9.28.2011

Old Cameras. New Cameras. Old Pictures. New Pictures.


Belinda and I were talking about the emotional differences between film and digital workflows as we sat in the shade of a skinny tree, on the little bluff overlooking the starting line for Ben's cross country race in Cedar Park.  It was 10:15 in the morning and the sun was already warming everything up.  It's not as far fetched a conversation as you might imagine since my wife is a very competent graphic artist and was one of the first designers in Austin to buy a Mac, along with an early, early rev of Pagemaker (page design software)  and start doing electronic print production back in 1985....

She's been figuring out the quirks and treasures of computer since long before many of her competitors were born.  And, interestingly enough, in early times there were no websites to consult.  No Lynda.com for training wheels and no online support for the relentless software and hardware conflicts.  Fast peripherals were SCSI, etc.  I remember that her Mac SE30 had four megabytes of RAM and a 30 megabyte hard drive.   It was pioneer days.

I was trying to work through my guilt at re-embracing medium format film and since she's the smartest person I know  (makes me look like I'm playing chess with only pawns....) I was bouncing my quandary off her.  Spending money on consumables in a down economy.  Trying to re-invigorate old tech instead of moving ahead....

Young people who were raised on digital can deal emotionally with: How ephemeral digital files can be.  How hard old files can be to find.  The reality that the work you did on a digital camera five or eight or twelve years ago can look and feel primitive compared to the model you are working with today.  And, finally, the ease of slamming stuff out and the lack of financial skin the game with each shot seems to relentlessly devalue photography.  You can see that in falling prices and the wholesale commodification of the industry.

By comparison, film has a permanence that's undeniable.  No need to migrate and migrate and migrate your work in order to preserve it.  A good filing cabinet and well ordered folders are all it takes to be able to access your work in minutes.  And if film decays during your lifetime it will do so gracefully.  Finally, the images we shot on black and white film in the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's still look as technically perfect as they always did.  They are still, for all intents and purposes at least the equal of most modern digital cameras (excluding the highest res medium format machines).

Now none of this will matter to a generation that never savored the magic of film and the peace of mind that comes from knowing that it's safe and sound and insoluble in the filing cabinet.  That, if a scanned file becomes corrupted at worst it means a trip back to the filing cabinet and back to the scanner...And I know the IT people who entered this field WHEN it became digital will have all sorts of counter rationalizations.  Be forewarned, I'm not a zealot looking for converts I'm frankly explaining my gut level dissatisfactions.....

Subconsciously, when I shoot digital cameras all the limitation of storage and retrieval, the need for computers and hard drives, the ambiguity of whether what I shoot today will be acceptable in ten or fifteen years (technically) all conspire to make me shoot with a ton of baggage heaped on my rational shoulders.

Belinda said it like this:  "I learned how to work in Premiere and a bunch of different programs to make websites and other web based advertising but the realization that no two screens share an objective point of view, that type invariably looks different on different browsers and different operating systems take away the purity of my design.  The uncertainty of presentation ruins my enjoyment of design.  I'm dedicated to being a print designer for as long as there is print.  I'll do websites and what-not but I don't have the passion for that medium which I do for print.  I can hold a print piece in my hand and share it.  But I can't send out a website or an e-mail ad and know that it will look the way I intended it to on someone's phone, a non-Apple pad, a poorly calibrated or uncalibrated monitor or on someone's 6 bit laptop screen and that bothers the artist in me."

By the same token, as I've said before, the intention for most film projects was to hit paper as a final destination.  That paper could have been a luscious sheet of double weight, fiber paper with a luxurious surface and an endless mix of subtle tones and colors or a post card or an annual report, but when it hit paper it had an objectivity that can't be matched and a permanence that seems emotionally and practically unavailable on the web.  When you add the hundreds of ways it can be compressed, re-profiled, re-sized and generally fucked up you cease to have the same pride of ownership and presentation and you quickly find that intended presentation on the web IS the thing that lowers all of your images to their lowest common denominator.  It's like making a beautiful prints and the putting it under four or five layers of imperfect plastic and then looking at the melange through tinted sunglasses in a badly lit bathroom......

If you haven't practice technique at the highest levels you can::  Locked down on a tripod.  Well lit and exposed.  With medium format film or an extremely high res sensor.  And then printed it out or had it printed out as large (20x20 inches and larger) premium quality prints you really can't imagine the difference in seeing images in print versus seeing them on even the best monitors.  

So, what do we do?  We can slow down, improve our techniques and aim for big print presentations.  Film or digital origins don't matter.  But until we work for objective metrics of perfection it's all just a crap shoot.

