Digital Art is Not Photography

When asked to critique a photograph I pass over digital art — not because it is less than a photograph, but because it is not a photograph.  This is not an insult or put-down. It is an acknowledgment of the progression and evolution of visual art in the world today. Digital art does not need introduction, but the difference between it and photography needs revisiting.

Digital art, thanks to the talented computer artists of the world, has earned its way into the realm of fine art as its own genre in the visual arts. It is exciting and very different from photography. And it comes with a whole different set of skills.

What is digital art?

Today’s digital art has become its own genre and it has its own artists, experts and judges: those who are usually well versed in Photoshop and other advanced photo editing software, as well as computer hardware. Big software programs are required to handle big photo files and powerful computers are required to handle big software programs. Digital artists are usually image and computer experts. Just as photographers are image and camera experts.

Digital artists create their images in-computer. If they are also a photographer, they can use their own image as a base, or, with proper permissions, they can use images made by other photographers. With digital art there are few reasons for mistakes. They can “undo” a mistake a hundred or more times. They can use multiple layers and masks to protect delicate and complicated work history. They have infinite time to finalize their vision. And … they have to create, where a photographer does not, and that is not easy. It might be one of the hardest things to do, across all the visual arts.

What is photography?

The word photography means the capture of light. It does not mean the manipulation of things captured by the camera. That is part of digital art. It is critical to understand the difference if you want to call yourself an artist of either one. Incidentally, and accurately, many call themselves an artist of both.

Photographers make their images in-camera and use photo enhancement software to bring the image to resemble what they saw in the viewfinder. They compose in-camera. They can be visionary and see a final image that is different from what is in front of them; most artists do. That is when they enter the world of creation and digital art. Photoshop and a little skill can take care of those visions for them, easily.

Photography is different today

Because we capture photographs now on digital media instead of film does not mean they are not images of light. They still are – our cameras are still made to capture the image that way: with a light-tight device, lens, aperture and ISO settings, and so on. The major difference is that the images don’t live on strips of film anymore. They live on little pieces of digital media. We open these images in Photoshop and that is where the ideas and activities of the photographer and the digital artist diverge. With photo editing software the photographer is finalizing their work and the digital artist is just getting started.

What is the big difference?

Unless someone changed the rules when I wasn’t looking, a photograph is a single moment in time, captured as a single image. And sometimes as a double- or multiple-exposure. As stated earlier, digital art can be a compilation of many images made over many sessions behind the computer, however long or short, or sophisticated or simple, they want to make the image. One is a real moment and one is a creation.

Can one image be photography and digital art?

In my humble opinion, a photograph ceases to be a photograph once manipulated beyond the moment in time that was captured. It evolves into something different. It becomes part of a digitally manipulated work of art. It becomes digital art.

Integrity still matters

How can you tell a photograph from computer art? You can’t anymore in most cases. When looking at photographs I’ll admit to asking myself “is that real?” I honestly cannot tell just by looking online at what is a real photograph and what has been created in some photo editing software. These times they are a changin’!

It is up to the artist to submit their work as a photograph or a work of digital art. If you are a contest judge you can ask for the in-camera file as a record of what was captured at the moment if that’s important to the contest. This happens in many genres of photography, especially where the truth of the moment carries a lot of weight.

The left photograph is what came out of my film camera. The right image has undergone considerable Photoshop work as you can clearly see. The work has gone well beyond ‘clean up’ and normalizing in photoshop. This is no longer a photograph but digital art. And it does not reside on my website as either.

The above digital art is an example of how some photographers use photo editing software. It exhibits common ‘clean up’ work that photographers often do. But I went beyond ‘clean up’ by cloning out a lot of branches, cropping it and removing a bird. Cloning distracting objects is pretty standard for photographers working in Photoshop, but completely removing, or adding objects, as I have here, is not. It’s no longer a photograph but a creation based on a photograph. It isn’t what I saw in the field. And I don’t claim that it was.

In summary

Digital technology didn’t change the idea of photography any more than the creation of tube paint changed the idea of oil painting. It changed one of the tools we use and made it more convenient, but it did not change its purpose: a resulting image. What digital technology in photography did do, quite unexpectedly, was launch a completely new and thriving art: digital photo art. Today’s digital artists are making as much money as traditional painters by their name alone! That’s quite something.

Digital Art was born long ago but only nurtured recently with the ease-of-use of the digital camera, and the endless creativity and enthusiasm of today’s amazing artistic minds. I am blown away by what is being created now and I can hardly wait to see what’s next.

Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins. All rights reserved.

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