Academic and Pedagogical Issues: The Impact of Digital Imaging on Photographic Education

Margaret P Evans. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History and Science. Editor: Michael R Peres. 4th edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007.


In the fall of 1993, after 20 years of working with a variety of traditional photographic media, I enrolled in the first of four courses in digital photography at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). I was between teaching positions at the time. Previously, I had taught photography courses in two separate photography degree programs, using traditional materials, processes, and creative methods. Increasingly, teaching position announcements were calling for knowledge of or experience with electronic imaging. My enrollment at RIT was an effort to prepare myself for one of these new positions. I was the oldest person in all of my classes.

The administration of the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at RIT had been encouraging all members of the faculty to participate in seminars designed to introduce this new technology, which would eventually be phased into the curriculum as degree component requirements. Nevertheless, some of the photography faculty at the time were reluctant to believe that computer imaging could rival the traditions of film cameras and chemical darkrooms. Admittedly, despite the various forecasts that computer imaging would become dominant, the idea seemed far-reaching in 1993. By today’s standards, computers, especially the Apple Macintosh for which most of the computer imaging programs were created, were expensive and slow. The software, including the foremost Adobe Photoshop, was tediously limited. Digital cameras were completely outside of most individual budgets, even for many professional photographers, and the image resolution remained seemingly light years away from that attainable with film. The best the industry could offer at the time was high-quality and expensive drum scanners and film writers that offered a “hybrid” of film and computer technology.

Computer imaging had been a common tradition in the publishing and advertising industries for many years before Adobe Photoshop or Apple Macintosh computers. However, those processes that mysteriously transformed photographic images into composites for the printed page were, in the early 1990s, for technicians rather than the creative minds behind a camera. Camera and darkroom traditions had been around for more than 150 years. By 1993, engineers at companies like Kodak had been tenaciously re-inventing and enhancing the standard technologies of film and photographic chemistry for nearly 100 years.

Yet, twelve years later, on June 16, 2005, Eastman Kodak announced that the production of their black and white enlarging papers would cease. Fifteen thousand jobs throughout the company would be cut by 2007, and a plant in Brazil would close. The announcement coincided with continuing reductions in profits from the traditional photographic market combined with an increase in the production of digital materials and equipment.

These were changes occurring at Eastman Kodak, the world’s first and largest photographic company; the company whose motto was “You take the picture, we’ll do the rest.” That motto has now been transformed: “We make the equipment, you do the rest.”

Back in 1993, I interviewed a number of professional photographers regarding the influence of the new media on their work. Everyone, including commercial and news photographers as well as internationally acclaimed artists, spoke of the transitions they were making based on the trend toward computer imaging. These photographers had all become involved in some way with digital imaging technology.

In a rapid transition, the faculty at RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences came to embrace digital imaging as part of the curriculum and in their own work.

Computer imaging technology is now an integral part of the curriculum in nearly every photography degree program across the nation. Every photographer has been touched in some way by the new technology. Most of today’s photographers own at least one digital camera.

Mission Statement

Following my year of RIT courses in digital imaging, I did find a new position teaching traditional black and white and digital photography in the Communication/Journalism Department at Shippensburg University, one of the 11 Pennsylvania state university campuses. My initial tasks were to set up a new digital imaging Apple Macintosh computer lab and develop a course in digital photography.

The first step in expanding a traditional photographic curriculum to include digital technologies seemed to develop a mission statement. Faculty members in my department decided to bring in a consultant who had been part of the initial transition to include digital imaging in the curriculum at RIT. Professor Douglas Ford Rea had been the first faculty member at RIT to organize and teach a course in digital photography and was invited to share his expertise.

Professor Rea presented a daylong seminar to the faculty of the Communication/Journalism Department at Shippensburg University. Discussion topics addressed recent shifts in the industry: ways in which to prepare students to use the changing current innovations in digital technology, curriculum planning to include digital imaging, emerging innovations in digital cameras and image capture peripherals, and challenges created by choosing appropriate desktop computers and graphics and visual communication software.

As a result of the seminar with Professor Rea, a department mission statement emerged for developing a computer-imaging curriculum in graphic design, desktop publishing, magazine and book publishing, photographic imaging, and video imaging. It was important to recognize the impact of electronic imaging on commercial markets if our graduates were to be competitive in the search for professional positions. Instruction in the tools of electronic imaging systems would be incorporated in the curriculum to meet students’ needs. The change was inevitable, and the transition would take years of continued research. Grants were written to establish and upgrade computer labs. Searches were conducted for adequately prepared faculty to teach new and upgraded courses. The economic impact of this change would positively affect new student enrollment both in our department and in the university.