For me?  Portraits and art for me come in squares. Whether shot with a Pen or an Hblad on film the out put is the measure of success.  I'll shoot film when I shoot portraits for myself.  I'll shoot digital for things that go to the internet and I'm sure it will all cross over from time to time but......all these things are ideas we should examine.   At least when I pull a negative from 1979 it still has all of it's technical promise intact and can be scanned to breathtaking sizes, with high sharpness and quality.  I can't say that about a file from a Nikon D1 from just ten years ago.......

In the end I haven't solved any of the issues.  I've probably confused myself even more but the first step to resolving this kind of discord is the understanding that it exists.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

This post goes right to my heart, Kirk. I'd like to add something about photographs printed to paper, whether in the darkroom or from an offset printing press. An image on paper still seems more of a miracle to me than anything electronic. If you look at a sheet of paper edge on, you are aware of how thin, lightweight, and flexible it is. And yet if you turn it so that you can view a photograph, this thin sheet can hold a substantial chunk of the world. Permanently. Without a power source. I am nearly 65, yet this aspect of photographs on paper still carries a charge for me.

Anonymous said...

it is funny you mention the lowest common demoninator.... the web which is sRGB color space. A couple of years ago I was in the local camera shop and the guys were discussing color spaces and they all were using Adobe RGB and I mentioned that I work in sRGB for 90% of my stuff because 90% of all images wind up on the internet. They looked at me kinda funny but after my explanation I think they understood. oh never mind - what do I know??

kman

Jeff Damron said...

I envy those who can make the choice between analog and digital with no second thoughts. Flickr, and sites like Photo.net before it, have allowed me as an amateur to share my pictures with a far larger audience that I reached during my first few decades in "the hobby." But what started as posting scans of prints turned into posting scans of negatives and then digital files and the prints got left out of the equation altogether. Your recent posts have me thinking that I need to reconsider this and make more prints - and probably only post those pictures that are "print-worthy," to paraphrase Elaine from an old Seinfeld episode.

Marshall said...

As a lover of prints, I wholeheartedly agree that it is hard to beat the experience of looking at a well-made physical representation of the photographer's vision. Sometimes, in fact, it is the act of creating the print that will help firm up my own vision for a picture - or point out where it is flawed!

The unfortunate counter-example to the permanence of film is the photographer I know who lost decades of his work when the former mill building where his studio was located burned to the ground. It doesn't change the central point about the impermanence and the continual technical changes in digital capture, of course, but the post made me think of it.

Bruce Bordner said...

I need to show this to my wife; to explain why I bought print boxes and occasionally make prints (Costco) just to see if they work...
It's a gradual editing process from the exposure until selecting one to print. Now that one image has to stand alone. I find that many of my images make more sense as a sequence, thus Flickr sets work. But holding prints... I don't even like to frame them.
I also have Tri-X that is 40 years old, mold and scratches included... The real trick was finding a used Nikon scanner - good luck with that.
I'm still looking forward to a D800(?) as my first DSLR. I'll click anything...

John Strong said...

The statement the impacted me the most, and reinforced my view, is when you say it's so easy to slam stuff out that's it's devaluing photography. It really seems that way, even though I don't make a living at professional photography. Everything's been shot. And shot. And shot. Fresh perspective is difficult to attain. The one area where this isn't that much of a concern is in photographing people. You can take a million photos of a person and never get the same expression, the same look twice. People are the modern day equivalent of snowflakes.

Thanks for yet another great post.

John

neopavlik said...

It is interesting that we get all this control in Raw processing over White Balance and every shade and color and tint and then in a lot of situations you give it right back because it'll be viewed on uncalibrated monitors.

Pat said...

Film (big film) in wooden cameras and taking your time to do it right the first time still works for Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. I doubt anyone tells him they want him to "use XYZ digital camera or you don't get the job".

obakesan said...

was quite surprised how well my Voigtlander Bessa1 with a vaskar lens did in 6x9 when focused and exposed carefully.

stunning

Shawn said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Kirk. Medium format film all the way for me. Digital just feels cheap, quick, and too clean. It works, but doesn't satisfy me.

I just printed up 15 12x12 prints from my medium format Hasselblad. I can't stop looking at those prints. They affect me in a way that a digital file on a computer monitor never will.

Now, I'm thinking 36x36. We need something above our bed on the wall. :)

Ronald said...

It's only been the past four to five years that I decided to go "all in" with digital, and avoided printing anything, unless I had to. But in the past few weeks, I've decided I want to go back to printing, even though it makes no economic sense what-so-ever. The reason is pretty simple: the permanence of the print, vs. the "hear today, gone tomorrow" impermanence of all-digital, all the time.

I think what tipped the scales for me is my love of art museums, and art galleries, and the joy of seeing "old friends" in the museum that grabbed my attention for the first time decades ago. They are static, unchanging, just hanging on to a wall for decades on end, just as happy to cheer someone today as they did 30, 40, 100, 1,000 years ago.

For the same reason, I cannot embrace digital books. The part of the joy of books for me is the fact that they are just so darn permanent.

steve said...


