Conventional Wisdom Says That Current Digital Cameras Are Much Better Than the 35mm Film Cameras They Replaced. Hmmm.

The roofing project is over but I learned something interesting in the process that has nothing to do with roofing a house or a studio. I was taking large photos off the walls of our house to that the vibrations from workers dropping bundles of shingles on the roof wouldn't knock them off. The image above is a quick cellphone shot of a photograph that usually hangs in our bedroom. It's a photograph from a long time ago of our son, Ben, when he was only four years old and taking gymnastics.

I shot it in a dimly lit gym on Kodak's Ektapress 400 color negative film. It was shot under a mixed lighting stew of vaporous daylight, sodium vapor and some fluorescent thrown in for good measure. Flash? Not allowed in the gymnastics area; it's too distracting for the athletes.

I had my favorite lab take the 35mm negative and make their best quality 20x30 inch print of the image on a glossy, Kodak paper. When I took the image down on Sunday night I took a closer look at it. It's amazing that one gets used to seeing an image everyday and its qualities (beyond the emotional attachment) become invisible from familiarity. I hadn't really taken a good, technically cognizant look at the print in years.

And in the decade+ since it was taken we've all bought into the idea that digital's capabilities have far exceeded what we were capable of doing with film so long ago. But my observation told me that the differences are not nearly as cut and dry as we might imagine.

The print is very big. In it you can see every strand of Ben's fine hair clearly delineated. The flesh tone is perfect; even with all the mixed lighting. The background almost neutral. There is grain but it is diffuse and only really obvious in large areas of solid color. In short, I'd be happy with a print this good from my D750 or my D810 ---- but it would probably take me a lot longer to do the extensive post processing that would be required to match the tonality and character of the old print!

Part of the quality of the image came from the way it was shot. It was the old days when "good enough" was not the reigning metric of our working methodology. I used a Leica R8 camera body coupled with a 180mm f2.8 Apo Elmarit Leica lens. It was shot wide open. I stabilized the camera and lens on an old, Leica monopod. I (manually) focused as carefully as I could and held the shutter button down for a three stop burst, thinking the the first shot would suffer from my initial finger motion but the second or third shot would be stable.

When I cleaned the glass on the frame and took a really good, close view at the image what I realized is that what we've gained in the process of switching technologies is speed and convenience and very little more. We could say that we've gained "free" frames but the reality is that we've spent so much in our upgrade processes that we could still be buying film and processing and coming out ahead.

For the working professional the days of film photography ended when clients got a taste of the speed, convenience and workflow. Why everyone else gave up film sometimes mystifies me....

I'm not saying we can go back but I am saying we did a lot of rationalizing to get to the point where we are today with digital imaging.... And we've paid a lot to get there. Where did we get to? About on par with ISO 400 negative film from 1998-99. Hmmmm. 


amolitor said...

Yeah. Digital is OK, but it's not brilliant. Our very best sensors have a bit less resolution than decent film, and a lot less than really good film. I don't think there's even a good way to measure it, but I can't see how film doesn't have vastly more chroma information than digital. Digital has more exposure latitude, but fails with a complete lack of grace when overdriven, which film does not.

None of which matters all *that* much because in practical terms, it's very hard to put more resolution down on a sensor than a D810 can see, so the fact that TMAX 100 has way more resolution doesn't matter to anyone but the test-chart heros. In terms of whats *practical* the color information in digital is adequate, and the infinite malleability of color that digital editing covers up a lots of sins.

And so it goes.

I don't believe in some irreproducible ineffable "look" to film, but neither do I believe that digital is any better in anything except workflow. The sensor wonks slaved away until they made sensors "good enough" which means, really, no longer the weakest link in the system, and they seem to have mostly stopped. Presumably panting and drenched in sweat.

Everything's good enough that none of the technical details matters to anyone who's interested in pictures instead of cameras.

I think what digital brings to the table is really ways of working. Every frame's a Polaroid, instantly developed for you to look at. You needn't, but it's there if you want it. That can be a good thing, or a bad thing, but it's definitely a big change.

People get too focused on the post-processing differences (arguing that Photoshop is either HUGELY DIFFERENT or EXACTLY THE SAME as darkroom work, depending on which side of the barbed wire they're entrenched in). They forget that the dynamics of shooting are also different, and that this is an even larger change.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Andrew, funny that you posted here right now. I was just at your blog posting a comment on something great that you'd written. "The Damage....."

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

To the VSL readers: Andrew's blog is here: http://photothunk.blogspot.co.at

David Zivic said...

