The transformation of photography from an analog medium relying on chemically developed light-sensitive emulsions to one using digital technologies for image capture and storage began in the late 1980s with the introduction of the first consumer digital cameras and in 1990 the first version of Adobe Photoshop, a program for adjusting and manipulating digital image files. Conceived as an extension of the conventional darkroom, the program adopted many of the traditional tools of black-and-white film photography but let photographers go even further. By giving photographers the ability to easily change the structure of an image, and even its contents, it called into question long-held assumptions about photographic veracity or documentary “truth value.” To some minds, it changed the very nature of the medium.
Digital photography's full impact was not felt until the first decade of the new century. Because digital images could be transmitted and edited much more quickly, by decade's end nearly all newspapers and magazines had transitioned to a digital workflow process, and their photographers were using digital cameras designed for professionals. As a result of the Internet, which digital photography was no small part of, print media in general began its decline.
Whereas photojournalists and documentarians reacted with caution to what came to be called digital imaging, other types of photographers were generally enthusiastic about its possibilities. Many artists using photography as their medium developed creative approaches that took advantage of the seamless mutability of digitally altered images, extending a long history of photographic collage, double printing, and other pre-digital forms of manipulation. Among the early adopters were Aziz + Cucher (Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cucher), Andreas Gursky, and Loretta Lux, all of whom stretched the limits of what is believable about a photographic image. Digital alteration also influenced the spheres of fashion and celebrity, as photographers such as Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin (working together as Inez & Vinoodh) remade the looks of models and movie stars. Magazines began to regularly send their cover photographs to digital retouchers to eliminate blemishes and minimize their models' waistlines.
At the same time, commercial, governmental, and military uses of photography have expanded to include 24-hour surveillance of public sites and businesses, the remote targeting of drone missile strikes, databases of digital fingerprints, portraits on identification cards, and the development of face-recognition software to aid in the identification of criminals and terrorists. Debates about the impact of the camera on civil liberties have intensified as a result.
Photographers have reacted to digital photography's omnipresence in a variety of ways. Some—such as Chuck Close, Sally Mann, Deborah Luster, and Jerry Spagnoli have journeyed back to photographic processes of the 19th century, making daguerreotypes or working with wet-collodion plates, or—like Chris McCaw and Alison Rossiter—have taken to printing on outdated enlarging paper from the mid-20th century. Photographic books, predicted to be made obsolete by readily viewable online images, have experienced a resurgent popularity, not only because digital printing has reduced the cost of publication but also because books allow photographers to control the narrative sequence and context in which their images are seen.
Others have seized an opportunity to critically reflect on the new image environment in which they live. Trevor Paglen, for example, has photographed the light trails of spy satellites as they cross the night sky. In addition, the convergence of still digital photographs and moving video images and the popularity of web design tools that allow for animation, motion control, and audio editing have produced a creative arena in which photography is but one tool in the production of multimedia experiences. In the 21st century, photography has been absorbed into both the contemporary art world and that of online digital communication, blurring its formerly distinct identity but vastly enhancing its importance as a visual medium.
The scale and impact digital photography and social media have had globally are stunning. U.S. president Barack Obama has Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, as do many politicians and celebrities. News, elections, sports, entertainment, and popular culture all filter through social media at lightning speed. Today it is often no longer the professional photographer but rather the everyday citizen who is recording the important news stories of the day. Average citizens snap digital photos and videos of riots, protests, weather events, arrests, perceived injustices, celebrity sightings, all the way down the spectrum to cats reacting to cucumbers. Trending is a new term in which the overall ebb and flow of the news or topic of the moment can now be monitored as photos are hashtagged and posted by the public and often picked up by the mainstream media. Global events such as the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 have been altered and driven by social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram, in which users have shared information and photos instantly. News outlets today often follow news trends along with the public, by searching hashtags. Most news reporters today have social media pages including Instagram where they can share photos of their everyday lives with the world.
Since it was first invented, photography as a tool for communication has grown substantially. With current trends in technology, photography's impact throughout the world will continue to shape society and how people view the world.