This was a letter written to a friend of mine who almost exclusively uses slide film, despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of digital. Recently (as you can see on my blog), I have started again myself, though for reasons of convenience have not completely ‘gone back to film’. Being able to compare has already convinced me that there despite all the advances of digital so far, there are ways in which film is a much better medium for the creative photographer. In this, even some of its limitations (such as rolls of 24-36 exposures) can be an advantage, as it’s unpredictability. Yet there is another area of contention, surrounding which is actually technically superior. The marketers will quickly say digital, but then again they have hardly any film cameras left to sell… though meanwhile film use has recently surged up again, despite digital making it’s usual constant progress. In fact I think film and especially slide film does have certain advantages, though there are ways I can see digital evolving to overcome these.
I suppose my position here is that whilst digital has so many advantages to film you need to be a bit of a nonconformist to stay with film, film still has some very significant advantages to commonplace digital now. Especially when we are comparing cropped digital with 35mm (or even larger) slide film. For digital to truly displace film in terms of all qualities, if indeed it ever does, it will need to morph into something quite different to what we have now, necessitating a lot more data and processing to have a full, rich photo rather than the shallow approximations we are making do with today. Which isn’t to say at all that great photos aren’t being created. Just that there is far further to go on this route than most merchandising would have you believe.
As I write this note, I note with some regret that certain Fuji films have just been taken out of production (including the intriguing Provia 400X chrome film) and Kodak has stopped their acetate base production, the plastic layer which is treated to then be used for film. Now I am still a fan of film and, more so, of what people can and do produce with film, but these timely reminders go to show that the writing on the wall is probably speaking of something all the more imminent. As photographers, whether enthusiasts or pros, we really should articulate what it is we want digital to be and not simply passively accept mass-market developments such as increased mega-pixels or be seduced by incremental improvements. Digital should strive to achieve what analogue so long ago attained to- warmth, naturalness and intimacy. As you’ll see below, the answer to my mind is partly increased data capture, but also processing methods that abolish brick wall limits. We need a digital SACD (Super Audio CD) that can at least feel limitless simply because the data is so freely optimised to the reality.
So here it is- a letter to a film user, on where photography will head from here…
The Beauty of Slides
To the extent I understand the factors involved, not having used film (or any cameras for that matter) nearly as long as you, I really know what you mean regarding film cameras and positive film. Seeing slide film again was a revelation and one which digital has never given me. I do get the sense that, despite it’s limitations in dynamic range and relative inflexibility, with a slide I am getting a snapshot of the reality itself. Not a processed and digitally estimated version, nor the relatively inconsequential feeling I get from my negative film, though they also seem to have much more depth than digital has (so far, at least). There is a satisfaction in using it.
The colours feel real, the contrast much like I see things, or at least how I ‘feelingly see things’, as a human interpreting the importance of things around me. So, despite the price and unless I find a negative film that can substitute, (Kodak’s recent Ektar 100 is supposed to be a candidate for this, but many say it still isn’t the same), it is worth shooting some slides, just to have a convincing record of what I saw.
It’s not just the specifications, or utility of a camera. It is the sense I get from it as being a copy of the reality I experience. The sense I get from the medium of slide film is of something complete, more or less finished, which is very satisfying. I know what you mean regarding the endless possibilities of digital making the photo itself hard to estimate and of course, this could well extend to a film scan if you let it., but probably not a scanned slide so much I generally keep my editing to a minimum for that reason, depending on the occasion (sharing on the internet vs. printing large). In some ways, with digital you make many decisions after taking the photos, like editing a film, whereas with film, it all takes place before you shoot.
So with digital, you can take as many photos as you like, but it’s hard to know which is the definitive one. The flexibility of digital is here in some ways it’s downfall. It is easy to sloppily take photos and know you can touch them up later. This sense can also intrudes on the excitement of a trip, I feel. I sense a magic in exposing slides, of truly capturing the moment, a moment that will never, ever, so far as we know, return. I always felt that with slide film and the very act of using it makes my travels feel more magical, too. Sure, some of this is psychological, but isn’t everything? Whereas with digital, the amount of significant moment stretches out into ‘possible opportunities’ and the temptation is to try to capture everything and then choose later.
Also, I’d agree that slides are tangible in a way digital just isn’t. Just like a final print, the slide is a hard copy. Now this is partly a cultural thing, in which data, or anything with a virtual, or computer-based existence is increasingly significant culturally, economically, socially, but it’s only recently that this ‘digital layer’ has gotten so prominent. For a lot of kids, playing on iPads instead of with toys, it is already second-nature. Even if we don’t feel that mere data is tangible, yet it is increasingly omnipresent, from the terabytes flowing around the Internet, to the very sequencing of the human genome. Reducing, or should we say expressing things through a data substrate is spreading everywhere as the digital world grows. What we seem to lack are the tools to access it, to feel it as part of our daily world. In the world of computing, it seems touch-screens and gesture commands are a step forwards. It all still remains to be humanised.
