4.29.2012

Film in the post film age.


Digital imaging and film photography have diverged and become two separate functions.  Digital is about endless choices and limitless resources.  Shoot til your battery dies, then recharge and shoot again. The only quantifiable downside to digital imaging is having to wade through the hundreds of thousands of image you might lay down in a year's time. Seems silly but I think digital teaches us that it's a good thing not to make up your mind and lock down a look. The endlessness of resources encourages us to believe that if we only shoot long enough and fast enough then, mathematically, one of the images will be a winner.

Film, with it's parsimonious resourcing teaches us the opposite message.  That given a paucity of frames we'd better go into a situation with something in mind and the chops to nail it down.  For this gentleman above it means getting your subject in twelve frames or less.  Twelve distinct shots, each interrupted by the need to stop and wind the crank to the next frame.

With my Sony Alpha camera I lift it to my eye and the autofocus is automatic and begins as soon as my face gets close enough for an optical sensor to read my proximity.  All I need to do is point the camera at whatever seemed interesting enough to me seconds before and then lean my finger on the shutter until.....I want to stop.  Or I get bored.  The camera will focus, expose, change ISO's to suit the prevailing conditions, all with very little involvement required on my part.

Yes.  I know.  You are a super evolved photographer.  Not only do you not care about what anyone else thinks about anything but you are also capable------no, driven, to use your camera in a  completely manual mode.  The rest of us are subtly influenced by our laziness and the ripe availability of all those modes. We hardly have to think about what we're doing.  It just happens.  Almost by magic. We get separated from the viscera of the process.

On the other hand, the owner of the above Mamiya will lock himself into a "color space" and monochrome or color choice before he even gets started.  No changes for the 12 exposures.  When he sees something he must do a mental calculation to decide how much the potential image really means to him.  When he decides to "go for it" it's assumed that the scene or subject is a "high value" target.  He must focus and compose on a fairly dark and uncompromising screen.  No green light will light up when and if he gets in the ballpark.  There's no meter in that camera either so he'll have to make a well educated guess, or consult a meter.  And then, because the "manual lag" between shots will be measured in full seconds rather than fractions of seconds, he will have to patiently but intently decide on the optimum moment to commit a frame.

Yes.  I know.  Even though you're shooting a digital camera that does 12 fps you are so well controlled; rational and self assured in your technique, that you use only one frame per object of enchantment.  The rest of us are less assured and anxious to hedge our bets.

We head home, slip the card into a reader and push the colors around on our screens.  We push a button and upload our "catch" to our online "collection" and we're done.

This guy will either need to head to a lab and drop off his film or crank up the wet darkroom and soup it himself.  Another chance to ruin 12 perfectly good shots.  And then he'll need to print or scan them.

Film is a process that thrives on slow and careful.  Digital just thrives. Like weeds in a well watered lawn.  They are totally different animals and the practitioners are practicing two different art forms.  Neither has higher moral ground.  And neither is "better."  But as a device for learning, film will go toe-to-toe with the toughest drill sargeant around.  And the lessons you learn stick harder because the film velcro costs more.  $kin in the game = retention.

I notice an increase in Austin photographers shooting film lately.  I wonder what their rationales are.  Think you're a great shooter?  Let's see you do it on some slow Ektachrome.

51 comments:

Glenn Harris said...

Film or Digital is just a tool for whatever your vision is. Never have understood why people think film equates to a thoughtful process and digital doesn't. Bit of a generalization I think.

Michael Ferron said...

I was walking downtown Austin yesterday and found it to be a fantastic photo day. Landed a # of keepers. Using an old classic film camera I met a gent using the model We had a friendly few minutes of chat before moving on. I don't get that with digital for some reason.

I'm not a pro and am totally burnt out keeping up with the latest digital offerings. I love the slow film process and hands on approach that goes with it. No not practical for most but very rewarding to me.

tomt said...

I bought a C220 in 1970 or 1971, and I'm pretty sure that it and the somewhat blingier C330 could handle twenty-four images, not that this compares with the one or two orders of magnitude greater available on current SD or CF cards.

Robin Wong said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kirk, on film vs digital. I have a friend who arrogantly proclaims that if you do not shoot film, you are a second class photographer. How I disagree with him !! I like the way you described two mediums being two separate animals, and neither is better.

Jan Klier said...

Technically it's a matter of discipline.

