Digital Imaging Vs. The Darkroom; Developing Our Attitudes As We Expose The Future

Photography is a wide-ranging field that engenders passion in its practitioners, and like all great forms of expression creates opinions formed through experience and reflection. In its early days one of the great debates was: Is Photography Art? This was the subject of many essays and heated discussions among players and spectators. Today, issues such as film vs. digital, format choices, the validity of computer-generated images, photography as exploitation or revealer, and even the merits of inkjet vs. silver prints cause similar debate. We are opening this department up to readers, manufacturers, and retailers--in short, everyone who lives and breathes photography and who has an opinion about anything affecting imaging today.

Here's how to get involved: write us an e-mail at or send us a letter with a proposed topic and a synopsis of your idea. Once approved, we'll ask you to send us about 500-1000 words on the subject chosen. The idea here is not to push any product or wave any flag, but to create discussion about photo and imaging topics of the day. We reserve the right to edit whatever you send in, although we will never edit intention or opinion but only for length and, hopefully, for clarity. We reserve the right to publish your work on our website as well, so you can join the archives and be a resource for opinion for years to come.

So, get thinking and writing and share your Point of View.
--George Schaub

Today there exists no doubt that digital technology has in fact revolutionized photography. Photographers are practicing new methods of recording, storing, and presenting their images. So, how are schools adjusting to the paradigm shift? How long will traditional darkrooms and the courses they afford be with us?
Research, in an attempt to find some answers, exposed some attitudes that reveal the "heart" of the instructors as well as necessary curriculum changes that cannot be ignored if student needs are to be met. School boards, administrators, teachers, and, of course, the students have provided the following points of view:

The Decision Makers...A Sensible And Realistic View:
The thoughts that are developing to fruition for the decision makers are straightforward: Digital imaging is no trend. It is the "focus" of the professional and business world and thus, will be a part of our school's instruction, curriculum, and budget requirements for the future. The job of these decision makers is to provide learning opportunities that will meet the needs of the people they serve.

School boards, administrators, and photo departments are making decisions that will alter how photography is budgeted and taught in our schools. Appreciating the value of past contributions that photography has had on influencing and impacting our society, they still must consider the improvements that technology brings to photography. They must decide if the merits of photographic instruction will be practically taught using current curriculums and conventional means.

The concerns are honest and numerous: Administrators feel that their teachers will follow curriculums that will represent all essential facets of photography, traditional and digital alike. Art will be emphasized in all assignments and not be limited to the wet lab process.

In high schools and most colleges, teachers will be required to instruct both conventional and digital areas of photography. This is unavoidable because of limited space, course offerings, and the required logistics of full-time employment. In institutions where advanced photographic studies are offered, specialists will teach various disciplines.

Some institutions of advanced studies will offer conventional courses in the Photo Department while digital imaging will be offered from the Printmaking Department. The majority of high schools and colleges will include digital imaging within the offerings of the Photo/Art Department.

The curriculum for commercial, editorial, and journalistic photography is becoming digitally based in most schools. The conversion is rapid because professionals in these fields have already made the transition.

Many schools are finding it more financially feasible to provide digital labs because all the components for digital imaging can be housed in one room--the only need being adequate electrical power. The expense of building darkrooms because of the large footprint that is necessary for separate lecture rooms, developing rooms, and darkrooms is challenging school budgets. It's argued that computers, hardware, and software are not cheap. However, most school budgets and overrides earmark technology as a big part of their budgets. Most students have computers at home and are acquiring digital cameras on their own. They can work when motivated without being dependent on an institution with a darkroom. Health hazards and the mess that traditional film and print processing presents to our environment is another concern worthy of consideration.

Purchasers for schools must consider future purchases and budgeting for the maintenance of photographic equipment. Enlargers, film washers, and dryers as well as processing chemicals will be less affordable and obtainable in the foreseeable future. The marketing budgets and strategies of imaging icons have already announced that they have eliminated their Photo Lab Management programs. Their future research and development will be mostly in the realm of digital imagery.

The Teachers...A Dedicated And Loyal View:
Although photography teachers maintain a certain bias for areas in their profession, loyalty toward meeting the needs of students remains paramount. Those who lean toward film remain infatuated with the nostalgia--the "magic of the darkroom," which continues to bring satisfaction.

There are those who appreciate the past and yet are motivated by the potential of digital imagery as well. These teachers realize that digital has transformed photography and will be the medium that motivates the youth of tomorrow. They have experienced the fact that more students are being exposed to photography today because of digital imaging. They maintain that contemporary photo students desire to learn skills that carry over from other computer experiences learned earlier in their lives.

Why aren't all teachers on the same page considering what the digital side of imaging has to offer? Good question. Could it be that experience, personality, and acquired abilities have determined where the heart lies? In spite of affinities or druthers, indicators show that instructors are "team players" and are willing to teach what student needs dictate.

Currently, the role of photographic curriculum is reversing in emphasis. School districts are now inclined to include traditional wet lab units as part of a course, which is primarily digital in origin. This concept varied according to the location of the school and is directly correlated to the students who are still registering for traditional classes.

There seems to be no intention to totally eliminate the "wet" lab experience for the present. The idea is to keep darkrooms in schools that currently exist so that students can learn about how things "used to be done." Shooting and developing film would become a unit of study in a beginning course, losing its identity as a semester-long endeavor.

In order to better equip traditional wet lab teachers, administrators are providing opportunities for workshops which will provide additional knowledge for teaching digital imaging, as well as how to set up, organize, and link workstations for optimal instruction. Curriculum needs, in most cases, are simply attained by changing the semantics of existing courses. Instead of words like darkroom, they use the word lab; image capture instead of shooting on film. They do have to add information about CCDs, resolution, megapixels, how images are stored...and the list goes on.