My return to film: Ric Donato
When I talk or correspond with others about photography I do my best not to talk gear specs, instead directing discussion towards techniques with gear, usage, and other photographic concepts.
Talking about which camera is better, whistles and bells is a fool’s errand. Why, digital cameras change change and update faster than some people buy clothes.
It’s not the camera…
…it is the photographer: their choices of lens, light, and technique. On the digital side, after a slight touch of post production images will appear the same, whether one uses a $5,000 camera or a $1,000 camera. With analog, camera choice is inconsequential, choose the film first, then lens. After the shoot send it to a pro lab of your choice.
Compared to digital film is brain-dead simple.
Though today I shoot 99% film (other 1% is with my iPhone), I am very much pro-digital. Heck, many folks work at a car manufacturer, drive a competitor’s vehicle; oh-well.
My choice of capture medium often causes folks to label me as a Luddite, hipster, someone not willing to change, and the like. Having worked in IT for years and loved it, I can confirm that I am in fact, a techno-geeky-kind-a-guy.
Love at first byte
My first recollection on the digital photography front was reading Moose Peterson’s articles about his switch to digital; they very much caught my attention.
My movement to digital was at first slow, then BAM! I was all in, as was my credit card. I became hooked, and as a digital chest thumper I became all digital, nothing but digital. The ability to snap the shutter then immediately see images on the back of the camera or on a computer monitor is an outstanding feature and addictive; and turnaround is fast. Oh yes, that feature alone is worth the price of admission.
Upgrading my computer, photo editing software, cameras and lens, digital was my drug of choice. Wow, the small fortune I spent.
In the early days the digital image was not as good as film. Nobody really worried about that, least of all clients. They loved the convenience and speedy digital turnaround time. That’s what was important to them; quality came second.
They quickly became hooked on digital as well. The faster we could send images to them the faster they wanted them; a vicious cycle.
As time moved on, software, camera abilities, lenses and computers all improved rapidly. Photographers moved to digital at a blinding pace. Every new whistle and bell became the Siren’s call, improvements came in leaps and bounds; we spent more money and time on all types of equipment.
Of course I was in the thick of it as well.
The truth is that digital capture can save much time, it is fun, a fast tool for learning photography, and is more of a convenience over film. Where turnaround speed is a necessity, digital is a must for news, sports and the like. For other types of photography, digital provides a convenience we convince ourselves we cannot live without. The ability to immediately see and share our images is wonderful but on the flip side because we can immediately see and share our images they can also be an annoyance to others.
One of the main reasons folks say they like digital – myself included – is the ability to delete poor captures. The issue is that most of the poor captures are not planned just shot.
Folks take many captures of a scene then delete almost, if not all of them, then again shoot the scene putting little thought into what they are doing. They like that ability and say “wow if I shot with film I would have shot one or more rolls, look what I saved” but in truth they are shutter actuators not photographers; a young child could produce the same images.
Some of my friends will shoot, they say, 500 images or more a weekend. Ask them how many are keepers, most often less than twenty.
The digital downside
In my opinion, the downside of digital is we now have shooters that know little about photography.
They shoot a gazillion images, choosing a few they like and thinking of themselves as the cats meow of photography. Here is an example, all the digital photographers I know talk the language of equipment, not the language of photography.
Many digital photographers produce good images but cannot tell a f/stop from a bus stop. So, why are their images so very good? Digital has produced shooters unskilled in photography yet well skilled in post processing.
A most common expression heard is “I will fix it in post”. There is a major difference in tweaking/improving/enhancing, and fixing.
What about film?
During the over ten years I spent as a digital chest thumper I became bored and disenchanted with it. I eventually sold all my pro digital kit and purchased film camera; my only digital camera these days is my cellphone.
Almost everyone agrees that compared to film, digital produces a sterile image: smooth in appearance, with more finite detail and better clarity. Receiving images from friends they sometimes will say something as “See the sign in the background? I can read it.”, “I can count the eyelashes“, or some such. Many times their images are at best banal, yet they are proud of its detail and sharpness.
Ansel Adams said: “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Digital shooters seem obsessed with sharpness. Sharp image never wins a contest, it is the content and how it grabs the viewer, which makes an image outstanding.
In the hearts and mind of folks digital beat out film. For sharpness, clarity, crispness, smoothness, gradation of tone and fast turnaround digital wins. Long live digital. Being as I sold all my digital gear are there times I wished for a DSLR, absolutely.
My move to film was fraught with trepidation; down-right fear and doubt. Being as I shot film for decades, how could I think that way?
My thinking is that I became addicted to that camera’s LCD.
