Digital Imaging Revolution


Metallurgy revolution changed the way of life in ancient China, by giving new and improved ways to manufacture better weapons. Industrial revolution at the turn of the 20th Century in Europe and Americas changed the world by putting a car on the driveway, and a television set in the living room in almost every household worldwide. Information revolution in the late 20th Century changed the way people work, play, communicate, invest, and even plan for their holidays. In short, every wave of revolution has a major impact of the lifestyle of the people at that time.

And now, at the dawn of the new millennium, the imaging industry is also undergoing a little revolution of its own too. While digital cameras aren’t making as big an impact as the Ford Model-T, or the Internet, but the change of the image-recording medium from emulsion coated acetate to solid-state electronics does impact the way people view images.

Note – we now no longer refer to the images as mere photographs. Photographic paper, of which the image is printed on, is merely a medium to carry the image. Two decades ago, the photographic paper was the exclusive medium on which images are printed. Imagine this – twenty years ago, you met this guy in a bar, and strike up a conversation, and before long, he pulled out a crumpled and discoloured piece of photo from his wallet, showing you an image of his wife and kids.

But fast-forward to the present day, people view images today through a variety of media, e.g. notebook computers, PDAs, television sets, cellular phone displays, and if Bill Gates has it his way, a battery-powered LCD photo frame, which can switch images on a pre-programmed interval. Imagine this again – you meet the same guy in the same bar twenty years later, but this time around, he pulls out a PDA, and gives you a slide show containing 512MB worth of Jpeg images of his wife and children… And that’s not all, he also pulls out a battery-operated dye-sub printer, links it to the PDA via Bluetooth, and proceeds to print a hard copy of his wife and kids at the beach… with his dog too…

To understand how this imaging revolution affects us all, let’s take a closer look at how the imaging system works as a whole. The pathway of any imaging system can be broken down into three major sections, i.e. input, editing and output.

Traditionally, image input simply means capturing an image onto a film of acetate, which is coated with a layer of photosensitive emulsion (read – photographic film), physically “burning” the image onto the emulsion. The image is “fixed” onto the base acetate film by means of chemical processing.

Editing and output is actually combined into the same step, of projecting the image on a piece of paper (base) which is also coated with photosensitive emulsion, after which it is chemically processed to “fix” the image on the paper.

Editing here means the method of controlling the “burning and dodging” effect of the image projected onto the photosensitive paper. An experienced printer can exert a great deal of control over how the image will turn out merely by controlling the way the paper is “burnt” during the exposure. I mentioned that the editing and output is combined into the same step because as you “edit” how the image forms onto the paper, you’re also permanently “printing” the image onto the photosensitive paper, short of chemically developing the photosensitive paper that you has just “printed”. Of course, aside from the consumer photographs, there are also the commercial uses of imaging too, like for publication purposes. I will not go into this section, as we’ll digress from the topic.

With the dawn of digital imaging revolution, the basic concept of imaging system changes very little. However, how these concepts are put into work is a big change from the conventional method. Take for instance the image input – instead of “capturing” the image on a photosensitive film, is it now “captured” on a film of photosensitive sensors. From here, the “information” of the image captured is transferred to secondary storage, i.e. memory card.

Editing is also now electronic in nature. You can now edit the images and see the preview of the image after every action, before committing it to a permanent print, unlike how it was done just two decades earlier. There are a host of image editing software in the market today, to satisfy every whims and fancies of the various types users. Be it simply for the family album, or for commercial publications, there is always one to satisfy the needs of every individual out there. Some of the more popular ones include Adobe Suite of software and Corel Suite of software, down to the humble Microsoft Paint, which came as part of the Windows Operating System.

Image output now also takes various forms. From the commercial laser/chemical minilab print to the household desktop ink-jet photo printer, and ultra-portable battery-operated dye-sub printer to the extra-large format commercial ink-jet printer, image printing now takes all shapes and forms.

But how does all these changes affect the regular guy on the street? How will all these new technologies improve his lifestyle? What’s most obvious is that the initiated can now take the control of how his images will turn out into his own hands. Technology has made it possible for the regular guy on the street to be able to do his own editing and printing, if he chooses to do so himself. No more third parties to screw up the images anymore… and also nobody else to blame if he screws up himself…

What all these mean is that output of images is now no longer the exclusive arena of the commercial colour labs. But does this spell the doom for your favourite neighbourhood photo shop? Not necessarily so. While it is possible for the general public to print their own photos, not many will choose to do so. This is partly because many don’t want to bother too much with learning the technical mumbo-jumbo of the editing software, and partly because they don’t want to invest in the digital imaging output system.

But while it won’t take away their exclusivity of their image output business, their business volume will definitely be reduced. Perhaps it is time for the commercial colour labs to concentrate more into providing photographic services rather than just providing photo finishing services only. The other area that the commercial colour labs can venture into is to provide digital imaging services instead, e.g. image editing, old photo restoration, pre-publication designing, and the most lucrative business of all, instant family studio portraits…

We haven’t seen the last of the changes to the imaging industry yet. So far, we’ve only scratched surface of the Digital Imaging Revolution. I believe that the future still has a lot of things in store for the imaging industry as a whole. The next change within this Digital Imaging Revolution will probably be the Photo Finishing Revolution, which I shall address in a later issue. So until that time comes, continue shooting, for the art of photography will probably never change…

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