Amazon still sells 256MB CF cards for $13 (in fact they even had a 128MB). On a modern digital camera shooting raw, that gives you 12 exposures. You can keep the camera in manual mode, and switch your lens to MF, switch the LCD review to 'off', and stash that card in your desk drawer for a minimum of 48 hours before downloading. If you were a purist, you could even decide to never format your CF cards, and at that price, just buy a whole box of them.

So it's not the device, it's our own decision to let technology take over the process. Most of the time that's good, because in many scenarios the efficiency gain can be economical. But it certainly opens to the door to both (a) laziness and (b) perfection by numbers instead of effort. I believe the term is 'shoot an pray' :-)

Frank Grygier said...

I cannot remember the date.I could look it up but I won't. Before digital every point and shoot was a film camera. Every one who took photographs used film. Every vacation was documented on film. Everyone took the film to the drug store. Usually everyone threw away more than half of the pictures they got from the clerk at the store. Every enthusiast used film. We just carried all the rolls of film we intend to shoot. Some of us had darkrooms. I used the local lab. I threw away more than half of what I shot. Nostalgia seems to romanticize the way we did things before some new way to do it comes along. I did take the motor drive off of my Ricoh 35mm. It cost to much to hold the shutter button down.

kirk tuck said...

I am a pro and I'm also burned out on the constant upkeep of digital. Not just the cameras but also the raw processors etc.

kirk tuck said...

Look at the camera I showed in the blog. It's a very specific camera. And a specific format. There have always been other ways to do stuff. Don't tell me you're throwing yourself in the superman category wherein nothing sways you from the true path. I won't believe it. :-)

kirk tuck said...

You can no longer get my favorite film, 120mm ISO 400 Tri-x in 220 loads. If you shoot the non-pro tri-x you ARE limited to 12 on a C-330. But yeah.

kirk tuck said...

I think both have their place. Neither are inherently superior. I just think digital is highly addictive (additively addictive) like Xanax. You can have the good intentions you want but it's hard not to become addicted to the ease....

kirk tuck said...

I guess my post is aimed more toward serious amateurs and pros and less at the people who sent their film to Walgreens. Those people are now the cellphone shooters and they don't really count in my world view. We can "romanticize" what we used to do but I'm still looking for that overwhelming collections of new "master" art photographs that are all digital...

Let me know when you find some...

Tony's Vision said...

There is a very definite "photo mind" that I experienced back in the day when I used a Mamiya C330. A few days ago I explored the possibility of recapturing that mindset by setting my Lumix GH2 to a black and white film type and a 1:1 format. Although I failed in achieving that goal, I did realize that it was time to let my film era gear go. Here's how I got to that decision ...
http://tonymindling.blogspot.com/2012/04/black-and-white-and-square.html

Frank Grygier said...

The masters of the digital age will probably be discovered by the next generation when digital will be the great medium of the past that caused the artist to suffer with 32gig memory cards. I am using an IBM Selectric for all my comments. It adds more weight don't you think.

Craig Yuill said...

I still own one of those C330f's in the photo, as well as a C220f. I was going to use it a few months ago and try out the Tri-X you had been lovingly reminiscing about. I was having trouble finding Tri-X in 120 rolls - I instead bought a roll of Provia 100F that is still sitting, unused, in the fridge. I also found that the light seals had started to turn into a crumbly goo. I did purchase some foam material with which to make new seals, but have yet to find time to do so.

For a while the C330f was my number-one camera. It is the camera that helped drive home the point that technique is so important for getting the most out of a lens, or achieving the desired look of a photo. It was a great learning tool. And it took great photographs of anything not needing a super wide or a long telephoto. Hmmm, I miss using it. I think I'll get to work on that seal ASAP.

Sam said...

I thought my F4 slowed me down and produced more keepers until I got my M645 Pro. I thought that camera slowed me down and produced more keepers until I got my Crown Graphic. In nine months of ownership it is responsible for the majority of my best images despite having exposed far fewer frames. I'm still very selective when I shoot my D80 yet I still wind up with way too many pictures to wade through.

That's one issue.

As far as artistic merit and perceived image quality, however, there is absolutely no contest. I love playing with fun RAW tools like RPP and ColorPerfect's new PerfectRAW but I never manage to achieve that film look without film. If you love it you love it, if you don't you don't, I guess. And I just love knowing that I will be shooting all of my cameras for as long as I care. After all, they are already obsolete!

