The Integration of Electronic Imaging into Photographic Education

Sabine Susstrunk
Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY
(Ms. Susstrunk can now be reached at Corbis Corporation,


In the last few years, photographic education has adapted to include emerging electronic imaging techniques. This paper will address the educational issues that arise with the integration of electronic photography into existing curricula, and will analyze the need for creating new ones. The similarities and differences of electronic and silver halide imaging theories and techniques will be discussed in terms of technical and visual content. The question of how much technical ability is required to use electronic photography systems creatively will be explored. The relative importance of rapidly changing hardware and software systems on the educational content of photographic courses will be addressed. The paper will also discuss the changing relationship between industry and educational institutions in terms of relative needs and expectations.


The impact of electronic photography systems on the commercial photography market has recently become noticeable. The once slow and expensive electronic systems have overcome many of their limitations and have become commercially viable tools for image makers. Today, photographers have a choice between using traditional silver halide systems, electronic photography systems, or a combination of the two-also called hybrid systems-in their image creation process. Educational institutions that offer commercial photographic instruction must adapt their curricula to educate their students, future professional photographers, on how to effectively use rapidly developing electronic photography techniques.

Electronic versus Silver Halide Photographic Theories and Techniques

Silver halide photography is over 150 years old. What started as a complicated, even dangerous process has become simple and almost completely automated. International agreements were developed to standardize products and equipment independently of the manufacturer. The technology has advanced to a point where simply pointing a camera and pushing a button guarantees a usable image under most conditions. The learning process for creating usable silver halide photographs is minimal.

Silver halide photography does allow limited manipulation of its process. As an example, photographers use over- and under-exposure in combination with push and pull processing to compensate for scene contrast and exposure range. Certain darkroom manipulations can enhance the visual impact of photographs. Generally, the amount of additional theoretical knowledge required to obtain a technically excellent silver halide photograph as opposed to a good photograph is not very high. Consequently, traditional photographic education concentrates more on the visual impact of different shooting techniques, the practical application of the theoretical fundamentals, and the creative process of photography.

At this time, electronic photography has not replaced traditional material and equipment, but rather added new elements and opportunities to the technical and creative process. Today's electronic photography systems can be compared to the systems used in the early days of silver halide photography. There is little automation and no standardization of the process. Pushing a button does not guarantee a usable image. The choices are extensive and have to be addressed before the actual use of a system. To make an educated decision about what process to use under which circumstances requires a knowledge not only of the different options, but also of the theory of electronic photography and the practical limitations of today's systems.

The reproduction parameters that define a technically good silver halide image are still valid in electronic photography. Extensive testing was executed to determine which tone and color reproductions produce the most pleasing image. Consequently, the tone and color reproductions of silver halide emulsions were adjusted to obtain the best image with little or no manual intervention by the photographer. Electronic photography systems, however, allow the user to change these parameters very easily. Virtually with a key stroke or a click of the mouse, tone and color can be adjusted to a degree that has never been possible to photographers before. Although these features offer image makers greater control over their product, the freedom to easily manipulate can be counter-productive. More education is required to make the user aware of the consequences of such manipulations, not only in how to do it but also in why or why not to do it.

The theory and techniques behind the creation of an appropriate shooting environment and an appropriate output that looks visually appealing in terms of color and tone reproduction remain basically the same in silver halide and electronic photography. However, the process from input to output of that image is fundamentally different. The overwhelming number of options and the existing limitations of certain features of electronic photography systems require that the users are well educated in the theoretical background of digital imaging. As an example, resolving power of silver halide material is not usually a major concern for photographers. The choice of film format and speed is based more often on shooting conditions and client considerations than on graininess and resolution concerns. The scanning of images to prepare them for the printing process is traditionally done by prepress operators, and does not involve the photographer. There is an "original" hard copy to go from, and communication between the two parties is limited.

If a photographer decides to use electronic photography to create an image, resolution becomes an important issue. There are many devices and options available to digitize image information. To choose the correct device and the correct settings the photographer has to evaluate shooting conditions, client considerations, and intended use of the image, and compare them to the available options. No red flag is displayed anywhere in the process when a resolution setting is chosen which is not appropriate for the intended use of the image.

