Technology and Image as a Commodity

I am a DTC major and I’ve studied computer science and computer engineering during my time at WSU. I imagine myself to be a web developer, someday. Because of this, I am very interested in the way digital photography has influenced technology and has changed the way we share information. While researching this topic, I learned a lot about how the trend of switching from analog to digital has affected our digital culture.

Digital Technology

Analog is a representation of nature, of how our world works and digital is a compressed form of that representation.

The technical details about going digital is that the compression of that data can save money, time, and equipment cost. For example, a dentist used to use x-rays and special materials to create a representation of your teeth and then stored that information in a paper file under your family name. This could take weeks to process any photos, x-rays and molds that were created during your appointment. When I was a kid and broke my front tooth, they took analog x-rays of my mouth, took Polaroids of my broken tooth and then fitted me for a mold so I could get a crown. This process took a few weeks, which is something that wouldn’t happen today because of technology.

Now dentists take digital x-rays of patient’s teeth, take digital photos of the patient’s mouth and store the patient’s information, photos and past records on a computer (which stores patient information in a database). The switch to digital allows dentists to show their patients their teeth on a monitor and provide a reference (before and after photos) of the work that has been done. In the past, people didn’t expect the dentist to share information about a procedure itself, they typically wanted to know if anything was wrong, how much it would cost, and how long it would take. Now that the baby boomer population is growing older, there are more cosmetic procedures available, such as teeth whitening, invisalign, and veneers. Patients are now accustomed to being an informed customer in other areas and are requesting more feedback regarding their health. The ability to share information quickly and in a visual manner allows dentists (and other health practitioners) to display high resolution photos on computer monitors, giving patients almost instant feedback during an appointment.

One issue with the switch from analog to digital is the expense for health practitioners, such as replacing equipment, training and integrating new services into an appointment. The replacement of equipment is costly, but most camera companies provide camera and software packages (with financing) to help with the change. The change also means that dental students must have experience using digital equipment and software in order to get a job with a technologically savvy dentist.

Plastic surgery is another health industry that is using digital photography to work with patients and provide a better experience. Plastic surgeons use digital cameras to photograph their patients before their procedure and a few months after the procedure in order to show the patient’s results, build a patient reference book and have visual example of their work. Since plastic surgeons typically work on the body, a patient must sign a release form in order to have their picture taken and a nurse will attend the patient’s session in order to deter any unethical behavior between the patient and the doctor. In some cases the doctor will also have the patient sign another release form if their results will be shown to other clients or included in the patient reference book. The plastic surgeon also uses digital photos as a visual reminder of what the patient wants done and any suggestions are marked on the patient’s body by the surgeon during the consultation, and then saved to the patient’s digital records.

Digital photography in the health industry is not limited to the patient/practitioner communication, it has also become a visual aide in online publications, websites and forums. Researchers can take pictures of their research and use it to collaborate with other researchers who are studying similar topics. Websites allow people to send in digital photos of bugs to experts in order to classify them or to help farmers identify a way to control pests. Health websites like WebMD are becoming more popular as the baby boomers age, and provide Flash slide shows for people to see visual examples of symptoms, ailments, and treatment. Forums are also a way for people with health issues can post digital photos and get feedback on their health issues from people who have similar ailments.

Digital Photography as a Commodity

Photography has been considered an art form and and also a way to capture a moment in time. With the advent of the digital camera, photography became accessible to the general public. As technology improved, digital photography changed from a professional-only profession to an ubiquitous part of digital culture. A digital camera has become inexpensive to produce and the components have improved enough to include them in other electronic devices such as cell phones, laptops and personal computers. The quality of an onboard camera or webcam is typically around 2 megapixels, which is good enough for a 4″ x 5″, photo quality print. In comparison, an typical camera at Walmart retails for approximately $100 and has a range of 8 to 10 megapixels, which will easily produce an 8″ x 10″ photo quality print. A digital SLR is capable of even bigger prints, as seen in this megapixel comparison chart.

The change to digital cameras has also enabled consumers to save on typical photography costs such as buying film, processing fees and storage. Instead of buying film, a consumer uses the memory card that comes with the camera, so they save money there, and also have the convenience of not having to carry extra film. There is still the issue of running out of film, which in the digital equivalent, is running out of space on your memory card. The difference is that people can choose to delete any pictures that didn’t turn out or if they can find someone with a laptop/computer (there’s always someone who brings their laptop to important occasions), they can copy their files to the computer and free space in that way.