Curriculum Issues

Curriculum issues in the teaching of photography in the early 21st century are central. My experience with the transition from traditional imaging to current technologies has been in a department that teaches an array of imaging courses in print journalism, public relations, and electronic media. All these areas have been affected by the change to computer imaging.

We currently operate three state-of-the-art computer imaging laboratories: an Apple Macintosh imaging lab, a PC electronic publishing lab, and an Apple Macintosh electronic media lab. All three labs have been established through successive grants from the university’s technology funding administration. Additionally, grants are written each year to upgrade hardware (computers, digital cameras, printers, scanners, and other peripheral equipment) and software, including that which is used to teach digital photography, desktop design and publishing, and video editing. (More on grant writing appears later in this essay.)

Initially this essay will address issues concerning the teaching of photography and the transition to digital imaging, concentrating on the pedagogy of photography and digital photography. The emphasis will be not on isolating the digital imaging process, but on bridging the connection between the two technologies by teaching traditional photography and digital imaging in tandem.

A principal component of teaching photography is to inspire a stronger understanding of critical thinking. Both photography and digital photography are taught as electives in our Communication/Journalism degree program. Students in my courses are juniors and seniors. The courses are technical and skills-oriented, yet students must engage a number of thought processes to communicate an appropriate message.

Traditional photography emphasizes four basic tenets in the Introduction to Photography course:

  1. To see as the camera lens does
  2. To understand that the camera is a mechanical instrument subject to human control
  3. To view and interpret images in various contexts (e.g., art, advertising, documentary)
  4. To comprehend that every viewer brings individual biases to the interpretation of images

To see as a camera lens does means to understand that the world through the lens is fragmented into small selected rectangles of information. These rectangles can be vertical or horizontal. They can be flat or reveal depth; include a small detail, a medium view, or a wide vista; and they will include every piece of information in the scene within range of the lens. For example, sometimes, inadvertently, we find a tree growing out of a subject’s head. Chords, light switches, and distracting lines may “mysteriously” appear in the frame.

The camera’s lens mechanically translates what appears in front of it on film in a series of tones that reveals shadows and light. The image is an abstraction of the real world. Regardless of the mechanical nature of the medium, the photographic record is not the actual real world. Rather, it is a translation or interpretation of that world.

The camera has mechanical controls that determine exposure, depth of field, and point of focus. The photographer controls point of view, aperture or shutter priority, exposure override, type of film, lens focal length, specific focal point, framing, and distance between subject and camera. The various choices of camera settings and points of view will yield diverse results.

Following an initial assignment designed to teach students how to control cameras for correct exposure and focusing, students complete an exercise in equivalent exposure. They must choose three different subjects. Two of those subjects must include some kind of movement. For each chosen subject, once the correct exposure is determined, students must choose from a range of aperture/shutter combinations to produce equivalent exposures with varying results in depth of field and either blurred or stopped-action movement.

Students complete one additional assignment in exposure control by learning to interpret meter readings and bracket exposures. The negatives show that some difficult lighting situations may call for an override of the meter’s indication of a correct exposure.

In the darkroom, students learn to print black and white negatives on standard 8 × 10 inch resin coated enlarging paper.

They become increasingly skilled at manipulating the overall and local contrast of the image and in recognizing where, when, and how to enhance detail within the frame. All images are printed full-frame in order to teach the importance of seeing the image at the time of shutter release rather than later in the darkroom.

Viewing the results of exposure preferences helps students to understand how choices in range of focus and frozen or blurred action affect the message of the image. During critiques, students analyze their own results and those of their classmates. They begin to understand how critical thinking about the message within the frame is demonstrated by how the photographer manages the mechanics of the camera.

Elements of composition are taught early in the semester, as many of my students have not studied any form of visual art prior to taking the Introduction to Photography class. A slide presentation in the elements of composition teaches students that the rule of thirds, simplicity, line, shape, balance, and framing all contribute both aesthetics and meaning to an image.

The abstract concepts I introduce on the first day of class are the similarities between photographic language and written or verbal language. Both languages contain simile and metaphor. During the first class, students explore images by known photographers like Edward Weston and those taken by former students to look for these concepts. Through these exercises, students learn that photographs may look like something other than the literal object they represent and the image subject may be unrecognizable from that original object, despite the mechanical nature of the medium. The photographs may contain symbols that have different meaning for different people. Visual simile and metaphor add to the significance of the photographs by enriching their subject matter with multiple levels of meaning. Successful photographs connect verbal and visual language.

