To fly or to teleport? – how digital cameras have transformed photography

Written by: Guest writer Tan Qi

Photography is an art that transcends time. Amazingly, a camera has the ability to freeze and capture a moment and somehow make it last. Sometimes a lifetime, maybe even longer. A photograph is like a vivid memory that can be shared, and that never fades. Over generations, great photographers have captured stunningly beautiful photographs, still widely appreciated and marveled at to this day; while others have captured painful ones that serve as checkpoints and lessons in our lives. For instance, the Napalm girl photo by Huynh Cong ‘Nick’ in 1972 during the Vietnam war still holds immense significance today.

Being quite the photographer myself, I take pride in my voluminous collection of photo albums saved in the hard drive of my computer. But each time I press the shutter of my Canon DSLR to take a photo, I can’t help but have a lingering doubt at the back of my mind – does the digital camera make my shots less of a piece of art than one taken with the manual film ones?

When I was young, I remember distinctly how film cameras were the common mode to taking pictures. At least in my family it was. Each time the camera was used, aperture and shutter speed had to be set, and exposure checked. All these must be done manually, requiring much accuracy – a slight mistake or carelessness could lead to the wastage of an entire film. Isn’t this the art in photography? Where the focus is on the process as much as it is on the end product. There have been debates on whether photography is an art or a science, and I think the answer is clearer when the traditional method of photography is closely examined.

Digital cameras, on the other hand, are used not only for their special effects function, but also for their convenience, where things that had to otherwise be set or adjusted manually could be done automatically by the camera with the flick of a switch. This could indeed be termed ‘magical’, but is hardly artistic. It’s a prime example of how technology has made our lives so fast-paced, keeping us from enjoying all the perks of slowing down and enjoying the process.

Looking at the pictures in my computer is not even comparable to sitting in the attic, flipping through album after album of the photos developed from negatives from the film camera. There’s more nostalgia, like the photo has a stronger soul. Each photograph taken with a film camera is taken with unbelievable precision and care, largely because with each click of the shutter button, one photo is being irreversibly taken. In digital cameras, a click of the shutter also takes a photo, but the difference is that this photo can be deleted just as easily with a click of another button. Doesn’t this mean that there is less of a sense of responsibility over each click of the shutter when using a digital camera?

I always believe that the development of the negatives, which is also the last step in one round of photo taking, is the most exciting part of photography. It’s like how there’s always that big bang and all the confetti raining down on everyone when the American Idol is announced and sings his final song to mark the end of the season’s show. It really is the best part, and not having the suspense before looking at all the developed films in hardcopy albums makes me feel as if the journey isn’t complete, that somehow, there’s a missing piece.

There is no right answer to whether one should use a digital or film camera. It’s just like asking someone if given a choice, whether they would prefer flying or teleporting. Think about it.

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