I am pretty sure that with metadata and histories kept of file changes, people will sense the same ‘tangible existence’ with a digital file, even if it is the existence of something still malleable. Though I have to admit that for me too, it is hard with digital to distinguish whether I am dealing with clay or the final sculpture. Much as I love and cherish this malleability (which is wonderful for saving images exposed badly, or taken in difficult circumstances), it is hard to find a closure to the image-making process. With a slide- there it is, success or failure.
The (Probable) Future of Digital Capture
What actually takes place (like the rise of smart-phones becoming a lot of people’s main camera) is full of surprises, but when it comes to the future of digital, I do feel there is a certain inevitability in its progression. Like you say, its evolution is a question of density and the computing power to handle it. The current incremental progress of Bayer sensors is noticeable and for most people worth upgrading, even though I balk at the price of full-frame even now, for a good camera like the D800 (which is probably still too heavy for me to enjoy using anyway). I can see the progress coming in both sensor/lens combinations and in the processing. For all it’s flaws, my iPhone can get incredibly satisfying images from it’s harmony of lens, sensor and (for a camera), incredible processing abilities. This shows just how important electronics are becoming.
I can see newer sensors, with not only high resolution, but multiple layers to capture colours and light more fully, being developed that capture a more complete picture. Looking close up at D800 prints, which I understand is the greatest Bayer sensor, it all looks a bit plastic and unreal. The whole picture is okay, but something is still missing. Sigma’s Foveon ‘Merrill’ sensor, though, creates images that look stunningly real. I’m still waiting for their cameras to catch up, or even better, for them to make sensors for other manufacturers, but already what they can do is quite different from digital, as we usually know it. There is a lot more feeling and atmosphere in their captures, partly from the supreme contrast of such high resolution sensors and perfectly matched lenses, but something else is going on. They seem to me to be capable of capturing more of the subtle essence of the scene than other sensors are doing. There is a kind of lifelike quality, a magical realism. Perhaps they are playing the slide film to Bayer sensors’ digital’s negatives (only working well up to ISO 400, while Bayer scales to 12,800 and beyond). At any rate, they are intriguing. What’s more, the major companies are all developing their own multi-layer sensors. Fujifilm, Panasonic, Olympus Sony and so on are all moving in this direction and I believe although it’s much more processor-intensive, it should lead to more lifelike images.
Alongside this may come advances in computing computing, processing tens of frames to overcome any limitation in the sensor, capturing and then quickly condensing an incredible range on detail. Once cameras can do that inside themselves, before compression of the final image, then they can be working with unheard of degrees of error-resilient data, resulting in a far closer approximation of reality. This may even be many times more than our eyes are capable of, though presentable images will no doubt choose what to emphasise (as we can now do with ‘tone-mapping’). Then digital will feel magical- reproduction of reality so complete and subtle we can’t see through it, rather than the rough approximations we now have. Interestingly, the iPhone is a perfect example of this- with it’s extremely good processing and tonality, it can make some really good photos straight out of it, despite the limited optics. In terms of making a pleasing image straight out of itself each time, it’s probably the best cameras I’ve used. It’s not surprising that newspapers and magazines have started to take note.
In terms of holding all this data for later editing, though, in a sense moving beyond today’s Raw files, I believe the next format for already exists- 32-bit EXR HDR files (which I believe are also scalable to 64-bit, to store additional layers). From being a technological curiosity, HDR images are becoming mainstream, so it makes sense that their file formats would, too. Perhaps as denser formats evolve, sucking up seemingly endless disk space, something like the ‘1-bit’ compression used in digital audio might be developed, which at least in theory frees us from the notion of bit-depth entirely.
Even now, despite all the information in it, a 32-bit EXR file is only about twice the size of a single 14-bit Raw (40-60MB vs 15-20MB) and so much more malleable, inconceivably richer. A super-fast camera could combine multiple images into one of these and offer it as a default capture choice, as some medium format digital cameras already allow (albeit slowly for the moment, probably too slowly for a consumer-oriented device).
The interesting thing is we seem to know intuitively how effective our capture systems are. Our confidence in them also affects our willingness to take them seriously. One of the reasons film is so loved is people know, despite the intense advertising campaigns for digital, that in some ways film is offering a more complete capture, one closer to how we see as humans. Yet as this ‘super digital’ emerges, it might be enough to inspire confidence itself. I’d agree with you that the bottleneck is computers, especially the processors on cameras, but also the ones at home.
I suppose my point is, despite the fast-changing models of digital cameras and their improving sensors, I think there are some very significant limits to trying to make progress only through a better sensor. The Mars Rover has a very basic, 2mp one, but through multiple capture can create incredible images, good enough to entrust a multi-million dollar mission to. I suppose one worry for the camera companies is that if they start offering this too soon, there will be less reason to upgrade, as the image will be so satisfying the technology will be declared by many to be mature… a camera will be bought for life again and other than lenses or further accessories, what will they sell?
I can also see what you mean about just focusing on photography, using sharp lenses and slide film and making all the adjustments yourself rather than relying on computers. I’ve read up a bit on Nikon’s FM3A and it seems to be a remarkable camera, not only for it’s capabilities, but just the fact that a manual camera was made so recently. It looks like not having all the bulk of AF SLRs or the larger DSLRs, but just having what you need for manual focusing, along with modern features, in very good quality.
