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Maturity in the World of Digital Photography

Johnston on PhotographyJuly 2008

I guess it's the price of fame—or near-fame, or "sorta" fame. I run a popular web site called The Online Photographer. I don't like the term "blog," but it's a blog. It's been surprisingly popular—I usually tell people that it's small for a photography web site but large for a blog. We get between 17,000 and 34,000 unique visitors a day—far less than Photo.net or Flickr or Imaging Resource, but more than most blogs, even some very good ones.

The price of that success is that I've picked up a few hecklers. Often, these turn out to be people whom I've inadvertently offended somehow. (I always tell people that if I do something that offends them they should suspect cluelessness and disorganization first and malevolence last, but that doesn't always do the trick.) One fellow proposed himself for a picture feature on the blog I call "Random Excellence," and then apparently felt grievously wounded when I didn't use him for the feature. Ever since, he's been going to rather extreme measures to insult what he can see of my own photography at every opportunity. I think that's rather odd, because the purpose of my site isn't to showcase my own work, and very little of my work makes it on to the site. At any rate, he wants me to know that he thinks I suck. It's very, very important to him.


It got me to thinking, though. It's true that I publish a lot of, well, bad pictures. That's mainly because in many cases, I'm interested in something else besides the picture. Most often, these are "test shots." I'm sure most hobbyists reading this are intimately familiar with the honorable genre of the test photo. (Some hobbyists photograph little else, which I think is fine, as long as they're having fun.) When testing a camera or a lens, I really do take a lot of really bad, boring pictures—usually because they show me something specific about the product's technical performance. Here's an example:

Mike Johnston

This is a photograph I took with the Zeiss ZK 28mm f/2 Distagon T*, and the reason I took it is because it places a hard line in the foreground blur—I wanted to see if there was any doubling (ni-sen) in the foreground bokeh. But of course an incoherent, confused photograph of my birdfeeders is not, um, art. When I'm testing a lens, I'll take all kinds of photos in order to look at specific imaging properties: distortion, tonality, flare of various types, purple fringing, definition at infinity, corner blurring, and dozens of other things. I pretty much have it down to a routine. And almost without exception, the test photos, as pictures, are boring and lame. They just tell me what I want to know, is all. (In case you're wondering, my eventual conclusion was that the 28mm f/2 Zeiss Distagon has nice, smooth bokeh all around, and the foreground bokeh is fine. I'll probably review the lens soon, somewhere).

When I'm testing gear, I only pay attention to the technical properties my test photos show me, and ignore the aesthetic quality of the pictures.

And now for my thoughts on maturity...

But here's what's interesting: the opposite is also true. When I'm actually out photographing—that is, out and about pursuing "real" pictures—the kind I actually want to look at—I never pay the slightest attention to the technical properties of the lens. Then, the goal is to forget the equipment. What I've learned about the lens with my test photos might inform how I use it, how I go about approaching something, but once I've decided a lens is okay, I just photograph with it. If some slight technical flaw shows up in a picture, I don't obsess about it.

And when you think about it, isn't that really the mark of maturity in a photographer? He or she does the necessary research, acquires the equipment needed to do the work, but then gets on with the work. And forgets about the equipment. When you're photographing, technique should be transparent.

Stepping back even further into meta-territory, I think I could make the case that something similar has happened with the whole of digital photography. Digital photography, which was a glimmer on the horizon in the '80s, an emergent technology in the '90s, and arriviste for the first half of this decade, is mature now. Know how we know that? Because people are just using it to do their work without further comment.

Some of you might remember that I wrote a column called 'The Sunday Morning Photographer' that appeared on photo.net from 2003 to 2005. 'Johnston on Photography,' which will appear exclusively on photo.net on a monthly basis, is a revival of that older column.

Things have changed a lot in the intervening three years, though. It used to be that being digital was one of the main attractions of digital. But no longer. No longer does anyone make a big deal about a magazine feature being shot entirely in digital. No longer is the point of a picture or an exhibition, in effect, "look how far digital has come" or "you can't even tell it's digital." It's no longer important to people to try to assert that digital is as good as film—simply because, well, it is. The speed at which digital is dominating the market is no longer a common topic of conversation. It's already happened. All those things are signs that digital photography has reached maturity, I think. It's not even really "digital photography" any more. It's just photography.

