On The Future of Photography

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.



Full Frame with an F… Film!

I’ve finally gone full frame… but to FILM! Yes, I decided to reassess where my creativity is going and bring some film into the mix. To do this, I acquired an excellent Nikon F100 for a very reasonable price, which, being one of the most modern Nikon SLR’s available, will allow me to use my newer ‘G’ and ‘VR’ lenses just fine, as well as featuring an advanced (for it’s time) AF and exposure metre. It has a wonderful viewfinder, so can be used in MF modes as well and whilst not quite as good as that in the F6 or the newer FX DSLR’s, is a world apart from even the reasonable one in my D300 which, being crop-sensor, at the end of the day it just isn’t good enough for manual focusing by a mere human like myself.

Now you may be wondering why someone like me, full of praise for the quality and convenience of digital, even happily using filters and HDR processing, might want to ‘go back’ to film? Well, let’s put it simply, they are at the very heart different mediums and whilst there are things that digital does a whole lot better than film, especially I might add the relatively small 35mm variety that I’ll be using for now, there are other things that are much better on film. I’ll go into the positives for film for now.

One is smoothness and a sense of depth. Film conveys feeling a lot better. It’s rich, subtle and natural looking. Sure, it isn’t as sharp or contrastier, but if you are looking at conveying an impression, a feeling, a sense of atmosphere, that really isn’t the top priority. Digital is sharp and exact and whatever you do, somewhat harsh, some might even say unnaturally so. Neither is fully what we ‘see with our eyes’, nor need they be. They are very different.

Another thing is the smooth transitions of colour that film offers. Digital compresses colour and even as they expand this from 8 to 10, 12 and 14 bits… even if they expand it to 16 bit (as medium format backs have had for some time), you still have the obscene limitation of the Bayer filters that try to average out colour. Sure, there are the Fuji ones that aren’t much better, just trying to randomise this and the truly superior Sigma Foveon Merrill attempts, but the last is restricted to a small subset of very inconvenient cameras which also cost a lot despite only having APS-C cropped sensors. Colour like that in film is still the province of the elite in digital, whatever the vast industry will have you believe.

Then there is the feeling of capture… as you pay for each frame; you have to make it count. This is generally more negative than positive, in terms of cost at least, but it is a fine, artistic and meaningful discipline, that whilst you could follow it with digital it makes little point. Just as a sketch is less convenient than a photograph, so is film less ‘convenient’ than digital… by far. Yet is one really worse overall for this?

Then we come to the main advantage, for me at least the heart of the matter. Film is very highly developed, as are the film cameras to take advantage of it. Even recently, although it may be way less popular, newer developments have made higher film speeds more usable (just as happens to a much more dramatic extent with digital), yet this is just fine-tuning to a more or less fully evolved medium. A great film camera is the end of it’s line. Yet with digital this is far from the case! Next year, or to be fair in terms of full-frame cameras, in 2-4 more years, a radically better iteration will emerge, also unbelievably highly-priced and even if you are happy with what you have, the resale value will have plummeted by perhaps half. Digital cameras are a poor investment and are basically computers, yet unlike computers they are something you use with your hands almost as if they were an extension of your body (with computers you can always get a nicer keyboard or mouse if you really need to).

The ergonomics of digital cameras are only really good with the higher-end ones, like (in terms of state of the art models), the D800, EP-5, or NEX-7. When you go to more reasonably priced ones like the D600, EPL-5 or NEX-6, they collapse, partly to keep costs down, partly, I think, to upsell you to the top-of the range models. The kicker is, unlike a good film camera you could use for a decade, probably not really needing anything else, in fact can even use now, a digital camera is unattractive as the sensors and features are radically better. The high price of progress, lessened massively by having the use of something where progress is more or less complete.

A few specific things happened recently that made realise that it might be good to diversify and explore film again, despite the cost of developing (though I will use it very sparingly, as if it was large-format film, alongside a lot of digital). One was the problem of oil in D600’s, forming splodges on multiple sensors. This put me off buying one, as well as the poor ergonomics and mediocre AF unit it has. A D800 is a better bet, but out of my reach, plus that camera has a very slow 4fps frame-rate, slow at least compared to my aging D300, which can go up to 8 with a battery grip. No doubt a D800 successor will improve this and I’d rather at least wait for that.

