12.18.2013

How easy are we willing to make the process of making photographs before we admit how much we've lost?


I was watching a video program from PBS about Richard Avedon a few nights ago and it made me  sad. Not sad for the person (Avedon--who passed away a few years ago) or the people in our industry but sad for just how much good stuff we've (as an industry) been willing to let go of in the thoughtless pursuit of the "free" practice of digital photography. And how complicit we've all been in our own artistic decline. I am as guilty as the rest of you. If you still shoot larger formats than 35mm you are excused from this discussion and from automatic inclusion amongst the collective guilty.

Let me explain what I mean before the fire breathing forum experts go into spiteful overdrive.

Regardless of whether we work in digital or film photography there are certain aesthetic manifestations resulting from the use of different sized imaging sensors, or different film sizes, just as there are obviously different effects that come from using different focal lengths of lenses to achieve the same angles of view across formats. Newer technologies in sensors might yield less noise or higher perceived resolution but all the new advancement(?) comes at the expense of a truly diverse range of tools. And the ones that have mostly gone away are the larger formats. The same formats that made most of the amazing images from the last century. Six by six. Six by seven. Six by nine. True, in camera large format panos. 4x5 inch and bigger.

When discussing different styles of cameras most people aren't well educated enough to get very far beyond counting the number of pixels on a chip. Most don't understand that there are many visual differences between the constitution of different kinds of sensors and most don't understand the very idea of movable (non-parallel camera movements) lens and film planes. But the biggest issue is that we all chose to ignore the obvious visual differences that come from the inter-relationship of sensor size and focal length/angle of view.

We're like happy ants toiling in the tiny garden of m4:3, APS-C and good ole fashion small format 35mm frame sizes. We've completely tossed away medium format, wouldn't know what to do with 4x5 inch sheet film and are probably depressingly unaware that once film could be readily had in 8 by 10 inch sheets---and larger. And we're equally unaware that many, many practitioners of the recently past era didn't use the larger sizes to get more "megapixels" they worked in the larger formats because the larger formats gave the artists different looks. They delivered images that looked unique by format----not just stylistically but fundamentally. Down at the level of physics.  If you could make a snap shot with an 11x14 inch view camera it wouldn't look like a 35mm camera used in the same spot with a lens having the same angle of view. It would look totally different. The much, much longer focal length of the lens (for the same angle of view) used at the same subject to camera distance would have yielded a totally different depth of field in which sharp focus would fall off at a much steeper rate. These were the days of giants in the field of photography. The gear and the people.


In the days before ignorance and indifference (and the mass market driving relentlessly toward low operational costs as a top priority) people chose particular cameras in order to create a certain look. It may, for some, have been the enormous amount of information contained in a large format frame. This almost infinite availability of information allowed for incredibly smooth transitions between tones but it was a smoothness that depended on layers and layers of overlapping information rather than the current smoothness that's generally a result of software blurring of images that are already at the fringes of thinly stretched information.  People only really chose "hand cameras" for expediency. For fast operation.

We've also lost the ability to appreciate and utilize the true effects of a lens or film plane tilted off a parallel axis which allows an artist to decide where the plane of sharpness will go in the translation of three dimensions into two. The digital effects in post processing are just an echo of the true potential of this effect. And in still life photography we are losing the look and the effect of a totally sharp image, taken up close and with a normal or longer focal length lens. Since we're now mostly limited to a front tilt at the most we've come to depend of the forced perspective of stopped down wide angle lenses made for 35mm sensor sizes to create fully sharp table top images instead of the fully flexible front and rear shifts and tilts of their much more powerful (and flexible) camera ancestors. Flexibility which allowed a deep focus with longer focal lengths.

To watch Avedon work his magic with an 8x10 view camera or even a twin lens Rolleiflex is an exercise for me in regret for a lost time when people had the balls to spend real money on their vision and to do it in a way that defied ALL compromise.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting and two tasting experiences come to mind for me. First, I remember as though it was yesterday walking into the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas to see the opening of Avedon's show: In the American West. I'd bought the book the minute it came out but nothing could have prepared me for the enormous prints hanging in the museum. Some were printed eight feet by ten feet and mounted on metal. You could have walked in, cut out an 8x10 inch section and realized that even that small crop had more tone and detail and depth than any print I've seen in the digital age. The show was mesmerizing as much for the subject matter as the uncompromising attention to every visual nuance. Every detail that could have been massaged and mastered had been. It was amazing work. If you've just seen it in a magazine then you haven't really seen it.

No one has come close in all the digital age to the sheer quality of construction and presentation of the that show. No one.

But it wasn't about the loss of an uncompromising vision in a lone outlier like Avedon that makes me sad. There were other fine artists like Sandy Skoglund whose large format documentations of her own installations were flawlessly captured. And of course, there were Avedon's peers, like Irving Penn and even Ansel Adams whose command of the medium and the message is unequalled today.

The second experience was the viewing of the recent Arnold Newman show at the Humanities Research Center at UT. While Newman occasionally worked with a 35mm camera later in his career his most memorable and most celebrated work came mostly from 4x5 inch view cameras. But his intention in using these cameras and the 20 square inches of film surface they delivered was not given over to grandiose enlargement. It was really all about the relationship of the lens to the format and the visual effects that they gave. The images have a grounding and a definite visual language that's mostly missing from today's quite literal work. It's almost like we've abdicated working with specialist tools and embraced a universe where we are all the plumbers and electricians of photography working with the same tools. You see it over and over again in articles and interviews. It's generally the (un)holy trinity of zooms. The 14-24mm, the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm lenses. No real divergence. Few are even adapting the use of prime focal lengths anymore as people move with the herd out of fears of client or peer rejection.  ( And look: I have a 28-70mm and a 70-200mm as well. My fears are just as palpable...).

And why? The great mass of people (the ones who drive markets) will nearly always race to the easiest value proposition. The easy to handle, easy to use tool that has no tag-along costs (film, additional focal lengths, specialty equipment). They drive the market and the marketers have learned that supplying the smaller niches gets you burned, financially. Yes, there are people doing great commercial work with the cutting edge medium format systems but by and large those same cameras are mostly being wielded by other than the potentially gifted artists of our/your generation. They are being pressed into mostly mundane and derivative service by groups of established people who came from other occupations for whom making big images is a passionate hobby. And, because of the sheer cost to enter it's become a hobby of exclusion and, to some extent snobbery. They are generally reprising exactly the work that they grew up with. Or the work they learned to do from the workshop masters. But at least they are keeping our choices alive (if only on life support) and continuing to nudge us with images that show off the optical properties we've banished from mainstream photographic consciousness.

In the days of film an artist who understood the advantages of those flexible and interesting tools could buy a second hand view camera and a few lenses and film holders for less than a thousand bucks. He could master the art with older but still capable tools. And I knew many, many people working as artists in the field who would buy and process film but not know where any additional money was going to come from for food and rent. They had a sequential matrix of priorities that defined their dedication to their art. It wasn't an afterthought or a comfortable diversion. It was as important as food and shelter.

You could enter the ranks of medium format shooters back then with as little investment as a $100 Seagull twin lens camera. You could find 8x10 cameras for a song. But now people assume that owning digital means that the hobby is cost limited. The art is in the final production. The clever post processing slight of hand. An echo of the power which camera from divergent cameras....

There is an unwillingness, in the age of all digital snaps are free for people to step up to the plate and take advantage of tools that will differentiate their vision----because that comes at a cost.

I'm not pointing fingers. I'm as guilty as the next person. I used to use the larger formats. I convinced myself that clients had been trained by my peers and the wisdom of the web not to expect digital imaging to have hard costs for materials, and I convinced myself that client's expectations had changed and required me to supply them with immediate visual gratification. I bought the 35mm equivalents. I've dabbled in the tinier formats. I've rejected the $20,000+ medium format cameras as commercially untenable. And I've watched my vision fray and melt into the same tepid and homogenous cultural stew pot as everyone else's.

Yes, yes. We all have a vested interest in believing that it's all about the artists.  The idea that a great artist doesn't care about the camera.  The insane idea that Avedon could have done his work with an Olympus OMD em1 and done the same kind of art. But we all know it's self-serving bullshit. We know our portrait work could be better in larger formats.  We are keenly aware that landscapes would be much more captivating if they came in the form of large format images, ala Elliot Porter. Even our fashion work would be elevated with different tools like the ones used by Peter Lindbergh or Nick Knight.

But in the end we're too cheap, or lazy, or comfortable, or paralyzed by financial fright to work with the very tools that might free us...or empower us. And that's why watching the Richard Avedon video saddened me. Not because we can't do great work but because we categorically refuse to make the investments in time, money and aesthetically articulated gear to realize our own visions. We hope that we can delivery ten tons of steel on the roof of a Prius because we don't really want to buy the right truck... We accept the limits offered by camera makers because it's too painful to do otherwise.

