Digitisation & Fulfilment in Photography

Why film is the solution to diminishing human involvement in the photographic process.

Neal Gruer
10 min readAug 28, 2020
Berlin © Neal Gruer

All forms of digitisation have the effect, and typically the intention, of reducing “imperfection”. Audible highs and lows are shaved off music by MP3s; ultra-HD televisions output more detail than is perceptible by the human eye; Google Maps eradicates the risk of getting lost; AI assistants inform us of what we “need” before we even know we “need” it. In a world of commercial, capitalist pressure, people pay grand sums for exactitude, or at least its illusion. Money chooses precise outcomes over uncertain processes.

Fundamentally, human beings are analogue creatures. We don’t click; we flow. We are imbued with imperfection. No body or mind is born without idiosyncratic “flaws”, big and small. Given this fact, our insistence on increasingly digitising our lives is simultaneously understandable and ironic. It’s understandable, because perfection is seen as the ultimate accomplishment — unattainable, but worth pursuing. It’s ironic for the same reason — perfection’s unattainability makes it a falsehood; a non-existent, abstract concept so often based on fear — of inadequacy, pain, solitude or mortality.

While digitisation touches all aspects of life, nothing has succumbed more than photography. Unlike other artistic processes, it’s an extremely new and still developing form of creative expression. After the first recorded photograph in the early 1800s, it took over a century to be accepted as an art form, giving it an epochal blink of an eye to establish itself before the digital revolution arrived to completely upend its upbringing.

Despite all the technological advances, it remains the case that, as humans, the more we use our body and mind in unison to skilfully perform a challenging act, the more we can gain. Digitisation may have given us convenience, but in doing so, it has increasingly stripped human involvement from the process of taking photographs. This diminishes its huge potential to be fulfilling and meaningful, both to the photographer and as an art form. To maintain photography’s value, manual photography — most naturally performed on decades-old, mechanical film cameras — is essential.

Digital v Film

Undoubtedly, digital photography is inherently more versatile than film. Part of this comes from the ability to significantly and easily alter an image long after it was taken, but so much comes from the electronic power and computational assistance of the camera itself — autofocus, auto lens stabilization, auto (and very high) sensitivity to light (ISO), auto-metering, auto-this, auto-that, auto-everything you like. Add to this the immense storage capacity of a single memory card and a photographer needs to do little more than point the camera and press the button.

The insatiable argument is that by removing technical concerns a photographer can simply focus on getting the shot; thinking only about what should be in the image, not worrying about how to capture it. Naturally, therefore, when the concern is more about outcome than process, or cost than creativity, an automated, digital camera is extremely persuasive, substantially increasing certainty over the final result.

Istanbul © Neal Gruer

In comparison, a manual film camera is innately imprecise. Each of the user’s physical motions have an effect — a click to change the aperture, a swift turn of the shutter speed dial, a swoosh of the focussing ring. Even twitching or breathing can have a noticeable impact. A photographer must devise an image in their mind then, through the physicality of the camera, swiftly implement it with their own hands, aided by just a few basic mechanics. Even without accidentally exposing the film to light or damaging the film in the process of development, imperfections are inevitable in the pictures themselves. Yet they emanate feeling, character and humanity: a tender crumbling of the visible spectrum into tiny molecules, ecstatically reuniting under a chemistry bath to form expressive shapes and tones.

The contrast aligns with the contemporary social debate of equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity. An automated, intelligent digital camera offers equality of outcome — so much is done by the machine that it will help even the most unskilled user to produce a technically decent image. On the other hand, a manual, analogue camera offers everybody the same opportunity to take a picture — a passive tool reliant entirely on the user’s capability for it to work.

Hands Stimulate the Mind

Obstinate socio-political debates aside, the precipitous increase in automated photography (commensurate with steeply decreasing human involvement in picture-taking) dramatically changes photography’s capacity to be fulfilling for the photographer. There is a deep connection between what we do with our hands and how we learn, remember and interpret information. A useful hypothetical comparator is handwriting. Numerous studies have identified its cognitive benefits. In one such study, writing notes in a lecture was found to be advantageous over typing:

…even when laptops are used solely to take notes [without the variables of multitasking and distraction], they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.

Bucharest © Neal Gruer

Further studies reinforce the stimulating connection between hand and brain: children pick up comprehension of letters much quicker when writing by hand; and as they get older, idea generation is better performed by those with good handwriting:

…good writers activated more than poor writers in brain regions associated with cognition, language, and executive functions… and also in working memory, motor planning, and timing.

These studies not only demonstrate the logical connection between body function and brain stimulation, but also digital devices’ ability to sever that connection. In photography, studies have frequently shown a negative impact on memory when smartphone cameras are used to document an experience — worse than if no photos were taken at all. It is often surmised that simply “taking photos” causes this problem, but deeper studies show that even a small physical act, such as zooming-in on a detail improves the photo-taker’s memory, not only of that detail, but of the entire subject:

…the additional attentional and cognitive processes engaged by [zooming in] can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect [on memory].

If this is indeed the case, it follows that cerebral stimulation will be increased if more “attentional and cognitive” processes are utilised while taking a photograph. Manual photography, with its many levels of advance preparation and in-the-moment activity, offers this in spades.

Additionally, with the need to stop and wind forwards a roll of film after every shot, and a typical limit of 37 shots per roll, a manual film photographer’s speed is limited. As per the note-taking study mentioned above, this is analogous to the speed limitations of handwriting, where the imposed, slower process is a determining factor in increasing the qualitative usefulness of notes taken, both mentally and on the page.