There are many other examples that can be listed to illustrate the point that photographers using the new technology need to acquire a working knowledge of digital imaging theory and techniques to benefit from the options electronic photography systems can offer. Associated with that learning process is not only an expansion of services a photographer could possibly provide, but also the question of survival in the business.

Electronic Photography as a Creative Tool

Creativity and electronic photography have-in the strictest sense-no correlation. Although image manipulation programs offer opportunities that have not been possible with traditional methods, the outcome is not necessarily pleasing. Far too many times unsatisfactory visual results are produced by computer knowledgeable people with no visual training. An analogy can be established to the numerous desktop publishing products created by people that lack fundamental knowledge of design and typography. The "computer look" does not improve the image and more often distracts from the message communicated within the picture. Aesthetic considerations such as composition and the appropriate use of tone, color, depth, and motion are still far more important to achieve a strong visual impact on the viewers than the tools used to create them.

Electronic photography offers new ways of creating images in a style, form, and with content that has never been seen before. The many possibilities for manipulation of an image provide greater creative freedom to realize visual ideas than traditional silver halide methods. However, the same possibilities also necessitate that photographers be educated in the use of the tools and can pre-visualize their effects. A successful electronic photographer has not only mastered the techniques, but has also a strong aesthetic background in visual communication.

Electronic Photography and Educational Issues

Most educational institutions that offer courses in photography have realized that electronic photography is here to stay and have started to adapt their curricula. However, there are many discussions still going on whether electronic photography merits a degree track in itself or if it should become part of the existing programs. As far as the author is concerned, electronic photography is a tool that expands image makers' choices, but does not warrant the distinction between "photographer" and "electronic photographer."

However, there is a need for change in the curricula to include the emerging technologies. Because of the non-standardized and non-automated electronic processes and the abundance of options, the learning curve to master these systems is higher than in silver halide photography. Although it is to be expected that electronic photography systems will become more automated, and that the developing standards will soon be implemented, for the next few years educators, students, and professional photographers will be confronted with rapidly improving and changing technology. Consider that the life-span of black-and-white film kept in a refrigerator is far longer than the life-span of most software versions.

Ideally, electronic photography instruction is introduced as early as possible. Parallel with conventional silver halide methods, electronic photography methods should be explored. The sooner the students realize that electronic photography components are just other tools that can enable or facilitate certain tasks, the better they can apply them in the appropriate manner. Instruction in aesthetic considerations, lighting techniques, composition, and the appropriate use of tone, color, depth, and motion have to be emphasized as strongly as before.

Additionally, basic instruction in video editing, sound editing, graphic design, typography, and prepress should be included in the curriculum, not to make students full-blown multi-media artists, but to ease communication between the different specialties. Digital technology has facilitated the combination of different media and, by using many of the same tools, has blurred former job descriptions. Future image makers need to communicate closely with other media specialists to interchange ideas and relevant data.

The changing curricula needs require that the educators themselves be educated. Photography instructors traditionally have years of experience in the field and strong aesthetic and/or technical backgrounds in silver halide imaging. To effectively demonstrate electronic photography techniques in the classroom, instructors have to spend time learning about them and exploring new opportunities. To circumvent the issue, many educational institutions have started to hire computer specialists to teach their electronic photography courses instead of retraining the faculty. That trend reinforces the stereotype that electronic photography is something "special" and the visual outcome cannot be compared to a "normal" image.

There is, however, a definite need for computer specialists to care for electronic photography laboratories. The complexity of the systems requires that people responsible for their upkeep are well versed in electronics and computer maintenance.

Considering the non-automated and non-standardized processes and the short life-span of equipment, concentrating on teaching the theory behind electronic photography instead of the use of specific hardware and software will enable students to better absorb the rapid advances in technology and soften the effect of not having the latest piece of equipment available. However, the development of electronic photography systems is at the point were every new generation of hardware and software brings real improvements and not just cosmetic changes over former systems. Although it is not necessary for schools to obtain every new piece of equipment, it is imperative that they remain current to provide good education. That requires a much faster turn-around of hardware and software than of the equipment used in silver halide photography.