And speaking of maturity, I wish those hecklers would grow up a bit. I'm just an unemployed single parent from the Midwest, not some glorious poseur with a camera. If I'm the best person they can find to be jealous of, they need to expand their horizons.

Anyway, I hope you'll come back from time to time to see some sucky (but perhaps informative) pictures, and even the odd, occasional good one. Next month, for instance, I'll be writing about a brand new digital lens that I think is one of the greatest lenses I've ever used. And that's really saying something, since I've used far more lenses than I care to count. (Don't assume it's the Zeiss I mentioned earlier. But don't assume it isn't.) Hope to see ya then.


Text and photos ©2008 Mike Johnston.

Article created July 2008

Readers' Comments

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Kevin Mayo , July 18, 2008; 04:28 P.M.

Glad to have you back I always enjoyed the Sunday Morning Photographer

David Lee , July 18, 2008; 06:27 P.M.

i have always enjoyed your blog and articles. good to see you here also!

Gary haigh , July 18, 2008; 08:51 P.M.

Thanks Mike for a stimulating read. All my shots are test shots and not some kind of end product and this even goes for the ones I exhibit except that I feel I just can't go any further with them.

Please keep writing.

Best wishes,

Gary Haigh


Miserere Mei , July 19, 2008; 12:47 A.M.

It's great to have you here again, Mike. Now I'll stop playing the fanboy and leave it at that.

PS: Looking forward to reading about the Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Ltd in your next column. I mean, that is the best lens ever, right? ;-)

bob wong , July 19, 2008; 12:58 A.M.

Mike, I would really like you to pursue one of your thoughts mentioned above "When you're photographing, technique should be transparent." but with a slight twist.

Forget the current paradigm of what a camera is and see what kind of gizmo you come up with that would help technique to be transparent.

Grix Grimes , July 19, 2008; 01:19 A.M.

This is good, another place to read your stuff. And all them archives? Yippee!

Bulent Celasun , July 19, 2008; 01:58 A.M.


If you do not want to remain as an "unemployed single parent midwest man", you should start using some girls (blonde or otherwise) in your test shots; bokeh can be nice but what about the rest of the picture?

Nice to see you here...

Markus Busch , July 19, 2008; 02:49 A.M.

Don't know you, however expected a different article from the title "Maturity in the World of Digital Photography". Was a long read to find out that it was not, what I expected.

Never mind, will try again.

Markus Busch , July 19, 2008; 02:50 A.M.

Don't know you, however expected a different article from the title "Maturity in the World of Digital Photography". Was a long read to find out that it was not, what I expected. Never mind, will try again.

Juhani Heiskanen , July 19, 2008; 03:10 A.M.

The gear has reached maturity but what about the syntax of expression, the visual elements and the content of the picture. The obvious example of this are the HDR photographs a new way of expression in the art of photography. So the next maturity step is about the visual ways of telling things in photographs.

One could also wonder how mature in this respect the film got during the time it was the de facto tool of photography.

Kingston SK Chang , July 19, 2008; 04:46 A.M.

So glad to have you back!!

Paul Beiser , July 19, 2008; 09:19 A.M.

Welcome, Mike! Loved your previous column (and a big fan of your books/collections), and nice to see this *and* your blog!

Patrick Gainer , July 19, 2008; 12:49 P.M.

In spite of the fact that I submited (and you accepted) a number of articles when you were editing "Darkroom and Creative Camera Techniques", we have never met in person. I feel cheated. I can't do much about it. All the French just celebrated my 81st birthday. They call it "Bastille Day" for some reason. I am now slightly more than 1/3 the age of the United States, to put it in a little different perspective. If you'd like to come see where I'm hiding, ask somebody how to get to 2700 Third Run Road, Glenville, WV. It's halfway up a 1200 foot mountain, but there's a good driveway, and it starts at 600 feet.

