Digital Photography: An In Depth Analysis of an Emerging Trend within the Computer Age

Robert B. Fried

What do manufacturers such as Agfa, Canon, Epson, Fuji film, Kodak and Olympus have in common? They are only a small fraction of the rapidly growing list of companies involved in the new era spawning within the imaging industry, specifically in the digital realm. Digital photography is an emerging trend, although the concept has been around for nearly two decades.

Digital cameras have been on the market for quite some time. In fact, "people in the computer industry have been talking about digital photography for years, even before Apple introduced the first digital camera for consumers, the QuickTake 100, early in 1994" (Alsop, 220). A digital camera is just one aspect of digital photography. Although you need the camera, in order to capture the image, there are many different tools and equipment that encompass the overall concept of digital photography. In fact, in order to develop a complete digital photography solution, "what was needed was a system of products that would work together to help one take, store, manage, and display pictures, both on PCs and in familiar snapshot form" (Alsop, 220). Thanks to advancements in technology this system is available today. It is essentially comprised of a digital camera, a scanner, a photo-quality printer, photo-editing software and a digital photo album (Alsop 220-221).

Receive our free monthly newsletter and/or job posting alerts Click to sign up

In order to understand many of the new innovations being developed in this field, it is important to grasp the concept of digital photography and how it differs from conventional film photography. Conventional photography has been around for many years. Essentially "in the 1840s, William Henry Fox Talbot, combined light, paper, a few chemicals and a wooden box to produce a photographic print, laying the foundation for modern film photography" (King, 01). This process of making a photograph has been revised over the course of time; however, the concept has remained the same. Technological advancements and innovations such as the computer have allowed photography to advance from a chemical process to one that entails the involvement of merely bytes of information.

Digital photography, as previously stated is not all that different from conventional film photography. In fact, like traditional film cameras, "digital cameras also use light to create images, but instead of film, digital cameras capture images using an imaging array, which is a fancy way of saying 'light sensitive computer chips'" (King, 24). Referred to as Charged Coupled Device (CCD) and Complementary Metal Oxide Semi-Conductor (CMOS), these computer chips, once the shutter has been released and the lens is finished projecting the image, separate "the image into thousands of 'pixels' or picture elements, each with an electrical charge." Following this, "circuits in the camera convert each pixels charge into a number representing digitized information." "The more pixels, the sharper the image" (Folkers, 77). CCD and CMOS chips however, have many distinct features, therefore, manufacturers have to decide which chip is most advantageous to the consumers they plan on marketing their product to (King, 24).

Charged coupled device (CCD) chips have several advantages over complimentary metal oxide semi-conductor (CMOS) chips. Essentially, CCD chips "offer more lifelike color, greater tonal range and the contrast and brightness of traditional quality photographs" (Lawrence, 60). However, there are several reasons that may lead an individual to choose a CMOS chip rather than a CCD chip. CMOS chips are generally more cost effective than CCD chips, therefore, reducing the target price for the camera itself. Furthermore, CMOS chips are more energy efficient than CCD chips. As a result, more battery life is gained. Moreover, CMOS chips outperform CCD chips in respect to taking pictures of lustrous objects containing sparkles or objects that are very bright. Although both chips have their own distinct features, CCD chips are found in a majority of the digital cameras on the market. CMOS chips are gradually increasing their presence on the market. As a result of the growing demand for more affordable digital cameras in this day and age, CMOS chips are sure to catch up to CCD chips in quality and performance (King, 46).

If it is still somewhat costly to purchase digital camera, why are they gaining so much attention? Furthermore, why is that if digital photography has just recently gained popularity that "US consumers will buy as many as 850,000 digital camera at $1,000 or less this year, and falling prices should push sales even higher" (Folkers, 77)? Personal computers are partially responsible. With streaming speeds, better performance, and a greater focus on multimedia, the average computer user is able to do more and know less. With a simple connection and a click of a mouse, processes happen quicker than a blink of an eye. People want things quick, and now with a digital camera, one can take a picture and obtain immediate results. Stewart Alsop, an information technology columnist for Fortune Magazine is even fascinated with how digital cameras are changing the way people think about photography. He states:

    "I remember when my father brought home his new Polaroid instant camera." "It was a thrill when he snapped a picture and pulled out the film." "The kids would fight over who got to hold the film's covering while it developed." "We'd time 60 seconds, rip off the cover of the pack, and watch the picture emerge before our eyes." He continues by saying, "One thing I have absolutely loved about spending the past 15 years involved the computer industry is how often I've been able to feel that kind of thrill." "It's happening again with digital photography, which is about a lot more than the ability to see a snapshot develop right after you've snapped it" (220).