Admittedly, this type of “attentional cognitive” photography can still, to some extent, be achieved with digital cameras — turn off the screen, put everything on manual and fire away. Equally, film cameras are not universally manual — many feature extensive automation. But the greatest advantage is still to be had from a mechanical, manual film camera. Unlike digital cameras, which encourage use of their computational power and speed at every turn, manual film cameras were born basic; designed to yield to the bearer, relentlessly and without remorse.

Athens © Neal Gruer

Technology Tips Towards Zero

Furthermore, accepting digitisation in photography becomes a slippery slope. With every incremental improvement, every subtle innovation, human involvement gets closer to being removed entirely.

Take Arsenal, for example. It’s a small, Kickstarter-funded piece of tech, designed for landscape photographers. Affixed to a digital camera, it functions as follows:

  1. Arsenal quickly examines the scene. It uses image recognition to identify environment and subject-specific needs (e.g. fast shutter for birds or camera vibration).
  2. Arsenal then finds great settings by comparing the current scene with thousands of professional photos using a convolutional deep neural network.
  3. Lastly, Arsenal optimizes settings based on 18 different factors, like hyperfocal distance, sensor dynamic range and lens transmission.

Arsenal lets you control your camera from up to 100 feet away. Use the smart assistant AI, set the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, see a live preview, or trigger the shutter from your smartphone.

In summary, you put your camera in front of a scene and with Arsenal attached, stand 30 meters away and let it take “perfect” photos. 15,766 backers pledged $2,650,310 to help bring this project to life. It is popular.

If anything marks the impending death of human involvement in photography (and widespread enthusiasm for its euthanasia) it is Arsenal. What could be more lustful for a pre-determined outcome than a computer using a convolutional deep neural network to decide everything about how a photograph should be taken. While the photographer still needs to choose the subject, it would only be logical for an updated version of Arsenal to propose exactly where and how the camera should be positioned. Human involvement reduced to propping up a machine and following its instructions.

Taken further, how long before we simply attach a camera to a drone and send it on its merry way? It flies around until finding the AI-determined “best” scene; hovers there until the “best” light appears; takes the “best” photograph (based on an analysis of every landscape photograph ever taken); uploads the “best” shots to the cloud for analysis and selection, then flies back to its charging station. Human involvement reduced to zero. Which brings us neatly to the biggest culprit of photographic digitisation. The ubiquitous smartphone.

Zagreb © Neal Gruer

New smartphones now come with at least two lenses on the back, and many with three or four. This provides multiple data points to the camera software, making the final image appear as if it had been taken by more advanced equipment. In particular, “Portrait Mode” applies a concert of AI measures to an image — smoothing skin, blurring the background, altering lighting and contrast — giving the impression it was taken in a studio. Currently, the software is still young enough to give noticeably flawed results, but it is quickly and vastly improving. Soon, simply pointing a phone towards a person will be sufficient for a “perfect” portrait photograph to be taken. Everything will be done by software. Even pressing a button will be unnecessary.

It’s already begun. Since the Pixel 3 was released in 2018, Google phones can now:

…analyse photos and pick the best shots in a given batch. With Top Shot, you’ll be able to capture a number of photos before and after the moment you press the virtual shutter button, while the software will pick out the best shot.

And the “Photobooth” feature automatically:

…takes a bunch of photos of you or your friends, but only when it recognizes that the subjects of the photo are making a funny face or smiling. You don’t need to even press the shutter.

These innovations and their kin stem from a desire for perfect, effortless outcomes. In turning attention from the digital process to its outcomes, at what point is human involvement so diminished that the idea of “art” evaporates?

Importance of the Artistic Process

Considering most artworks never gain a wide audience (or any audience at all), art’s true essence must lie in the process undertaken by the artist, rather than a beholder’s observation of the completed artwork. If human involvement decreases in the process of making art, the artist is denied the opportunity for maximal human experience. Consequently, their artworks are denied the maximum potential expression of what it means to be human, making them spiritually and philosophically less valuable.

Without human involvement in art, images, books and sounds become isolated functional commodities, designed only for the satisfaction of their consumption. Over time, the compounding effect will be the reduction of organic creativity — ideas become algorithmicised, filtered, perfected, narrowed and dehumanised; existing only to be marketed and sold for titillation and satiation.

Helsinki © Neal Gruer

When it comes to photography, given its literal manner of representing exactly how a subject appears, siphoning off the photographer’s involvement eradicates much of what differentiates one image from the next; its artistic potency. It is the difference between a sculptor using a hammer and chisel versus a 3D printer; a painter using a brush and oils versus an iPad; a drummer striking skins versus tapping buttons on a drum machine; or a student taking notes by writing versus typing. The weight of responsibility rests with a flesh and blood person, wrestling with the rules of physics, biology, chemistry, and their own consciousness, presented by a vast universe we are barely able to comprehend; unlimited by the confines of a semi-intelligent machine with rules created by another human being.

Yes, digital cameras can still be used with huge amounts of human involvement, but using a mechanical, manual film camera, entirely dependent on human involvement, offers the purest potential for fulfilment, and therefore, artistry. It forces contemplation, understanding and foresight before the act of photographing; decisiveness during; and humble acceptance afterwards. Amidst the ongoing acceleration in digitisation, film is still the best photographic method for engaging our humanity and creating from our core. In return, tremendous joy and fulfilment awaits.

Berlin | © Neal Gruer

All photographs taken by Neal Gruer on 35mm film. Visit nealgruerphotography.com for more.



Neal Gruer

Scottish-Ghanaian writer, photographer and former lawyer; currently based in Bucharest, Romania.