Everything old is new again.....Photography 180.

Originally written for www.prophotoresource.com
in 2007.  
I’ve been talking to a bunch of my friends in the creative world and it seems like we’re on the verge of a tectonic shift back in time.  And the realization of this impending shift is striking people in diverse fields almost simultaneously.  Writers are going back to yellow legal pads or little leather journals to outline their next movie, novel, ad copy or grand opus.  Fountain pens are once again accounted sexier than the latest laptops.  My graphic designer amigos are sitting around with Bienfang sketch pads and fat #1 lead pencils as they sketch out logo roughs and doodle small icons---on real paper!
I just had an art director from a prestigious agency explain to me why they’re going backwards and doing marker comps for their multi-national advertising clients.  Seems it’s easy to sell the less literal marker comps than the meticulously comped digital collages we’ve grown used to over the past ten years.  And the agency doesn’t get locked into using the exact photo they might have presented in the comps.………..
I asked my favorite graphic designer for some insight and I was startled by what I heard.  She said, “It’s faster and easier to get my ideas down on paper.  It’s also less sterile.  When I try to concept on the computer it seems to me that the machine gets in the way.  The presets push you to conform.  The screen makes you filter in assumptions about how things will ultimately look on paper.  Designing on paper just feels right”.
All this “regression” in the arts mirrors what I hear from more and more photographers.  We were so enthusiastic about the promise of “no cost” digital that we swallowed the program “hook, line and sinker.”  In retrospect we’ve done one of the stupidest business moves imaginable.  We moved from a mature, repeatable and robust system of making images that yielded exquisite quality (and which most practitioners had already paid for the infrastructure and amortized ) into a system that gives us only one advantage:  We can do all this stuff quicker than ever before!
I’m as guilty of buying into the system as the next guy.  I’ve dropped tens of thousands of dollars on digital cameras that became “obsolete” inside of eighteen months.  I spent years feeding ink into an ever escalating collection of Epson “professional” printers and now, in 2007, I’ve come to two conclusions about printing with inkjet printers:  1.  Traditional photographic paper prints from a custom printer blow away anything I’ve gotten from any of the printers.  2.  The bulk of my money has been spent clearing ink clogs and not making prints.  I would add to those two points that my butt has spent too much quality time in the task chair in front of my computer and not nearly enough time out having fun.  
I’m even guiltier than most because I just finished writing a book extolling people to give up their “heavy and antiquated” lighting equipment and pursue the Holy Grail of using small, portable lights for all of their work.  No matter that my clients still look at my portfolio, select the stuff I shot on medium format film and lit with big Profoto strobes, and ask me to do “that style”.  At a certain point it dawns on a person that we’ve really been doing this exercise for ourselves and not for our clients.
Case in point:  Once a month a I get together with three friends for lunch.  Usually Mexican food. I’m the sole photographer in the group.  Mike is a creative director with thirty years of experience, Greg is an art director with 20 odd years of experience and Roy is a designer who’s been winning awards since the days of Kodak Double X film (1970’s for those raised post analog). 
 I mentioned  that I was getting ready to buy the new Nikon D3 and they all turned on me like rabid dogs.  No, more like concerned parents.  No, more like exasperated friends.….  “The files are already way bigger than I need!”  Said Mike.  I mentioned the cleaner, better color.  “Once the files hit paper in CMYK you’ll never see the difference!”  Chimed in Roy.  “Oh hell!” remarked Greg before taking a big bite of his enchiladas verdes.  “You’re just wasting money on all that stuff.  Nobody’s ever hired you because they know what’s in your camera bag.  They hired you based on what they see in your portfolio.  You’re just buying this stuff because you’re afraid of just going out and showing your work!”
I trotted out all the arguments we see on the websites.  The low noise at high ISO’s, the incredible color accuracy, the high frame rate and more.  They laughed. “You light stuff.  You compose stuff.  You have a rapport with people.  That’s your real job.  The camera doesn’t really matter.”  While I was mulling that over Mike (who was honored as an AIGA fellow this year) added, “Besides,  I haven’t seen anything in the past seven years that I liked as much as the simple black and white portraits you used to do with your Hassleblad.  I love the square.  I love the way the focus slides away and puts all the emphasis on the sitter’s eyes.  And I’ve never seen a good digital conversion to black and white.”
Now my whole carefully constructed rationale for plugging away with digital was on the ropes.  I was shaken and confused.  So I called the photographer who’s work I’ve admired for years.  You probably have a guy like this in your market.  The photographer who is so good and who’s work is so nuanced and informed that you’d hire him in a heartbeat if you were an art director or an art buyer.  For me it’s Austin photographer, Wyatt McSpadden.  I wanted to know how Wyatt handled the transition to digital.
“Digital?  You’re talking to a man who shot 180 rolls of medium format film in the last two weeks!”  He shouted.  (He didn’t really shout but it seemed like it).  He’s got a digital SLR but only uses it for clients who (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Don’t give a ________ about your style, they just want a usable file, quick.  I want clients to hire me for my style. And I spent twenty years working on this stuff and I’m not going to go and reinvent the wheel just because someone needs to sell cameras!”   He went on to say, in his west Texas way, “I shoot film so I can use the lights and the lenses I love.  That’s what makes the photograph work.  It’s not the sensor it’s the way the lenses write to the sensor.  If the sensor doesn’t matter then I’ll choose film.  That way I’ll skip who storage issue and get better looking work into the bargain.”
I wasn’t totally convinced but I had just read Selina Maitreya’s book entitled, How to Succeed in Commerical Photography,and I was putting together a new portfolio to show around.  As I scrounged around for images I was shocked to find that the stuff I loved and wanted to show was all generated pre-Y2K.  Every last shred of it was shot on a Hassleblad or a Rollei.  The contact sheets were easy to read and the negatives were easy to scan.  And the prints that I ordered from my local Costco  (using their profiles and specifying “no mods”)  were worlds better than my best tries with Epson’s 4000 series printers at 1/3 the actual materials cost.
I’ve always felt uneasy composing in the awkward rectangle that comes standard in most digital SLR’s and I’ve never felt that I could justify the $20,000 or so that would be required to get into the medium format digital club.  That’s when my “oh so wise” wife, Belinda suggested that I get rid of the “binary thought process” that seems built into most working photographers.  We try to shoe horn what ever the latest and greatest camera solution that comes along into all of our jobs. It’s all or nothing.  The D3 or the 1DSmk111 and nothing else.