I'm not sure I agree with the opening two words "Conventional Wisdom", except as you described it as to faster work flow. I believe that educated and experienced print aficionados all agree that film quality exceeds digital and I think I have read you expounding that Philosophy. I shoot a roll of black and white film once a year but having it developed in Mexico is a challenge and I need to shoot it prior to a trip to San Diego. There is definitely a visual difference although with digital I have found that in camera monochrome with increased contrast and ISO 1600 resembles Tri-X 400.

Dave Jenkins said...

I am a much more sloppy photographer with digital. I shot mostly slide film, and I metered just about every shot with my trusty Minolta incident meter, then bracketed. I very seldom used reflective metering, TTL or otherwise. As a result, I got a reputation among art directors and color separators for very precise exposure technique. I still meter carefully for portraits and other setups, but non-static situations are mostly RAW mode run and gun these days.

I miss the analog days. Film was just. . . more fun. But now, it's all about "How fast can you turn it around? We need files in the morning! (or tonight!)

crsantin said...

Haven't given up on film at all. I now develop c-41 at home in addition to black and white. I love the results. Ektar 100 is a wonderful 35mm film and scans very nicely, lots of detail and good colour. I haven't taken the final step of wet prints just yet but I might. For now I am scanning and then working with the digital file, some of which I end up printing. I still shoot digital too but far less than I used to, mostly for family birthday parties where I'm taking lots of photos and videos just for memory sake and then putting them up on a blog for the family to see later. If I want to do "serious" work now it's almost always on film and I am quite pleased with it, still lots to learn. I will shoot film until I can no longer get it.

Anonymous said...

"Why everyone else gave up film sometimes mystifies me…."

Ok, I'll answer your rhetorical question with an answer that only applies to me: I switched to mostly (now exclusively) digital because finding places to buy or process specialty color slide and black and white negative films became harder. I am not aware of any local labs that make darkroom prints anymore. The local lab I used went out of business in the middle of the last decade. There is one local place in DC, a bit out of the way, that still processes film but they only make digital prints.

I used film for my two photography interests: print film (mostly black and white) for portraits and color slides for nature/wildlife. With the latter, I no longer miss film - digital is sufficient and in many ways even easier/better. I would still use film for portraits if buying, processing and printing film hadn't become such a pain in the ass process.

I probably still have some Ilford and Kodak b/w films - and maybe even a roll or two of Fujichrome slide film, sitting unused (whether they're still any good is a different question). I also still have a Nikon F 100, and my favorite 85 mm 1.8 AF-D Nikon lens. Made a lot of my favorite portraits using that combination. But these days, they mostly sit on the shelf gathering dust. (No, I am not a pro and, while I love shooting, I don't have the space, the time, the resources or the inclination to get a darkroom - so if there is not a convenient local lab, it just doesn't get done.)

Michael Matthews said...

Thanks for the link to Andrew Molitor's blog. It's like bursting up from under water (for a non-swimmer) and finding you can breathe.

Cpt Kent said...

Another thanks for the link to Andrews blog. Now should I blame you or him for not getting any work done this afternoon....

Interesting comments on the photo of your son. Though I understand the original point of the article, could it also be that the thing that makes it most desirable (other than the content) is that it IS a physical print? Would you feel the same if you'd just 'rediscovered' it as a file on your computer? Just wondering, as lately I've devoted a significant preference for prints over files.

amolitor said...

What astonishingly generous remarks! Thank you, all.

Bill said...

"Why everyone else gave up film sometimes mystifies me…."

I'll answer that from my perspective.

First, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I hate film. Why?

Because of the darkroom "workflow" required to develop film and produce prints from those negatives and slides.

During the early to late 1970s I worked in three darkrooms to help make ends meet (two black-and-white and one color). I became a damn good darkroom rat out of necessity (probably because of my engineering tendencies and chemistry skills). What started as a passionate hobby (printing black-and-white) turned into an unending grind. I processed both film and prints locally and only sent slides off to Kodak because they were so complex. Even then I would print Cibachrome from slides if the customer asked for it.

To this day I can still smell the stop and fixer as well as the various color chemistry. Many were the long night and weekend sessions when I had to come back in to reprint a color negative because it was "off just a little" or do the dodge-and-burn kabuki dance. No matter how crazy the deadline I made sure to meet it as best I could, always striving to make sure it was done right the first time.

I was burned-out with darkroom work by the late-1970s, and I'm still done with it. Film followed slowly over the next 20 years. When digital came along in the very early 2000s, I leaped on it like white on rice.

I am absolutely mystified about this rose-colored romantic re-interpretation with regards to film.

Gato said...

Thanks for the link to Andrew's blog. Good reading.

Unknown said...

What I find interesting is the quality of the print after all these years.

It looks like it was printed yesterday.

Racecar said...

