of them. Products like that never fail.

Anyone ?

 


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12 Comments

  1. Avatar
    jeah pierre guaron November 17, 2018

    I just got turned inside out. I never knew I was ditigalizing my stuff. I don’t even normally use “z’s” in my spelling – I leave that to our cousins across the pond. They’ll probably turn that word into “digitising” anyway, as soon as they’ve read this post.

    So where am I? Australia obviously – but photographically? I shoot for fun – always have – always will – call me an unbridled hedonist – actually I’m just one of those kids who could never be persuaded to do as I was told, I always went and did my own thing instead. And I process my own shots.

    And I apparently “digitise” them. Because SOOC they rarely look “right”. Maybe it’s because I generally shoot RAW – dunno. But as soon as I pass them through even the most basic layer of PP, they start punching. I have several layers of PP that practically ALL my photos go through – then there’s a fork in the road, and several alternatives, depending what needs fixing.

    Do I “photoshop”? – yes – rarely getting rid of things like unwanted poles, for example. Not so rarely – playing with the light, in scenes at sunrise or sunset – because the colour gamut of digital photography starts with RGB and ends with CYMK, and that CANNOT handle the 700 billion (or whatever it is) colours that really ARE out there. And it’s especially noticeable at sunset or sunrise. So I have to stoop to “trickery” to produce something that looks vaguely “like it was”, with a lot of those shots. Not always – but certainly with a lot of them.

    What about all those other gimmicks? – well one that is leaping around is getting rid of halos – I have a program that claims to do it, but it comes with NO instructions and the last description of what to do was published 16 years ago, in relation to at completely different, much earlier version. So this PP stuff is another voyage of exploration, building on the voyage of exploration I embarked on when I was handed my first camera – a second had Kodak box Brownie camera – in 1952. S*** – that’s 66 years ago! Did people really exist way back then?

    Right now I am regrouping. I’ve ben fooling round with a bunch of gear for some years, getting my “sea legs” in digital (and “digitisation” too, apparently), and just lately I’ve made a few decisions – ditch three cams and some other gear, get one new one and a bazooka tele lens. I can’t afford a fixed tele at $15 grand so I’m going to get a zoom for a tenth the price – yes I know those zooms work like vacuum cleaners, fill up with dust, and are buggery to clean – I might just duct tape it at full extension, so that can’t happen. πŸ™‚ I have no need of its shorter lengths anyway, I can cover that from the opposite direction with the gear I already have, so however awful that sounds, it seems like a good idea for the moment. (I actually have a photo of the front of one of those zooms, taken after it DID inhale too much crap – it’s not a pretty sight!)

    Since I usually seem to have first turn, I’ll shut up so everyone else can have their turn.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy November 18, 2018

      Ah, not much of a fan of Z either, but it’s the common ground these days, being accepted in Oxford dictionaries and the standard in the US and elsewhere. So, what the heck ?

      Duct tape … It has an almost poetic connotation in this digital context πŸ˜‰

  2. Avatar
    jean pierre guaron November 17, 2018

    And you guys thought I could be persuaded to shut up? – check what they’ve put in your tea pot!

    Actually the reason for this comment is I’d no sooner posted the last one, when I read this article –

    https://www.lightstalking.com/lightroom-landscape-tips/

    – which I think is a fair description of a day in the life of a post processor! (“Digitizing”, of course) πŸ™‚

  3. Avatar
    NMc November 17, 2018

    Pascal
    Interesting read, some points that occurred to me are;-
    Film photography imposed constraints due to cost per frame and print, and, physical storage space. Digital is too easy to be undisciplined over producing whilst under productive. Digital has the tools for quicker cataloguing and curation but how many really do it? Digital curation requires more discipline which is in conflict with the digital cultural propensity for bloat, churn and accelerated obsolescence.

    From a practice point of view I do not see the difference between pre-set processing and big data generated auto suggestions. The world of (miss named) AI has a dreadful record for reducing everything to the lowest common denominator, and then lowering the bar for good measure. Big data sets should enable the discovery small/subtle changes and variations above the noise floor and to demonstrate diversity and connections. This is where your idea may have a chance however It would require consumers being willing to pay for subscriptions to data services that they need to input and learn how to utilise it for their own benefit. Almost the complete opposite of what makes social media work!

    Final personal point is that I want photography to be almost completely different to other digital uses, a complete mental break. I am more likely to enjoy photography somewhat digitally disconnected than wired in full time.

    Regards Noel

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy November 18, 2018

      Yes, making things easy is double edged. It can make us better or lazier πŸ˜‰

      To me, recommendations before the shot make us think, whereas presets turn us into robots.

      Social is indeed the opposite of what I’m hinting at. Social media is just herding us into numbnuts. I much prefer smaller communities that specialise on a topic and try to elevate members rather than prey on them. People are willing to pay for transformation, but you’re right, betting anyone oto pay for a subscription of any kind is really very hard these days, thanks to Menlo Park and similar hell holes.

      I understand why you’d rather enjoy photography unplugged. Me too. My point is only that if people are going to write software that hinges on digital files, there’s more than one direction.

      All the best,
      Pascal

  4. Avatar
    jean pierre guaron November 17, 2018

    Great news! – we now have a new word for “post processing”, to conceal what we get up to from people who have traced our footprints from “photoshopping” to “post processing” – they’re in the dark, again!

  5. Avatar
    PaulB November 17, 2018

    Pascal

    I think it is a little ironic that the company fits this article the best, for a simple and minimal approach to photography, is also one of the oldest, Leica.

    The Leica M9 saved the company with a burst of popularity, because it was the smallest, lightest, simplest, and one of the best digital cameras available at the time. Then came the M D (262), and now the M10D, with no screen to interfere with the photographic process.

    Though, as I write this using my iPad, I realized there is a company that is using software to make suggestions based on what I am doing and what others have done. This company is Apple. And my iPad is suggesting words as I tap the characters on the screen, and if I would let it correct, my spelling into incorrect words.

    So, we are probably on our way.

    PaulB

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy November 18, 2018

      Yes, exactly πŸ˜‰ How many times have sent a message to someone only to realise the autocorrect tool has butchered it. Jeremy Clarkson reported having sent a message ending with Sex Sex Sex to his young daughter. Auto, maybe. Correct? Definitely not πŸ˜‰

      The M9 still stands out today. It’s great that cameras have moved on to better AF, better ISO, but the cult status of that Leica is proff that human beings want far more (or less) that technical performance.

  6. Avatar
    Adam Bonn November 17, 2018

    That’s a very interesting read Pascal and the photos are superb

    I love your idea about solutions that help us with our own photographical (yes I know that’s not a word) creativity, things that can let us know what works best for us against the criteria that we personally seek to employ.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy November 18, 2018

      Thanks Adam, much apprectiated, coming from the Portuguese Master πŸ™‚

      In a way, I think the world is separated into two visions : herding and empowering (although the new age sound of that word is a real turn off). And the notion that herding makes you more money is floating around the startup world, misleading many into making a product that’s interesting to no one. I really hope a few creators will see the promise of the other camp!

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy November 18, 2018

      Aah, very interesting, Paul. Thanks for the link πŸ™‚

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