Digital Photos & the Decline of the Real

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The sheer expanse of digital media has overwhelmed the human social conversation, leaving questions of quality, accuracy, and value in the wake of image overload. The process of capturing life on film has been largely forgotten as the process of digital manipulation has come to replace the sensitive and more time consuming process of film. As such, the quantity of images has largely eradicated the notion of quality in its bulk. The move towards everyone being a photographer has undervalued those who are highly skilled at the art. The question now emerges from the dross of digital images of what is the value of visual meaning today.

What Makes Meaning

The question of whether or not the sheer volume of digital images degrades the meaning in photography is foremost a personal question. While there was often less control of film media, that heightened the appeal of the final product which may be accomplished either with skill or luck. Memories of the past wax reminiscent:

There was a time when you’d come back from Spain, or even just the Jersey Shore, with a couple of rolls of film tucked safely in your toiletry bag. A few days later, you’d find yourself in line at the photo desk of your local pharmacy, waiting to retrieve your developed images with a sense of nervous anticipation. It took willpower to make it onto the sidewalk without sneaking a peek inside the envelope…For your efforts, you’d come away with something with which to fill a few pages of an album. (Rosenfeld)

The very process of procuring the image, the hunt for such perfection was so much of the journey, but now that this process has been neuter and over-controlled the images produced have lost some of their vitality. One of the reasons digital photos are less meaningful than traditional photos is the very nature of digital. Film offered a much more real, dynamic, and rich representation of reality as it captured the process of light being absorbed onto sensitive filaments which would be developed to reveal their impressions. This process is much like how the eye receives impressions from light waves and records memory. However, comparatively digital media is cold, and far removed from this human process as it simply translates image data into binary ones and zeros of computer code. 

The fascination with digital has completely killed the film market to the degree that even movies are no longer shot and shown on film, and theaters who could not upgrade to digital had to close. It is unfortunate that both film and digital markets could not exist at the same time, but the total supremacy of one over the other emphasizes the competitive nature of the market which forces quantity over quality. This fixation of the unlimited expansion capitalism economy is what forces through changes just for change sake.

(Figures 1 and 2 omitted for preview. Available via download).

Whether or not humanity wants to admit it, quality trumps quantity every time, and in many ways a hoarder is poorer than a homeless person who can appreciate their shirt. As such, the immensity of digital photos available today lessens their value just as much as the means to view them do not convey or allow for an intimate viewing film photos once did. Cultural observers eloquently express this as,

Along with the easy functioning of digital photographs nowadays, the entire sensation of viewing these photographs has lost worth also. Flipping through hard copies of printed photos brings countless memories, something someone longs to keep and never lose, unlike the easily erasable digital pictures on technological devices. Holding a physical copy of a picture adds sentiment, and feeling the glossy sheet of picture paper brings more substance and weight to a photograph. Digital files can be seen as trivial files with nothing but pixels and codes, only existing in the cloud of technology and lost with no feelings of loss or nostalgia. (Zhou)

One of the other reasons digital images have less meaning is due to the fact that the means of sharing digital data is less meaningful. The intimacy of holding photos in hand, sharing them through scrapbooks and albums cannot be replaced by any digital medium, and the very consistency of these mediums have made people dull and insensitive to what they see on screens. This issue is complicated by the reality of Photoshop, and with digital format there is less and less to believe in due to the high manipulative nature of the format. Cultural commentators point out,

And at the same time-as more and more pictures are taken on smartphones, ‘shared’ on social media if at all, then lost to the cacophony of the digital universe-meaningful images have become too scarce. Many of my friends, forever switching among their laptops, tablets and smartphones, can no longer even say where their photo files are located. (Rosenfeld)

As such real photos had the “reality” and tangibility to become heirlooms, which digital photos will never do. As one person recalls, “Do I really remember standing in front of Big Ben as a child, or do I just remember the photo of me doing so? I can no longer say for sure, but I do know that that photograph became part of my sense of self” (Rosenfeld). This is the meaning that people are missing, and how easy and manipulable digital images are leaves much to be forgotten. 

Quality vs. Quantity

One way in which the digital photography movement has eroded the meaning of images is also the ease in which quality photos can be taken, or snapped and then manipulated. This has lessened the call and value for professional photographers, and led many to believe that everyone is a photographer now. This has led to, billions of people, hourly taking images- there will be more photographs made in the next five than say in the last one hundred years1. Digital photography’s chief selling points- the abilities to see the finished product instantly and to take countless pictures without incurring any additional charge- have turned out to be mixed blessings. (Reid)

This has led to the supreme undervaluing and underpaying of credibly skilled photographers both digitally and film-wise. Due to the mass appeal of mass fascination, social conditioning has unilaterally embraced the expanse of the mass of images. In fact, to advertise the new photography capacity of the iPhone 6 Apple’s advertising campaign was to make billboards of the images shot by users on the phone not only to highlight the quality of the camera, but to emphasize that having it with you at all times increases the chances of you capturing those fleeting precious moments in life. This effort does much to blur and cross the lines of professional and amateur, as Apple's Shot on iPhone concept launched last March as a dedicated online portal called the World Gallery, which was followed by and outdoor ad placements around the world. The installations won Apple and PR partner TBWA\Media Arts Lab multiple Cannes Lions awards. (AppleInsider Staff)


It remains to be seen what the visual meaning will evolve into under the sculpting hand of 21st century digital manipulation and immensity. The ability to capture every moment of life represents a stranglehold on representing and capturing reality which cannot help but detract from the present moment experience. The playful risk involved in photography may be gone for now, but one can hope for a resurgence of its quality in the future.


1: Chart Retrieved from:

2. Chart Retrieved from:

Works Cited

AppleInsider Staff. “Apple's 'Shot on iPhone' billboards return with iPhone 6s photos.” Appleinsider, 31 Jan. 2016. Retrieved from:

Jeffries, Stuart. “The death of photography: are camera phones destroying an artform?” The Guardian, 13 Dec. 2013. Retrieved from:

Reid, Michael. “We’re All Photographers Now—So Collect It.” Art Market Monitor, 24 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from:

Rosenfeld, Lucinda. “Many More Images, Much Less Meaning.” The New York Times, 1 Dec. 2012. Retrieved from:

Schulten, Katherine. “Are Digital Photographs too Plentiful to be Meaningful?” The New York Times, 3Dec. 2012. Retrieved from:

Zhou, Joie. “Journal #1-Are Digital Photographs Too Plentiful to Be Meaningful?”, 2016. Retrieved from: