I fear that someday soon I'll be a bald, toothless, old man sitting in a rocking chair telling the youngsters of the world about the good old days—of negatives. My hair is already gone. Thankfully, the teeth are still with me. The rocking chair is still a concept. But the day when few understand the nature of photographic film and negatives is no concept at all. It's pretty much already here.

Oh, there will always be the dedicated few that will keep the art alive. People still make daguerreotypes, for heaven's sake. But, the mindshare has shifted and there's no going back. Film isn't dead but things will never be the same again. Yet, there are still symbolic and metaphoric references to traditional photography most everywhere in the digital world. So, the legacy of film is still very much alive (let alone the billions of negatives and transparencies that are still floating around out there). In order to understand the present we must respect the past. So, if we consider the nature of film, the negative and the print, we can better organize today's world of digital imagery. And today's version of the film negative is, quite logically called, the digital negative.

There's nothing really negative at all about the digital negative. It's a positive image not at all physically like the mysterious, transparent, negatives of reversed tonality. It's merely a metaphor that pays homage to the traditional, film negative. The similarities between the two are greater than their differences. They both are:

  1. The source and first-generation image
  2. Precious and worth protecting at all cost
  3. Pretty much useless unto themselves and must rely upon further processing
  4. To be filed in meticulous and orderly fashion
  5. Able to benefit from new imaging technology long after the photograph was originally made

Let's be clear with our definition at this point. The digital negative, in its purest form, is made according to certain specifications and standards. I suppose we can extend this definition a bit, but let's see if can codify this to aid us in our organization and workflow. We'll deal with variations on this theme in a future post. To my view, the digital negative, in it purest form is:

  1. An image captured and exported from camera in RAW image format
  2. An image that is then converted to DNG image format
  3. A subsequent DNG image that is preserved and archived, always available without image editing or manipulation

The analogy now becomes clear. Both digital and analog negatives are the purest form of output capture from our camera. They are precious, singular representations of the initial spark of inspiration that caused us to click the shutter. Everything after that in the process is subject to interpretation, manipulation, and refinement. But, the digital negative is the purest thing we have in the imaging workflow—and it deserves to be protected.

Back in the film days, we'd place our film negatives in protective sleeves, put them in a binder, catalog them, segregate them and protect them from the rest of our work. In today's digital workflow we do much the same, but now in a virtual, rather than physical sense. It's logical to segregate our digital negatives from the rest of our image files and to keep them pristine. It's also prudent to back them up and to add a plethora of organizational metadata to them so that we can find them in an instant.

How we accomplish all this is another topic for another day. And why we convert to DNG format is yet another discussion. There are also good reasons to stretch our rigid definition of the digital negative to include other, less pure image forms. Before all that, however, is the need to truly grasp and appreciate the intrinsic value of the digital negative. And in order to do that we must delve into our past and look to traditional film as our source of inspiration.