Once students understand the mechanics of the camera and film and have practiced composition in framing their initial assignments, they are given two important projects that demand more advanced critical thinking of the message within the frame. One assignment is a series of portraits taken both in the studio and on a location of their choice. In both cases they must learn to control the lighting and collaborate with their subjects in order to create a portrait that engages the viewer beyond the surface of the photograph.

The second of these assignments addresses photojournalism and documentary photography. These subjects require the greatest amount of critical thinking for students in a communication/journalism major. The study of these topics includes discussion of the concepts of objectivity and truth. All photographs are empirical and conceptual on some level, whether they are journalistic or works of art. There are agendas to be met when taking and publishing photographs in newspapers, magazines, and on the Web. Every photographer views a situation from a different perspective, and every viewer receives the information through a set of individual predispositions. There are no absolute truths. There is no possibility of simple objectivity. Point of view and interpretation are part of every image.

In addition to photographing an event or creating a short documentary, students must choose a controversial photograph from a newspaper, magazine, or book and write a critique, indicating how technique, lighting, perspective, point and range of focus, and framing affect the message of the image. Class discussion of this topic including analysis of images in a slide presentation, written image critiques, and class critique of the completed assignments promote a more complete understanding of how photographs, despite having been mechanically produced, are subject to the rational lens of both the photographer and the viewer.

By exploring the mechanics of photography, analyzing images presented in class, and creating and critiquing photographs from assignments, students learn the power of critical thinking. In a world in which photographic images inform every aspect of our daily lives, it is important to expand the depth of our thinking so that we can become more aware of how the camera serves agendas. We must question what we see and how we think about what we see.

Digital Photography

Digital cameras operate very much like traditional film cameras except that the image capture is on removable media rather than on film. No chemical processing is needed and no film is consumed or has to be stored under archival conditions. The results are immediately available, and the capture media can be used repeatedly. Because of the instant gratification nature of digital capture and the “click and undo” aspect of digital image processing, many of the critical thinking steps of traditional film photography have been eliminated. The photographer still has to consider how manipulation of camera controls affects the visual message, but one can effortlessly generate numerous images with different perspectives and ranges of focus faster, covering more possible interpretations of a situation, and subsequently and easily, either eliminate the unwanted views or decide later which is most effective. With film, all of these steps can require laborious, cumbersome, or time-consuming effort. Also, photographic information can be altered more quickly, easily, and spontaneously in the all-digital world than with the traditional film or the film-to-digital hybrid forms of photography.

For these reasons, I require a course in traditional photography as a prerequisite to enrolling in digital photography. The process of critical thinking is as important as creating the images. As I described earlier, traditional film and chemical processing teach critical analysis with each new step. Eliminating the tactile, hands-on work that promotes satisfaction with each roll of film that uncurls from the reel and every image that emerges in the developer often means taking shortcuts to achieve results that require control and thoughtful creativity. There are many important links between traditional photography and digital imaging. Grain size, contrast, burning and dodging, cropping, and masking all have equivalents in both worlds. The frame of reference from the study of traditional film and darkroom processes allows students to make the transition to digital imaging responsibly and thoughtfully, with their critical thinking fully engaged.

Although my course is called “digital photography,” digital cameras and their use are only one component of the syllabus. I present the camera and send students out to take pictures, which are subsequently downloaded and converted to TIFF images. The cameras are available for loan throughout the semester, and students are encouraged to use them to create images for the course as well as for their own creative use. However, much of the course includes working with image processing in Adobe Photoshop and with peripherals such as scanners and printers.

I teach as many hands-on tutorials as possible so that students can learn the processes of image manipulation, while also learning to consider the technical requirements. Thinking creatively is essential. These tutorials also allow students to work together in class, following instructions and learning to use Photoshop tools.

The three major and somewhat demanding major technical areas of digital image processing are presented as lectures and demonstrations. These areas are input (getting images into the computer with digital cameras, scanners, and photo CDs), color management, and output (or printing or optimizing images for the Web and other electronic publication). Each of these steps includes an important course assignment that reinforces the classroom discussions, demonstrations, and presentations.

In the tutorials, students learn how to use selection tools, how to create and manage composite and adjustment layers, how to restore and use color creatively, how to choose and apply filters, how to create effective shadows, and how to blend image elements to create believable composites. The course assignments require that students scan and repair grayscale negatives and prints; scan, repair, and restore color photographs; create composite images; and create posters that depict messages regarding socially relevant issues. The color images are printed on color photo inkjet printers. Many are placed on view in our building’s hallway display cases.

