It may surprise you to learn of someone ‘reverting’ from digital to film, but I assure you there is life in the old dog yet. One reason is that the supposed image quality benefits of digital have been largely overstated, at least as far as anything less than full-frame 35mm sensors go. The step up in image quality from cropped to this comes however at a heavy price, necessitating heavy, over-engineered bodies and lenses that cost far more than their film equivalents… and even then you have a relatively flat and adjustment-demanding file unlike the direct transfer that film offers.
For me a major motivation to pursue this, alongside my majority digital shooting, was the surprising (for me) announcement by Adobe that they are ending their perpetual licenses and necessitating an expensive subscription service. Adobe, the holders of the Photoshop image format and supposedly open DMG raw file going ‘private’ with their software (except Lightroom, for the conceivable future at least). This is a pinch shook the very foundations of the seemingly stable nature of digital, 1’s and 0’s storage. What if it is hard to access my images, and if not so much the images, my chosen edits, which are integral to their presentation? Such a shock may never come to fruition, as they can be stored as Tiffs, but only by taking more space. Probably some way of seeing them with the edits will remain, but how about making new ones? Even if I switch to Lightroom 4 or 5 from my current 3, I need to adapt to a new (if better) process. What next?
I feel that something fundamental has been broken here, a new paradigm has emerged. Which means that a retreat to a more stable and quality-assured medium is suddenly very attractive. A good scanner can resolve lots of detail and rich colour information from a 35mm piece of film, allowing at least as much alteration as a RAW file, I find. Plus offering the superior attributes of film- depth, mode, smooth gradients and something digital would find hard to replace. That something being the focus on the ‘moment of capture’, as to save film you carefully shoot, patiently waiting for the right moment, building creative tension as you do so. I’ve never quite felt the same way with digital, especially as memory cards got cheaper, shooting speeds faster and I tended to machine-gun my shots more. Sure, I captured higher quality… but at what cost? So, for now at least, shooting film alongside digital makes a lot of sense for me and presumably also for many others, too. In short, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more of a film revival, albeit more based around scanning the end result than wet printing methods.
One of the problems for digital photography remains the lack of historiography. This has had the knock-on effect of making the bizarre situation that whilst more photographs are being taken than ever before, there are hardly any that spring to mind as deserving of fame and posterity. that’s not to say there aren’t many incredible images being captures, or even to discount that ever-better ones are being created, just that they come across more as remarkable images than photos as such, if that makes any sense. The amount of potential changes and especially improvements makes some wonder if, artistic credentials aside, anything that is actually real is being created. If it was, in this time of excessive post-processing, would it really stand out anyway?
Take a classic photo like The Afghan Girl, or the raising of a flag on Iwo Jima (even if the latter was staged). Are there any such iconic images that have swept the global consciousness in such a way? I’d argue that what’s more likely is the ubiquitous appeal of video clips. Now that capturing a moment in time through a photo is no longer strictly necessary, with the advent of modern video, it is such clips that get shared. Yet a film photo, though retroactive in a sense, stands more of a chance of being seen as a record of the time- as it could only be made at that time, though of course time will tell on this point.
Certainly, the issue of creation won’t easily go away. Some things, like time-stamps and GPS tags can help solidify the image. Even though EXIF can be edited, ways of protecting this from chance can and will be devised. Of course, video or film can also be edited, but perhaps not usually so dramatically as is often the case with digital photography, where the editing is as much of the art as the capture.
For me this is a bit of a side issue and I’m just going to experiment with taking some film alongside digital, in search of renewing that sense of tangibility and meaning that I felt so much more with film than I have, even after years of shooting digital. This isn’t just for more authentic photos, it’s also for a richer travel experience. to carefully line up and patiently wait for the right moment for a shot can add to the magic and mystery of the journey, which is not only about going there. Waiting to see how the photos come out is an exciting, anticipation-filled thing.
I also want to return to using my collection of lenses in a full-frame setting, where all my primes function as expected. The crop/DX primes never materialized as ‘promised’ and the wait has been never-ending. One thing that has filled the gap to an extent is m4/3, but this is still in need of continuous AF and sensors with better dynamic range. The crippled control of DOF on that format has been helped to an extent with new releases, yet aside from some expensive, large MF primes, you need long lengths to even get close to what a full-frame or 35mm camera can do.
The full-frame world is also in flux. As I said before, I’m not really satisfied enough with any of Nikon’s full-frame cameras to splash out on them that much, rather waiting for a more complete iteration in the coming years. Innovations like live-view autofocus and tilting screens or super-high resolution EVFs are still just around the corner and would make for a better long-term purchase for me. Also, the sheer storage space and CPU capability needed for the most attractive model (the D800) would be crippling for my current set-up. No doubt future computers and larger hard-drives will be fine, but I’d rather wait for the rest of the chain to be ready than need to stretch my resources for something I currently don’t actually need. What should have happened is the D700’s price collapsing, but it has stayed pretty steady, making for a difficult choice between its pro body and the D600’s far better sensor and capabilities.
For now, I’m sitting out the ‘push’ to FX, even wondering if DX systems will be improved enough to stay with it as an end unto itself. With a few more super-bright lenses like the coming 18-35mm f/1.8 zoom from Sigma, we won’t really need the DOF advantages of FX so much. If the sensors increase their dynamic range and high-ISO abilities, they will be more than enough to satisfy most. I can’t see this not happening, if technological progress carries on, but the massive leap in size to full-frame may keep it the more attractive format for serious users for some time to come.
So I’ll take a break from the whole thing with film. Maybe the images I’ll get will be as good as full-frame digital, maybe better, maybe a little worse, though they will certainly have wonderful smooth gradients, rich colour, a strong artistic intention at their moment of capture and, most importantly, mean something to me. At the end, that’s all you can ask for and all the money I save can go to travel, a better future camera, or just be used however I’d like to use it, no longer a hostage to the technological rat-race that upgraditis brings with it!