The Confessions of a Digital Immigrant

The Confessions of a Digital Immigrant
Bakarwal Gujjar 1989 - Photographed on slide film. I am guessing Ektachrome given the blues.

Bakarwal Gujjar 1989 – Photographed on slide film. I am guessing Ektachrome given the blues.



A Gujjar buffalo herdsman – 2012. Photographed with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III


There are two terms today that seem to categorize the world. Two terms that describe the entire world as we know it; they are digital native and digital immigrant. [1.Digital Native and Digital Immigrant defined at Wiki.] In short, digital natives are those who never knew the world without the internet and digital immigrants are everyone else. Some of us immigrants speak “digital” like a native, while many of us are still trying to figure out Facebook. We may be fluent, but we are no natives.

As digital immigrants some of us are in a unique position to comment about both sides of the digital divide and how we see these changes affecting us. Some of us on the other hand are much like the frog in the proverbial pot of water, as the heat slowly increases we don’t see the change as it is so gradual. Mind you I am not trying to comment on what is good or what is bad with our current digital world, I’m just highlighting some of the changes this migration has seen.

I migrated to the digital world from the analog world along with all the other digital immigrants my age. If I had to identify one area that was the biggest barrier to my growth in photography I think it would simply be money, not technology. As a young photographer I struggled with the huge investment in camera gear, darkroom gear and the biggest cost of all film and processing unlike young photographers have to deal with today. Photographer Nevada Wier and I don’t see eye-to-eye as to whether the digital world is really cheaper or not. Check out my interview with her on the “Depth of Field podcast where we talk about this issue. (She takes issue with me on this point at 6:55 on the timeline.) I’ll stick to my guns on this. I still believe overall it is cheaper to get into photography today than ever before. Cameras and lenses are better and cheaper than ever. Yes, some software is pricy, but with options like the subscription model for Lightroom, you can get a month’s usage for less than two gallons of Milk (in America 😉 ).

Let’s think about this for a minute. The cost of chrome (slide) film and photo processing in 1976, the year when I graduated from high school, was somewhere around $15. A roll of 36 exposure Kodachrome would cost somewhere around $10 to $12. The processing was often only 2 or 3 dollars after that. So call it a total of $15. Today that same $15 is inflated[2. Figured using the Inflation Calculator] to $63.46! Just buying and processing two rolls of Kodachrome is more costly than a year’s subscription to Lightroom and Photoshop today. Given that price, there was very little chance that a kid of my means would be able to experiment with frame after frame of trial and error to learn from my successes and failures. I got as good as I could through high school classes and later in university classes through a slow and costly process. But today, you can shoot as much as you want and waste as much digital data as you like at virtually (pun intended) no cost. By the way, that process of learning from your successes and failures took at the least a week or more as you waited for your slide film to be processed and returned. Today as we all know it is instant.

But here is a thought. As a photographer today I can shoot until I run out of memory, then delete and shoot some more. With this “digital excess”, if you will, are we really learning as much from it as we can or are we becoming sloppy and lazy. Reality is that creativity thrives under constraints.

“…the imagination is unleashed by constraints. You break out of the box by stepping into shackles.”

Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works

When we put limitations (intentionally or unintentionally) on ourselves like time and resources we unleash creative juices we never thought we had. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not for one instance saying that the digital revolution has stifled creativity as a whole. But I do think that it might work that way with some people. The amazing wealth of information can also serve to be overwhelming and distracting. Remember a few years ago the book that was making its rounds in the creative community? It was titled, “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. He talked about how so many things fight for our attention. At the top of this list has to be the internet —  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in particular. I am not alone in this observation; article after article is written about how the internet is stealing our time. With the ease of photographing and processing all your thousands or tens of thousands of images at home on your personal computer comes the risk of distraction or as Pressfield calls it “resistance.”

For me, being a digital immigrant has been a huge blessing.  I would never go back. Gear cost is less than ever. Photographers have been given complete control over over the creative process. I never would have been able to clone, dodge, burn with the detail I can do with Photoshop. If I choose I can leave my graduated filters at home and use Lightroom’s graduated filters and more. The digital era has made all this possible. Light, a company who uses new camera technology has a touch screen user interface that uses sophisticated depth-mapping technology. Meaning, you adjust focus and depth of field even after a photo is taken, all the way to f/1.2!

I love being able to look at the photo I just shot, critique it on the spot and shoot again. It has opened new doors for me to do the same with others in workshops across the globe. I would never want to return to the days of analog.

My migration continues as I have moved from shooting large heavy DSLRs like the Canon 5d MK III to lighter weight and stealthy cameras like the mirrorless Fujifilm X-T1. As tech continues to get smaller and lighter and more efficient, this movement to mirrorless cameras allows less attention to be drawn to the photographer as they are much less intrusive and nondescript.

Change is never easy. Every immigrant is uncomfortable for a period of time. But there is no going back, that boat has sailed. As a Digital Immigrant I can either complain and be a curmudgeon or learn to navigate in the digital world. As I do, I quickly uncover the treasures that await.



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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Fernando

    There’s so many layers to this. I went back & listened to the interview with Nevada Wier. I think if we go back, 10 years or maybe a little more, her point was totally valid, the setup cost for digital, or the hurdle for switching from film to digital was high. But now, when everybody already has a computer anyway, the cost of storage and backup has fallen, and processing software is a lot cheaper, it’s not the case.

    In my teens, I had a friend who was a promising photographer, we met through music & gigs. He applied for the one technical college course in my town for photographers & failed to get in. He also failed to land a cadetship at a paper. So, he gave up on photography because he couldn’t see a career in it and it was too expensive to self-fund. These days, he would be on Instagram, have a blog, etc, well before giving up.

    As for the digital native/immigrant idea. I feel like it is fascinating when it comes to creative skills. I would still rather draw on paper than a screen, for example. Then again, I meet millennials who feel the same. And, as my daughter constantly reminds me, her “digital native” schoolmates don’t always have crash hot computer skills and are sometimes just as dumbstruck by powerpoint, photoshop or premiere pro as the rest of us.

    • Matt Brandon

      Fernando, Always enjoy your comments – spot on. There are layers to this. I person could write a book on this. There is so much I didn’t even touch on here. There are times when I wish I could give up and just go back to a world without the internet. For people like me who are o ADD it represents a huge distraction that might not otherwise be there. I suppose someone might argue that if it’s not the net it would be something else. But I am not sure that is true. If I remove a distraction that void isn’t usually filled with more distractions. But one of the things I love about the net is the easy of learning. The availability of a world of resources to learn and improve my craft that wouldn’t otherwise be there and much of it free or at least at the cost of my service provider. I wouldn’t get to listen to podcast or watch YouTube training video and so much more.

      • Fernando

        Well, I kind of wrote a book on the learning benefits of the digital age.

        Despite that, I agree the digital distraction isn’t the same as other ones. I know I’m far more distractible if I have a browser open, or start hitting the social apps on my phone. I see it in my daughter as well, when she’s away from devices, she doesn’t replace it with distracted flittering, she focusses well on one activity (reading, painting, crafting, playing).

  2. Nigel Stokes

    I agree with you Matt, it’s a lot cheaper today and a lot easier to get your work critiqued by a broad range of people.
    Of course, there is still the issue of quality. We still need people like you to encourage us and inspire us.
    Keep up the good work Matt

    Thank you.

    • Matt Brandon

      Thanks Nigel, those are kind and encouraging words.


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