The Shift to Digital in Photographic Education

What are the effects– positive and negative– on the photographers of tomorrow and the schools they attend?

By William Schneider Back to


Photography’s future is, in many ways, in the hands of today’s photo students, and it should come as no surprise that photographic education has been profoundly changed by the coming of the digital camera. College darkrooms still exist— especially in the fine arts, where the desire to retain darkrooms is stronger than in applied photographic fields—but the majority of applied photographic careers available to students upon graduation require digital photography skills.

Newspapers abandoned darkrooms years ago and won’t hire a photographer who is unable to work with a digital camera and Photoshop. While there may be isolated exceptions, most wed- dings and portraits are photographed digitally for speed and convenience. Film retains some life in commercial photography, but digital backs for large- and medium-format cameras drive the high-end of the market serving ever-impatient art directors and clients. In commercial photography, film has mostly become a special effect reserved for an unusual campaign or a different look.

This new reality has forced many institutions that teach photography to reexamine their curriculum, their facilities, and begin equipment requirements for entering students. Of course, all this mandates new classroom skills for the educators themselves. The past 10 years have brought a whirlwind of change to photographic education, and these winds of change have brought both blessings and curses.

Educational facilities

On the positive side, digital provides many advantages in photographic education. One obvious example: there is no need for a dedicated darkroom used solely for photography classes. A lab full of computers running Photoshop can be used in the morning by a photo class, and a mere double-click later can be used by a page-design or copywriting class. Savings and environmental benefits can accrue from a switch to a digital curriculum. With digital, local chemical disposal is no longer an issue. The large quantities of water that once flowed in school darkrooms are not needed. Associated plumbing woes also disappear.

It’s not all a lab full of roses, however.

In a digital lab, the computers themselves may last five years before they reach the end of their life—and then another couple thousand dollars per seat is required. Software is updated every 18 months on average, and the accumulated upgrade costs over the years vastly exceed that of a traditional dark- room. The days of buying a $700 enlarger and having it last for 20 years are not remotely possible with digital. “You buy a darkroom only once,” as Bob Thall, chair of the photography department at Columbia College Chicago quipped.

Further new costs come from maintenance: many institutions have added computer technicians to the payroll to troubleshoot computer issues, rollout software upgrades, maintain

security in networked systems, and generally keep the professors out of trouble. By contrast, a simple device like an enlarger could be repaired using a wrench or screwdriver with very modest mechanical aptitude.

An emerging technology can be appealing merely because it is new and different. Administrators, sometimes lacking in broad vision, completely abandon the past and push for the latest technology in order to tout how they have “modernized” the institution on their résumé. These same visionaries often fail to plan for inevitable maintenance and upgrades.

Increasingly, many institutions are adding technology fees in addition to tuition to cover these increasing expenses. This financial burden is placed squarely on the shoulders of the students.

Even more troubling is how darkroom maintenance is some- times left wanting as money flows to support the digital side. Of course this depends upon the school and the budget available to maintain darkrooms—schools such as Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and Columbia College pride themselves on the quality of their traditional darkroom facilities. Other schools have reduced darkroom staffing and maintenance to save money or to spread limited resources to the digital side. And leaky faucets, battered equipment, and delaminating countertops don’t encourage student fondness for the school darkroom.

Effects of digital on student learning

Classroom instruction in photography has benefited from the instant feedback provided by digital technology. Lighting or exposure demonstrations in class are immediately viewable by the entire class using a digital projector. Digitized student work can be sorted, edited, and displayed before the entire class very quickly. In contrast, only a few students could easily huddle over a light table as contact sheets or negatives were edited in the past.

A digital camera display provides immediate feedback concerning camera technique and composition. This potentially speeds learning for beginning students. Major focus, exposure, or compositional errors can be seen immediately and may be corrected if the situation permits. Of course excessive photo “chimping” (constantly looking down at the display to see what’s been shot) can become a crutch for some students, but the positive aspects of quick feedback are hard to dispute—or are they?

From the educators I’ve informally polled, the positive impact of quick feedback is most apparent for beginning students, but opinions are mixed for upper-level students where emphasis shifts to issues of composition.

Jeanie Adams-Smith, associate professor at Western Kentucky University sees a faster learning curve in the beginning classes. She points out that digital photography invites making more frames, and that might also be a factor in learning.

However Marcy Nighswander, professor in the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University and a Pulitzer- prize winning photojournalist, states that the quality of photo- graphs in today’s upper-level digital classes are about the same level as those made 12 years ago using film. She doesn’t see the potential advantage of quick feedback being demonstrated in actual student work—at least in upper-level classes.

Nighswander is also quick to note that without the burden of film and processing costs, more photos are made for each assignment. In her past film classes, each student averaged about 100 exposures per photojournalism assignment. With digital cameras, the average is three or four times that amount, with an occasional student taking 800 or so photos. One educator polled for this article called excessive shooting “digital diarrhea.” It has often been said that the more you photo- graph, the better you become. However the ease with which digital can produce more photographs per assignment is a double-edged sword that invites an unthinking shotgun approach to photography for some students.

The extra exposures made per assignment can increase the instructor’s burden. Not only are there more photos to edit, but there’s also a significant bottleneck to display each picture on a computer screen compared to glancing over a page of slides or negatives with a loupe. Adams-Smith overcomes this problem by requiring all students to make a computer-printed “contact sheet” for their assignments. This forces a tighter edit of work by the students before submitting assignment pictures.