The reality, as my wife pointed out, is I can shoot on whatever I want to.  I can match the solution to the job.  I can match the camera to my vision.  I don’t have to have one “ubercamera” that does everything.  She gently nudged me out the door with orders to buy some medium format Tri-x and give the old ways a little try.  Ohmigod!  I’d forgotten just how good these cameras were.  Just how bright and detailed the finders could be.  The magic of a Zeiss telephoto at f4 or f5.6.
So where does that leave me?  Well when I shot a lake property development from a helicopter I sure as heck thought the Nikon D2xs was the right tool for the job.  I knew that the Fuji S5 camera and the Nikon 18-200 VR was a great solution for shooting 800 iso in the corporate offices of a client who wanted “available light/slice of life” images of people working in their offices.  But I knew with equal certainty that my Rollei 6008 with a 150 mm lens and a pro pack of Tri-x was just what the doctor ordered for the experimental studio portrait I wanted to shoot.  And nothing beats my little “beater” Mamiya 645e for walking around the streets of the city shooting stuff with Fuji Provia 100f.
What have we gained by going digital?
1.  We can do stuff more quickly. 
2.  We can see what we got, right away.
3.  Clients don’t have to pay for film and processing so (supposedly) more money goes to our fees.
4.  We can shoot things without lighting them due to the good high ISO performance of the camera.
5.  It (seems) easier to take great photographs than ever before.
What have we lost by depending entirely on digital?
1.  We can do stuff more quickly.  At least it seems that way.  The shooting goes faster but the burden on the back end grows exponentially and the clients rarely see the hours that go into color correction, retouching and archiving of these images.  If they don’t see it they don’t value it.  That makes our fees harder to swallow.  What might have taken a day to light and shoot now might take a half a day to shoot and half a day to process.  That still adds up to a full day except now all the plumbing part of the job is invisible to the bill payer.  Personally, I liked handing stuff to my lab and letting them do the back end but we’ve trained our clients to think of us as “one man bands” and have let us push ourselves into becoming lab operators and color separators.  We’ve lost our free time.  We’ve lost our ability to depend on highly qualified experts to take our work to its highest level.  But we’ve delivered a delivery schedule that’s burdensome.
2.  Oh boy!  I can look at the little screen on the back of my camera and I’ll know when I got the great shot.  Or, shooting tethered, the art director and I can see when we got “something that will work” and we can stop right there and go on to the next shot on the list.  That really sucks.  In the film days, before immediate gratification, we would shoot and shoot.  Not to waste film but to explore the possibilities.  Often the “portfolio keepers” would arrive after the perceived high point of a shoot.  The fun shots seemed to manifest themselves when everyone was sure we were covered and they started to relax.  Makes me think we should turn the little digital camera screens on to “Polaroid” our lighting and composition and then turn the little devils off so that their “magnetic” pull doesn’t lure our avaricious eyes.…  There’s a lot to be said for not knowing exactly what’s there until you see it.
3.  Clients think digital photography is free.  That’s not, per se, a problem with digital but it changed the economic model of professional photography and we’ve been battling the unintended consequences for the last seven to ten years.  If clients think that all materials are free then how do we pay for the yearly advances in digital cameras?  
4.  We’ve lost the good stuff about shooting film.  When we used to shoot with  medium format cameras and  medium telephoto lenses we got a wonderful falling away of focus and sharpness that created a fabulous contrast of sharp versus soft.  The smaller format digital cameras just don’t do it.  We’ve invented all sorts of work-arounds like selecting, feathering and adding guassian blur to the background of a digital image but it never looks quite the same.  We’ve lost those big, juicy viewfinders with acres of visual real estate.  We’ve lost that fabulous black and white tonality with scads and scads of tonal differentiation (and you know you’re either lying or blind if you insist you can get great black and white conversions from digital) that we routinely got from Tri-X and Plus-X films.  And even simple things that translated into a higher quality workflow through to four color printing, like you, your client and your color separator all looking together at a medium or large format chrome (transparency film for the post analogers) on a color balanced light box.  That paradigm created a universal color standard rather than the turf wars of “who’s monitor is calibrated better than who’s”  that we’ve lived through for the past decade.
And finally, who among us hasn’t felt their rear end grow larger and their lumbar region ache as we’ve spent far more time hunched in front of our computers than we every imagined.
I know we can’t really put Pandora back in the box but we can at least admit that digital isn’t the end all and be all of imaging. I suggest that you finish reading this article and seek out a store that still has a few dusty rolls of medium format film left.  Brush the cobwebs off your Hasselblad, Bronica or Mamiya camera and try shooting the way you shot ten years ago.  Then scan your favorite frame and compare it with your best digital work.
Chances are you’ll look for opportunities to re-introduce film to some part of your business.  I suggest you position your ability to shoot on film as the “high price spread” of your enterprise.  You’ll likely find several unintended consequences of this decidedly Quixotic experiment:  You may find that clients  treat you more like and artist and less like a technician.  You’ll find that you will have created a differentiating niche that effectively separates you from every “Tom, Dick and Sally” sporting a digital Rebel.  You’ll find that labs have evolved in a way that make shooting film more streamlined and efficient.  As well as more cost effective.  And you may find that the specific tool does affect your  seeing.
Here’s our workflow:  We shoot on our favorite film stock (for me it’s ISO 400 black and white negative film) in a Rollei 6008 in the studio.  To check exposure I can either use Polaroid or my trusty Nikon D2x as a sub for Polaroid.  We drop the film by our favorite, full service lab (yes, they still exist!)  and ask that the film be developed and scanned.  Holland Photo in Austin will give you darn good proof scans for five or six bucks a roll (Yes, a roll, not just a frame) and they’ll give em to you on a CD.  We upload the scans to Smugmug.com to share with our clients.  They pick one frame and we call the lab and have a real, burned and dodged, fiber based print made to order.  The film itself is our archival back up!  Try it.  It’s amazing and it requires just the amount of time it takes to upload to your gallery.  You can be back out shooting within 1/2 an hour.  No more butt time.  Someone else has already color corrected your files during the scans.
So what does this have to do with battery operated strobes?  Well, you actually can use strobes with your film camera.  In fact they work better than they do with digital SLR’s.  But that’s a subject for another blog.  
Sorry for the rant but it was amazing when I finally tallied up what we walked away from when we abandoned film.   And it’s nice to realize that we don’t have to get locked into one way of doing things to the exclusion of everything else.  Sometimes film rules and sometimes digital rules.  But it’s absolutely great to have both.
Next month (if this rant doesn’t end my career) I’ll be talking about the advantages of using guide number flash instead of TTL flash.  Honestly.  And I’ll have images to prove my point.  I hope you’ll be back for a read.

