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The Rise of Digital Cameras • Part 1: Why Photographers Favor “Natural Intelligence”
When it comes to photographers, the skepticism of new image technology isn’t so much about the cameras—it’s about the reality that the image presents.
This is PART 1 in a series on the rise of the digital camera.
High-end digital cameras play distinctly different roles from generative art tools. One is meant for capturing real moments; the other is meant for forging new ideas based on existing language and visual models.
So it’s telling when one of the largest players in the professional camera space, Nikon, decided to create a campaign that directly pushed back against that mindset.
“This obsession with the artificial is making us forget that our world is full of amazing natural places that are often stranger than fiction,” the text on the Nikon Peru ad for its “Natural Intelligence” campaign states.
As a point of concession—yes. The world is full of wonder, and sometimes it’s more impressive than anything you can imagine on your own. It makes for snappy marketing campaign copy.
But in many ways, this is a new front on a discussion that has emerged in recent decades in a very serious way: How “real” photography is in the digital era.
One of the biggest flashpoints in the history of digital photography came not because of a camera, but because of a contest.
In 2013, the winner of that year’s World Press Photo contest was accused of modifying the image to ensure the absolute best quality result for the sake of an awards ceremony. A blog post by Dr. Neal Krawetz, a forensic researcher who specializes in photography, created an ongoing debate that gets to the heart of concerns around photo manipulation.
Krawetz implied, after an analysis, that Paul Hansen’s photo was a composite.
“So here’s what likely happened … The photographer took a series of photos,” he wrote. “However, the sun’s position made everyone dark and in silhouette. So, he combined a few pictures and altered the people, so you could see their faces.”
The analysis turned into A Thing, leading to a lot of debate, both inside and outside the broader photography community. Other analysts disagreed with Krawetz’s point of view on the matter; outlets like BuzzFeed News and Wired stepped in to draw attention to the discussion.
I think the reason that it became such a big deal is that it hit one of photography’s biggest pain points—defining reality in a world where images are basically expected to have some sort of modest digital correction done to them, combined with the inherent difficulty of capturing “Natural Intelligence” in the flesh.
It’s a situation that strikes at the heart of digital photography, where the concern about the technology isn’t so much the devices, but what those devices produce. There is a genuine fear that pixels will get manipulated, and it has become more pronounced in recent years.
There is a purist mindset to photography that has led to negative reactions towards programs like Photoshop—the same kind of reaction that led to immediate skepticism around Paul Hansen’s World Press Photo-winning photograph.
This mindset is still relatively modern. A 2016 blog post from Paul Reiffer, a well-known landscape photographer, makes an argument against the aggressive use of photo-manipulation software. His mantra? “Take it, Don’t Fake it.”—a very similar slogan to Nikon’s “Natural Intelligence” campaign.
As he explained in his post:
So why is it becoming so popular? Well, in part, because the bar of reality is being shifted to an unachievable level by photographers. The strive for the “even more impressive sunset”, along with advances in digital tools and the desire to win popularity contests on platforms such as Instagram is pushing people to create more and more outrageous images and publish them, with the expectation of awe and appreciation by millions.
The problem is, we’re setting ourselves (as humans) up for failure. Tourists are now visiting amazing sites with unrealistic expectations of what should be before them. On my last visit to the Grand Canyon, I actually heard a guy (as he looked up for 2 seconds from his iPhone) say “is that it?”—in part, I’m sure, because the images he’d seen online before visiting had promised him so much more.
It’s likely that generative AI is only going to worsen this problem that Reiffer has identified, where reality is at odds with the image on the screen. (Photoshop, after all, has borrowed some of DALL-E’s best tricks.)
To put it all another way, the skepticism seems less about the cameras and more about the tools to manipulate the photos. Photographers, like graphic designers, have always been skeptical of gimmicks designed to make their work better.
In some ways, I think the big reason that digital photography has had somewhat less of a technoskeptic reaction than other kinds of technology is because of the people who got into cameras in the first place. A camera nerd is very similar in mindset to someone who builds a massive gaming PC—they just tend to get outside a little more often.
In part, it’s because many of the photographers took a more realistic stance on the issue. In a 2003 American Photo story, Chris Johns, the former editor-in-chief of National Geographic—a magazine that, by its own admission, was late to the digital camera trend—perfectly encapsulated the mindset around digital cameras as such:
Digital photography is only a tool. It can help you make great pictures, but great pictures don’t come from the camera. They come from the heart and soul. Don’t forget that. The more motives you have to make great pictures, the better your pictures will be.
Do people get nostalgic for the old cameras? Of course. There’s a reason Polaroids periodically resurface, that people go on Etsy hunting for old-school SLRs. And there will always be purists who prefer film, even if digital cameras and photo-manipulation tools have learned most of traditional film’s many tricks.
While not an across-the-board fact, photography is a field that isn’t opposed to new technology. Photographers just want to ensure that the final result comes from a real place.
And that might forever place photography pros at odds with the generative effects of artificial intelligence.
Part 2 is coming soon covering :How Digital Cameras Became Dominant