Sunday, August 11, 2013

Film IS Photography

"Yard Sales"
Caonon EOS Elan-7, EF-40 STM Lens, Kodak Ultramax-400

"Film IS photography".

I chose my title from a quote by Ken Rockwell on his Blog Post yesterday. I'm sure he won't mind. Just read what he says - there's not a whole lot I can add, except or a few things, which I'll do here today - and pretty much a re-hash of things I've said in the past anyway.

I still find it unbelievable how on Feb. 24, 2012 in the early days of my Blogging, I made this statement -
"I now hate film, in spite of the tremendous successes I had with it. I'm on my sixth Digital Camera now, actually my third DSLR - a Canon EOS 40D which I just bought used at an amazingly low price. I truly believe that digital is the way to go - there are so many advantages, I cannot fathom that I would ever shoot a roll of film again."

Now, a year and a half later, I'm shooting about a roll per week! And what changed my mind so radically? Well, I began noticing a certain quality about film which digital cameras just don't do well, and I've mentioned it here quite a few times - film catches light, and that's all it does. Of course, digital sensors catch light too, but as I've said before, they also do a lot more than that, and what they do is not within the photographer's control, and is usually not constructive to the photo. The digital camera begins a process of number crunching after the light is captured, and film does not. The result? To my eyes, film often (but not always - it still depends a lot on the skill of the photographer) retains a certain lightness and vibrancy, while all too often, digital ends up dark, murky, flat, clinical and lifeless. Granted, there are ways to keep this from happening, but again, when these counter-measures are used, a digital image might retain more light, but still lacks the vibrancy of light. I'm not talking about things that can be measured in a laboratory here - I'm only talking about what my eyes perceive. In fact, it may be the designing of digital cameras under the scientific scrutiny of the laboratory that is the problem here. We would all agree that laboratory conditions have nothing to do with real life. It's just mere measuring and number crunching.

In his article yesterday, Ken mentions how film is much cheaper because with digital, you have to buy a new camera every few years. That is not necessarily true in my mind, simply because digital has not improved very much over the past ten years or so. A Canon EOS 50D isn't much better than a 10D to my eyes. Sure, it has a lot more Megapixels, and can shoot bursts a lot faster, but real image quality is not improving very much with digital cameras from year to year from what I can see.

Film cameras are now a photographer's fortune - they can be bought so inexpensively now. This means that for now at least, until film really makes a floodgate comeback (and it will), digital's greatest advantage of having selectable ISO capabilities, as opposed to film being locked into one ISO for 24 or 36 shots, can easily be overcome by owning three or more cameras. This would've been unthinkable when a good film camera cost $1000 when new, but that same camera can now be had for $20. All you really need are maybe 5 good film cameras to cover all the bases of available film ISO's and white balance situations, and you've still only spent 1/10th of what one film camera would've cost you two decades ago. You can experiment to find out what your camera is best at, and put in a film to match. For example, my Yashica Lynx-14, with it's ultra-fast f1.4 lens would be a great night shooter, so I would take advantage of that by using a fast (400 or 800) film in it to get good hand-held shutter speeds at night. At the same time, I'd use a conventional ISO 100 in my Canon Elan-7 for top quality outdoor daylight shooting, and for a real funky look, I'm now trying Kodak Color Plus (worst film ever) in my FED-5 with it's really bad Industar-61 lens, just to experiment with what BAD+BAD will look like - I'm hoping for a real retro 1930's "Brother Where Art Thou" thing to happen with this combination.

Digital camera makers and post-process software developers are trying to do film emulation on the mistaken premise that film is somehow bad. What they're trying to do is "emulate" certain films by adding their so called "bad" qualities to the "perfect" digital image. The bad qualities of film are supposed to be excessive grain, and over / under saturation, or unnatural contrast, so they use software to throw this in spades into the look of a digital photograph, but in so doing, are neglecting film's unique underlying goodness. I'll start by asking - is there anything technically "bad" about this picture? Do you see any grain or blooming in the colours? Any lack of detail or exaggerated contrast?