The Books:
The website:  Kirk Tuck dot com


kirk tuck said...

Just checked in at the Strobist discussion group on flickr and there's a long thread about which film camera to buy. The pro's are suggesting the F series Nikons. I think F or F2. An earlier thread was about medium format. I smell a trend......

Delano Mower said...

Great rant once again, would just like to note though that you can get color corrected and properly printed photographs from your lab even if you use digital, just drop off your memory card instead of a roll of film. Same end result in general. At the same time though, I agree that the film most times looks better either way.

mike murrow said...

wow, my thoughts exactly. as a photographer just entering the "business" end of photography i've been trying to come up with a model that includes heavy use of film. i love my Rollei TLR and my Nikon FM3a way more than my digital bodies. now i have just that much more encouragement to step out and be different than the competition.

thanks kirk.

Janne Morén said...

No pro or anything, and I started with digital cameras as a hobby. A year or so ago, however, I dipped my toe into MF film use, and by now I probably use as much film as I do digital cameras. Why? It's more fun, I like the actual cameras much better, it slows me down and makes me think a bit about the image I'm about to take, and I'm simply more pleased with the results. Nothing wrong with my DSLR, and I keep using it as well, but the MF images I get just have a certain.. well, sparkle, or prescence; it's very hard to pin down - that I just don't see in digital files.

I've heard from a couple of photo stores that used film equipment sales has been increasing the past couple of years. I've heard from other hobbyists that have also started using film in addition to digital, and I've noticed that my neighborhood shop and lab is being more visible about its film business than they used to be (a few years ago it was all about digital prints). Fuji was apparently taken by surprise with the amount of preorders for their new MF film folder (seems current preorders for it here in Japan already exceed the number they were planning to produce in total). Just anecdotes of course, but when I see enough of them from all kinds of sources I can't help wondering if there isn't a bit of a trend going on.

Ray Stofberg said...

Ouch.... :( I have just read 2 of your blogs (this one and the shoot the way you want to) and it is so scaringly recognizable.

Please don't post stuff like this anymore? I hate to be reminded of certain things :) sometimes you I just want to stick my head into the sand and dwell in the status quo.

Tom said...

This is one of the finest articles I've read in years. Yes, a wonderfully written essay, much worthy of the New York Times, but it strikes home as this is exactly what I've been going through the last two years.
It seems that the better the digital Technology "advanced" the more and more disapointed I was with the images and my professional work. Always flat, always missing that "something". My Med Format 28meg digital back sits on the shelf and the 120 back, leica and 4x5 get lots of work today and I am so happy. At age 49 I'm back in college with a major in Film photography. Yes, schools still have darkrooms.
Wonderful article. thank you.

Rachel Vogeleisen said...

Your rant gives me confidence that I made the right choice not to move to digital.I moved from 35mm to medium format instead and and fell in love with the Hasselblad, as a result my photography improved greatly and I even started to shoot 4x5.
I agree that for some commercial assignements ( I am not a pro) digital is a requirement, but nothing will replace the big "clong" you hear when you release the shutter on a hasselblad, isnt that a beautiful sound?

Chris Walrath said...

Well said, Kirk. It make me feel all the more warm and fuzzy when I think about my Nikon N65, my Mamiya RB67, my 4x5 view camera, my chemicals and darkroom gear and that film photography magazine I put together every month. A friend posted a link to your blog back at APUG.org and said it was worth the time to read. They were right. Thanks again.

Christopher A. Walrath
Creative Image Maker Magazine

Anonymous said...

I recently bought 4 rolls of film for my Bronica SQAi and am considering buying a used Nikon F3 as my old one finally failed. I played with the output from my kids digital cameras using various versions of Photopaint (7 through 13) and Epson printers. My view of digital is:
1. The equipment is not robust
2. The equipment is expensive
3. You need a lot of time to properly do digital printing
4. The overall cost is higher than film. Why? You tend to burn a lot of expensive paper and ink trying to get the "just right" print.
5. We have been scammed.

kirk tuck said...

I think we scammed ourselves. But it's not too late to enjoy film. There's still a lot of it out there and more great used cameras at unbelievably low prices than any time I can remember. Load up and shoot.

cheryl said...

Kirk, from a portrait / commercial / editorial photographer who has been true to B&W film from day one, thanks! I'm not anti-digital, but I really wish those who have learned to shoot in the digital age would take the time to understand how much there is to love about "the olden days".

- Cheryl Jacobs Nicolai

Paul Elter said...

I must concur this is the best articulated rant on digital vs. Film that I have read to date.
They are all tools and some tools are superior for specific jobs. You could use a wrench to drive home a nail, but a hammer might do a better job. Call me crazy, but I derive great pleasure from being the chemist /alchemist in the lab splashing around liquids and watching the image appear before me. I am not a professional photographer, hell I wouldn’t even go as far as to call my sell a photographer, but bashing around with various film cameras since I was 14 (I’m now 41) I get more pleasure out of anything film. You hit the nail on the head (with a hammer) that seeing that great shot on the little screen has stifled our creativity and we have lost the spirit and soul of the moment, accidental or well composed. If we take the time to really look and not let the engineers make all our decisions for us, our images and by virtue our clients will be much rewarded.