And so we're stuck with trillions of images that all look more or less the same. The subject matter might be different from image to image but the tools create a relentless pressure to conform to their boundaries. And the boundaries inform the aesthetic. And now the art looks like so much mass produced machine vision that nobody really cares anymore. And maybe that's why we're all fascinated by the equipment of the week instead....... At least some of it is meritoriously executed industrial design.

If you are not a regular reader you might not understand that this is an opinion, not a statement of objective fact. If you don't like the opinion that's okay. But it doesn't mean it's not absolutely correct from a certain point of view...





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51 comments:

Anonymous said...

Every word you say is true. But, using view cameras requires a level of effort and expense most people either don't have the time or drive for...

Some still use them though and they still produce beautiful images, but digital gives instant gratification.

Human nature is what it is

Craig Yuill said...

I remember dabbling quite a bit with medium and large formats, 6x6 and 4x5 respectively, back in the '80s and early '90s. I did learn learn how to use shifts and tilts and swings of the front and rear standards of 4x5 cameras to achieve various effects. But I tended to use larger-format cameras to get the most grain-free images with the nicest tones possible. This is really not much different in concept from upgrading a camera to get a newer, better sensor; or going from APS-C to full-frame formats. In fact I have been thinking of my smallish-format mirrorless camera as my new 35mm film SLR, and my APS-C DSLR as my new 6x6 film TLR.

I am not so certain that the size of the film by itself created that different look. I think it was the necessity of using a tripod and the high individual cost of shots with larger-format film that forced one to take great care before making the exposure. We tended to take greater care with composition, and were more mindful of the effect of aperture and shutter speed on the shots. We didn't have Photoshop to come to our rescue if we messed up a photograph.

If one wants to get into the larger formats good older film gear is available cheap. And film and chemicals for developing film still exist. But getting film developed is a real hassle. Inspired by some of your posts around two years ago I bought some rolls of B&W film (Tri-X, Neopan, etc.) and B&W developing chemistry. I shot and developed two rolls of film. Right now I have five rolls of 120-format film sitting in a cupboard, and dozens of bottles of expired film chemicals doing nothing but collect dust. Working with film requires motivation, and I am just not motivated to work with film at this point. I seem to be in good company.

Yes digital is easy. We have a lot going on with our lives, and easy-to-use tools are going to be the ones bought. But if a few individuals want to do things the old-fashioned way, nothing is stopping them from doing so.

Cpt Kent said...

As a m43 user, moving up the food chain as my skills progress, I'd love to skip 'FF' and go straight to 'MF' - if it wasn't for the cost.
For what I shoot theres not sufficient difference between m43 and FF to justify owning two systems, but m43 and MF would work. My ideal setup would be m43 for portability and MF for the more deliberate shots.
And if I was a camera manufacturer (Fuji, Olympus, etc) looking to open another line, I'd skip FF where the market is saturated and go a little larger, say 40mmx40mm, for some product differentiation and separation, MF for the masses.
Just my 2c

Rory said...

Superb post. I hope people read and reflect. Thank you!

Peter F. said...

Hi Kirk, I've run into more people using big format cameras (larger than FF) over the last few years then I ever did during my youth (graduated college 1971). Is it possible that the percentage of the overall population that owns a larger format camera is the same as it was back when I was young,... but that the percentage of the overall population that is actively shooting photos is a great dealer larger?

John Krumm said...

I just listened to an interview over at Luminous Landscape with Ctein. It was quite interesting. He swears that he is getting medium format film quality prints from his m4/3 cameras (OMD EM5). Not for every print, some are better than others. Of course, he is a master printer with 40 years of experience who has a book out on using Photoshop for print restoration. But it's interesting that he says it's where he finds the challenge now, not in the darkroom. It made me feel better about using my m43 and continuing to improve my shooting, processing and printing skills.

Kirk Tuck said...

John, I am certain that Ctein is getting better color and less noise in his prints. Maybe even better sharpness overall (the result, probably of more DOF at his fingertips) but it doesn't negate the gist of what I was writing. The optical look has changed. The fall off of focus for the same angle of view! The ability, even with wide angle lenses to carefully control or limit DOF. It's not about sharp it's about all the more subtle characteristics of the images. Small cameras are quite good. Small cameras look profoundly different and, to my taste, much less "three dimensional" that larger formats. Regardless of sharpness and noise.

Richard said...

I have always felt that film format determined the kind of photography one could do. For example, 110 format was great for baby pictures and toddler birthdays. 35mm was was adequate for a variety of photography but ideal for journalism and sports. Medium format was best for portraits, weddings, and fashion and adequate for other commercial work. 4x5 was ideal for commercial still life, food and architecture. 8x10 was optimal for landscapes and hi-quality studio work that required the detail of such a large format. These were the "optimal tools" for each of these types of jobs. Shoot a wedding on 35mm film? It has been done, but it wasn't optimal -- there was a difference you could immediately see. That was the truth about film. But I can't say it is the same for digital.