What Alsop is essentially implying here, is that the way in which digital cameras operate is slightly more sophisticated than traditional film photography. However, he suggests what is easier to comprehend is the overwhelming impact this new technology will have in regards to the photo industry. He believes that eventually "digital photography will eliminate the need for photo processing, a multibillion-dollar business, and will change the way people buy cameras since how a camera integrates with a PC will be more important than which Japanese company has mastered the industrial art of grinding lenses" (220).

What exactly are the benefits of digital cameras? For starters, a digital camera offers the user more flexibility in regards to the picture quality of the image. Much of the photo editing and enhancements are done after the picture has been taken. This feature is an advantage over a traditional film camera. With a traditional film camera, the user has to manually and properly adjust all the settings prior to taking the desired picture. A digital camera offers the ability to correct almost all aspects of a picture once it has been imported into a computer and the proper imaging software has been loaded. Furthermore, all that is really needed to adequately use a digital camera is for the user to know how to 'point and shoot' (King, 13).

Another advantage in using a digital camera as opposed to a traditional film camera is the instantaneous appearance of the picture just photographed without spending a dime. "Digital cameras are fantastic for instant gratification," says industry analyst Kristy Holch, principal of Infotends Research group" (Folkers 77). In fact, you can even "send an image to friends, family members, and clients almost instantaneously by attaching it to an email message." According to Julie Adair King, author of Digital Photography for Dummies, digital photography is enormously helpful to people in mass media that now have the ability to quickly send electronic mail with attachments to their editors within seconds of taking a picture. Furthermore, salespeople now have the ability to present their products to potential buyers anywhere in the world (King 15).

More and more businesses are seeing the benefits of utilizing digital cameras. Many businesses are attracted to the benefits of the digital photography age because it has the great potential of expanding their target markets. Business analysts assert that "the biggest demand is coming from those users who want computerized photos for World Wide Web sites, engineering projects, real estate estimates and police work" (Dillon, 53). Jim Verrall, MIS operations manager at Brandt Engineering Co. in Dallas and an owner of three digital cameras states that, when you shoot with film it might sit in your pocket for two days, and then professional processing usually takes another day. Verrall, continues, "with the pictures saved to a floppy disk we can print them out and incorporate them into WordPerfect documents in five minutes" (Dillon, 56). Not only is time saved here but also is money that can be redistributed within the business.

Businesses are also finding that digital photography can benefit them in ways other than saving time and money. Digital cameras can also aid in helping to create a virtual database of information for clientele and sales associates. By importing images into such things as databases and spreadsheets individuals can look at images of products being offered. Therefore, clientele can have a better understanding and idea as to what the product they are researching or perusing looks like. Furthermore, sales associates can have an easier time describing products to clients and also be able to pull up what a particular item looks like if they are unsure (King 16).

Much of the fun in digital photography comes from imaging software used in manipulating the photograph that has been taken. Photo editing software allows an individual to add a little spice to a presentation or have fun distorting an image and such. With the use of photo-editing software (i.e., Adobe PhotoDeluxe and Photoshop) special effects can be added to any image that has been imported into the computer via email, computer cable (USB, serial or parallel), scanner, diskette or Smart-Card. The possibilities are enormous. Many photo editing software packages exist on the market appealing to the most novice of users to those who are considered most savvy (King 16).

    With coupon code "5off" at checkout

Digital cameras are also gaining popularity within the field of forensic science. "For forensics technologies collecting evidence at crime scenes, digital camera preview screens can help prevent errors." Warren Stewart, a forensics investigator at Alabama Department of Forensics Science, states, "they give us the capability to see if we have the exact images we need on the spot" (Dillon 56). However, there are still some drawbacks to the utilization of digital cameras within forensic science casework. One issue of concern is the quality and the authenticity of images. If an image is not a true and accurate depiction of a crime scene, it may not be deemed admissible in a court of law. As the technology gradually becomes more advanced the notion of digital photography will be further explored. "Until video quality and cost match, or become superior to film photography, the traditional photograph will continue to be the standard" (Miller 137).