Today, part of an institution's attraction is based on the percentage of graduates that find employment in the field, as can be deduced from the inquiries of prospective students and their parents. To provide a good education and to keep providing a good education, schools have to adapt their educational programs to the demands of the professional market.

The Relationship between Industry and Educational Institutions

Electronic photography is expensive and continues to be expensive. Considering the price tag of hardware and software and their very limited life-span, educational institutions have to invest major funds every year just to keep their equipment up-to-date. Concurrently, federal and state funding for education has decreased steadily over the last few years, and tuition fees at most institutions have reached a maximum that cannot be increased without causing a substantial decrease in enrollment. Educational institutions are forced to cut back their budgets and to look for alternate funding to keep their equipment current.

The photographic industry has traditionally been very supportive of education and has donated equipment and material. However, with the development of electronic photography, new manufacturers enter the scene who have not traditionally been associated with the photographic industry. New relationships have to be established. The amount of capital involved and the life expectancy of donations has also changed. Whereas sixty thousand dollars are sufficient to equip a school with twenty or more high-end silver halide cameras including a variety of lenses that can be used for decades, the same amount might buy two electronic still camera systems of the same apparent quality that need to be replaced within a few years.

Industry has a vested interest in the quality of photographic education. On one hand, graduates form a pool that can be tapped for future employees. The employment market has expanded tremendously for electronic photography graduates; the imaging industry is starving for people with a working knowledge of electronic imaging. Recent graduates with a good education in electronic photography theories and techniques have had no problems finding a job. Not only are they employed as assistants by photographers who want to start using the new technology, but also by organizations that manufacture equipment, and by the applied imaging industry in general: service bureaus, professional photo labs, advertising agencies, publishers, etc. Consequently, today's students are the future buyers of electronic photography products. It has been established that people tend to stay with familiar brands to minimize the training period associated with new buys. It can be deduced that the product names the students were exposed to during their education will feature prominently in their decision making process.

From an educational point of view, keeping equipment current is imperative to provide good instruction and to attract new students. Considering the rapid advancement of electronic photography systems, establishing long term loan agreements with industry that allow the option of updating the equipment is often more desirable to educational institutions than one-time donations.

In exchange, educational institutions can offer a free testing ground for new products. Functionality and robustness are evaluated by a number of people. Features that are developed in a laboratory setting and do not hold up in practical use can be identified quickly. Specific projects to investigate areas of interest to industry can be incorporated into class work. However, expectations and feasibility have to be clearly formulated by both sides at the beginning to prevent any miscommunication and possible disappointments that lead to a termination of the relationship. Students first have to be educated in the area before they can do testing at the level of expertise expected by some donors.

An additional advantage educational institutions have to offer is that their equipment could be available for workshops and seminars for a professional audience. Professional photographers are aware of the impact of electronic photography, but feel insecure due to the sheer number of options as well as the contradictory messages published by advertisers and trade publications. They hardly invest the capital required without any previous training. Many of them contact their former schools to see if they offer any instruction in that area. Electronic photography seminars and workshops are extremely popular, and are usually booked solid. As electronic photography systems' manufacturers have recognized the need to educate professional users, a collaboration between educational institution and industry in this area could also be beneficial to both parties.

Educational institutions have to realize that for many years to come, the advancements in electronic photography require a continuous investment in its technology. If they depend on industry to supply them with the newest equipment, they have to be prepared that they might have to offer more immediate benefits than the promise of well-educated graduates. The electronic photography industries have to be aware that if they continue to expect well-educated graduates, their continuous support of educational institutions is imperative, and that their loans or donations have a very short life-span and must be continuously upgraded to create a positive impression.

Closing Remarks

Electronic photography offers new and exciting tools to create images. Working professionals as well as students need to be educated about the possibilities and the appropriate use of the systems. However, photography has not become "simpler" with the arrival of this new technology. A good image has primarily a strong visual and emotional impact, and a good photographer uses whatever tools necessary to achieve that.


This paper reflects the author's personal view and does not represent an official position of the Rochester Institute of Technology.