One of the podcasts I subscribe to is Dennis Hays' Secrets of Digital Imaging. In his June 19th Podcast, he spoke about the ongoing debate he has with his sister over whether or not digital photography is "real" photography.
I thought I would post a few thoughts on this, since I found it an interesting topic for debate. I used to wonder whether a digital image printed from a lab was a "real" picture or not.
The word [photography] comes from the Greek words ??? phos ("light"), and ?????? graphis ("stylus", "paintbrush") or ????? graphÃƒÂª, together meaning "drawing with light" or "representation by means of lines" or "drawing."
So when we take a picture we're using the light coming from our subject to draw a representation on our medium, whether that be film or a digital sensor. This is never an exact representation, nobody has invented a film or sensor that can capture all the light coming from a subject. What we're left with is an approximation that is meant to look the same to the human eye as the real thing.
I don't know too much about film processing, but I do know that there are many techniques that a photographer can use in the darkroom to manipulate the final print, from how the film is developed, to how the image is enlarged onto the print paper. People have been burning and dodging, touching up dust specks and airbrushing images on film long before digital cameras came around. And film can always be scanned into a computer and edited with digital darkroom tools. Not to mention manipulating the actual environment (lighting, composition, etc.) to achieve a desired effect.
On the digital side of things, yes, the digital format is easier for most people to edit, but does this make it less "real"? Film can be modified as well. On the plus side, some digital cameras can give us the guarantee that an image hasn't been modified, by using encryption techniques similar to what your bank's website uses to make sure that your browser can connect to it safely. This is extremely important for law enforcement work where you need to be able to show that an image has not been modified.
Where does this leave us? Film and digital both capture light and record it, although in different ways. Film and digital images can both be altered to improve, repair, or even misrepresent the original subject.
If by "real" we mean, "is this the same image that was captured by the camera?", then I believe that digital has the edge since we can use encryption techniques to ensure that a given image has not been modified. For the present, the majority of digital cameras do not have this capability...which means that it comes down to how much we trust the people involved in bringing the image from the subject to print. Did the photographer change anything? Did the lab technician? Did the publisher? Is that image in the newspaper or magazine trustworthy? Whether the photographer used a film camera or a digital camera is irrelevant to the answer.