Another thing is that these newer FX cameras are very demanding for lenses. I’d probably need to get some new ones, despite my collection of old film-based lenses that work great on film or the D700. So why not get a D700? Well that is indeed an option, but it doesn’t match the dynamic range of film as well as the newer bodies do and if I’m going to upgrade, I may as well go for something newer. Also, I have lots of good DX lenses, it may be better for me to get a D400 and stay in DX… except one as yet doesn’t exist! So, in short, I feel my upgrade paths are uncertain right now.

Another thing is looking back at my old photos, some of my best have been taken with film and this even with all the advances that digital has made in terms of sharpness and perhaps colour accuracy. Also, with all my own technical advances, which were probably accelerated by the instant feedback of digital, along with the passage of time. Yet digital has not made me a better photographer, just a clumsier one! A digital capture lacks feeling for me, it seems to be more a search for absolute perfection than capture of a moment, though I know this may be at least partly sentimental as there are many wonderful photos around taken with digital. Yet they all, even with the latest models, lack a certain richness and feeling that my old film juvenilia exhibits. In fact it even seems to be going backwards, with complex post-processing and editing overtaking and the sheer clarity of the older CCD sensors dying out to these very elastic CMOS ones, that lend themselves to changes after the event and an open-ended interpretation of what the photo actually is.

With film, it is very clear what the photo is- it’s what’s embedded on the negative (or positive). Still, with scanning I can use software to optimise it further, still having that richness and immediacy of a moment captured in time.

Now for all this, I’m not entirely going back to film and certainly not returning to any stage in digital’s long development (though there may be movements to return to CCD cameras, which offer sharper capture, or cameras with simpler features just to keep things uncluttered). I’m using film alongside digital, partly to keep costs down and convenience up. I do intend to scan the film, which is positively laborious, though I may find better ways even to do this. Digital also has certain clear advantages.

It’s sharper and contrastier. It has much, much more resolution in a smaller size. If you want to crop or print (both necessities for photographers), it gives you much greater ability to do so than 35mm film. Having a digital file (whether from film or sensor) lets you change things to your heart’s content, including altering white balance for fluorescent lights, enhancing sunsets or foliage, or even making more radical changes, such as black and white conversions or toy camera emulation a la Instagram. Of course, all this tends to go against the purist ‘the photo I took is the photo’ sense of film. In fact, so much so that a lot of photographers would rather be freed from it and see in the very simplicity of film liberation. Fair enough.

I personally like the freedom to experiment after the fact and would never develop (pardon the pun) the skills to do so with film, regarding all the equipment and chemicals needed for that, but I do also see the necessity for a pure point of capture to start from. Let’s not forget on this context the disdain that medium/large format photographers often had for the more convenient 35mm ‘toy format’. Populism may well be the enemy of artists seeking to express themselves uniquely, often with professional equipment that at least when new, is so much state of the art that consumer prices are out of the question. Certainly, a full-frame camera like the D800, whilst a lot cheaper than its forbears, is also out of most hobbyists’ reach for the moment.

The cost of digital, leaving aside the tendency to upgrade cameras, lenses and even computers to process them on (again, the D800 raises it’s head as a fine example of this, with it’s huge, 36mp raw files straining even the fastest home computers today) can be brought into check in a way film can’t. Endless photos on a ‘roll of film’ known as a memory card, rechargeable Li-Ion batteries that last for hundreds, or even thousands of shots. The rising costs of increasingly ‘niche’ films and their development make prolific film use even more expensive than before and then there is also the waiting time in a world of near-instant Wi-Fi uploads.

Yet for all this, film has its place. It has its magic and richness. It is full of life and in a digital world, which breathes a ray of hope into an increasingly commercialised pursuit. Let humans be humans and nature be natural. At least until digital is perfected and perhaps still even then, there is a need for the already near-perfection of film.


What Slide Film Taught Me

Here is an article I just read on Luminous Landscape that expresses perfectly something I have been feeling since the exhibition. With film, an incredible result is possible, especially slide film that opens worlds of wonder on the light-box. It encourages you to be careful.