I know the IT people who entered this field WHEN it became digital will have all sorts of counter rationalizations.


Don't lump all IT guys in with the Digital Camerabators, I'm an IT guy and I only shoot film, 4x5, 120 and 35mm. I know other IT guys who also only shoot film!

Neal said...

Also an "IT guy" here and shoot primarily 120 and 135 (that's 35mm for those not in the know).

Also have a home darkroom and process my own b&w and colour film.

wouldn't give it up for the world.

Mel said...

I enjoy film because of the alternative decisions it allows. I mean, film has a set number of pixels to play with regardless of the gear you use - your decision is more about the "look" you want instead of the resolution. More/less grain, more/less contrast, highlight details, shadow details - just pick the film that meets your needs and go. Less time spent in post-processing and no need to worry about the file format becoming obsolete. I've compared similar digital and film images - keep coming back to the word "depth" to describe the film but I'm not sure I can accurately define that term.

Anonymous said...

So much sense in both Kirk's post and the comments.

So many sad comments about the "latest" gear on most review sites like DPR etc ..... "very poor @ ISO 6400 with too much noise ...." Give me strength! Pick up a camera, ANY camera, leave your home and go out take photographs. As William Eggleston once said:- "I don’t think about what camera I should use that much. I just pick up the one that looks nicest on the day" AMEN to that - don't talk, go shoot :-)

Anonymous said...

Do you have a printer at home? Like, a largish format printer to print really big images on?

kirk tuck said...

Anonymous, I have a Canon 9000 that can print up to 1 inches across. I did have an Epson 4000 printer that did 17 inches but it was so expensive to run and had so many issues with clogged heads that it drove me right into the arms of Costco, Holland Photo and Precision Camera. I get routine 12 by 18 inch prints from Costco that are as good as everyone says they are, specialty prints and big EPSON 9800 prints from Precision Camera and really good metallic and black and white prints from Holland. I've come to enjoy not threatening my desktop printer with a hand gun. And even though I haven't calibrated my Canon 9000 I'm pretty happy with the color reproduction and detail of my printed invoices.....

As HCB said, "Hunters are not cooks."

kirk tuck said...

above should read that the Canon prints 13 inches across. I type too fast for my keyboard....

'/1nc3nt said...

I am only an amateur grew with film in photography and reprography and cannot agree more on this.

Will we ever see a time where there is an assurance that film will be keep produced and some new film camera periodically introduced?

Or it's going to be too late for this because either film already discontinued or this whole generation already faded in time.

Anonymous said...

A lot of IT people are unhappy about the fact that their hobby now forces them to spend even more time sitting in front of a computer. Give me a darkroom any day.

Lukasz Kruk said...

Hey Kirk,
I've come to this site via recent announcement at TOP. I've browsed some posts. Read and re-read some that seemed more interesting. Was impressed with the general attitude that seems to underlie most of the philosophy behind your writing.

But this entry is different. It puts everything upside-down.

I can understand completely that the suspicion - or even an expectation - that your hard work in pursuit of excellence will be ultimately rendered pointless by someone's less-than-ideal viewing conditions. But two things come to mind.

One: if someone doesn't make an effort - and I expect majority of people don't - to view photographs on the web in as high quality as they possibly can, then why should the photographer feel bad about this? Just like not many can appreciate what is considered by experts' consensus some of the finest in their genre (think Shakespeare or Miles Davies), not many will care about the subtle differences between a Tri-X medium format and a well-processed digital file. No-one has right to claim one's superiority over the other and discredit the other opinion. So the question is - is one to photograph for themselves, or for an audience? If the latter - an expert or non-expert one? Isn't the assumption that whatever technical skills one has put in making of a photograph has to be appreciated by most (all?) of the audience - far fetched?

Two: You've written a great deal about photography being about seeing and conveying what interests you and tools being only secondary to that. And yet you make a strong claim against digital here, which seems to be the result of placing the best possible achievable result - from a technical point of view - with film. It seems that it always, always does end there. Does it really ultimately matter? We know the content of the picture is more important than the form. That an interesting, moving but technically mediocre shot will be better than a technically perfect but boring one (pardon the generalisation). So does it really pay to go to extreme lengths for technical perfection? Correct me if I'm wrong, but from what you're writing it seems to me that if your D1 shots are good despite their lack of resolution, they are still good.

Isn't you argument here then against digital photos in general, even if they are interesting because of their content? That's what I meant by saying this post puts everything upside down. Even if digital IS worse than film (of course a lot has changed since D1), the question is if the shot has been recorded, whatever the method.

Mind you, I'm not asking you here to defend anything you've written. It's just my loud thinking. I'll continue browsing the archives ;)

best,
lk

kirk tuck said...

It's not just a choice between content and good form. The ultimate expression of our art is to have both. And prints on the wall are not dead yet.