Q Will digital photography make the Zone System obsolete

A: The answers are no and yes. Digital imaging techniques have changed our approaches to photography in ways that we are just beginning to comprehend. For many years it has been possible to digitally manipulate images designed for reproduction with methods so convincing that our notions of "photographic realism" no longer have conventional meanings. As profound as these changes have been, they have had relatively little effect on photographers committed to the aesthetics of the classic "fine print." The dream of many photo-artists has been that computers would provide an easy alternative to the labor-intensive multiple printing techniques perfected by Jerry Uelsmann, among others. But until recently there has been no way to use digital technology to produce manipulated continuous-toned photographic prints.

As of this edition of this book, all of this has changed. Both ink-jet printers and digital cameras have improved to the point that it is now possible to produce exquisite photographic images that are completely satisfying as fine prints. This is why we are now in the midst of what can fairly be called a revolution that rivals the emergence of the roll-film cameras years ago. Photographic film, paper, and chemistry manufacturers who fail to respond to these changes will soon disappear and many photographers find themselves grappling with adapting to a very different set of aesthetic and technical assumptions.

On the other hand, it is not a question of digital processes precisely replacing the qualities of fine silver prints. There will always be distinctions that will be important to specialists. Digital processes offer the opportunity to produce work that has extraordinary qualities that, while different from silver-based work, is fully resolved in its own terms. The formal and aesthetic equivalency of oil painting to pastels is a good example. It's simply impossible to imagine the world of fine art without one or the other. What will most likely happen is that silver-based photography will become a specialized practice reserved for those devoted to its qualities. This seems inevitable given the proliferation of digital cameras in both the amateur and professional markets.

What distinguishes digital photography is its ability to render fine prints on a vast array of paper surfaces and the fact that pixel editing software allows photographers to move relatively easily from the realms of objective, documentary-related ways of shooting, to the open, abstract, and complex layered image-making modes typical of collage/montage artworks.

But for all of the potential benefits of digital photographic processes, the transition requires a detailed understanding of radically new technologies. The fact that the Zone System has a great deal to offer photographers considering this transition is the premise behind the extensive digital chapter (Chapter 10) that has been added to this edition. You will find that it covers all of the issues related to this process in great detail.

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