I was reading Ken Rockwell’s news page and his post today about film vs. digital photography got me thinking. Back in the day when film was king I never cared about photography. I was a musician and that was my thing. Photography was a “hobby” for the rich (which by a musician’s standards is anyone who could afford more than a pack of cigarettes on top of 3 square meals a day), as the cost of processing film would be a decision that was lost to buying tacos for lunch. If what Henri Cartier-Bresson said about your first 10,000 photographs being your worst is true (and I happen to agree with him), then I would have starved long before realizing my potential! I really have a lot of respect for the film guys for doing so much with what they had to work with. There’s a giant “but” coming, you can smell it.
Audiophiles are really a bunch of curmudgeons. They will argue until they are blue in the face about the superiority of analog recording and playback . In most respects, they are correct, but digital recording and production has gotten so good that it is quite possible to record sound so close to analog that you could fool even the most discerning audio geek. I only wish the popular music producers of today would lay off of the compression and start using the abilities available to them to capture sound and not distort it completely in the name of loudness, but that is a fight for another website. The second record my band made was recorded to 2″ tape because we wanted that warm analog sound. When I took the mixed songs to the mastering house I realized something that most audiophiles miss. It was mastered digitally. The engineer took the songs and converted them to digital files that he mastered on a computer. He did run the signal through tube compressors, but the final product was captured in ones and zeroes. The same thing happens with 95% of film that gets printed. The negative gets scanned and then printed on a digital printer. It becomes a digital photograph the minute it gets produced or distributed! There are still a handful of traditional photo labs out there, but they are a dying breed. Digital is rapidly killing the world of film. Will it go away completely? Probably not, but it will be something you have to work a bit harder at to achieve pure analog photography.
This leads me back to Ken Rockwell’s post. Ken is a very opinionated guy, and he tries very hard to back up his opinions with facts. Sometimes he’s off, but for the most part I agree with a lot of what he has to say. I do find his delivery on this topic a bit abrasive. He calls the photography he grew up with “real photography”. Let’s be honest, I’m sure that guys who shot on metal plates scoffed at the film guys. Just like horse breeders who laughed at Henry Ford, technology moves on and leaves the old ways in the dust. Ken’s not saying in his post that he thinks poorly of digital, but that it’s different. I agree, but I also believe that you can get very similar results if you know how to develop your digital photos. He also argues that shooting film is cheaper. I’ll just go ahead and tell you I think he’s wrong there. The guys who grew up on film choose their shots more carefully because that is how they were brought up. They are far less likely to take 36 exposures of the same scene from every conceivable angle because it’s just not in their upbringing (with the exception of assignment guys who aren’t spending their own money on film and processing). So for Ken to say that it’s cheaper to shoot film to a guy like me who likes to let the shutter rip makes me think he’s crazy. I can shoot a dozen shots and delete the ones I don’t like on the fly and lock the keepers before I ever get near a computer. I can experiment with different exposures in changing light and get immediate feedback so that I am ready for a moment when the time comes. Digital makes a learning process that previously took days to realize take mere seconds. The old school guys hate this because they had to work really hard to achieve what the new kids can do with a lot less effort. It’s the old walking to school in the snow uphill both ways routine all over again. As for the guys that claim to be purists, they are manipulating reality the minute they use a different kind of film to achieve a different kind of effect. It’s no different than applying a warming filter in Photoshop. The greats like Richard Avedon used dogging and burning heavily to achieve their art. This is similar to a lot of the processing that goes on in the digital world.
Now, don’t get me wrong, film photography is still the resolution king. You can fit a lot more information onto film than most digital cameras can capture, just like you can fit a lot more audio onto a vinyl record than in a digital audio file. But can you tell the difference? For most humans, the answer is a big fat no unless you are hearing the audio on a high-end analog sound system or viewing a professionally processed pure analog print. Most of us are listening to music in our cars or iPods and viewing photos on our computers or in magazines (which are digitally reproduced).
Lets get back to the gist of Ken’s post. He is challenging photographers out there to try both in the same scene and compare them to each other and to see which one you prefer. Unfortunately I’m not going to be purchasing a film body anytime soon (although if the right deal comes by, I’d jump all over it). Instead I wanted to look at the example he gave with another photographer named Ken Lax and see if I could edit his digital photo to look more like the film one. His example definitely shows that a SLR loaded with professional portrait film interprets a scene with much richer colors than a high-end point and shoot digital camera’s presumably unedited file. You see, when a negative is printed it is a developed, which is a process. If you take a digital file off of a camera card and do nothing with it, you have not developed it. Most cameras that shoot in JPG do some form of developing in the camera, but if you shoot in RAW, you still need to develop the photo. What I came up with after “developing” Ken Lax’s digital photo was pretty close to his film photo (even though it was still not exact, it was more along the lines of how I would have handled the processing). I did reach out to Ken Lax to see if it would be OK if I post my edited version of his photo here, but he passed on that idea, so I must respect his wishes. Instead, I present a picture from the same area as his examples, which is on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. I took this shot in May of 2009 with a Nikon D40 using the kit lens and the only editing was done in Apple’s iPhoto which consisted of simply increasing the saturation. His photos were taken during September of this year, so the different seasons will have a different look as will the different times of day, but the idea is that a digital photo can achieve similar rich colors when compared to film if presented on a digital medium, which is the way we view most of our photography (for better or worse).
The big question this brought up for me is that if I did shoot with film, would I eventually just edit it digitally and treat the negative as a RAW file? At that point, then what is the point of shooting film? It seems like a hassle, much like going through the trouble of recording a whole album to analog tape only to have it mastered and distributed digitally. Still, there must be something there I’m missing because of the delivery method, or else so many photographers wouldn’t be so passionate about it. Either way, the real art is in creating something, not in what technology got you there. Just an FYI, Mr. Rockwell also believes strongly in the process that goes on before you press the shutter regardless of what kind of equipment you are using and has a wealth of timeless information on his website. Make sure to check out his sponsors too so he can keep providing his experience and knowledge freely to the photographic community.