Thanks so much, great insight

John Voss said...

Well darn! If this blog gets around it's going to make it harder for me to finally be able to afford a used 'blad, prism finder, and a couple of lenses. The best thing that ever happened to us film users was the digitalution, and the glut of wonderful gear that got dumped by those who ran, bleating, into the binary fold. So...happy as I am to read of the the contrition of the burn (as in film) again among you, I'm sad that our wonderful little secret has leaked out. Yikes!

John Voss said...

Well darn! If this blog gets around it's going to make it harder for me to finally be able to afford a used 'blad, prism finder, and a couple of lenses. The best thing that ever happened to us film users was the digitalution, and the glut of wonderful gear that got dumped by those who ran, bleating, into the binary fold. So...happy as I am to read of the the contrition of the burn (as in film) again among you, I'm sad that our wonderful little secret has leaked out. Yikes!

rcoda said...

Very enjoyable reading. I will pass along to all my photographer friends. P.S. I recently developed my first 11x14" negative. Digital can't touch that!

Bruce L. Snell said...

Dammit Kirk... now you've got me eyeing a Mamiya 6 kit and a Contax 645 kit...


metaincognita said...

Great article!

What's interesting to me -- and what I've realized myself -- is the idea of using a digital cam to proof the lighting -- a digital Polaroid. Final image is on film.

And the point about the negatives being the archival image. I've still got 3-ring binders with every negative I've ever shot since high school. Not so with my digital shots. I've lost quite a few due to hard drive mishaps (some my fault, others not).

And anyone interested in medium format -- run, don't walk, to a place like KEH. The deals on MF cameras are *incredible*.

kirk tuck said...

A few of my favorites: Mamiya 645e, Mamiya TL pro, Pentax 645 (all flavors), Rollei 6001's, Hasselblad CM 500's, Holgas, and much, much more. My favorite way to get them into the computer on the cheap? Espon V500.

Ed Z said...

Kirk - Knocked it out of the park, as usual.

buckhorn_cortez said...

Sounds like you never truly mastered a digital workflow since it's quite easy to blow away a wet darkroom color prints with a professionally made inkjet print...and I have a complete color darkroom with a 4x5 enlarger, and roller transport print processor sitting next to the lightroom with the Epson 9800 parked in it...and have printed professionally for a number of photographers and museums.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. Right. we've been sitting in the stone ages since the invention of digital......You're the only one with an inkjet printer. Maybe the real thing is that you never mastered the wet darkroom. Tuck is an acknowledged expert in digital, that's what makes his opinion so insightful. There is always some blow hard who blames everything on the original poster's lack of skill. Once you've invested a lot in a new technology it's so hard not to defend it.

kirk tuck said...

The word, "Workflow" is so last century. I don't want to master "workflow" I want to do art. It's two different things. If I want nice prints I'll go to a good printer. That's the whole problem. In the old days we knew there were people who could print better than we could. It's a different discipline. So, just because Nikon and Canon made some digital cameras and Epson made some printers how come all of a sudden we should bypass the great printers and do our own stuff? Just because we can? That's part of the whole problem.

I write books, that doesn't mean I want to learn how to lay them out or how to work a printing press or how to bind books or how to market them. We got people for that.

Mastery of "workflow" is usually a substitute for good ideas. Let's do art and let the other people do workflow

metaincognita said...

The nomenclature itself points to the homogeneity of the contemporary process. My sense of the "old" darkroom is the opportunity for happy, fortuitous accidents. Good art certainly comes from practice and dedication -- but space needs to be cleared for the mystical 1% (or whatever you want to call it) of odd glitches or just plain strange luck. There's not much that's "luck" in Photoshop (although plenty that's strange).

The idea of today's notion of workflow seems (to me, at least) at odds with the analog mystical moments that usually happen by accident (or by accidental insight) yet more often than not crystallize the "art."

Now, don't get me wrong. I, too, understand that even the analog darkroom needs rigor and care -- but I find myself enjoying the darkroom more and more these days. Maybe it's for no good reason. Or maybe there's more to the analog methodologies than we're willing to admit.

Who knows?

Mike Dougan said...

A very good and well balanced view. I almost gave up on photography as I was not getting the same pleasure out of it with my digital equipment but when I started shooting medium format film with 1950's folders all the fun came back. I now shoot only film in 135, 120 and 4x5 formats but despite my amateur status still get through lots of film and have a freezer full of supplies. I've also just built a full darkroom and despite loving my Canon iPF5100 will try some wet printing soon.

I never follow people blog's but I'll be checking in on your one again.

Anonymous said...

As a professional, I have shot digital for over 15 years, a little less than 1/2 the time I have been shooting film. It has gotten really good now and I have fun with it too, but I am moving away from it...fast.

In the past 4 years, I have amassed thousands of rolls of black ands white film stock, a lot of it rare. I have built up an immense arsenal of gear, some 14 cameras and 32 lenses. Only three of the bodies are digital. I have set up the infrastructure and support to be shooting 75% film by the end of 2011. I have had a blast building up a great Hasselblad system with 7 backs, two bodies and 6 lenses. I also created the "Kodachrome Project" so that hundreds of people the world over can celebrate the film's 75th anniversary.

All in all, as good as digital is, I am a photographer and I can and will shoot film. I don't listen to naysayers, I listen to my instincts and what they are telling me is that the value of great film photography especially in the fine art world is going to skyrocket if you are a great shooter.

It is already happening. People....especially young people who have had the internet and digital age rammed down their throats are looking for something more out of life.

I spent most of the week setting up a 340 square foot darkroom and finish area for what is to be the future of photography for me and that future is on FILM!

Joy said...

Awesome read, Kirk. Totally made my day.

