Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Confessions of a Digital Photographer - I hated film (and still do).

Ok, some background. Cars were my first love. As I travelled on public transport going to and from work or as I sat in meetings that were going nowhere I would doodle lists of my top five cars. Top five Italians, top five Germans, five best years in American automotive history, best five cars I could ever expect to own, that sort of thing. One thing you would have noticed on my list (I will put them on my website one day) was that few, if any, of my ‘top five cars’ was new. In fact, the very newest car I would buy if I won the lottery is probably a mid 80’s Lancia Intergrale.

There is just something about old cars that I love. They are more tactile, less anodyne (in all its meanings).

But despite all this romantic longing for the automotive past, I never, ever pretend my old cars were as good as the newer ones. As an engineer there were things I simply could not ignore. The simple facts are that new cars are designed to far higher standards, built from far better materials, and manufactured to far closer tolerances and to much more exacting quality standards.

I have always loved my old cars but respect the ability of the new.

Which bring me to photography and film.

I grew up with lots of cameras in the house. When I was a teenager my parents bought me a camera hoping I would take it up as a hobby. I think I shot half a dozen rolls of film before I decided that photography blows. What do you mean it will take days to find out if the photo worked? What do you mean the light has changed and I have to change film half way thru a roll? Why are my photos either yellow or blue and why cant I change them. Here is the image I want to capture – sorry it went while I was phutzing around with a dozen technical issues. Will I take two shots just in case, nah I have to save some film – damn it didn’t work, I should have taken a second shot.

From 17 to 37, twenty years, I reckon I have maybe 100 photos, that’s it. (I have managed to fill in a far few of these gaps by going through my parents albums fortunately).

Then at 37 (three years ago) I discovered digital photography and I have taken perhaps 8000 images. I love it, everything film did to turn me away from photography is gone. I can check my shots worked, I can improve shots on the fly, I never need to worry about taking more photo’s, I only shoot raw so white balance isn’t an issue, I can print quality color photos at home, I can have prints in any shape I want, I can add text, drawings, create collages, story boards, slideshows.

And the quality is whatever I want it to be. I can control color, detail, sharpness, tone and texture. All this and I am using essentially an entry level camera, a pretty standard home computer, the cheapest software I can find and a very basic inkjet printer. I will be upgrading my camera, printer and software and I cant imagine the results I’ll get then.

Just about every review I have read of cameras as a tool has stressed one point, that the less the operation of a camera intrudes into the relationship between the photographer and the subject the better. And by this measure digital has film skun, spitted and served with gravy.

But the best handling camera (or imagery system if you include computer, printer, scanner, software, tablet etc etc) is next to useless if its photos aren’t up to snuff. Do digital photo’s match the quality of film. This is tricky as we are now in the realm of aesthetics and this is difficult to judge. There is also the issue of whether I will ‘allow’ the digital manipulation of an image captured on film (is this a film image or a digital one – I think its digital?). I will put it this way, I read that people think digital images render skins that look plastic – I simply don’t see it no matter how hard I look. People say that digital pictures may look sharp but actually lack detail – again I have looked and looked for this and I just don’t see it. I just don’t see the differences, everything I have seen shows me one thing that with a digital camera and half decent software I can produce an image that match of anything film can achieve.

If you really disagree remember that virtually every photo you see today in print is a digital image. It may have been captured on film initially but buy the time we see it the photos have been through the Analogue to Digital conversion, compressed, reformatted and printed.

So then it all comes back to the performance of the imaging package and like I said before that isn’t a contest, it’s a rout with film running hard to avoid being steamrolled..

My father had a lovely old Pentax SLR (which I have inherited and is winging its way to me right now). I also have a beautiful 59 Pentax Asahi Screwmount and a petite old Canon rangefinder. I occasionally sit and play with these cameras and wonder what it would be like to shoot with them. I’ve dry shot them each about 1000 times and got close to actually taking a photo, but every time I have stopped short. Why – film. As soon as the thought of using film crosses my mind the old cameras go back up onto their shelf, the Alpha comes out of its case and I am happy again.

I love driving my Lancia, I’m trying to buy another mid 70’s Fiat and am searching for a decent 69 Buick Riviera. I know that a new car would be more reliable, have better performance, use less fuel, be safer etc etc. But I just want my old stuff.

So I understand and respect peoples desire to keep shooting film. But I felt the need put an alternative view.

The truth is film kept me away from photography, digital brought me back – sorry but I hate film.

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