Kirk Tuck said...

Craig, Again, it's not the film it's the optics and the equivalent focal lengths needed to construct images with the same angles of view. The depth of field and over all look of the images is profoundly different.

Lives are no busier now than they were in the days of film. People are just more distracted by all the toys and silliness. Like cellphones and the web. Few people are doing different formats, not because they are to busy but for the most part because no one is showing them the differences.

Silvertooth said...

Kirk,
Very timely post for me. I was reading this while bidding on a "new" Minolta XD5. Fortunately, I lost the auction. I received a 4 x 5 enlarger a few months back and have not set it up yet since I have no large format equipment. I think the money I was going to use on the Minolta will go toward a nice used 4 x 5 outfit. There is definitely a difference in the appearance of the print and the time in the darkroom is far less stressful than the time I spend sitting at the computer. Thank you for your refreshing words of wisdom.

dave2 said...

I agree that sensor costs have made bigger formats unaffordable unless you wanted to stick to film - which has many other drawbacks.

However, I think that as sensor technology hits the limits imposed on it by the laws of physics (which is happening now) the focus will shift to cutting costs and this will make larger formats viable again.

I think that 5 years from now 2 1/4" photography will be common again and 10 years from now larger formats will be making a comeback.

Bill Danby said...

Horribly, unfairly and tragically, you can't tell the "artists" from the posers and the uninitiated newbies by the cameras that hang around their necks (or are mounted on their tripods).

On the plus side, however, the photographic tools available provide unprecedented quality and unprecedented control. Yes, digital is different; but it provides any who aspire to "art" with opportunities beyond the wildest dreams of only a decade ago.

Yes, the noise level has gone up, but It's not true that, "nobody really cares any more." You care and your readers care. Not bad for a start.

Bill Bresler said...

To some degree, it's all driven by clients. Not many are willing to wait for us to open the valves on the nitrogen burst agitation tanks so we can soup our 8x10s. Too bad.
Digital is so easy that when a youngster picks up a toy cam and experiences light leaks, it's a revelation. So the bad, the boring, the banal, are celebrated. I just saw a series of 6x6 Rolleiflex portraits made by some young hipster who lives about 20 minutes away from me. While I celebrate his efforts in picking up Granddad's Rollei, the work itself is unremarkable. But that reminds me... I see good, excellent, remarkable work made with digital cameras, hell, even Iphones. But there's so much digital chaff that it's hard to find the wheat.
I'm lucky, I guess, that I have a full-time newspaper gig. What an anachronism!
But I do have the time and drive to do a little personal work in film, as well as digital. A few weeks back I had a day to shoot with a friend's early 20th century 8x10, with an uncoated lens that technically, should not have covered 8x10, but did, anyway. I shot both sides of 2 holders, making a halfway decent portrait of my wife and our dog.
I made the contact prints in the school darkroom with my students watching. They cheered as the image appeared. I had talked to them and showed images by Weston, Strand, Imogen Cunningham, Avedon, et al, and I think that they began to understand what the old guy was talking about. Of course, the following week, we were studying and doing cell phone photography.
I'm convinced the big problem is lack of editing or filtering. The good, as well as all of the bad, all get dumped on to the web. There's a Chicago-based newspaper guy who posts at least a half-dozen Instagrams a day. They're all good, but there are just too many of them. He fails to edit tight enough. Whenever I see his work om my Instagram feed, I can't help but feel ennui.
I tell my students that if they are putting together a photo story, leave the viewer wanting just one or two more photos, rather than making them slog through so many photos that the viewer loses interest, and clicks away.
It's just all too much.

Rohith Thumati said...

If I understand correctly, are you arguing that we've crossed the line from democratization of photography into mediocritization?

Hard to argue with that. Any time a medium advances or gets adopted for new uses, something gets lost in the shuffle. Theater/live performance lost a lot of attention when cinema came of age, and the same occurred to cinema (and radio) when TV became available.

Even though the impetus is very different - it's not just a new medium that's changing photography, it's a new capture medium, new workflows, and new display media - photography is undergoing a similar change. Photography used to be largely for just art, commerce, and the family photo album today. Today, it's all of that plus an emergent form of visual communication that's different than what we've had before.