I have started building my film aresenal once again. Got a second back for the RB67 and going to order a bunch of velvia, provia and acros 120 film.

Waiting for your next post.

Mike Elek said...

Interesting comments, and just when we thought film was dead, here comes a bit of sanity in a well written piece with interesting insight from within the magazine industry.

I sort of thought all along that creative directors weren't ready to give up their loupes and light tables.

William Porter Photography said...

Excellent article. I haven't shot much film since 2000 and I'm generally happy with digital - but you have made me think again about what I'm doing and where things are going. Thanks.

Michael said...

As one who has largely abandoned my D2x for a book project I'm working on, and instead have turned to 8x10, 4x10 and 8x20 cameras using *film* at up to $20 a sheet (gasp!), I completely agree.

I was an early adopter of digital back in '99 (remember the D1?!?) and have realized that it's not all that it was cracked up to be. Faster? Sure. Easier? Maybe. Better? Not necessarily.

I am posting your article to my student's blog. (http://sladevision.blogspot.com/)

They are shooting digital this year, but next year we'll be doing Hassy's, 4x5's, 4x10, 11x14 and 8x10. If there's going to be a film component to photographic education it needs to be fought for by the educators.

I need to get back into the darkroom now and see how my 8x20 paper negatives are turning out...

Michael Slade
Photography Instructor
The Waterford School

Anonymous said...

Shhhh, you are going to drive the price up of awesome used film cameras. You can go into many camera shops that still sell used film cameras and pick up what was state of the art 15 years ago for pennys on the dollar.

Anonymous said...

good lord you film guys must be bored. Who has the time to read this? I shot digital and I need to work on building my posterior and back problems hunching over my desk...but I'm sure this is a great article.........

Benjamin Capa said...

I hope the above poster is putting us on. It's a five minute read. This exemplifies all that is wrong with the digital mindset. People in a big hurry to go nowhere fast.

Robert Teague said...

Thanks for the wonderful article. I'm a landscape photographer living in Hawaii, and I'm firmly in the film camp. It was also interesting to find your blog, since I'll be visiting Austin in about a month for a family HS graduation - the plan is to shoot my Nikon F6, and a stock of Fuji Astia that I have around the house (I mainly shoot Velvia - nothing beats that).

Poagao said...

I agree with the article, and I do like using film myself, but I'd disagree that digital photography is as inferior as some of the commenters insinuate. Using film doesn't make me any more of a "real" photographer than someone who only uses digital processes, no matter how "authentic" and "old-school" it sounds to list all of the classic film cameras I have used. Also, to be honest, I don't like the darkroom and working with the chemicals.

john said...


I love your posting and I love your writing style too. I seem to suffer from the same affliction as you -- maybe we should form Ranters Anonymous. We have been telling our customers for years that digital is just another tool in the well rounded photographers tool box. Digital only is like a carpenter who only carries a reciprocating saw. The lab I co-own still processes E6, C41 & B&W and we will continue as long as we can purchase chemistry. We have noticed a resurgence, especially with the popularity of Holga and Loma cameras. A new generation is out there experimenting with film and many are beginning to wonder why their parents abandoned it years ago. Please keep up the good work by continuing to speak out on this subject.

John Howard
FotoTechnika Fine Art Imaging
Jacksonville, Florida

Frank Dina said...

Thanks for the great article on film and digital photography. It is a great summary of the benefits and ills of both. I have similar feelings being a corporate photographer by day and film for personal use. In the corporate world, at least at my company, everyone wants and expects photos instantly and usually only files and not prints anymore. So digital fills my needs in that respect. I still enjoy B&W darkroom and even if digital printing ever was equal I would still use a wet darkroom. I am tired of sitting in front of a computer for every activity of my life. I also agree that the quality of both color and B&W is better with film. Probably not good enough to justify its existence to the rest of the world.

Corey Rankin said...

After recently dusting off my RB67, the5D will rarely see the light of day (outside of holiday snaps.)

quikshot said...

A great article. Inspiring and motivantional.
I found the digital-aquired image to be less satisfying than my Nikon F-3 loaded with Tri-X (at 320 ASA) or Ektachrome 100. The digital-aquired image is just a bit on the garish side and too perfect, or so it appears to me.
And I am out to shoot a construction this afternoon, using my tripoded Bronica ETRS and 40mm lense.

Dan Oines said...

An amateur's view:

Digital cameras freed me from

1) Dealing with dust.

2) Being disappointed with faded, weirdly tinted C-41 prints from incompetent photo labs.

3) Being forced to pay for double prints of everything.

4) Being forced to pay more for black and white, and having delays, extra charges, and refusal of service from labs that didn't understand the concept of chromogenic C-41 BW.

5) Having weird color casts on C-41 BW prints.

6) Having SLR photos significantly cropped and off center when printed.

7) The weight of an SLR.

8) Dealing with film jams and not knowing for sure if the frame really advanced or the mechanism disengaged somehow.

9) Focusing and refocusing every slide because the projector held the slides loosely, each one landed differently in the light beam, and they often tipped after a few seconds.

I admit slide film was gorgeous and delivered consistently beautiful photos. Tri-X Pan 400 was wonderful.

Color print film was a gamble. I could never learn to use it well because it was so unrewarding, wrong looking, and inconsistent.

With point and shoot digital I can compose accurately, get the same success rate as film, see everything in crystal clear, vibrant color on a big monitor and just enjoy photography. In regular room light, 4x6" prints look weak compared to a bright LCD or HDTV.

Digital is meant to be cheap and fun. I love knowing the limitations and imperfections of the medium and finding treasures of harmony and beauty nevertheless.

I lived with and liked film, but I love digital.

A-Squared said...

I'm a long-time film guy who shoots digital now, and I actually find the comments as interesting as the original article. Many of the commenters seem to want to turn this whole issue into a religious thing -- which is perhaps a natural defensive reaction of a tribe that, rightly or wrongly, feels its very existence is threatened by an inferior culture and technology.