Yet good results are so much easier and cheaper to optain with digital, there really is no going back, for most purposes, at least. Which isn’t to take away from the artistry of either medium. As the author says,

This situation makes me think about any artistic medium and the constraints that it imposes on the practitioner. Does a pencil artist feel “constrained” compared to an oil painter? Is someone who walks around with a camera and fixed focal length more “constrained” than one with a zoom lens that covers all possible focal lengths? I think the answer is that as long as you understand and accept the constraints of a medium or a workflow, it actually frees up your mind to focus on the essentials – the art, so to speak.

Looking back even at some of my film scans on my low-resolution monitor, I’m seeing the rich and subtle colour, the lack of efforts to over-saturate and impress, a calm naturalness that I don’t see so often in the bright and flashy world of digital. Digital seems to lose a lot of the texture film has, losing colour gradients and fine textures, dismissing them all too readily as ‘perceptually irrelevant’ the way an MP3 fails to record high notes on the boundaries of conscious hearing, losing some of the airiness and richness that vinyl took for-granted.

The realisation dawning on so many, that the results we are getting with digital are in some way more plastic and elastic than those obtained through film, seems to be one spreading. The new iPad “3’s” screen will open up new vistas in appreciating digital or digitised photos, which should all remind people that for the past decade or so, we’ve been seeing inferior results on monitors than what we could see on our lightboxes. In a sense, the new iPad is a lightbox- the first to make it’s way to digital, ‘for the masses’, who have for so long not really seen what photography is truly capable of, unless they were lucky enough to see a large print, containing all the resolution and colour sublty lost on most monitors. In terms of colour, though, even this won’t be equal, which really does make you think how far digital still has to go.

Please read more here and realise that whilst there is progress in the sciences, what happens in the arts is more aptly called ‘change’…

What Slide Film Taught Me.

Film Vs Digital- not a Foregone Conclusion

I basically stopped using film when I got my first digital SLR, the Nikn D70, 7 odd years ago. But I have to admit in many ways, it is superior in all but convenience. The debate will go on for a long time, but I hope it digital catches up to the massive progress film made in terms of color reproduction (not just accuracy, richness), gradation and. In exchange, digital has given us unprecedented sharpness, accurate colours (if not always as pleasing to the eye) and much more resolution in a small size than film could ever have dreamed of, all comparatively free from noise and colour degradation, the area where digital continues to obviously improve each generation.

Specific films give a particular ‘look’, which means they could be chosen and give predictable results. This enables the photographer to intentionally create something rather than have the camera take over, as is often the case with digital. Film cameras are generally ‘full frame’, letting you use some of the best lenses ever made in their native format. Full frame in the digital world is very expensive, especially if you want a small and discreet camera, which makes the Leica M9 the only current option. Sad, but true, digital has a lot of catching up to do.

This is the terrible thing about digital and the reason so many people are off upgrading their cameras so often, their old ones losing value so quickly. Its not just that they are like computers, going out of date when faster models come along, it’s that their core sensors cant be replaced and definitively improve each generation, so much so that it would be painful to knowingly miss out on the advances, even if you were quite happy with what you already have. My photos haven’t got better with better cameras, but it has become easier to catch moments than before. Which means I have spent an awful lot on replaceable bodies, whereas with film that could have gone where it is arguably needed the most- into lenses that keep

For me though, it is worth mainly using digital despite it’s under-publicised drawbacks, simply because-

Even in a relatively small sensor, you can get enough detail for large prints or cropping, which 35mm and smaller films have trouble with.

The dynamic range of digital is often greater than positive (slide) film.

You can be prolific, bracket for HDR or to get the perfect exposure, as taking photos is ‘free’, once you make the investments in memory cards and hard drive space. Of course, this is not really free at all, but the cost per photo in this respect goes down tremendously.

You control the ‘developing’ (post-processing) and aren’t at the mercy of the camera shop, or forced to pay more for better quality there. You do pay, for the software, but even with updates, thats a lot less than continual developing, leaving aside the fact that some films are a lot cheaper here, as you can do it all at home.