My film switch began slowly then BAM! hooked. The first thing I noticed was the price for pro-level film cameras. Oh-my, I could now purchase cameras I could not afford in my early years. Pro-level film SLRs were going for pennies on the dollar.
With the cost difference of a DSLR and a film SLR I could shoot and process 100+ rolls of film. When shooting for a client they of course paid all costs, similar to going in a restaurant, the cost of our meal includes rent, electricity, overhead and profit.
Only when shooting personal projects were the cost of film out of my pocket. When shooting digital the cost of the shoot to the client included our equipment, overhead, profit, etc., business is business.
Here is my workflow for film:
- Purchase the desired film
- Send it to a pro lab for process and high level scans
- Download the images (about a week turnaround)
- Decide the ones to be printed
- Send the print request to the pro lab
- Receive the prints
- Present them to the client
In total, about two to three weeks, and the client is aware of that timeline upfront. Here is the thing to notice about the workflow: I remain the photographer not the lab rat.
(Okay, so back in the day I was a lab rat but never took being called a lab rat as a bad thing, it was what folks were called those working in the lab!)
Today’s digital shooter wants to be shooter, processor, printer, they want to control the entire process. Myself, I was paid to shoot and deliver images, not to process or work on a computer. There are folks that were and are much better skilled at those things than I am.
Yes, I download images and tweak them, yet here is the thing to be aware of: with film there is less post processing. Why, the lab does the processing produce excellent scans, leaving me with not much to do.
My time is better spent doing photography-related activities. Clients do not pay me for computer time to fix images, they pay me to shoot; film allows me to do that. When I shot digital I wore many hats and it drove me nuts-o, also there are only 24 hours in a day.
It wasn’t until I returned to film that I realized the extent of the digital workload I was carrying, now I farm work out.
The image quality debate
The one comment or question that always comes up is image quality. Well, heck yes between digital and film there is a difference.
With prints side-by-side on a desk, we may see a difference (not talking 100%+ pixel peeping on a monitor). Stand back a few feet we may not see a difference in quality.
What you will see is a textural difference, a color difference, with film having more texture, more feeling. Yes, you can add film grain during post production, but why? If you want the look and feel of film, shoot film. Film cameras today are inexpensive.
If you are a Nikon DSLR shooter you can purchase a F100 pro-level DSLR for about $200-ish, connect your Nikon lens you are good to go. Same with Canon.
Yes, your film must be processed and depending on where you are it may cost $15-$25 a roll (which includes enhanced scans as well). Oh-my that costs too much, you may say. Well how much did you spend on your DSLR and associated software, etc?
Print your work
Print your images.
Here is a scary thought: if you do not print your digital images what do you leave your children, a hard drive, SD card, files on a Cloud server that they may not be able to get to?
Also, those very important raw files (notice I did not type RAW, raw is not an acronym it is just a word as in raw veggies, raw meat, and the like) in their raw format are not a standard file type as JPEG files are.Those raw files vary between each camera manufacturer, each camera model, and sometimes with firmware upgrades; good luck with that.
Today, older raw files are not supported by newer software, have fun opening them. What about the media you save your files to? Will they be readable in the years or decades to come? Oh, as media improves, you transfer your files from old media to new media, will your younger generations be willing to do that? At some point in time there will not be equipment to read that older media. When was the last time you saw a ZIP drive, SuperDrive, 5.25″ or 3.5″ floppy drive; most computers today do not even have ports for those devices. There are gazillions of family files on those.
Remember laser disks? Well a few years back the BBC wanted to copy files off their laser disks but could not do it, they simply did not have the equipment, nor the folks that knew how to do it. They had to bring folks out of retirement, rebuild and recode, but the good news is that they did it.
Though we are producing an exponential growth in the number of images being taken, we are losing the same. We are living in a digital dark age, by which I mean images going dark by being lost, corrupted, and the like.
By the way have you heard of CD and DVD rot?
With film you can hold your media them up to the light and see images. Print your images and you have a permanent record. If you want digital copies then scan them and share them. Prints will be more cherished than a digital image.
Years ago on Christmas our Mom gave each one of us (there are six) one or more albums of images of us growing up. Flipping through the pages it was amazing seeing the photographs.
So, for those of you that say film is too difficult remember, your grandmothers shot film, so how difficult can it be?
What is sad to me is that I hear folks say something like “oh I shoot I could not shoot that with film”. It is as though before digital capture, photographs could not be produced.
Film was used for almost 200 years all over the world covering wars, sports, political events, space shots, weddings, portraits, movies, the list goes on. It is the attitude of the shooter that matters. Except for the need for immediate turnaround film can be used.
There are some things that are much easier with digital, such as practicing lighting setups. But all-in-all film fits me like a glove.
Thanks for reading.
~ Ric Donato
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