I personally don't see the point of spending energy trying to make rules about tools and then trying to make everyone be like me when in the end everyone really must find their own way and their own methods and their own tools that work for them. As Kirk actually points out in his "rant," it's really just about finding the right tool that works in a situation and not about making absolute judgments that apply to all situations and all people. And above all to enjoy doing what you're doing.

My take: If you shoot film, take the rolls straight from the camera, and print them with a local custom printing house, and are happy with your results, great! More power to you. If you shoot digital, spend hours in Photoshop processing them, and print the result on an inkjet and are happy with your results, great! More power to you.

To be honest, I think most religious discussions of photographic tools and methods are beside the point. It's not about the gear or the media you use, it's about your vision. Being aware of the full gamut of tools available to try to fulfill that vision is a Good Thing. But I also think it's presumptuous and pointless to be prescriptive about anything regarding art. Artists will find their own way with their own tools and methods no matter what anyone else says about those tools and methods.

Jason said...

Outstanding read. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

silverandpitch said...

Yup. I have been saying much of the same thing for a few years now. Let go of my Nikon D300, and shoot almost everything with two Hasselblads and a Speed Graphic. Better buy that next spare body before everybody else catches on. Look at the jazz festival images on my blog. See if you can tell which were done with a Hasselblad and Tri X, and which were done with a D300.

Anonymous said...

@Kirk Tuck

"The word, "Workflow" is so last century. I don't want to master "workflow" I want to do art. It's two different things. If I want nice prints I'll go to a good printer. That's the whole problem. In the old days we knew there were people who could print better than we could. It's a different discipline."

A-FREAKING-MEN! Thank you for being rational. Photographers have often been the worst editors and printers of their own work and digital drove that home. I have been thinking how it's time for us artists and photographers to reclaim our art from the technerds who forced us to use or hear words like "workflow" in the first place. Thanks for a good read.

Roney Photo said...

Well done, Kirk! A very well written article on things past perhaps not being so useless and outdated as big companies would want us to think. It's amazing how people think computers are the answer to everything, when in fact they do work faster, but oftentimes not better.

Anonymous said...

As the extra room in my house was already plumbed, I turned my darkroom into a sauna a few years back when I went digital.
If anybody needs a bunch of clear cedar and a thermal heating unit...

kirk tuck said...

Hmmm. Darkroom is to sauna as.....digital is to....

Scott said...

Hey Kirk, fellow austinite here (and I was at eeyore's this year....).
Nice writeup. For me, making a digital print gave me too much control. That sounds weird to some I'm sure, but it left it feeling too sterile to me. So I went back to film. BUT I went back a bit further to the early days, lol! For the last year and a half I've been doing wet plate collodion. My hands and eyes are part of the entire process. I'm fully integrated into the image as I feel it come alive in my hands. For me, it feels a lot more intuitive than when I shoot digital.
For mother's day, I mad a portrait of my son.Check it out here http://www.schroederworks.com/Wetplate/James6.jpg

Bill Webb said...

I was caught up in your rant, er, article and mentioned to some photo friends (digital) who were at my home last evening that I was being drawn in the direction of film. "AGHAST" doesn't begin to describe the reaction.

Dan's comments (above) are on-target but there's just something appealing and rewarding about having to get it right in the camera and being almost finished with an image instead of getting it into my digital camera and just starting the process.

Anonymous said...

I recently dug out my ancient Canon AE-1 and my old YashicaMat 124G and replaced the light seals, with the intention of shooting the old 124G. I'm on board with this. I've scanned 2.25sq film from my early shooting days and it runs rings around some of my digitals.....

Arne Marco said...

I enjoyed reading your article. Thanks to digital I restarted taking photos and thanks to Sigmas Foveon-sensor (I have SD14 & DP1), it is possible to enjoy digital.
But I have also a Voigtländer Bessa R2 and I have taken up analog again. Is just such a good feeling to work with it.

SimianD said...

Timely reminder, Kirk!

Was talking with a friend recently and she remarked that a generation is emerging that may never even know what film is.

I still keep my digital for the clients who want instant results (and to whom the difference between film and digital is negligible), but for all the art and keepers I pop those rolls of photosensitive plastic into the gadgets of yesteryear.

And you don't need batteries and chargers and all that electric paraphernalia!

MyVintageCameras said...

Thanks, since I moved to Colorado I've been under a lot of pressure to switch to digital. I had taken up serious B&W photography while living in Monterey CA where B&W silver printing in the tradition of Eward Westen, Ansel Adams, etc still matters. So I building my own darkroom in the basement and continuing with what makes ME happy!

Gary said...

I started shooting 2 years ago, my first ever camera a D200 and a bag of glass to go along side. I then got the D3 and a Fuji S5 Pro. Then a Canon G9. I have more or less all the top Nikon glass, and I love my kit.

2 weeks ago, I bought an RB67 and 3 lenses. Having had 8 rolls of Velvia devved already, I am hooked. It is so refreshingly different. Requires more discipline, more time, and a much greater understanding of what you are doing.

Excellent and thought provoking article.


James said...

I'm a commercial photographer in New York City that specializes in architectural and interiors photography. Almost all my work over the last 15+ years was 4x5 or 8x10. I sold all of my film equipment almost two years ago and have never regretted it even for a moment. There is so much more that I can do with digital. For what I do, to say that film is in any way better is to me simply absurd. Not only has digital opened up technical possibilities that were impossible with film, it has greatly improved my business in terms of cash flow. With film, every shoot would cost me several hundred dollars in film, polaroid and processing not to mention the time needed to have the film taken to the lab, processed, proofed and picked up again. Yes, clients would pay these costs but on many jobs where I did not receive deposits I am carrying those expenses until I get paid - 30, 60, 90 days... I would much rather spend time working on the computer than printing in a darkroom. Also, what about the environmental impact of shooting film? The waste of those gallons poisonous chemicals getting dumped into our water for film makes me sick. There is also the waste from the film packaging and polaroids - I would fill a garbage bag on every shoot. It was absurd. If you are so down on digital I would propose to you that you haven't explored the possibilities that this imaging tool has to offer.

kirk tuck said...