Students’ previous experience with traditional photography has established knowledge of lighting and image contrast as well as critical analysis of image messages. One of the most difficult things to learn in the digital darkroom is when to stop working an image. Someone once said that Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous “decisive moment” has become the “decisive three weeks” in the digital world.

Making the Transition

For an institution that has not yet made the transition but would like to make the move to digital imaging, there are a number of important considerations:

  • Finances
  • Equipment and software
  • Computer lab space
  • Qualified faculty
  • Library and other resources
  • Developing appropriate courses

Financing the establishment of a digital imaging facility, qualified faculty, and library resources is the biggest issue. At my university and throughout the state system in Pennsylvania, grants must be written to establish need, academic integrity, coordination with other programs, periodic assessment methods, library and other resource needs or sufficiency, impact on educational opportunity, identification of qualified faculty, space availability, and budget requirements for equipment and software. Additionally, since hardware, software, library resources, and faculty qualifications are ongoing costs requiring frequent upgrades, new grants must be written to cover these costs every one to two years. Additionally, faculty must refresh their knowledge and update their presentations to meet the ongoing changes in the field.

A private institution with a large endowment may not require grants to cover initial foundational costs, nevertheless, it may require substantiating narratives in the form of curriculum rationales to add facilities, equipment, and faculty resources.

The most efficient way to gain qualified faculty, if an added tenure-track line is not feasible, is to retrain existing photography faculty to teach the new courses. A photographer can learn digital imaging fairly quickly. Proficiency rapidly improves over time by working with the equipment and software. If the institution is fortunate enough to have funds for additional faculty lines or if a line opens due to a retirement, there should be no problem filling the position. Qualified MFA graduates with digital imaging credentials are now readily available.

Developing appropriate courses is a matter of writing proposals that list many of the same proponents as grants that establish the facilities, excluding the budget but including a detailed syllabus. At Shippensburg University, one course must be dropped if a new one is to be added. As the curriculum changes to emphasize computer and digital technology in all phases, some previously existing courses will become obsolete. It is usually not difficult to find courses that have not been taught in three years or more.

How to Find the Right Photography Degree Program

Students looking for the right photography degree program should consider the following questions:

  • Do you want to make photography your career?
  • What are your goals as a photographer?
  • How far from home are you willing to go to attend a college or university?
  • What are your family financial resources?
  • How much financial aid do you require?
  • What colleges or universities will offer you the best financial aid package?
  • Do you qualify for financial aid grants, loans, work-study, or scholarships?
  • What kind of climate is best for you?
  • Are you looking for an urban or rural setting?
  • What approach to learning is best for you?
  • Do you want to focus primarily on your career skills or are you looking for a more liberal education?
  • What photography and electronic imaging facilities does the college or university offer?
  • What degree level do you want to achieve?
  • What level of diversity of student body are you hoping to find?
  • Do you want to study abroad for part or all of your education?

When the above questions have been considered, the student can go to the Web sites listed below and begin to search for a photography school that most closely matches personal expectations. A student may have to settle for one or more trade-offs (such as a cold climate when a warmer place is preferred) if the program offered most closely matches one’s professional needs. This research requires plenty of time. A prospective student should not be shy about calling a faculty member or admissions office personnel for further information. Sometimes making that personal connection can be the strongest influence in making a final selection. The faculty and administrators are themselves interested in increasing enrollment in their program, and they are customarily friendly and welcome calls from those who are considering their program.

It is advisable to attend admissions fairs. Representatives from many colleges or universities are usually there and will be happy to speak with prospective students and parents. Once three to four applications have been completed, campus visits are advised as they are valuable in making the final decision. Viewing the campus and facilities for a major in photography and meeting some of the faculty give the visitor a definite sense of what to expect once enrolled in the program.


The study of photography opens avenues into a variety of career choices. The technical and visual skills required of a professional photographer provide the essential foundation to communicate ideas. The camera and the images created with it are ways to bring photographers closer to personal experiences and to critically evaluate world views. Digital photography is part of an increasingly large infrastructure of information technology. While electronic communication moves us into the world of the nanosecond, we should not lose sight of the fact that the flow of real content is the goal. Process generates ideas, which in turn produces content. Photography is a language that must be studied slowly, carefully, and methodically to understand its vocabulary.

Photography is an interdisciplinary study that contains rigorous theoretical connections to other disciplines such as philosophy, literature, history, social science, physics, chemistry, mathematics, communication, fine art, and journalism. The photographic medium can organize all of these disciplines through process and analysis of images. Digital photography is a way of advancing the discipline into the technology of the 21st century. However, electronic imaging requires a full and concrete basis in the original traditions of the medium to adequately comprehend the nature of creating images and the significance of those images to both the photographer and the viewer.