Tobias Key said...

Great post Kirk. I agree with you that digital and film photography are diverging. I guess film photography may become black and white only in the next 5 years. Although neither is inherently superior do you think in some ways the extra effort required in making a film image reflects in how we perceive their value?

Dave Jenkins said...

"So it's not the device, it's our own decision to let technology take over the process."

That is so very, very perceptive and true, Jan.

In my book "Georgia: A Backroads Portrait," I worked with a twin-lens reflex loaded with Fuji Astia on some days. I allowed myself only two exposures from each angle I shot, one according to the incident meter reading, and one a half-stop under. It's a process guaranteed to refresh your eye for composition and detail.

kirk tuck said...

Funny, but last generations masters were discovered concurrent with their work. And, by the way, this blog is written on a Hermes manual, portable typewriter. Then the pages are dictated to a secretary who enters them into a dedicated word processor and then they are translated by some advanced software called an "OCR" and some one does something and they appear. That's what makes my writing so interesting = the sheer cost of production.

kirk tuck said...

Nothing we really want to do is done for RATIONAL reasons, much as engineers would love to make everything binary and measurable. It's all really done for emotional reasons. The ability to be totally logical is the real of the afflicted or it died with Spock. In movie five.

hugo solo said...

Its the same thing shot with a mamiya c 330 or an iphone.

kirk tuck said...

Having to explain the joy and sorrow of shooting film to a person who has not, or will not, shoot film is like trying to explain the taste of a great wine to someone who has only had cheap beer.

Frank Grygier said...

I would like to improve my workflow. Can you share the actions you use and the name of the OCR program. I want to write just like you.

kirk tuck said...

Right. I don't think so. Unless you think cars and bicycles are the same mode of transportation.

kirk tuck said...

http://www.irislink.com/c2-1982-189/1011-RI-Cardiris-us.aspx?adwp=GGS-RI-US&gclid=CMqLzc3k3K8CFSdjTAod_WWv_A

Hee. Hee.

Paul Glover said...

The tools will define the process, if you let them. Most people I know do that, myself included. I know a few who don't, but they're the exception.

Paul Glover said...

Well, I suppose it *is* hard to tell the difference when it's reduced to 1MP and cast adrift among a sea of blurry cat photos.

Frank Grygier said...

Maybe digital has homogenized photography to the point where no photographer who uses the medium will be recognized as a master.

Carlo Santin said...

I've been very drawn to film lately. I just ordered my first developing tank and reels...chemicals to come. My summer project is going to be learning to develop my own film. I love cranking the lever on my Nikon FE, I love manual focusing on that camera, I love hearing the snap of the shutter and the film advance on my F90x. I love the look of the pictures much like I love the sound of my collection of vinyl through a nice stereo system. I also love carburated engines. I grew up with all of these things and they are still very much a part of me even if they are old and outdated. "Old" things interest me, and while I love technology, this world we live in isn't always a better place because of it. There is something nice about negatives sitting in their sleeves, something that pleases me, like the smell of a new book pleases me. Like a wood-burning fire pleases me, the way it crackles and smells (please, not gas). Meat grilled over burning wood is a beautiful thing. Meat cooked in a microwave? Yuck! Maybe that's the best explanation I can offer. Digital is fun, and it is easy and comes with its own advantages, but there is something just right about film.

Juan Carlos said...

For me my DSLR is like a GMC Denali truck: versatile, can carry loads of stuff, and can go over rough terrain. Likewise, my Hasselblad is like a '58 Cadillac an the Canon A-1 is like a '66 Camaro. All vehicles will take you from A to B, and neither are better than the other -- they all have their special essence. The final destination is the goal, but the journey is just as important. Sometimes I like to take the GMC truck, and at other times I want to cruise in the Cadillac with the top down.

kirk tuck said...

So far that is my primary observation....

kirk tuck said...

Juan, I love that explanation.

Joe Harper said...

That is a sad but striking thought. There may not be a future "Master" to be seen by the world. Much the way that Photoshop has, as you say "homogenized" graphic arts so to has Photography, via digital manipulation and ease of use innovation changed the ratios forever.

When you democtatize the tools of production, you get a lot of product, but lower the line of discernment for what is considered truly novel.

Unknown said...