Gary Kirksey, an associate professor in commercial photography at Ohio University, has seen only a modest increase in the number of photographs taken for his studio classes. He’s noticed that students take advantage of the digital camera’s quick feedback to zero in on proper exposure and lighting, but that without the uncertainty of film, they stop experimenting with composition once they see a technically good photograph on the display.

On the flip side, “Digital allows a photographer to easily create multimedia pieces and to think in terms of multiple images instead of single images,” according to Bruce Strong of the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communication, Syracuse University. “By shooting a burst, intentionally capturing an elongated moment, students are able to make cinematic projects in multimedia programs.” With most newspapers embracing new media like audio, video, and the Web for survival, Strong’s beliefs parallel the new direction for photojournalists.

Burden on students?

While there are no film and processing costs to burden students, the cost of a quality digital-camera body is substantially more than its film counterpart. The photojournalism and commercial photography programs at Ohio University require that every photography student have access to a digital SLR. RIT begins similar requirements in fall 2008.

In the past, students would borrow a relative’s Canon AE-1 or Pentax K1000 for their beginning classes, and eventually buy a newer body for advanced classes. Because of the dearth of acceptable digital SLRs lingering in relative’s closets, most students now opt to purchase a new digital camera. (And of course the value of that digital camera declines much faster.)

Another common financial burden for students is a laptop computer to gain full-time access to needed photo software. School computer labs, especially when used for other classes in addition to photography, are sometimes full. While a computer is not officially required by most institutions, many students find a computer is a de facto requirement to work efficiently. Eighty percent of new RIT students already have a computer, according to Bill DuBois, administrative chair of the photographic arts program at RIT.

Educational institutions are increasingly offsetting the cost of digital equipment in the form of lab or technology fees assessed in addition to tuition costs. In the end, this additional financial burden is borne by the student, or in diminished funds for maintaining a darkroom by the school.

Some schools have developed relationships with camera manufacturers to provide digital cameras and lenses for class- room demonstrations and for loaning to students for assignments. Sometimes this loaned equipment is sold at an attractive discount to the students at the conclusion of the school year. Students benefit from using the equipment and can try equipment to see what they really want to buy for themselves. At Ohio University, it should be no surprise that we’ve seen a marked increase in student purchase and usage of Nikon equipment after Nikon initiated a loaner program with us a couple of years ago. Western Kentucky currently has a relationship with both Nikon and Canon, and RIT has one with Nikon. Other schools may have no manufacturer support, but manage to provide loaner cameras through other means. Columbia College has a supply of loaner film cameras because of their focus on silver processes for the first two years.

Remember, however, that consumable costs are greatly reduced for students with digital gear, especially if their work is critiqued on screen or projected image. If not required to make prints, shooting hundreds of photos costs nothing more than a few cents worth of electricity (and storage media).

Any reservations?

A couple of educators polled for this article reported that they feel something is missing in a completely digital education. Pat Davison of the Journalism and Mass Communication depart- ment of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), and Pete Souza, of the School of Visual Communication, Ohio Univer- sity, think that the social culture and interaction of a traditional group darkroom encouraged students to compare photos with their peers and edit in an informal setting. The group setting influenced initial editing decisions and stimulated learning through seeing good examples from other students.

By comparison, today’s digital “lightroom” encourages isolation with individual students sitting quietly (or perhaps with music playing in earbuds) in front of a computer. By not interacting with others in the darkroom setting, they are obviously experiencing fewer points of view about their work. Adams-Smith of Western Kentucky thinks that the founda- tion and history on which the photographic industry was built is lacking in the digital darkroom. For example, many of Photoshop’s tools mimic their darkroom counterparts, but students don’t understand the reasons for the names or for the conventions used.

This nostalgic reaction by some educators is a reminder that the transition to digital is still young. Transitional problems like curriculum adjustment, workflow, archiving, and funding, still remain to be solved, although there is no doubt that digital photography provides advantages that film couldn’t.

Future of the darkroom

It is obvious that photo students now use darkrooms far less. Some schools, especially those teaching applied photographic disciplines, have abandoned the darkroom completely for an all-digital curriculum to mirror what has happened in industry. Even RIT, once tied closely to Eastman Kodak, has gone digital for most of its curriculum. Next year, all RIT freshmen students will be required to have a digital camera, according to DuBois. However, RIT will continue offering silver-based photo classes for advanced fine-art and advertising photography students.

One wonders how much interest today’s students have in traditional darkroom skills. Adams-Smith estimates that about 40% of her students are thrilled to learn darkroom work, but that 60% want nothing to do with it. Some of the photojournalism students of Pat Davison, associate professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, want to experience the darkroom but their curriculum is 100% digital. He refers them to a local photography association that offers public darkrooms (for $10 per term), or to the art department across campus where darkrooms are still used.

Although limited, interest in the darkroom remains among today’s students. I suspect that this interest will continue for some time to come, perhaps because the romantic notion of a photographer working in a darkroom is so deeply ingrained in our culture. Hollywood movies and stories of notable photographers struggling to tell a story keep the magic of the darkroom alive. And don’t count out the allure of seeing a picture emerge from a print in the developer—that’s something that isn’t quite matched by machine-produced prints of the digital age.

About the Author

William Schneider
William Schneider is an associate professor in the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He wishes to thank the educators and administrators mentioned in this story for taking the time to contribute their insights.