Friday, December 21, 2018

Some Thoughts on Film versus Digital


Dear Readers, you may have noticed that you see more film photographs here recently compared to a few years ago. I am an old geezer, so of course grew up during the film era. My dad used a handsome little Leica IIIC, which, at the ripe young age of 69, still works perfectly. My first camera in the 1960s was a Kodak Instamatic 500, a German unit that had manually-controlled aperture, shutter speed, and focus. My first serious camera was a Nikon Nikkormat FTn, which I bought in 1968 at Lechmere Sales in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lechmere was a well-known discounter in the Boston area, but it closed many years ago. In subsequent years, I moved on to various other cameras, both 35mm format, medium format, and 4×5 inch.

The first digital camera in the family was my daughter's Kodak LS743 in 2004, a convenient little machine that took reasonable (but over-compressed) jpeg files. My first interchangeable lens digital camera was an Olympus E-330, which took excellent files. I now have a Fujifilm X-E1, which does an amazing job in most circumstances and produces RAW files that you can manipulate to your heart's content with PhotoNinja or other software.

The vast bulk of people around the world use digital. Digital imaging is convenient, quick, and usually "accurate" technically. They can take thousands of pictures on a weekend, sort and process with their workflow, upload them to Flickr or wherever, and then???

Back to Film

All right, you are probably wondering: with all the advantages of digital, why have I reverted to the primitive, messy, clumsy, inconvenient, slow, low-dynamic-range, toxic, and expensive chemical recording medium?
  • I like the way film depicts my typical subjects. Urban decay calls for black and white film. 
  • The resulting pictures do not look digital!
  • For awhile, I experimented with DxO FilmPack software which offered film emulation modes to be applied to digital files. But this bothered me. Why emulate something when I can use the real thing? Why emulate anything in life when the real thing is available? (Like the paddle shifters on the steering wheel when what you really have is a car with an automatic transmission.)
  • I am awed by the technology used in the mid-20th century to manufacture film and build wonderfully precise mechanical cameras. 
  • Film is the result of more than a century of chemical technology, refinement, and incredibly precise industrial engineering. 
  • I like old cameras. They are fun and feel solid and stable in the hand.
  • Using old cameras is a deliberate and slow process. It is valuable to test yourself with something that makes you think just a little bit harder (paraphrased from Hamish Gill on 35MMC). You can't spray and pray as with a digital camera and then mess around with software to see if you made a meaningful image.
  • Being comfortable with the old technology, why not continue to use and share this knowledge? Why throw it into the dust bin of history just because it is no longer trendy among the masses?
  • Possibly using black and white film today helps my pictures stand out. After all, millions (billions?) of digital snaps are taken daily. And they all look alike. Just look at the ubiquitous wide-angle, over-saturated, HDR-looking, exaggerated-sky, elevator music landscapes you see on the upload sites. 
  • Film may be the media that survives the decades, providing you or your family store the negatives in a climate-controlled home and avoid floods and fires. Digital media? Maybe, but only if someone periodically saves the files to whatever is the new and current storage media. The "cloud?" Think about it....
Despite denials by film-haters on equipment web pages like Dpreview, there has been a revival of film usage around the world. It will not again become a major business as it was in the 20th century, but Kodak Alaris is even reintroducing Ektachrome slide film. An article in Popular Photography shows what an astonishingly complex and precise process is required to produce this little 35-mm-wide piece of sensitized film stock. This new production follows a century of chemistry, experimentation, and mechanical engineering excellence; there is nothing primitive about it! The Phoblogger presented an interesting interview with Richard Photo Lab in Los Angeles about the revival in film use:
Phoblographer: What do you believe to be the biggest edge or selling point of film photography today?
Richard Photo Lab: There’s probably two big selling points for film. First, film has a way of turning you into a better photographer. It is not a magic gateway to better images, but it slows you down and makes you more cognizant about things like framing and lighting and composition—every frame counts! Second, lots of folks think that film is too expensive and that will be its downfall—but, they forget that the tradeoff for the upfront cost of film is the money saved (both actual dollars as well as time) in digital post-processing—an often overlooked expense of digital photography. Professional photographers can use that time to grow their business, book more paying gigs, or just focus on other priorities in their life like family, travel, etc.
Mike Johnston wrote an interesting commentary in The Online Photographer about the Magic of Photography. He noted that "it's the way photographs are physical impressions of the past which are always changing in their relation to the present."

Some Comparisons

Let us do an experiment. Here are digital and film views of the same subject, from which you can form your own opinions of which media depicts the scene more effectively. Comments are always welcome.
Oasis Motel, 11th Street (Route 66), Tulsa, Oklahoma. Fuji X-E1 digital camera.
Oasis Motel, Kodak BW400CN film, Olympus trip 35 with polarizer filter.
This is a motel on 11th Street in Tulsa, along one of the urban streets used by Route 66. The digital frame shows the red background behind the word "MOTEL." You lose that in the black and white film frame, but the cloud jumps out at you more prominently.
Closed car dealer, 11th Street, Tulsa. Fuji X-E1 digital camera.
Kodak BW400CN film, Olympus Trip 35 with polarizer filter.
Here we have an old car dealer on 11th Street. Color digital or monochrome film? Note the light was more dramatic for the B&W frame.