Although there are wide arrays of benefits to digital photography, there are also drawbacks. One of the major drawbacks is the amount of time it requires to take multiple snapshots. The delay is can be in the range of two to fifteen seconds. Essentially, "that is the time necessary for the light sensor to read the scene and either adjust the diaphragm opening (f/stop) or change the shutter speed, check the auto focus (if so equipped), and trigger the flash (if also equipped) (Miller 132). It also takes several seconds for the camera to perform several other processes once the image has been taken. In fact, "there is usually a four to nine second delay when the camera is converting the image into digital form, compressing and saving the image, and recycling the flash" (Miller 132). As a result of such time delays, sports events or other activities involving motion may be difficult to photograph. Although, some digital cameras offer continuous capture mode to try and resolve such matters, the pictures taken are usually of a low resolution or lack the use of a flash. For scenarios like these, a traditional camera, rather than a digital camera should always be used (King, 18).

Another disadvantage to digital cameras are their inability to perform as well as traditional film cameras. Although, the technology may be fascinating, traditional cameras developed years prior, generally produce sharper, crisper and clearer pictures than digital cameras. Essentially, "the CCD chips in most digital cameras break up an image into 640 pixels horizontally and 480 vertically, or a total of slightly more than 300,000 pixels." Furthermore, "if the grains of silver halide on 35-mm film were pixels, one frame of sharp film would contain 100 million." "No wonder digital pictures with 0.3 percent as many pixels, are comparatively crude" (Folkers, 77).

Another drawback to the concept of digital photography is the resolution of the images that are taken. Digital cameras are fairly inexpensive. However, if an impressive image is what one is looking for, it usually won't be found for under $300. In fact, "Feature-laden digital cameras built on the shells of professional 35mm models, have at least 1.5 million pixel CCDs; and they cost $3,500 to $10,000 (Folkers, 77). When comparing a traditional camera to a digital camera in the price range of $300, it will usually be the case that the traditional camera will be far superior in quality and performance (King, 18).

One of the major problems with digital photography is that as a digital photograph is enlarged, the quality of the image gets reduced considerably. In fact, "when a digital image is enlarged beyond 4x6 inches, the prints may become 'pixelated' (broken up into blocky squares)". "This is a problem with digital cameras with resolutions of 640x480 or less" (Miller, 133). Furthermore, many digital cameras are faced with the problem of producing images that lack color balance and latitude temperature control. As a result of this, images taken in different lighting may appear unclear or distorted (Miller 133). Moreover, "digital cameras can record two states of tone and color - light or dark - while film can capture a range of continuous tones and colors" (Miller 133).

Lack of camera accessories is also a major drawback to digital photography. The majority of digital cameras on the market have fixed or permanent lenses. Furthermore, many lack the presence of macro, telephoto, or close-up lens attachments. Moreover, many digital cameras lack filter or even electronic flash attachments. Such accessories are often only available on higher end digital cameras that retail for approximately $3000 to $5000 (Miller 135). In regards to traditional 35mm film cameras within this price range, the array of accessories for such cameras is enormous.

A small but notable disadvantage to many digital cameras is their inefficiency in regards to battery life. Most digital cameras can be regarded as hogs when it comes to sucking the life out of batteries. Between the light sensitive computer chips within the camera, the flash (if equipped), the LCD screen (if equipped) and such, batteries do not last longer than approximately 60 pictures. As a result of this the cost of utilizing a digital camera increases. One way to remedy the situation is to always carry spare batteries when operating the camera. Furthermore, an investment in a rechargeable battery pack may be worthwhile (Folkers, 78).

Digital cameras have different ways of storing images. Cameras such as the Sony Mavica use a standard 3.5" floppy diskette, or most recently - a cd-rom. Other digital cameras store images within the internal memory of the camera. Newly designed digital cameras utilize small sized devices known as Smart Cards to store data. Smart Cards vary in capacity unlike the memory of a standard 3.5" diskette or the camera's internal memory (usually a fixed capacity). Smart Cards therefore, offer a slight advantage over the other two forms of storage. With high capacity smart cards, more images can be taken and of a higher resolution. Cameras utilizing such things, as the standard 3.5" diskette and a camera's internal memory are often limited in the amount and resolution of the images they can hold.