It's also so much more available and accessible than it used to be. The trade off that allows a flood of ill considered photos also allows an enormous amount of experimentation and creation by people who otherwise wouldn't be able to. I for one, and I bet a lot of your readers, wouldn't be into photography if it weren't for this democratization/mediocritization and accessibility of small (135 and smaller) format digital systems. Maybe it all looks alike, but it's at least being produced.

Perhaps a better example would be Rosie Hardy, a then-19 year old woman from England who was hired to do the cover of Maroon 5's Hands All Over album based on the amazing photographic art in her Flickr stream. Not all of it looks alike, I think.

More to the point, theater, cinema, and radio didn't disappear because of the industry changes. They suffered and are smaller (in terms of sheer volume of content produced and percentage of all media) than at their respective peaks, certainly, but they all emerged different, and perhaps better suited to their medium and audience because other media drove them out of their prior strongholds.

So I think you'll find in the coming years a growing appreciation for medium-to-large format, just like there's a vibrant appreciation for theater in many communities. It'll be a niche appreciation, certainly, but it'll be there and will spur new creation. I'd bet you'll also find growing use of digital medium-to-large formats as prices comes down for buy-in. It won't be quite $1,000 to buy in, but a $3k medium format camera, plus $500 for a solid lens is certainly in the 5 year horizon, I think. At that price point, entry to a medium format system becomes reasonably attainable for the serious amateur, leading to new people trying it out, and new appreciation for how different imaging surface sizes can lead to differences in images.

Carlo Santin said...

I think your term comfortable diversion accurately describes where photography has been headed since at least 2006 when the DSLR became a viable alternative for general public. The convenience and perceived "free" cost of shooting digitally is too tempting for most to resist.

While pretty much every digital camera now is more than good enough to produce nice images, you are correct in your observation that film and larger formats have a different look...and yes we are losing quite a bit with our desire for more and more megapixels, more and more filters and features etc. I'm not one for specs and megapixels, pixel peeping, shooting charts and brick walls for things like sharpness and resolution. I'm not very knowledgeable with that material and I don't really have any desire to gain that type of knowledge. Today's digital cameras might resolve more detail than film, but digital images just don't look the same as their analog counterparts, and by the same I mean they don't look as good, however you want to try and quantify it.

I'm no film snob (well maybe I am a little). I shoot mostly digital because of the convenience and because I manage to convince myself that it's better than film. But yesterday for example, I developed a roll of 120 from my Yashica TLR, it was a roll of Delta 400, 12 beautiful squares. I scanned the images just this morning, and I'm sitting here looking at these images and asking myself why I even bother with digital. That's where my head is at right now so I enjoyed your article.

hbernstein said...

Amen, Kirk, amen.

Mark Marmash said...

This is a really good article. You can see this when looking at the images on www.shorpy.com. You can't reproduce this because most of those old shots where done with 8x10 glass negatives. An M3 and TRI-X can't compete with that. Digital black and white conversions just don't have the same feeling. They are too perfect.

Mike Rosiak said...

Interesting observations, Kirk, aspects of LF I never thought about when I once "dabbled" with it. Perhaps you've opened my eyes to more possibilities.

I'll find out, in due time. Hopefully, the long-awaited Travelwide 4x5 P&S camera that I backed on Kickstarter, will in turn force me to dust off the old Crown Graphic as well. After I re-learn how to load sheet film in those Graflok holders, of course.

Then, I will want to explore the differences in "look" that you speak of. Should be an interesting journey.

Film at 11. Or 2014. Or something.

David Lobato said...

I quite often use the 4x5, 8x10, and 11x14 formats. I started with 4x5 26 years ago and had several publications purchase rights to my photos. It's not just for the sharpness, 4x5 provides that in generous abundance. It's the rich tonality that allows dozens of smooth shades in a photo. This makes 8x10 as the sweet spot for me. It's the rigor and discipline needed to make a truly distinctive photograph. I have had projects that took years to accomplish, when all the elements could finally come together. Large Format is my most gratifying photographic realm. It's worth all the costs of time, effort, money, skill and stamina.

Sanjeev said...

The magic of old days came from photographers staying with the same tools (all of which had grave limitations, from a modern viewpoint) for years and years. It is harder to settle on a fixed process today because the tools change a lot in a few years (cameras, photoshop, printers, inks etc.). Maybe the golden age of digital photography is still far in the future.

Stephen said...

Kirk,
You really hit it out of the ballpark with this one. As an old darkroom, medium format guy, you have stirred up something that I have also been feeling in the back of my mind.

In music, there is an unmistakable quality when you find a musician that is authentic. The real deal. Grounded in what matters.

For me, that quality of unpretentious authenticity
is lacking in most of the work I see today.

Tom said...