I worked for many years as a cinematographer. Not quite the same thing as a still photographer, except that both crafts used film. In the case of the 16mm Arri S (or BL or Bolex) film camera, the film was Ektachrome Commercial, ASA 25, tungsten balanced, or ASA 16 with the daylight conversion filter. I worked for a very parsimonious producer/director/boss who didn't believe in multiple takes for exposure or focus reasons. If we did do multiple takes we marked all the inferior ones as "do not workprint," which meant we never had to deal with them during the editing.

I now use digital m43 still cameras, just for fun. I love that the speed is higher than ISO 16. I love that the viewfinders are brighter and easier to focus than on the old Arri S. I love that the "film stock" is essentially free. I love the greater power and flexibility of Lightroom compared to the smelly old wet lab.

Yeah, I think digital photography is the greatest thing since sliced bread. (Stupid phrase; what's so great about sliced bread?). But I do appreciate the discipline that I was forced to learn using the old gear. I still don't ever chimp. I still don't take multiple exposures "just to make sure."

What's my point, other than my reminiscing? Kirk is right, on average film requires slow and careful work while digital allows faster and often sloppier work. But is slow and careful always better than fast and sloppy? Don't you think some of the old street photographers whould have killed for the fast and digital gear?

hugo solo said...

But the most important thing in photography is the final product,the photograph.

Unknown said...

Not everyone who shoots film uses Medium Format. Not everyone who shoots film uses Black & White. One of the most well known photos, of the last 50 years, is Steve McCurry's "Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl, at Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984," shot on Kodachrome.

Me, I shoot P3200(TMZ), BW400CN, Portra 400 and Ektar using a Canon EOS Elan 7 and a Nikon F 100. Both cameras are Auto Focus and have Program, Aperture, Shutter Speed and Manual settings. Sometimes I use a hand-held incident meter, but generally use the built-in camera meter. Does this make me any less of a film photographer ??? ;-)

c.d.embrey

Unknown said...

Another former ECO user. There are not many of us left.

When Kodak came out with 100 ASA 7247, the world changed for 16mm users.

In relation to "sliced bread," have you ever tried to make sandwiches using hunks of bread ripped from a baguette ;-)

kirk tuck said...

no.

kirk tuck said...

No limits. 35mm film is still film. But the prevailing ethos is that anything you can scratch out a free picture with is fair game. Who am I to say?

hugo solo said...

Well Kirk I´m from chile and now live in barcelona spain,lands of goods wines and about cameras pentax mx me nikon f f4 polaroid alpha mamiya c330 rolleiflex olympus oms canon eos600 eos1 eos1n something else and a home B/W red light for many years,and you can tell me something about films and wines?

AlexG said...

So far this year I have bought a Mamiya 645 and an almost full OM system and most significantly built a darkroom. Although I shoot digital I find that hours spent in the darkroom are far more fulfilling than the time spent in imaging software. Besides comparing digi black and white to a wet print on fibre based paper. I think Martin Parr has made the switch to digital by the way, at least thats what I heard him say at an artists talk.

Poagao said...

Heh, would that friend's initials happen to be EK? I read his post on the subject recently

טל בדרק said...

as long as no one will be using his hands in the process, digital will remain, well, digital. there is a serious lack of human touch in the process.

Blaufeld said...

Reading "A Leica Year" on TOP, I decided some days ago to try this as a kind of project. Even if I don't own a Leica, I've started photography 23 years ago with a MMM SRL, and I'm still fond to go "all manual" even with my M4/3 camera. So this is my camera and set-up: Panasonic Lumix G3 with Pentacon Prakticar 28mm f/2.8 MF lens (FF equivalent: 56mm). PASM Mode: Manual, no LCD view, EFV with B/W preview and no helps/info except Shutter Speed and under/over/ok exposition warning. Image format 3:2, ISO 400, shooting mode RAW, image review on LCD after shot disabled (taking notes of shutter speed/aperture value of every shot for at-home evaluation) Goal: to shoot at least two 24-pose "rolls" every week for an year, then download it in the PC, convert straight in B/W and judge them "as they are" without postwork or correction whatsoever, keeping and uploading the good ones and learning from the bad ones to shoot better in a similar situation.

Jan Klier said...

Dave - I had a similar experience once that still sticks in my memory to this date. I had just gotten a new RZ67, and I did a studio shoot to which I only brought 3 rolls and my light meter. No polaroid, no digital. I had to previsualize the lighting and rely on my meter to get it right, and I wouldn't know for a few days if it worked. It was nerve racking, but I haven't relied on my lighting skills and my meter that much in a long time. It was a good process.