Once a digital image has been generated on the camera, manipulated as need be with photo-editing software, it often needs to be printed. The process of printing digital images also contains several drawbacks. Detail is often lost when a digital image is printed. This is often true regardless of the performance or cost of the printer being utilized. In fact, "at this point in the evolution of digital photography, matching the degree of detail provided by film is simply unaffordable" (Folkers, 77).

Many companies have manufactured printers that have attempted to produce digital photographs that come very close to a photograph taken by a traditional camera. Among such companies are Hewlett Packard, Epson and Alps. Although these companies have produced printers that come very close to achieving their goal, the cost of such units and the additional supplies and equipment needed are of no comparison or competition to traditional film photography (Alsop, 220).

Photo quality printers like the Hewlett Packard Photo Smart series retails for ~$399. In addition to the printer, black and color ink cartridges constantly need replacement. The black ink cartridge retails for ~$35, while the color cartridge retails for ~$50. The printer can handle standard 24lb copying paper; however, to achieve optimal performance glossy or photo quality printer paper should be utilized. Photo paper retails for ~$1 to ~$2 a sheet. Other than the fact that such units are expensive and their supplies are costly, they also tend to be rather bulky (Alsop 221). Although photo printers are good products, "once some company figures out how to make a real photo printer (a small one that's cheap to buy and operate), we will finally have a usable digital photography system" (Alsop, 221).

Despite the drawbacks, digital photography is continuing to gain popularity and making groundbreaking advancements with each passing day. Manufacturers are working hard to refine digital cameras. They are not holding back from producing digital cameras with all the latest bells and whistles. Some of the new features that have recently hit the market include: optical zoom, improved CCD technology, 5.2-megapixels (among the highest resolutions an image can obtain on today's digital cameras), 340mb Smart Cards (storage capacity of a whopping 518 images), NiMH rechargeable battery packs (long term shooting), add-on dedicated flash (for supplemental lighting), add-on lenses and filters, rapid-fire shooting, various exposure modes (programmed aperture and shutter priority and manual settings give control of exposure metering), exposure compensation, multiple resolution modes (different ways to handle file compression) and USB connection (now, the faster and easier way to connect camera to the personal computer)(Lawrence, 60-64).

With all these new advancements and features, it is just going to be a matter of time until this emerging trend becomes a standard. However, Julie Adair Kings, author of Digital Photography for Dummies, provides an excellent word to the wise when she says:

    "Whether or not digital will completely replace film as the foremost photographic medium remains to be seen." "In all likelihood, the two mediums will each secure their niche in the image world." "So make a place for your new digital camera in your camera bag, but don't stick your film camera in the back of the closet just yet." Digital photography and film each offer unique advantages and disadvantages, and choosing one option to the exclusion of the other limits your creative flexibility" (19).

Works Cited

  • Alsop, Stewart. "Digital Photography is the Next Best Thing." Fortune, August 4, 1997: 220-221.
  • Dillon, Nancy. "Digital Camera Gains Among Business Users." Computerworld, December 8, 1997: 53, 56.
  • Folkers, Richard. "Pixelated Photography." U.S. News and World Report, May 12, 1997: 77-78.
  • King, Julie Adair. Digital Photography for Dummies: 3rd edition., California: IDG Books. 2000.
  • Lawrence, James. "The Digital Camera Comes of Age." PC Photo, April 2000: 60-64.
  • Miller, Larry S. Police Photography: 4th edition. Ohio: Anderson Publishing Co. 1998.

*Retail prices reflect the price of the items described in this report as of April 24, 2000.

About the Author

Robert Fried is currently a graduate student at the University of New Haven. He is pursuing a M.S. in Forensic Science with a concentration in Advanced Investigation as Well as a Certificate in Information Protection and Security. Robert holds a B.S. in Forensic Science as well as a Certificates in Law Enforcement Science and Forensic Computer Investigation from the University of New Haven. His future plans are to enter into the field of computer forensics. Any correspondence with the author should be directed to Robert Fried via email:

Article submitted by the author
Article posted June 4, 2002