Thanks for the article Kirk, and the acknowledgement of your own "hypocrisy". Some really insightful comments also.
I've often seen parallels with the hunting community when discussion on sensor size come up. 30 years ago I dropped out of that "arms race", and settled on 2 significantly different calibres for the range of hunting I did. Sure compromises were involved, but 30 years later, I think I understand those two systems well, and use them effectively.
I made the same mental call when buying into m43 3 years ago. To me, "FF" wasn't different enough to go for. I've looked at getting a film based larger format system, but know I won't be motivated enough for the processing, nor is there the family patience to wait for the results.
But I will at some stage own a larger format system, and anticipate it being digital. Most of the images I print large are landscapes in nature (with people as subjects sometimes), and they would really look better with the smoother transitions of tone and focus as you describe. I'm quite happy with my "one gun" in the meantime, 3 years is no where near long enough to master it!

John Krumm said...

Well, I wasn't disagreeing with you. Some of the best prints I've seen were scanned from 5x7 glass plate negatives and printed huge on a very wide format printer. Super three dimensional, highly detailed. But
I suspect we will see some kind of computational photography eventually that will allow us to mimic larger formats.

Claire said...

Now Kirk, what I love the most about this blog is how contradicted you are yourself. You just spent the whole past week singing the praise of two m4/3 cameras, sporting the smallest considered "serious" sensor in operation today. I've never shot medium format and have no desire to. Just because it is totally unknown territory to me, and I spent way too much time (the past 12 years) and money (not even couting) to reach where I'm at now with digital (from m4/3 to FF, and APS-C in between). However, as a long time Avedon lover (and I mean he absolutely IS my absolute photography hero, along with Don Mc Cully, who shot 35mm film), I totally do get what you're saying. My recently found favorite headshot photographer, Peter Hurley, shoots MF exclusively, but he can afford it, and his shooting imperatives (studio controlled environment) allow it, too. As a hobbyist, and for me own enjoyment, I found that 35mm is my standard. I love the convenience and compromise (in the positive sense of the term) APS-C brings, but "FF" has this little extra 3D edge that I treasure. m4/3 ? Thanks, but no thanks.

Claire said...

But of course I am forgetting to mention where I disagree with you : ultimately it's the content that matters. Yes, Avedon's work might have looked different if he'd used a smaller format film, but heck, choice of gear was NOT what made his pictures what they were. His almost out of this world in depth vision of character, and ability to bring it out at all cost, was. Don Mc Cully's pictures might have been taken with a "modest" 35mm format, but their *content* is what makes them unique, amazing, and totally unequalled as of today.

jrapdx said...

On more than a few days I've thought the "digital revolution" has produced far more hassle than it's relieved. In a lot of ways, digital is much more complicated than film ever was. Computers in any form can be an impediment...

Yes, I've used digital since the 1990's and haven't touched film for more than 15 years. But I photographed with film for a few decades prior to adopting digital methods. Yes, I used large pieces of film, and I owned a number of cameras larger than 35mm. Of course, even film photography became dominated by 35mm and under.

The trend to smaller formats goes way back, before my time for sure. But "small" gained steam in the 1960's. I remember being impressed when W. Eugene Smith endorsed the Olympus Pen FT cameras, so much so that I eventually bought one. A fine camera, and certainly Smith showed it could produce great images.

Now when I look at the black and white photos I made in the '70's and '80's, as hard as I try, the quality of these old images isn't reproduced by my current-day equipment. I've come to consider digital and film to be only superficially alike, and are in fact entirely distinct media of expression.

Maybe in some part it relates to your idea of optical characteristics or "sensor" size (or more properly, the confluence of the two). Think about it, digital large format (like 4x5+) is a rather insane idea. Digital is synonymous with "small" formats as you've defined it. Seriously, can we ever return to film?

I don't think we will. I guess it means we'll have to learn to live with what we have. And perhaps true artists will be undeterred, and will produce real art from digital imaging devices well beyond what we might think are its intrinsic limitations.

latent_image said...

I once did an entire photo book with 4x5 and have never stopped shooting film. In addition to Kirk's thoughts (which I agree with), something else we've lost is the sheer number of manufacturers producing many varied types of cameras. For example in medium format, one could choose an SLR, a TLR, a rangefinder camera, a specialized pano camera, or a view camera (press, field, or studio) in 645, 6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9, or 6x12 formats. The differences in function and operation between, for example, a Hassleblad C/M, a Konica Rapid Omega 100, and an Arca Swiss M-Line Monolith 6x9 are profound. With the shift to digital, we are now down to a small handful of serious manufacturers and real choices in basic form and function seem much less varied.