There is also a change in the way people process their pictures from their digital cameras, as opposed to analog cameras. Before digital cameras, the average consumer had to turn in their film and hope that it turned out, otherwise they would be (in some cases) paying for a roll of bad pictures. There isn’t a digital camera around that doesn’t have some type of LCD screen to replay and give the user a chance to see if the photo turned out before they even think of processing the film. That is, if they choose to turn digital pictures into photographs. Social networks have made uploading and sharing photos a simple task, and many online image storage websites give the consumer plenty of space to store their photos for free, and give them limited bandwidth to share their images. In order for these websites to make money, many have processing services so if a consumer wants to have photographs for a scrapbook or a photo album, they can simply choose the photos they want to print, and have the copies sent to their home. Even printers have been influenced by digital photography, and most color printers have card readers to print directly from the printer. Graphic software typically have an Import tool to get photos from a digital camera attached to the computer, and many of the Net Geners have access to sophisticated graphic software that allows them to retouch, colorize, clean up and crop digital photos in their own homes, rather than having a professional work on their photos.

An issue that has come up with digital photography is how the photography profession has been influenced by how ubiquitous digital cameras and photography has become in the past few years. Companies are starting to look at stock photography sites for images rather than hiring a professional photographer for a project, which is a part of the crowd sourcing trend that has been occurring for the past few years. Digital photography has become a way for amateurs to compete with professionals because the costs of owning a quality camera has gone down. Websites like allow anyone to post digital photographs and video for people to buy or even use for free, so many companies are saving on costs by going there instead. One popular example is the Time magazine cover photo of a jar of coins, which was bought by the magazine from an amateur photographer. The cost of the photo was $30, a sharp contrast to a typical professional cover photo, which can run from $10,000 and up, depending on the subject and the photographer. Professional photographers were outraged and many people questioned whether using an amateur would ruin the photography profession and make it impossible for a professional to make a living. Others noted that even if a person owned a high-quality camera, it didn’t mean that the user had the skills, experience or training to routinely create professional quality photographs.

Another instance is the theme photo done at events and at shopping malls. A few years back a friend and I went to a show at the House of Blues, and a photographer took a picture of us, gave us a card with the image number and the url to her website. There we could order a copy of the photo and have it shipped to us, which I thought was neat service, since taking a camera to concert with a mosh pit probably wasn’t a wise thing to do. Even the holiday photo business has updated its business model. The last time I took my niece to get her Santa picture, instead of using a studio camera on a tripod, the elf used a point and shoot to take pictures of the children. In the past the photographer would take one, maybe two pictures and that was it, hopefully it turned out and the packages were expensive. Now they take a few pictures, and if they don’t turn out (and if they aren’t busy), they’ll take a few more, and you get to choose which one you want printed. Then you pay some extravagant amount and by the time you are done, you have your photo package ready to go.

Another change in the digital photography world is the ubiquitous nature of cameras, and how they are used to make money from celebrities, scandals and world events. Anyone with a cell phone can take video or pictures of another person and post them on the Internet for all to see. Celebrities are followed by paparazzi and websites like TMZ specialize in getting scandalous images or the latest breaking news, sometimes blurring the line between getting news and being ethical. Cyber-bullying is increasing in teens, and there are many websites that allow anonymous users to upload photos and videos of drunk college-goers in embarrassing positions.

In the past few years, people are starting to realize that their privacy is not guaranteed, and even if they are alone, they are not safe from the eye of the camera.

Discussion Questions

  1. Health Industry
    1. What are some of the issues with using digital photography instead of a regular camera?
    2. Do you think that people should self-diagnose using health websites or posting to forums?
  2. Photography as a profession
    1. Do you think that crowd sourcing will help you get into the industry as a college student? Do you think your feelings will change when you become a professional?
  3. Ubiquitous
    1. What are some examples of cameras or video surveillance that you feel is a part of “normal” life, but might not be normal to say, a baby boomer.
    2. What kinds of camera or video surveillance make you feel like your privacy is being invaded or is on the borderline (maybe you wish it wasn’t around, or makes you feel paranoid – see Enemy of the State movie).

Works Cited