Here’s an interesting question: why is one’s yield (or keeper) rate so much higher with film than digital? Let’s take the stats from my excursion to Europe, and keeping in mind I apply the same quality thresholds to both film and digital:
Ricoh GR, single shot: 137/1795, for a 7.6% yield.
Olympus OM-D, mostly single shot, some burst: 54/2370, for a 2.4% yield.
Hasselblad with B&W film (Fuji Acros 100): 76/168 (14 rolls), for a 45% yield.
Hasselblad with slide film (Fuji Provia 100F): 28/60 (5 rolls), for a 47% yield.
Digital overall: 191/4165, for a 4.6% yield.
Film overall: 104/228, for a 46% yield.
That’s ten times higher. What gives?
The first thing that comes to most people’s minds is that we shoot more carefully with film because there is a real, tangible cost to each frame; consequently we also lower our standards in order increase the keeper rate – once again, because of the cost associated with junking a frame. I know it’s highly subjective, but I swear I apply the same standards to every capture, regardless of the medium used. Some media lend themselves to higher yield rates – for instance, if I break out the D800E and lights, I’m almost certainly going to have more keepers from a careful setup than loose run-and-gun with an iPhone. But these differences are thrown out the window when we shoot all cameras under the same conditions, which was the case here – I carried everything with me all the time during that trip, and shot negligibly at night (which, if done handheld, would see more shots but an even lower yield from the digitals). There was enough light during the times I was out for me to use slow film comfortably, handheld.
Maybe our brains see different subjects: possible, but I’d say overall unlikely. I had overlap between the Hasselblad and the zoom on the Olympus, and arguably the single prime I chose – 80mm, for 45mm equivalent on FF – is a lot easier to use than the 21mm converter I had permanently attached to the Ricoh GR. I shot my usual mix of urban reportage and still life involving moving subjects and static architectural detail with both.
There’s another possibility: one of scarcity. You only carry a fixed number of rolls with you every day – for me, five, or 60 shots – and you want to make those count, but beyond that, you’re afraid you’ll finish the last frame then come across something you wish you’d had another roll for. Or not, since you’re also carrying two digital cameras, too. In fact, the opposite was true. I had trouble finding things to shoot at times; there would be one last frame left and I’d want to change over to color or black and white; it often took hours to find that frame. I remember sending my students out on a shot discipline exercise in Prague – they could press the button just five times in one hour – and during that time, and the next exercise, I shot only one frame. Does the camera condition us to see a certain way? Maybe.
One commenter said “use a shotgun and you’re bound to hit something”, which implies I spray-and-pray; again, those who’ve seen me shoot will disagree with that. Those who’ve seen me edit will disagree even more strongly: I’ll spend a surprising amount of time picking between five to ten nearly identical files; any one would be ‘okay’, but I’m looking for the ‘outstanding’ one. I shoot when something changes, or when I want to try something; usually, the only differences are subtle shifts in composition or expressions of the subjects. This is not stochastic photography, it’s chasing the nth degree. And all of these subtleties do make a difference: perhaps I chase perfection with digital, because I can. Is it because we accept the imperfection and lack of control of film, and write off minor errors? I certainly don’t.
I suspect it may be a lot simpler: it’s because we have instant feedback. If you see something is wrong, and you have the chance for another try, any person who has any pride in their output whatsoever is going to take that chance. We don’t have this with film; we just have to hope for the best. But that doesn’t explain why you wouldn’t take another second shot as insurance, especially if you’re in a place you’re not going to visit again, or if you’re shooting an assignment, or if you’re working under constantly changing light conditions. But perhaps there’s a grain of something here: my negatives show zero repeat frames.
A pause, to do some math: if I’m trying 5-10 variants of each frame with digital, but only a single one for film, then we’d expect a hit rate 10x lower with digital; lo and behold, it is! So there’s the difference: it’s in chasing the last bit of perfection. But how can we be content with the imperfection and risk of shooting film? Or is it that very imperfection and uncertainty we’re chasing, which in itself becomes organic perfection? Put it this way: do we mourn the images we don’t shoot? I certainly do. There’s always an underlying anxiety that I’m missing something, or that I could get a substantially better frame if I waited a bit longer, but life goes on; there are no do overs. I admire the long-time film shooters who brought that inbuilt discipline over to digital, and don’t feel the need to shoot again; I went the other way and brought my bad habits with me.
Interestingly, if we look at the contact sheets of the film-era greats, we find that they weren’t single-shot people either: they took up to two rolls to ‘nail’ the image; after which they stopped. Partially because I think they were shooting insurance, in case the frame they wanted never materialized, and partially because they too were thinking and refining the idea as they went along.
There is no right or wrong approach to photography; I’m just wondering why I can’t seem to bring my film-shooting discipline to digital; ironic given that I started off digital and then brought those habits to film in the first place. There are definite workflow advantages for not having to cull so many images, however; more so if your ultimate photographic aim is one of continuous improvement. Unquestionably, digital offers more immediate feedback.
Curiously, I don’t feel as though my progress with silver halides has been slow, either; in less than 100 rolls – 1200 frames – I’ve familiarized myself with the not-so-intuitive Hasselblad; trained my eye to meter accurately enough for slide film; gotten my development process to the point which I’m happy with the output and have the level of control I want; the final output looks the way I envision at the time of shooting. And I know three films (Delta 100, Delta 400 and Acros 100) well enough to know when to use each, and for what kind of light. It takes me easily the same number of frames alone to familiarize myself with the behaviour of new digital camera – even with my experience in the system – the E-M1 review, for instance, required close to 3,000 frames.
Maybe it’s a complexity thing; there are actually more variables to deal with for digital, especially when it comes to individual camera behaviour. But surely that cannot outweigh the complexity and huge number of variables and possible outcomes when it comes to developing film? For instance, the grain of Delta 100 is very sensitive to agitation frequency and speed; edge-effects and halation are also affected, and different films respond differently to the time-temperature-developer concentration equation; Acros extends 3/4 tone detail by a good stop or more if you double development time and halve the concentration. And of course you have to shoot and develop a whole roll before you know this…and preferably more than one to rule out odd one-time effects.
I can only conclude by saying that for once, I’m really at a loss. But I’d like to hear what the readership thinks: do you shoot differently with film and digital? Do you have significantly different keeper rates, or acceptability thresholds? Why else do you think we might shoot differently across the different media? MT
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