John said...

If my wife didn't threaten to divorce me for investing in the sometimes intangible optical benefits of a medium format system I'd be right there with you, Kirk. It seems to me, though that the barrier for entry in the film days was a lot less then than it is now for a comparable digital system and yet it sounds like you are placing more blame on the artist than the industry. Until we're all on a more level playing field I suspect the expensive systems will remain in more priveledged hands. Just think of mine or someone else's horror, though, in buying into the system and then still producing less than satisfying work. The horror.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk

I totally agree about the different look of larger formats. I kept my 4x5, 5x7, 8x10 and 7x17 inch cameras when I sold off the rest of the film cameras. Its just too easy to use digital cameras and therefore the view cams have remained dormant for a couple of years.
My favorite prints were platinum prints from the big cameras.
I think there is another factor involved in that "look" which is length of exposure time. If you look at digital captures made with strong ND filters, they definitely have a different quality than those made in a fraction of a second. The small apertures required for adequate depth of focus meant long exposures were required in many cases.

Thanks
Rick

Murray Davidson said...

Kirk,
I continue to appreciate the way your pendulum swings and refuses to settle. There are just so many dimensions to quality. Speaking of which, may I draw your readers' attention to Ctein's recent post over at TOP which mines a congruent vein in the same quarry?http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2013/11/in-search-of-a-vocabulary-for-image-quality.html

Cheers,
Murray

thequietphotographer said...

Interesting post Kirk, thanks. I think that what we miss is the joy to have a real print in our hands. Most people today, or at least many people do not print on a regular basis and they only look at pictures on a screen. They look for a few seconds and than go to the next one. In this way it is not possible to appreciate that "focus falling off at a steeper rate" you mention. Very different when you have a print in your hands. Personally I shoot digital and film, and when shooting film I shoot both 35mm and 120. Not so much for the different look but for the slowness I'm obliged when I know I have only 12 frames to get my results. Ok, sometimes they are multiple of 12 :-)
robert
PS: I'll think more about this...

Kirk Tuck said...

Murray, Thanks for sharing that. Ctein's endlessly interesting!

Aurèle said...

Thanks Kirk for this article. A very inspiring one for me, as i'm trying bigger and bigger format :) I started with APS-C, then film FF, then 6x6.
The bigger i go, the more i love the look of the pictures. My last goal ? 8*10 inch :D or even bigger if i can.

Now, let's turn off this computer and let's shoot !

Michael Robbins said...

maybe it is the work that used to go into shots that you miss. handmade vs machine made to....digitally made. degrees of separation.

Michael Robbins said...

maybe it is the effort which went to shots that you miss. handmade to machine made to....digitally made.
i struggle enough to take a half decent shot despite the advantages of digital. i admire the artistry of the older formats but while digital has removed beneficent difficulties it has allowed more time for the art of composition or exposure etc...

Anonymous said...

This is a very good post. There is a difference between analog and digital, small formats vs large formats that can be difficult to describe in simple terms, but you see it. I remember when I saw a Annie Leibovitz exhibition with very large prints, how much stronger the impact of the large B&W film prints was vs the digital shots.
PerL

jlemile salvignol said...

When we are not an artist, with his inner strength, his obsessions certainties and doubts inevitably we go round in circles, we grope, we hesitate, we try the opening in a headlong = upgrade, downgrade etc...

Photography is an interior journey, not a hardware exhibition, a quest for status symbol = Veblen Good as rightly said our friend Mike Johnston

Sam said...

Kirk,

I just came back from a trek in the Himalayas. I took three cameras: two medium format and one 35mm. I had the 35mm along for the wide lens selection and the ability to "snap". One of my medium format cameras was a 6x9 Agfa folding camera which is the same format shape as 35mm.

What you say is so true. And it is more than depth of field because I often was taking things with the Agfa that were stopped down and infinity focussed. Nothing really out of focus in the image as such. Nevertheless, there is a space, a solidity to the medium format images that puts the 35mm stuff in the shade. I can't put my finger on it, but it is very obvious. Thanks for trying to put it into words.

Sam

Dunreath said...

SEAGULL!! My favorite film camera was my Seagull 203 folding rangefinder that was a convertible 6x6/6x4.5. Many of my most memorable shots from the 80's were from the 203, which could be carried in a jacket pocket.