The doctor told me I have Sacro Ileitis. I said "Please translate that." He said "Pain in the ass." Talk about stating the obvious.

cynthia lively , July 19, 2008; 01:34 P.M.

terrific news! have been a big fan of The Online Photographer & check it daily.. linking your Johnston here so I won't miss a thing.. promise it won't hurt a bit ;0))

Peter Galuszewski , July 19, 2008; 05:10 P.M.

Hmm... the fact that this particular article exists disproves its thesis (re the maturation of digital imaging).

Les Myers , July 19, 2008; 07:02 P.M.

Hi Mike - welcome! I just came out of the darkroom after printing some lovely (if I dare say so myself) wedding shots- b&w film, that old analog stuff. But it was, as you note, photography. Not "analog," not "digital." I do enjoy the darkroom- no worries about data files crashing, carpal tunnel mouse machinations, etc. So here I am wearing my digital hat to write and send this comment.

Les Myers

Ira Crummey , July 19, 2008; 07:25 P.M.

Mike, I have been a constant reader for several years now, through SMP and on through the two renditions of TOP. I am glad to see a coloumn here again, it has a different focus from TOP and will undoubtedly be another regular read. I forgive you for not choosing my site in your Random Excellence section, unlike some people I didn't really expect to be picked anyway. Keep up the good work.

BTW, I was a fairly late hold out to film, not really "going digital" until the summer of 2005. Now I find that although the process has changed I am again concentrating on the image rather than the recording medium.


Andrew Smith , July 19, 2008; 07:49 P.M.

"Stepping back even further into meta-territory, I think I could make the case that something similar has happened with the whole of digital photography. Digital photography, which was a glimmer on the horizon in the '80s, an emergent technology in the '90s, and arriviste for the first half of this decade, is mature now. Know how we know that? Because people are just using it to do their work without further comment."

I think you're correct, and I think we're returning to focus more on the beauty of the photograph, rather than the equipment when we're also on the viewing end.

And heck, I think there's something to be jealous of! A career surrounded by something you love.

Well deserved.

Andy S.

Russell Guzewicz , July 19, 2008; 09:01 P.M.

Mike, Very glad to have you back. I have enjoyed your writing since I first discovered "The 37th Frame". Thanks. I look forward to your wonderfully eclectic trip thru our constantly changing digital world.

Chris Sugden-Smith , July 21, 2008; 08:07 P.M.


I first came across your articles as a subscriber to "Black & White Photography", the UK magazine. What emerged for me amongst, and out of the "photo stuff", was a sense of you, the writer, with a warmth and humor, as well as the technical experience. Visits to the TOP site have followed. Now, in perfect timing, I get the chance to read on with this new site !

I've just stepped, out and bought a Pentax K20D, my first digital camera, (Not counting the one on the phone). A black Pentax MX, with the 40mm F2.8 'pancake' was my first camera in 1977. Still in good order, and there are others, yet the Pentax remains the favorite.

Thanks for all that you, and all your contributors, give out, especially in the underlying values. (directly stated, or creeping-up-on-me-quietly-in-a-nice-way) May the community and these values grow. They're the best reasons I know of to pick up and use a camera.


Mike Johnston , July 22, 2008; 04:33 A.M.

Thank you all for this very warm welcome. It's quite humbling. It's also nice to recognize so many names...even though, as Pat (hi Pat!) says, I haven't met many readers in person. Still, a community it surely is.

Halfway up that mountain in West Virginia is one place I would surely like to go, Pat!

Thanks again, y'all.

Mike J.

Calvin Chiang , July 24, 2008; 07:47 A.M.

Hey Mike, Great to see you back in this format. SMP is one of my favourite ever internet reads. Online Photographer is great but mostly over my head ;) looking forward to some great stuff! Calvin

Arthur Plumpton , July 24, 2008; 10:11 A.M.

Wish you were back at Photo Techniques. My personal take on maturity in digital photography is not dissimilar to yours (which is also pertinent to silver-basedphotography), but I would add that maturity is also the manner of using Photoshop to "improve" camera images. Had a photographer visit the gallery yesterday with his portfolio - someone with a great eye for the world around him, but with an immature use of colour control in Photoshop. Result: overblown colours and unconvincing images.

Lawson Wild , July 24, 2008; 01:10 P.M.

Good article. Nice to read you here and in my regular read - the UK mag Black and White Photography.

