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Navigating the film to digital transition

The process of capturing light and turning it into a durable image is approaching its 200th birthday.


The first permanent image created directly from light with no manual process or use of artists' materials was taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce by exposing a plate coated with Bitumen of Judea to light for several hours.  The process he used was one derived from printing, in which the unhardened parts of the image were washed away with acid, leaving a raised surface which could be used as a printing plate. 

That process eventually became known as "photography" - literally "writing with light" - and began developing at a rapid rate.  At first photos were all black and white, or more accurately, shades of gray.  Within 25 years  processes to take photos with color in them had been developed. 


"View from the Window at Le Gras"

Image Credit - Randy Finch's Film Blog

During the next few decades photographic processes proliferated and many improvements to the process were made.  One of the most significant was the invention and use of photographic plates which allowed for multiple copies of an image to be made.  Some of the older processes like Daguerreotype or Tintype produced one-of-a-kind images which could not be reproduced.   However, multiple "prints" could be made from a single photographic plate which paved the way for photographs to enter the mass market. 

Capturing the image remained dependent on photo-chemical processes up until the late 1920s when a means for transmitting images using radio waves (at that time called "wireless") was developed.  The first televised images were black and white, as the early still photos were, until 1954 when the first color broadcast was televised.  At that point in time all TV broadcasts were live because there had been no process developed for capturing the electronic signals from which the image was created.  That changed in 1956 with the introduction of the first video tape recorder. 

Electronic imaging - centered around television technologies - and film-based images were parallel art forms through the remainder of the 20th century.  Most movies - "cinema" - were still shot on film and people viewed them in theaters where they were projected onto a large screen using an optical projection device.  Eventually "direct to tape" productions started appearing in which the producers took advantage of the cost savings possible in the new medium.  "Still photographs" - the kind people hung on their walls - were still taken almost exclusively on film. 

This began to change in the early 1990s with the emergence, and convergence, of several technologies which would change the patterns of the types of visual images that people wanted and how they were distributed:  digitized media and distribution, and the emergence of the Internet.  The first commercially available digital still camera appeared in 1990.  Video recorded in analog format was still common until 2006 when digital recording became the norm.  The changeover from analog formats to digital formats for all media was hastened by the phasing out of analog television broadcasts in 2009. 

The stage was set for a massive explosion in content over the next few years.   The equipment necessary to produce content which had previously been so expensive that it was out of reach to anyone but large wealthy media networks eventually dropped in price to a level affordable by most people.  The barriers to entry for production of visual content had been lowered considerably, and the sudden rise in the amount of content produced by people who were not media professionals grew exponentially.  Additional distribution mechanisms and models evolved outside of the historic network structure.  Anyone with some simple equipment within the budget of the hobbyist and an active imagination could produce video, or music, or combinations thereof without having to jump through the hoops set up by corporate gatekeepers. 

As with any widespread changes at the social and cultural level, those people without habits rooted in "the old ways" adapted faster than those people who had them.  

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