I recently pulled out my old OM-1 and after 14 years of near 100% digital I initially had a hard time adjusting to the deliberative process we used when you only had 24 or 36 shots. But once I got back in the swing, it was actually fun to really look hard at a potential subject and think hard about exposure and composition. Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

I didn't read the whole article but I just wanted to say that I love using my Lomo LC-A toy film camera w/ Ektar 100. The look of film prints, the organic quality and the way the subject pops, is just so much better than digital. I really take my time now, shoot a lot less, and I'm more selective about what I photograph, which is great because I never had the time to go through all of the digital images I'd rack up. I get processing, prints and scans done at Costco. I've sold off all of my dedicated digital camera gear, and with that money I can now shoot film as described above for about 85 years.

I do have an iPhone which is a lot of fun to shoot pictures with when I don't have my film camera, which is most of the time.

Paul said...

Yes I agree with what you say, in the film days we had an enormous variety of formats from which to choose and now with digital we have really just small variations on small formats.

I embraced digital whole hearidly when it arrive as I thought it would liberate my creativity, but the truth is my work now looks like everyone elses. The sad reality is that I know what the answer is but money and time are agaist me. Clients now want every immediately and not prepared to pay.

Pat said...

Kirk, I forget- why did you sell the Hasselblads???????

Bill Danby said...

Since the post has returned, it seemed fair to make another comment:

That "tepid and homogenous cultural stew pot" has always been around. (Although photography's "pot" was never bigger than now.) But I truly believe that over time, "meaningful" triumphs over "pretty."

JEB said...

"Epstean's Law", as expressed by Albert Jay Nock, is still in effect.

"Man always satisfies his needs and desires with the least possible effort."

JEB

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Anonymous said...

I think of those old pictures of Ansel Adams standing on top of that huge vehicle with his view camera; now one of the most common comments on the web is "That heavy DSLR hanging from my neck was making life unbearable."

Was it Cyrus that said: "toil is the spice of reward"? No wonder we can't be satisfied with a camera for more than 3 months.

Anonymous said...

Nothing's been "lost": There's lots of MF and LF gear floating around, often at bargain-basement prices. I gave up mine, including 4x5 enlarger, because I wasn't accomplishing anything really special with it. With film, we needed tilts, swings and shifts, because the only way to accomplish certain feats was optically. Today? We have options like focus-stacking.

If Gary Winogrand were still around, I wonder if he'd favor Micro Four Thirds for his work: Throw a 17 mm lens on it, and you've got a medium-wide angle of view with fairly deep DOF and just a kiss of bokeh. Want shallower DOF, choose a larger format with correspondingly longer focal lengths (though personally, I think a little bokeh goes a long way).

Jeff S

Kirk Tuck said...

Well, No. We have lost lots when we abandoned view cameras. This may come as a surprise to the divi-kinder but you can't exactly duplicate the optical effects of tilts and swings with focus stacking or perspective controls in post. What you are accomplishing is a nearly there correction which has a different feel and overall look to anyone who has seen corrections done both ways. The only audience it will truly fool is the audience comparing only one method to itself. Exactly the point of the article.

And, the word bokeh is not synonymous with the phrase "out of focus." It describes the characteristics of each lenses unique rendering of blur in OOF areas. See the Wiki for more details.

Anonymous said...

"If you still shoot formats larger than 35mm you are excused...."

Oh no! I'm lost.....lost do you hear? I shoot 35mm HALF FRAME!

Well, actually I carry a
6X6 occasionally, but it is a Zeiss Nettar with a 75mm f6.3 triplet. Not too serious if you catch my drift.

One thing I've learned, if you are going to shoot small negs.....make small prints.

John Robison

RFS said...

Following your argument, the last great photographer was Carlton Watkins who went way, way, beyond 4x5 or 8x10. Based in San Francisco, Watkins is best remembered for hauling a camera that used 18x22-inch glass plate negatives by mule up to Yosemite in the 1880s.
18x22 has almost 10 times the surface area of 8x10.
Unfortunately, you don't see much of his work nowadays because during the 1905 SF earthquake most of his glass plates were shattered, or burned in the ensuing fire.
So, you can shoot one of the most awesome, high resolution cameras ever created in one of the most beautiful, unspoiled parts of the entire planet but if Mother Nature decides to do a little tectonic boogaloo , you will still be forgotten.

Martin said...

I agree that everything tends to look the same. I wonder if there's an analogy to digital recording? I think it took maybe 20 years for digital recording to start sounding decent. There were many technological changes along the way, but there were also a lot of methodological changes in how music was produced and recorded (mike set up and so on). In the classical area, I believe many musicians actually changed the way they played to work better with digital "capture." We now have results that sound quite decent. But the results differ greatly from the vinyl and reel-to-real days. Is it possible that the same could happen with digital photography? That said, it hasn't happened yet.

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