Ranch House Cafe, Route 66, Tucumcari, New Mexico, Fuji X-E1 digital. 
Kodak BW400CN film, Yashica Electro 35CC camera.
In this scene, the digital color file shows the faded blue of the truck, the matching struts of the sign, and the matching window frame on the cafe. But do we need that data? Is an old truck and abandoned restaurant better in black and white?
Last gas in Texas, Route 66, Glenrio (100° F, Fuji X-E1 digital)
Last gas in Texas, Glenrio (Tri-X 400 film, Hasselblad 501CM, polarizer filter)
Continuing with our Route 66 trek, Glenrio is a cluster of semi-abandoned gas stations and motor courts at the New Mexico/Texas border. It was hot, dusty, and dry. Color or monochrome?
Maria's Kitchen, W. Cordova Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Kodak BW400CN film, Yashica Electro 35CC, polarizer filter.
In the color digital image, the yellow of the hydrant stands out. The skies are dramatic in both versions. The rainy season in Santa Fe is fantastic for photography.
Valles Caldera, New Mexico, Kodak BW400CN film, Olympus Trip 35 with polarizer.
Here is a landscape as opposed to architecture or decay. Which works better?
Auschwitz I concentration camp, Poland. Fuji X-E1 digital camera braced on door frame. 
Auschwitz I, Poland. Kodak Tri-X 400 film, Rolleiflex 3.5E with 75mm Xenotar lens.
This is a more gruesome subject, the concentration camp at Oswiecim, Poland, where about 1.1 million prisoners were killed during World War II. Color shows the dingy yellow walls but monochrome makes you concentrate on the shapes and side lighting. The format is different, so this is not an exact compositional comparison. Which image tells the story more effectively?

Film and Artificial Intelligence

A recent article in the Nov. 12, 2018 issue of The New Yorker is pertinent for photographers and those of us who use film. The title is: "In the Age of A.I., Is Seeing Still Believing? Advances in digital imagery could deepen the fake-news crisis—or help us get out of it." It is about the pitfalls of Artificial Intelligence and digital imaging, and the problem of when people cannot tell what is real versus manufactured. Many people are now suspicious of still pictures that look too amazing to be real. But the dilemma runs deeper than this as to whether most people even care if it is manufactured (sounds like politics in USA in this era of non-critical thinking, ignorance, and stupidity). That is one reason why I have turned back to film. Despite its many flaws, the little piece of polyester and its gelatin coating shows exactly what the photons converted into an image. There it is, proof of what was out in front of the lens. That piece of film was witness to a piece of time and space, a time that will never return. You can manipulate it subsequently in the darkroom or, if it is scanned, with software, but the film was there.

Mike Johnston, author of The Online Photographerwrote about how he used to call work with digital cameras "digital imaging":
"Years ago I tried to assert that digital imaging should not be called "photography," that the word photography described what we now clumsily know as analog or optical/chemical photography (I usually dislike back-formations), and that the new medium was sufficiently different that we should know it by a different name. I thought "digital imaging" or D.I. served just fine, since that had currency at the time. 
I've never changed that opinion, but I learned to back off on it, because people didn't like it—in the early days of digital, any comparison of film vs. digital quickly devolved into a status dispute, and people on Team Digital were immediately and automatically prickly about imagined slights to their standing. They wanted the main word applied to their chosen tech. So "digital photography" it was. As Mad magazine used to say, Yecch." 
A reader named Andre commented on one of the The Online Photography articles, "the thing that impresses me most about the medium is that the film itself is a physical witness to whatever event was photographed. That is, actual photons from the scene physically altered the film. For me, that gives film a unique kind of authenticity: the film was present and bears an imprint of the event itself." Andre stated his thoughts eloquently.

More discussion on the topic of film reality versus non-reality is in a follow-up note in The Online Photographer. Comments to the note are erudite, mature, and well-considered, in contrast to what you see on Dpreview.

Standby for more film photographs in the future.

Old Friends (My Film Cameras

  • Kodak Instamatic 500
  • Canon unknown model rangefinder
  • Certosport unknown model
  • Nikon Nikkormat FTn
  • Nikon F (non-metered prism)
  • Nikon F3HP
  • Pentax Spotmatic (my wife's camera, in regular use)
  • Pentax Spotmatic II
  • Pentax MX
  • Leica IIIC (my dad's 1949 camera, in regular use)
  • Leica M3
  • Leica M2
  • Leica M2 (family 1967 camera, in use)
  • Rollei 35S
  • Yashica Electro 35CC (in use)
  • Olympus Trip 35
  • Canon QL19
  • Voigtlander Vito BL (my brand new $34 camera)
  • Rolleiflex 3.5E
  • Rolleiflex 3.5F (sorry I sold it)
  • Rolleiflex 3.5E (in use)
  • Hasselblad 501CM (in use)
  • Fujifilm GW690II (in use)
  • Tachihara 4×5" (limited use; I am embarrassed)

Closing Thoughts


Mike said...

Lot of good thoughts here on making images on film. Like you, I enjoy the process of getting pictures from an assortment of old film cameras. I have to admit, however, that most of my images ultimately end up in a digital form because I scan the negatives and post them on line.
No question that there is a lot of interest in film photography today as evidenced by the appearance of new films and the revival of some old favorites. At the same time it seems apparent to me that the film photography movement is very dispersed and wholly dependent on the internet, both to sustain the market for film photography products and the community of photographers.

Unknown said...

I cannot understand why you would use only color for digital pictures, only BW for film. You did not compare one technology with another. You compared color and BW. A disservice in the name of film.

I was a fairly early adapter of digital when "no one" had seen a digital camera. An adapter after a lifetime and following in my father's and his father's professional and published footsteps. Too cool! Free film!

For other than recording moments to easily disseminate, I came back to film for fun around 2011.

That's all. It's fun. There is process of mind before the button is pushed, which is not very necessarily so with digital. Having a camera in my phone is beyond dreams of the gods.

Nothing superior about film. It's just different. Viva la difference!

jvo said...

nice "bio"