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.