Paradigm Shift:
The Transition from Chemical to Digital Photography

Other essays in this series

In 1963 Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he introduced the concept of paradigm shifts.  In his book, Kuhn argues that scientific advancements do not happen gradually.  Rather, they happen through revolutions spaced apart by periods of relative calm.  The revolutions that Kuhn describes represent periods during which one worldview is replaced by another worldview.  Periods of relative calm represent times when the current worldview is left unchallenged.  These changes in worldviews are what Kuhn calls paradigm shifts.

Kuhn’s breakthrough description of the way scientific revolutions take place has found uses in fields other than science.  In fact, the expression paradigm shift has come to define not just scientific revolutions but also radical changes in our way of thinking regarding specific fields of human activity. 

Examples of paradigm shifts in science include:
- The Copernican revolution, during which people went from believing that the earth is at the center of the universe to believing that the sun is at the center of the solar system
- Darwin’s theory of evolution replacing previous theories of inherited characteristics
- Quantum mechanics replacing classical mechanics
- Plate tectonics as explanation for global geological changes
- Pasteur’s discovery that infectious diseases are not carried into the body from birth but external living organisms that find their way into the human body.

Examples of paradigm shifts outside of science include:
- DNA analysis replacing previous methods of identification
- Absolute monarchies replaced by democratic governments
- Specific inventions that transformed our relationship with the world such as the wheel, the airplane, the personal computer, etc.
- The use of an essay structure based on the purpose of the writer rather than on the 3-paragraphs theme (introduction, body and conclusion), a paradigm shift I personally experienced during my rhetoric studies and while teaching English at the university level in the early to mid-1990s.

Moose and Isle Royale, vertical version.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Digital collage from scanned film photographs, 1994

2-The Chemical to Digital Photography Paradigm Shift
The recent widespread dissemination of digital photography has resulted in a still-ongoing, global transition from chemical to digital photography.  In turn this transition has caused a paradigm shift in the field of photography. This shift is characterized by the following characteristics and consequences:

- changes in the way we capture photographs
- changes in the way we process photographs
- changes in the way we print photographs
- changes in the way we look at photographs

In this essay I want to detail the exact nature of these changes as well as their implications. While many, if not all the conclusions that I have reached can be applied to the entire field of photography, my personal expertise is in fine art landscape photography.  I will start my analysis by looking at the first 3 changes in the list above, then turn to number four in order to reach a number of general conclusions about what this paradigm shift means on a societal level.  My goal when looking at number 4 will be to outline the changes that this paradigm shift has brought to the way we look, approach and perceive landscape photographs.

In this essay we will also see that the paradigm shift I describe is far from being completed.  This should not come as a surprise.  The presence of a paradigm shift can be outlined far before its implementation is complete.  I will, therefore, in the course of this essay, point to areas where either this shift is not complete, or areas in which the previous paradigm continues to be used or to dominant.  In many ways, we will see that a paradoxical and at times ironical situation has developed, a situation in which digital tools are offered along with features designed on the basis of the chemical-photography paradigm.  We will also see that some areas of photography are embracing the new paradigm faster than other. 

As you read this essay you may find yourself saying, “There is no point going into all of that, I already know it.” As a photographer either working with or knowledgeable about digital photography, this is bound to be the case and I expect it.  Take it easy.  The point I am making is really in the conclusions that I reach throughout and particularly at the end of this essay, when I look at how photography is changing globally.  I could have done away with listing each specific change on my way to these conclusions, but doing so would have made this essay accessible only to those that are intimately familiar with the differences between chemical and digital photography.  I did not want this essay to be written solely for an audience of photographers.  Rather, I wanted it to be accessible to a larger audience who is not intimately familiar with the changes I outline.

I also wanted to provide a comprehensive list of the various changes that took place in the transition from chemical to digital photograph because, to my knowledge, such an essay has not been written.  As I previously said, I attempted to make this list as exhaustive as possible. However, if you find an item I forgot, kindly let me know and I will add it to the list.

It also needs to be said that most, if not all, of the many entries pertaining to individual changes could be turned into full-fledged essays.  I do believe that this is the case and that, should one be so inclined, it can certainly be done.  Personally, while I have done so for a number of entries which I believe to be particularly important, or which I find to be of extremely high interest to my readers, I certainly do not plan to write extended essays on each item listed in this essay. Doing so would be paramount to writing a dissertation, an endeavor that, while definitely worthwhile, is not my goal at this time.

These preambles having been addressed, let us take, without further ado, an actual look at the matter at hand: the exact nature of the chemical to digital photography paradigm shift. The full essay is available in my essay eBooks at this link:

Alain Briot


Essay and photographs Copyright © Alain Briot 2006
All rights reserved worldwide