Thursday, October 11, 2012

Film Adventures




Have you ever tried to get a digital photo to look like a film photo? There are certainly all kinds of tricks in this new age of Instagram where this is supposedly made possible, and indeed, this has become, as the "child of Lomography", the cool new wave of photography, especially where Smartphone Cameras are involved. I myself was, and still am, enthusiastic about this kind of file manipulation - I'm all for using "film effects" when appropriate.

But, the whole thing is based on a premise that "film = bad and digital = good", and what better device than the Smartphone Camera to piggy-back this premise on? Here we have a compromised digital camera, which I still maintain isn't too bad at all, when compared to traditional compact digicams... but let's call the Smartphone Camera for what it really is - right now, they are the worst digital cameras, I'm sure all would agree. So what has happened with the Instagram Movement is that the worst digital cameras, which also happen to be extremely compact and convenient, are provided with Apps that really make a "bad" quality digital picture even "worse" by trying to emulate cheap but fun film cameras, and in a rather nifty way, "worse is now = better". Follow me? God, because that wasn't easy.

But by way of the three pictures above, which are from my first roll with the Rolleiflex, I want to show you some unique qualities of film that Instagram will never make happen, based on the flawed premise that "film=bad". Keep in mind, yesterday, that I demonstrated how Medium Format film, in an extremely good camera, gives better results than the digital file you get from a very good APS-C DSLR. I stand by that premise 100%. I'm not talking about 35mm film here. I'm comparing Medium Format film to APS-C Format digital.

But look closely at the three images above, which are from the same roll. Something seems a little wrong, perhaps? Personally, I love these pictures, because of what happened to the colour, which is not nearly as correct as what I was demonstrating from the Rolleiflex yesterday. In the new Instagram world, these pictures might be what has been coined as "vintage". And yes, my built in 1953 camera is certainly "vintage" in every respect, but I've already proven that not every picture it takes is going to look like an old picture - far from it!

These three pictures were taken under a severely bright sunlight, and the Xenar lens on the Rolleiflex camera does not have any protection against this built in - there is a lens hood that can be purchased, but I don't have one. What happened here then, is something that you'll never see from a digital camera - the harsh sunlight created a colour shift. Harsh light on a digital sensor instead of film has an entirely different effect - the all too familiar "blown out highlights". A digital sensor makes a huge effort to maintain colour balance, and, being digital, does not have enough levels of dynamic range to keep highlights from blowing out under conditions like these, so what you would have gotten with a digital camera would have been more natural colours, but the detail in the clouds would have disappeared into white. That's the beauty of analogue (film) - there is no "brick wall" that is hit when the system runs out of digits, because there are no digits. Instead, the film can maintain all the subtleties of light, even harsh light, but it might distort the colour values when hit with such harsh light.

When I looked at these pictures, I was struck with a familiarity that went deep into the past, which I have never seen replicated in the present attempts at getting a "vintage" look to a digital photo. I know I've seen this "look" before - perhaps in picture I took over 30 years ago with my old Spotmatic, or perhaps even in old issue of National Geographic, or certain old postcards.

So here we have one of the major differences between digital and film - under normal conditions, they will behave pretty much the same; the differences are seen when conditions turn extreme. It comes down to preference really - when the extreme conditions are encountered, which do you prefer - colour shift distortion or complete loss of highlight detail?

I am aware of a very interesting parallel to this in sound amplification. Amplifiers are available built with vacuum tube or solid state (transistorized) construction. Under normal listening conditions, you will not be able to tell the difference, usually. But when the devices are driven into distortion, the tubes will always sound better. This is well known and i think agreed upon, especially among those interested in instrument Amplification.

That which applies to what you hear it turns out also  applies to what you see - the visual quality advantages of film can be readily demonstrated, but only when the conditions call for it.

More later.

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