Wharf At Cape Tormentine

I don't see any problems - it looks great. Shot in strong sunlight with Kodak Ultramax-400 film, it's a "stitch" (panorama) of two straight-from-scanner TIFF files which I converted to JPEG after stitching. Instead of having added "bad-ness", to my eyes it reveals nothing but film's greatest strength - the ability to capture and tame light and colour very well, all on it's own. But because DXO Film Labs Software cannot get true film results like this, instead they mess up your digital images with supposedly measured negative aspects of various film brands in the hope that people who've only shot digital will not notice.

Many reviewers make comparisons between analogue music and analogue photography. As Ken says, vinyl LP records are still being made and sold to enthusiasts, but at the same time, digital music aficionados only observe the "bad" in vinyl, such as pops and tics, and the tendency for inner tracks to be off-pitch, but at least recognize that vinyl has a "warmth" to the sound. This again is missing the point. A well cut vinyl record (for which a premium price must be paid), when played on a properly aligned high quality turntable sounds absolutely wonderful - it's not just a "warmth", but what only can be described as a "presence" in the music. Great music has qualities that analogue recording retains, but gets lost completely in the process of digitizing - even though you might hear occasional pops and tics.

Could it be we've gotten so wrapped up in the technical that we've lost sight of the end result - the image? I certainly think so.

But in turn, is there some way in which using film somehow rescues the value of the image to it's rightful place over and above the gear that was used to make the image? This is where it gets really controversial, but I think that yes, this is possible. Seemingly it's still about the gear - the one versus the other; "digital versus film" is about gear, at least on the surface. But there's an underlying experience that is fundamentally lacking  - I think stolen from us with the digital revolution. Again, it's easier for me to describe in terms of music. I can be listening to exactly the same music track via MP3 or via a vinyl record on my turntable. With the MP3, I can listen anywhere - while walking, while driving, while commuting on a bus or train, or even while working, I can play the track on my computer. But to listen on a turntable, it can only be done in one place - in my listening room. With the MP3, I am listening to the track while doing everything else under the sun, but in my listening room, there is only one purpose - to listen to the music... it is the right thing going on within it's rightful context - everything else is wrong. Perhaps if I'm commuting on a train or a bus, I should be engaging in meaningful conversation with my fellow passengers, or while driving, I should be enjoying the open road and surrounding scenery- not listening to music... that's what I'm talking about.

In a similar way to music listening on vinyl records, film photography has a more distinct purpose - it was always about the image, not the gear. Back in the '80's, when I was fairly actively taking pictures, and also painting them - before a long hiatus, I had a Pentax Spotmatic (still got it actually), and a good friend had a slightly more advanced K-1000. As I recall, we didn't talk much about the merits of the cameras. Rather, we would spend an evening a month talking about the pictures we created, and we would chose our favourites and have them enlarged to hang on the wall. But we would seldom even mention our cameras, because they were so similarly simple, there was nothing about them to really talk about.

Film prints are meant to be displayed, and digital pictures are meant to be shared across network applications - pure and simple. Fortunately these days, film photography allows you to do both, with more attractive results for both purposes. It just looks better than the output of a digital camera, and although you can do if you wish, film prints - even if made from digitally scanned negatives, don't need any Photoshop tweaking in order to look presentable on your walls. I'll just end this Post with a few film samples from my various cameras. Note - no pictures were harmed or killed by any post-processing in the making of them!

Canon EOS 650, EF 40 STM Lens

FED-5, Industar-61 Lens

Yashica Lynx-14e

Pentax Spotmatic II, Jupiter-9 Lens

Pentax Zoom-90 (Taken By My Sister)

Olympus Trip-35

Rolleiflex Automat TLR

Zenit-11, Mir-20 Lens

Zorki-4, Jupiter-12 Lens


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