Also, regarding Zeiss lenses, of course they and Voigtlander also make a line for F mount that can also be excellent, though with only a few lenses and a lot more bulk. Then there are also the new ground-breaking lenses from Nikon, Canon or Sigma, which are technically the best (D)SLR based ones ever. Still, I really like the look of some of the rangefinder ones, they are so small and intricate-looking, like expensive watches and I can see how you could carry a bunch around with you and really just enjoy shooting with them. It’s too bad there aren’t too many full-frame digital options for using them at their usual lengths. But you may be interested in a new device that makes them wider and brighter on crop cameras- the ‘Metabones Speed Booster’-
It seems to have very high quality and pretty much gives you what you’d see in the full-frame perspective. The designer has made some very high quality lenses himself. I’m quite interested in something like this for my lens collection too, as it bridges the gap with full-frame cameras somewhat.I myself use manual focus quite a lot, often for supreme accuracy. Once I’m using a tripod, live view and zooming in on the image are very effective, though the AF viewfinders and focusing-screens aren’t really suitable for this. I’d argue that live view manual focus is the most accurate yet, just like using a loupe to zoom in on ground glass. I like this especially on my micro 4/3 cameras, where it is so fast and constant due to the lack of a mirror, so I can easily do it without a tripod.
In fact m4/3 has become the ‘digital rangefinder’ I was looking for, along with a few excellent lenses designed for the system (I sometimes use my Nikon ones, with an adapter, too). I’ve noticed serious photographers gravitate to the system and feel the image quality is close enough to what they were getting. In fact, I’m mostly using them these days when I don’t need a bigger sensor, as I like the fact I can carry two of them around in my bag, each with a different lens and a couple more, too, all without much weight at all.
Unlike a bulky DSLR, they are very pleasant to use, discrete and quiet. Of all the mirrorless options, I went for this (this is before Fuji announced theirs, which is also attractive; Sony’s NEX less so for me), because of the rich lens selection and great prices. Yet the 2X crop isn’t so suitable for legacy wide-angles, making many into portrait lenses. With a bright or long lens I can still get some of the out-of-focus bokeh effects I love so much. Also, through digital correction and lenses specially designed for the flat sensors, you can get amazing sharpness and negligible distortion.
Most of all, like my iPhone, or my film cameras, they are truly fun to use. They feel made for me, not like something I need to overly adapt to. The constant live-view also makes manual adjustments easier to make; you can see the effects of exposure or focusing before you shoot. Seeing just afterwards and adjusting was good, but knowing before you push the shutter is even better, especially with things like black and white shooting, or lenses with very small depth of field (which is too small for a dark viewfinder). Even Peter said he finds this method more accurate with very bright lenses.
Yet despite all these advances, I do see the timeless appeal of an ‘old school’ manual camera, where with an awareness of the light and how the film will react to it, you carefully capture images just as you like them. The worst thing about digital (or modern cameras generally) is the automation and predictability of what you will get. Their design to ‘get the shot’ can, if you let it, define the shot for you and rob you of the imaginative, creative process of making it yourself. It may be well exposed, but it won’t show the mood of a scene as well as a human can interpret it.
Of course you can operate these cameras in manual mode and the higher-ranking models have much better controls for this, but the temptation to let the camera do the work for you is hard to resist. For myself, I often use the automated settings for their convenience, and then over-ride them to get a particular effect, or even alter the Raw file. I don’t think I’ve lost any control, partly because I used automated film cameras, but inevitably, it is the easy way out. Where I have gotten control is in the post-processing, which I never learned to do on film, making custom developing and so on. With digital and film scans, I can really make the images my own, whilst being pretty sure to start out with a sharp, well-exposed one. It means more time behind the computer, with digital often batch-editing and with film getting the settings just right for each scan, but it means I can have my images just the way I’d like them, something that in analogue days only pros with a good film lab could do. So I’m personally really grateful for that, (though it will mean updating software and computers to keep up, something I’ll put off as long as I can!)
At the end of the day, though, what makes a photo interesting is the artistic intention, the human motivation, not just the technological aspects. The artist/photographer will naturally seek out the most appropriate tools for what he wants to accomplish, but it’s their skills and motivation that bring the whole thing to life. Then also, he can’t forget where he is, his gear must be second nature and inspire him with confidence to feel free to shoot. He must see with his eyes and not just his eyes, he must be pliant and open enough to see with his heart, for only then will the vision be something worth transmitting.
Being close to whatever you are shooting, having empathy with the subject, is just as important as using the gear effectively, whether it’s automatic or manual, digital or analogue, large or small. I can see both digital and film and whatever else emerges having a role in this, so long as they are well-designed cameras, made for photography and not just gadgets. However good digital gets, it will never be quite like film and visa versa. I’m happy for the moment using both, depending on the situation, though I’ll admit there is an excitement and simplicity to film that digital has yet to attain.