Einar Landre , July 31, 2008; 02:22 A.M.

An interesting read. Look forward to read the August edition.

Landrum Kelly , August 02, 2008; 11:34 P.M.

Great news! I thought that we had lost you forever. I learned a lot from you and I am looking forward to learning more. Yes, digital has matured. I am glad that I have lived during this era of transition.


Peter Volle , August 07, 2008; 07:52 A.M.

Welcome back - I've always enjoyed SMP. I have very much appreciated your views on classic analogue equipment (and the way to use it) - still waiting for the long-announced comments on the Pentax LX, which was my first serious camera. Digital is what you say - it works fine, period, no reason for further debate. But in B&W, there is not much fun for me in using these plastic things to create nice pics without half of the effort it used to take, trying to achieve the same results with analogue techniques. I like a challenge, and it is much more satisfactory to me to create nice B&W pics, taken with cameras made when I (or even my dad) was a kid, in my old-fashioned darkroom - certainly an acquired taste nowadays. So, after even B&W Photography Magazine (and your column there) is turning more and more towards digital, would you please, from time to time, think of persons like me and comment on what life is left of the old-fashioned way of taking pics?

John Hiller , July 21, 2010; 12:27 P.M.

For me this piece offers a wonderful chance to see what we do in a new and important light. So often I find myself looking for that new lens that will give me what I really want, perfect images. When in fact the lens I have now will probably do the job. If I pay attention to what I trying to photograph. For 30-years I shot film, most of it Kodachrome. Today I shoot digital. The camera, lens and recording media are only tools. Yes, they can alter our pictures. But, in the end it's what's out there in front of the lens plus the quality and angle of the light that matters.

Barney Smith , August 09, 2010; 05:34 P.M.

I still think about the differences between film and digital.  Currently, I still use MF film in the studio and 35mm film for "regular" outdoor shooting.  The only time I've used digital was with a Canon point and shoot for times I did not feel like using money, wanted instant results for viewing and quick easy electronic sharing. 

Keeping on the subject of the maturing digital equipment.  If you want to look at it as being mature because of the fact that something being shot with digital equipment is no longer an issue or even talked about, that's fine.  I think that's a good point and a fine conclusion.   

However looking at it another way, I don't think that digital capture will be "mature" till the megapixel race is over and other issues are focused and improved.  When having more information does not add to the quality of the final output for a image of a certain size and when the amount of information captured for a given size vs quality (and distortion) can be no longer improved upon by very much 

Lets look at a couple of things I feel cannot be improved upon by much...

1.  Latitude, such has been the case with transparency film. 

2.  Tonal Range, for digital color images seem to be on par with color negative film and transparencies (as far as I can see).

An area that needs improvement (besides megapixels)

Tonal range for B&W images.  Once the megapixel race is over, manufacturers really need to focus on getting more tonal range out of their B&W technology.  

I think 35mm camera equipment and film was "mature" in the 1970s.  However look at the results that can be achieved with top 35mm (format) lenses and film of today.  Sure, it took about another 30 years to be able to see the difference, so in this case, I can conclude that 35mm camera equipment and film was "mature" in the 1970s and "very" mature in 2010. 

I've given this topic lots of thought over the last few years and I feel that digital is not close to being mature like how film was "mature" in the 1970s.  Of course today's digital cameras have the advantage of "mature" lens and camera design.  So the primarily focus needs to be with what captures light coming from the lens and how that is interpreted and stored.

Personally I think there has to be about another 20 to 25 years before digital can come close to being called mature like film was in the 1970s.  And of course even after that, there will always be small refinements like there is with today's film and lens technology though at a much slower pace over long stretches of time (a sign of mature technology).       

If digital capture ends up looking close to being the same 25 years from now, that would simply state that we have reached the end of improvements for a given technology.  In that case, I would also say that I would be wrong, very wrong about where we are at with today's digital capturing equipment. 

At the same time, we are all aware of how fast digital technology gets improved upon.  For example, look at how the new top digital cameras out perform the last generation of top performers.  And because that's still taking place today, I feel there's still lots of room for improvement before I can call digital capturing equipment "mature".

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