James, in nearly every religion the newly converted are usually the most zealous. Why is it that every new convert immediately assumes that anyone who doesn't sign up completely for the new religious order is a luddite neophyte who wouldn't know one end of a digital camera from another? I bought my first digital professional SLR from Kodak back in 1996 and just last year did test on new cameras for Leaf, Phase One and Mamiya. I know these tools better than someone who's just converted, that's for sure.

When you shot film I hope you were marking it up. All my architectural photographer friends still decry the lost profit when they switched from film to digital just from the film and processing mark up.

If you were carrying the costs for your clients for 90 days I would suggest that you change your business practices. We have most of our corporate clients on credit card payment and are usually paid within several days of delivering the jobs.

I never suggested that one abandon digital to go back to film. I did suggest that aesthetically there are still good and compelling reasons to shoot film on some projects.

Perhaps it will be more appealing to portrait photographers who worry about blowing out highlights on skin tones or artists who want a very specific look

I shot with a D700 last night and it was appropriate for the public relations job. I shot a black and white portrait on a Rollei this morning and Tri-X was appropriate for that job.

It doesn't have to be binary. Life is never really binary.

If you've only been doing this digitally for two years write back in ten and tell us how your are doing with failed hard drives, migrating image files from one media to the other, finding files quickly as you add more and more drive space, etc. I must have twenty different hard drives just waiting around to disappoint me.

I totally agree with you about the environmental issues. I also know that computers, monitors, printers and all the rest also have an environmental impact. I listened to Vincent LaForet tell a group last month that the air conditioning bill to keep his rack of servers cool was averaging around $800 a month! Care to factor that into the carbon footprint?

James said...


You actually make my point - photography ISN'T a religion, merely a way to make an image. Any camera, film or digital, is merely a tool. You can pound nails with a hammer or a rock but I'd rather carry a hammer. It's people that wax poetic about film that usually sound like zealots to me.

Again, for what I do, digital has proved to be far superior. Not necessarily in the quality of the end product, but in the capabilities in achieving it. In fact, it is for the quality aspect that I have been shooting digital for commercial jobs for only the last two years. I have been shooting digital for personal and art purposes since the late '90s. I now feel my images are as good or better than ones I was shooting with my Arca Swiss 4x5 that was sold along with everything else.

If architectural shooters you know "decry the lost profit when they switched from film to digital just from the film and processing mark up" then I would say that THEY need to re-evaluate their business practices. I charge an image processing fee for EACH shot I do that is much more than I ever made marking up film and processing.

I am well aware of hard drive failure and the other drawbacks when working with a digital workflow. You must keep multiple back-ups of your data - the difference is, a back-up is identical to the original. All color film fades with time and if anything happens to that piece of film that's it - the highest quality dupe in the world will never be as good as the original.

Computers, monitors, hard drives etc. all require resources and energy to produce and run but I think if you add it all up, a CF card that can be used for thousands of images has a fraction of the environmental impact as a few rolls of film. I've worked in labs. I've mixed the chemicals for the C-41, E-6 and RA-4 processors. I hope I never have to stand over a 50 gallon mixer wearing rubber gloves, apron goggles and a gas mask again. It's absurd.

I will admit that the one area where I have never seen digital come close to film is black and white. A well made gelatin silver print can't be matched by any digital output I've seen.

PS - I'm not looking to pick a fight, just offering up my opinion...

Iden Pierce Ford said...

Some people drive cars, some feel they'd like to go back to a horse and buggy to save gas.
It is a challenging time.

kirk tuck said...

Some people want to eat frozen dinners and Big Macs. Some people don't. It's always a challenging time but the decision to use film where appropriate is hardly a challenging concept.

That may be why museums are filled with art instead of the latest TV shows.

Barry Dudley said...

This is one of the most thought provoking photgraphy articles I have read. The creative process is a strange and wonderful thing and sometimes even our mistakes prove to have positive outcomes. This article made me think about how the digital process moves so quickly that we shoot, look erase, shoot again and move on where with film our approach is more creative to begin with.

Robert Hall said...

Thanks for shareing your thoughts. I have never been smart enough to compose on a computer. I have been frustrated by trying to make digital work for me. I simply can't. I have used film for 44 years. I will stick with it as the darkroom completes the look and feel of my work.

Thank you again, Kirk,


Kiron Kid said...

I couldn't agree more.

Kiron Kid

Javier said...

I'm no professional whatsoever, but since I started getting into photography (a year and a half ago) I started to buy film cameras of all types. Now I own around 20 excellent cameras... And a Nikon D100 digital.

Film is just different in feel, approach and vibe.

Daan said...

liked the article and loved the comments!
life is funny one day you dicede to get rid of the slr and go to a digital snap cam and years later you start with film again, rangefinders(35mm and 6x9) twin relfexes, holga's etc. at the moment i'm studying photography, to become a better phototgrapher and maybe earn some money with it later, when i noticed that i get better black and white images by using film then by using photoshop.
so with every school job i think about the end image and decide what to use, digital or film, with lens or without the image is then printed on my epson. when i want a bigger print i go to my lab/copyshop or webprinter.

Will said...

Golly! Kirk, thanks a lot! now people would start to think about film and the long streak of amazingly low-price of some of the best photography equipments out there will come to an end... (sigh!)

No, seriously, a well written and eloquent honest thought. I long for the day that film can occupy a much smaller but stable niche as a photography medium where people use it because they love it or see the advantages, not because they have to.

vandoornbuddha said...

Kirk, it should come as no surprise that I'm about to say that thanks to you, and this article which really IS the most convincing I've read (sorry Ken Rockwell), I went on ebay last night/today and bid on a Nikon FE. I won it today and cannot wait to get it.

I'm a 21 year old photography student in Ontario and I'm sure as heck excited to finally get fully into film. I've been shooting digital since becoming interested in photography, and my only film experience is goofing around with the school's 4x5s, and my friends' TLRs and SLRs.

So, that being said, us young folks are most certainly interested in film, and I hope that all the film doomsday talk is just paranoia.