I don't repeat it often enough. Most times when shooting film, I have a digital with me 'as safety net', yet end up taking too many exposures with it, instead of just enough to be sure it will work. Some days I'm more disciplined and don't download the digitals until I have looked at the film and made my picks.

But as Kirk observed - being disciplined doesn't come natural, our emotions get in the way too often.

Jan Klier said...

Actually the correct version of this statement, that with the high tech cameras, the master is not the person behind the camera, but the engineer devising the firmware that runs all those features. After all the cameras are quite capable, but it's the human mind that made them so.

Now unfortunately there's a matter of scale involved, that one brilliant engineer at Canon influences billions of photos which all benefit from his brilliance, so it's hard to make out a special one.

As a matter of fact - the discussion used to be about the photographers (what photographer x did, and what y tried, and where z was just so much better), now it's all about gear (why camera x is better than y in these circumstances, and that z is so much better in low light, etc.). The discussion hasn't changed, the subject of discussion has.

Vincent Ie said...

I still do both media until now. I give up 135 film and use solely 120 on a Mamiya ProTL. I like to use it during any invitational sessions to show people that a different media which is the predecessor of digital photography is still around.

It's a very pity situations now. If we look at most of digital photographers now. They are very gear-centric but mostly lack of basic photography knowledge such as exposure (why and what aperture to use, why we need A/S mode), optimal ISO, color/tone, lighting, basic composition ...

Only one thing they are good at: digital post-processing.

geyes30 said...

I've recently re-discovered "The Negative" by Ansel Adams. I've had the book for more than a year, but didn't read it because it did not pertain to my style of shooting. But since February I've started dabbling in large format photography, and I have found his advice to be extremely helpful. For example, I never knew that a #90 filter can give us instant monochrome vision. I also used the zone system for the first time (with a recently purchased Pentax Spotmeter V), and the quality of the image is light years ahead of what I used to achieve. This man is a genius.

Scott said...

OK, this is COMPLETELY off-topic, but the memory made me laugh, and says something about how far we've come.
In the 70's, a significant other of mine was a "word processor" for a car insurance company. operating a typing machine that was about the size of two refrigerators. She would get a form memo that said something like: "Customer number: 12345 / Paragraphs: 4, 27a, 46, 32, 77 / Signor: 257.

The numbers told her which computer cards to stack in the machine before she pressed Enter; the machine then produced two hard copies of the letter, one for the file and one for the customer. (The machine only produced letters.)
I guess the advantage was that it was faster than hand-typing on a Selectric, and it never made spelling errors.

Probably you could find a machine like that in a computer museum somewhere; then you'd only have to type each paragraph once, and mix and match to produce different blog posts.

Course you'd still have to scan the result to get it on the web.

Scott said...

Part of the problem is that most people have never even seen a well printed black and white wet print from a 120 negative. I've shot square black and white with my G2; it's kind of fun, but the resulting prints are not in the same universe as the ones I make from my Rolleiflex.

(I'm willing to be convinced; for sure I'm not as good at digital printing as I am in the darkroom, but so far I don't think I've ever seen a black & white digital print that impressed me much.)

If the only references one has are pictures on-line, or reproductions in books, then pretty anything might look OK.

Scott said...

I don't know whether it has anything to do with film vs digital, but SOMETHING has changed. Maybe has more to do with the death of print.

When Magnum was in its heyday (and that's only one example) there was a core of photojournalists who were famous, even outside the world of photography.

There were always a couple of famous fashion photographers, and a couple of famous portraitists.

Other than maybe Annie Leibovitz, I'm not aware of anyone today who is in the same position. Are you?

Neal said...

I also have a C300f that gets an occasional use, usually it's a Rolleiflex that comes with me for a stroll. I liked your comment about digital thriving no matter the situation (weeds). gave me a chuckle.

For me it's too difficult to shoot digitally, most of my work is done in a wet darkroom, printing a negative image onto transparency just to take into the darkroom seems like a lot of extra work (and more to learn and keep up with) where I can just get the negative in the first instance, but it's not about the convenience, I've tryed printing b&w digitally and given it a good try too... I can get close but it's never the same.

besides, it wouldn't feel right inking up a bromoil from a digital negative. but your point about both options having their place is valid, I use digital for my work and for the most part wouldn't have it any other way.