You can see them easily without needing to print, another saving and another avoidance of needing to pay more for better quality versions. Of course, to see the true detail of the photo, you’ll need to either zoom around a lot or print large, preferably at high quality. But on todays advanced monitors you can get a pretty good indication, even more so when ‘retina’ displays are scaled up to laptops and desktops.

As well as controlling the developing, you can create near-infinite versions with filters, touch-ups and blends, all very hard to do well on film, but a lot easier with advanced software. Black and white creation is especially useful as you can keep a colour original and tune it to your heart’s content. Some will say it will never be quite the same as a favourite film here, or have quite the feel of home developing. This could well be true and digital doesn’t manage to replace film and more than computer graphics can hope to replace painting.

You can adjust white balance, not needing special films for different lighting, or needing special filters to deal with it (especially florescent lighting, which gives a cold, greenish tint on a lot of film.)

Ease of distribution- a digital file can be downsized and put into emails, on online galleries or more recently, shared with all you know on social networks. Of course you can scan film and do the same, some would say giving a better result, though of curse losing some of film’s advances in the digitising process, which compresses the delicate, analogue data. The process of scanning is an extra step, which takes longer with a dedicated film scanner (I have one and it’s a slow one). Even digital cameras need to catch up with the ease of smart phones, such social networking being an area of great and sudden advances.

Convenience of storage- I can back all my photos to a huge hard drive and back that up a couple of times for safety, whereas film negatives need physical storage space and prints even more so. In fact, I found prints almost impossible to store, even small ones, after a while. With digital, you can have a large (if low resolution) image straight on your HDTV and the original on a disk.

Film just takes up a lot of space and is hard to catagorise, too. With my digital files, there are folders, titles and even better, keywords on them, they can be found in a matter of seconds. How are you going to locate an old film file so quickly? Also the exif keeps the date, in some cases the gps location and all the shooting data, which is useful to learn from.

With digital you can experiment at no cost, with film you pay per photo, which makes digital a good learning tool. Arguably, digital cameras take over all too easily, so film with manual focus lenses is a better learning tool, making all settings yourself, with care and precision. I cant argue with that, though its also true that a smart camera can do it better than a human in many cases, especially the autofocus.

Autofocus. Laziness or necessity? A lot of photos, especially involving movement, would be impossible without it and it is getting better all the time, faster and more accurate. Film cameras generally only have a few AF points at most and can’t make such sophisticated judgment as 3D tracking, or enable face detection with their simple processing, which of course has its development stopped as film started to become increasingly peripheral.

Low light capability. Only some film cameras can handle vibration stablised lenses and high ISO film is generally very grainy (and of course needs to be specially loaded). A lot of film photography is at ISO 100 and less, often stuck on a tripod by necessity. Not so digital, which greatly frees up composition, generally offering clean ISO 1600 and allowing boosts far beyond that that are very usable.

Generally, digital is simply a medium with far greater possibilities than film could have hoped for, but not one that necessarily gives better, or even equal results in many cases. Film hasn’t and for a long time wont die and it is important for digital users to be aware of its special qualities, partly out of respect for what is undeniably a more difficult medium to use, though also to pressure manufacturers to keep developing digital capture in areas beyond mere megapixels. Dynamic range, colour reproduction and smooth gradients are all areas digital needs to keep improving. Resolution is another one, despite the advances so far, if the dream of a smaller equivalent of medium format is to come.

Digital cameras are big business and heavily hyped, both by the companies and the review sites which get advertising from them. They are advancing, but image quality isn’t getting better as much as is claimed, at least as far as lower ISOs and pixel-counts go, which may well be enough in many situations. A good camera is a necessity, preferably with as large a sensor as possible, with speed and good ergonomics to go with it. Aside from that, the lenses are still the most important thing and what’s more, can be used from one generation to the next (as can film cameras). I still use lenses from the 1980’s regularly and they are some of my best lenses.

Im not saying a good digital camera isn’t a good investment, or that it isn’t worth upgrading when theres a better one. Just that the real investments are lenses, assuming of course you stay with the DSLR route, not a complete guarantee with the advances of mirrorless and the desirability of a smaller format in many cases. Essentially, while nothing lasts forever, a good lens lasts longer than a good digital camera, in both its usability and resale value, so that should be your main investment.

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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