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Film? Yuck

It appears to me that film is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance today. Zack Arias has said that if everyone is going in one direction, he is going in another. Perhaps this is a partial explanation – differentiation. Everyone does digital, so why not film?

There is also the snob factor: I shoot film (upturned nose required).

Bastardizing Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar, I have come to bury film, not to praise it. Unlike Antony, however, I mean it.

When I started in photography many, many moons ago, the process was, as they say, analog. I was in the 8th grade. My grandfather was a photographer (I still have his 5×7 Burke and James and the matching wood enlarger). I was interested, so I began shooting with a 35mm rangefinder. Later, in high school, I bought an SLR (Konica) and a couple of inexpensive lenses.

I even bought 100′ rolls of film and loaded them myself.

My dad built a darkroom for me (not quite light tight, so I worked mostly at night), and no running water. But hey, it was a darkroom.

I remember the chemical stains and the white power residue from the hypo (fixer). The stop would sting and had an acrid smell to it (well, it was acid after all).

My photography was never, I felt, very good. I blame the darkroom. I blame the cost and the inconvenience and 36 exposure rolls of film. I also shot 6×6 (2 1/4 square) and 5×7, and that was even more of a pain.

So for 20 years or so my interest waned. Snapshots only.

I shot and scanned film and that was my introduction to computerized post-production – GIMP and then Photoshop. I became interested again. Enough so that in 2001 I picked up my first digital camera – an extremely good point-and shoot, a Sony DSC-S75 – and my photographic life changed forever. I credit the computer and the fact that I could shoot a LOT of images. And the post processing was, well, to paraphrase Vincent Versace, better than “waving your hands under a light bulb.”

I am a better photographer today because I shoot more, I process more, I can catalog and store much more easily, and the whole process has become more accessible.

Personally, and you may feel free to disagree, I find no current use for film. None. Nada. No joy, no results. If I want film results, hey, I can make my digital images look any way that I want. With precision when I want to.

I have heard all the arguments. Most of them are BS. For a given imaging size (negative or sensor), current sensors beat the ever living crap out of film for “quality” (see my definition, below). And, as has been the trend throughout the history of photography, miniaturization continues to occur. Just like in the film days, smaller sized media is encroaching on the next size up. In the case of a digital sensor, for example, 35mm full format sensors approach 6×6 film (not 6×4.5 sensors, but film) in terms of quality. Of course, 6×4.5 sensors approach 4×5 sheet film. Etc.

Of course, this discounts (the not-so-discountable) other affects of media size, such as depth of field. But in equal media sizes, digital sensors slap film around.

I define “quality” here as the ability to resolve detail per mm of image.

Stephen Johnson makes the following observation  in his 2006 Book Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography:

The digital camera sensor can be matched to the scene to record the light similarly to the human experience of vision and color. This is a major improvement over film.

I have heard bloggers make claims like film has near-infinite resolution or 3000+ dpi resolution or similar crap. What these people can’t seem to figure out that is the rate they scan it – it has nothing to do with the actual resolution of the media itself. I can scan a 1 pixel image at 3600 dpi – does that mean I have a 3600 dpi image? And as for dropping it off at Cosco, well, go ahead – I’m sure the processing is superb. Because, you know, you had a hand in it. Oh yea, and then they either scan it or have the images placed on CD. Whoopee.

But I digress.

Film has grain. Can’t do anything about grain. Digital has noise. You sure as shit can do something about noise. What about ISO?

I could go on but what’s the point?

From a marketing perspective, I get why photographers as “artists” may prefer it. Each printed image if done with an enlarger on silver based papers will be unique. You just can’t make prints exactly the same. But if scanned into a computer, and then printed using inkjet (a better media, BTW), then where is the advantage or the differentiation?

Again, if I want a B&W film look, I turn to Silver Efex Pro 2. No problem. Which particular film are you interested in? Yes – there’s a preset for that.

I have also heard the claim – and one that I am sympathetic to – that using film forces you to slow down. Rather than taking a machine gun approach, you are forced to work more slowly and think about each frame. I understand this. But this is process – not media. It is like using a tripod, which also forces you to slow down.

There is a large part of photography that is based on technology. Battles like film vs. digital have been fought for years. What? You’re printing on silver!? “Real” photographers only use platinum. The truth is that technology forces change, and people – whether for comfort or differentiation or whatever – often don’t like to change. Or see change as bad.

Are there lost skills with film? Yes. Are there new skills with digital? Yes.

Beyond this, is there more competition with digital, as it makes the photographic process much more accessible to so many more people? Yes – and no. But that is a different story.

For me, there is no going back. And I am a better photographer for it.

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