Great essay Kirk, and thank you!

Chris van Doorn

PS - I cannot wait for REAL film grain!

Duncan said...

Right on, Kirk. Since I ceased to be an employed pro in the mid-90s, I'd done little photography other than snaps, but the digital age, with natty little p&s cameras has brought me back. However, having recently revived my 1978 FD-mount Canon, I'm loving it again. The look of real grain, instead of digital noise, is sheer pleasure. Lack of my own darkroom is a pain though (oh, for a DeVere 504...), especially for MF.

I volunteer in a thrift shop, and someone donated an F65 body & zoom lens last Saturday; a treasure (although an F2/FM/FT3 would have been better)! At the end of the day though, the choice of camera is largely immaterial when it comes down to the ability to create good images (technical considerations notwithstanding); creative vision is what's important. It's just a pity that DSLRs in themselves don't me give the pleasant warm feeling that a Hasselblad/Rollei/Mamiya would, but perhaps that's just a matter of familiarity. Somehow I doubt it though; something to do with being closer to the imaging process: real light captured on real emulsion, rather than ephemeral charge on an electronic chip.

Give me the choice - digital when I want it fast, film when I want it real.

Anonymous said...

i feel blessed to have been here whilst cameras have been so cheap, i could never afford a decent cam when i was younger and now i have so many bueatiful and constantly used cameras

a full equiped darkroom 5x7" and colour setup.

this moment was never going to last forever, and soon im sure a bronica/hassie will be very expensive again, and a cult possession

i will still have my view cameras and bron gs etc

good on yeah digi guys you have been very genourous in giving away your cameras.

Anonymous said...

If you haven't already, you should send a copy of your article to Antonio Perez at Kodak. It's excellent.

James Shelley said...

Hi James here in Ireland
Thanks for the article (recommended on APUG.org)
Seriously enjoyed another voice understanding why I don't want to move away from film - I don't own anything digital other than a mobile phone camera....
If I may, You missed another of what I consider the MOST salient points of film. Sitting back after the shoot, with a beer and discussing life.
Seriously, you can talk about the shoot or the location or the landscape or the model. You can bounce ideas for tomorrows project. You don't have to sit and review the laptop or tiny camera screen.Shrinking into a machine whilst thinking about how to 'correct a horizon'
Instead, you get a secondary buzz when a week later you receive back the initial prints and the tingly anticipation of 'Did I get it?' starts work again.

Thanks for the article - I'm passing the link around - if you don't mind.


Anonymous said...

Is this a ploy to get me to go out and support the analog film industrial complex? A ploy to get me to go out and buy some film and another RZ67 body? I think I'll do just that.

kirk tuck said...

Naw, I'm pretty ploy-less. But if you want another RZ body don't let me stop you!

Thanks, Kirk

Anonymous said...

If this is another a ploy to get me to support the Analog Film Industrial Complex by going out and purchasing another RZ67 body and more film, I think it may be working. I'm waiting for my RZ67 to arrive in the mail.

silverandpitch said...

I am a victim of hte AFIC conspiracy. Just bought an RB67 outfit that looks like it was made yesterday. Oh... and another Rollie...

Kristi said...

Hooray! This is from a 22-year-old who fell in love with film in high school. (I found this as a discussion on Amazon from film scanners.) I'm linking you on my blog...(I post sometimes about photography news like the Impossible Project and alternative processes and things, but not on a full-time basis).

I collect older cameras and I'm trying to build my own darkroom as I can on my little art student budget. I agree that digital hasn't yet come up with a black and white to match lovely 35mm. I figured getting a film scanner would be a good option for me for a while because I can't afford a D-SLR. Thanks for making me smile about making images, and not getting so worked up about the tools!

Glucozze said...

Hi !
first to say i discover photography with digital point & shoot and after digital reflexs (took me one year of credit to buy it like i was student)

it was great for learning composition/light ... you can shoot a lot to learn...

when i was thinking it's ok i go to film (argentique): first a pentax 645, after an old arca swiss 4x5 and this month an hasselbald Xpan...every old, cheap (cheap because of digital !! it's incredible how "older" photographer sell wonderful tools very cheap and when you ask why they said: to go to digital !!!)

now i shoot probably 90% of film (and the 10% where because i shooted digital for testing like a polaroid, like ive bought now a flashmeter/exposemeter i don't need) and will give the digital to my girlfriend to learning photo.

Charlie said...

Will you please, please, please stop writing this stuff. I have dropped £9000 on camera bodies in the last 5 years. Spent decades in PS doing all the digital stuff. Just put some rolls through an old Canon and they needed no PS work. And the worst bit? The secret is out. I have been stalking Mamiya 645s on ebay and I swear they have gone up by 100% in the last 2 months!!

Anonymous said...

Kirk -

I first read this article through some link several years ago. I have it bookmarked and I read it again from time to time, as I have just done again. I am a dedicated (non-pro) B&W shooter in all formats and I cringe every time I hear about the newest 4/3 or the next D-what-have-you being thrust upon the market as the next "must have can't make decent pictures without" wunderkam. Not because I don't think that earning photogs should use each tool available in their kit, but because for each one of these new releases, I see another chip out of the already bedraggled film market. And that makes me sad.

I hope that your eloquent and articulate article has made a lasting impression in the commercial/professional world (or region anyway...I suspect that it has), but then I am far from having my fingers on any photographic pulses. Especially digital ones.

I have linked - and not for the first time - your article into the APUG film forum, I hope that wasn't inappropriate. I would really like for those who have not already read this to hear what you had to say.

Thank you for writing this, I will continue to read it again and again, along with many of your other informative articles, as time goes by. I wonder if there is a follow-on, or update to this one forthcoming? BTW - I live in Dallas. Maybe next time I'm in Austin I'll look you up?

Anonymous said...

Found this article on a Rangefinder forum. I read it. Now I'm canceling all my appointments for the day. I've just found a treasure trove of posts I feel like I need to read. Only 600 and change to go.

This boy is both damn smart and a damn good writer.