I don't share the nostalgia for film. Sorry. Film is a fickle mistress that requires lots of attention. One must take care of the film before during and after the exposure as if it were some sort of fruit that will spoil at any moment. I don't miss packing the spent frames in special bags for transport through airports. And all the room the film took up in the first place, it was like having another person along for the trip. No I don't miss any of that. While I love the results that film produced, I don't miss all the trouble involved. I don't like to have to "baby" the medium. Rather like a grandparent, I enjoy kids, but not all the trouble of caring for them.

wakarimasen said...

For our summer holiday this year, I packed an EOS 1V with Fuji Provia. It was the first time I'd used this combination with my 24-105 L and 100-400 L lenses. When I received the slides, set up the projector, and looked through them I was quite astonished by the colour and detail. Not only that, viewing them seemed somehow more 'significant' than simply looking at files on our home PC.

I'm not a digital refusenik - I use a 1D Mark III for taking photographs of my sons' rugby team, and think it would be madness to do so with film - but I do think that there is something simply more satisfying in using film cameras.

MartinP said...

I suppose the thing that has sold zillions of digital cameras is the difference between "cheap-shit" and the skills that went in to your picture of your son. The average photo-maker (I hesitate to use the word photographer) would have been using a low-quality camera, with the cheapest possible film, in the cheapest lab available and all that with no personal technical-knowledge at all. That is the real reason that people remember film as being fuzzy, grainy and disappointing.

Now all that "cheap-shit" is replaced by a couple of decades(-ish) of progress in camera design and computer power. Despite the average user still having a minimum of knowledge of what they are doing, the technical devices used to make the picture work much better than they did before, and when there is no print (ie.usually) the computer screen is very flattering. The lower apparent cost per picture also means that the user will take five shots or more, and keep checking the result until they get what they are happy with.

I suppose that what I am trying to say, is that household digital cameras have helped the bottom end, high-volume sales part of the photography market proportionally far more than the already-skilled top end photographers. If you were able to compare the typical parent's 1998 film point-and-shoot gym photo with the 2015 digital equivalent there would be a huge difference. That is why digital took off, along with company profits and marketing of course.

Tom said...

"Why everyone else gave up film sometimes mystifies me"


a) it is way cheaper.

My second hand Canon 1-series DSLR is good for another 150,000+ images ... that is equivalent to over 4000 36-exposure films. Just work out the cost of buying and processing that much film, never mind the effort of scanning it for on-line use, or making prints from it. Even if I had bought the camera new and you add in the cost of a computer and software the cost per shot from digital is a small fraction of the cost per shot using film. This remains true even when you factor in that you will shoot many frames of digital than you ever shot with film.

b) it is easier to get excellent technical quality from digital than from film

And even if the very best technical quality obtainable from film matches or even slightly exceeds what we can do with digital it makes no practical difference. However it makes it no easier to make an image that is meaningful or worth looking at! And as we all know, if the technical quality is good enough then it is the vision that matters most [ ... unless you are making technical illustrations or forensic shots for law enforcement!]

c) When you have post-processed an image you can run off identical prints time after time.

In the traditional darkroom the complicated sequence of using filters, dodging, burning, mixing the same strength of chemicals and controlling the temperature and development times makes it almost impossible to reproduce that perfect print. This more than outweighs the time spent post-processing in LightRoom or Photoshop. Plus I don't need to breathe nasty chemical fumes in a dimly lit room, or find a way to safely recycle or dispose of the left overs. In fact I don't need a special room with sink, lightproof blinds, extractor fan and all of the other paraphernalia of a traditional darkroom. Working with igital is safer, more repeatable and generates less waste and pollution. A no-brainer decision in my view.

d) It is MUCH more convenient in the field

I can make 3000+ shots before I need to change my CF/SD cards with just a slight pause to swap in my spare battery at around 1500 shots. In the days of film I'd have had to carry about 100 rolls of 35mm to have the same picture-taking capacity. With MF it was much worse. When I used a Mamiya 7 and 120 roll-film I got 8 shots to a roll, and often fewer because of the ultra-sensitive shutter release.

Tom said...

Almost forgot. Air travel is easier with a digital camera. No worries about X-ray damage to our films. Sorry for the typos in previous posts.

Tom said...

p.p.s. Having put just two films through it in as many years I am finally selling the one "serious" film camera that I have held on to, my trusted Leica M6 and its 35mm f/2 Summicron-M (version 4) along with Leica lens hood, filters and eyepiece correction lenses. I admit that if I did not need the money I would never part with it.

As it is next to worthless second-hand I'll keep a pocketable Olympus mju for shooting a roll of black and white film now and again. I'll also keep a single developing tank and small supply of developer, stop bath and fixer for developing it prior to scanning any worthwhile frames.