Irrespective of format and camera, there’s definitely a difference in the way we shoot film vs digital: a lot of comments from an earlier article examining the economics of shooting both media to a similar output standard suggested that this is the same for a lot of other photographers, too. We may not feel qualitatively that there’s much of a difference, but the higher keeper rate suggests the complete opposite. I think I have figured out why this is the case – at least for me – and beyond that, what we can take away from the process to improve our images – independent of the medium.
The most obvious reason why we have a higher keep rate with film is simply because there’s a tangible cost-per-expsoure involved; the larger the format, the higher the cost. You’re not going to try handholding a studio large format monorail camera just to see ‘what the result looks like’, but you’ll do it with a compact. And even a medium format DSLR; and probably delete the results almost immediately. Are those little ‘experiments’ useful? Perhaps, as the germination for something a bit more serious and controlled later on; however, I suspect that with digital we are often willing to compromise a bit just to ‘see how it looks’ or to test the way the camera responds. Even once our abilities develop beyond the initial learning stage, we still (hopefully) continue to experiment with the intention of pushing our creative boundaries. I’d like to think we still do that with film, but the reality is probably not quite there.
Here’s another interesting thought: it’s not just digital that we treat as throwaway, but especially digital with compacts or camera phones. In fact, the less dedicated a piece of equipment is towards controlled, creative photography, the less care we seem to take with the photographic process, and less we expect of the results. (‘Seriousness’ of equipment and its effects on your photography is probably a topic I’m going to leave for another day, however.) This has several consequences: firstly, we tend not to do good work with ‘cheap’ gear. Secondly, we tend to experiment more with less ‘serious’ media, perhaps because we expect the results to be unacceptable anyway, so when they are, it’s a bit of a nice surprise. Finally, it’s arguable that film is generally perceived to be the most serious photographic medium today, given the very high investment in time, effort and cost (perhaps the ultimate differentiator of ‘seriousness’) that must go into producing an image – think large format – we take it very seriously indeed when we do use that medium.
I believe the upshot of all this translates into the photographer just playing it safe from a technical/ execution standpoint, but also an artistic one: we’re also not going to take risks executing something that might not work, or has a high chance of producing a dud. Even if we’re very confident in our abilities – street photography and timing with moving people might be a start, for instance – there are some things that are beyond our control, like water, or the formation of crowds; fast moving and non-repeatable situations like sports, documentary photojournalism or weddings; challenging lighting conditions; very dark situations; special purpose such as underwater; the list goes on. I actually think that the images I produce with film have a very different pictorial feel compared to digital – partially because of the tonality, but mainly because the ‘play it safe’ factor tends to have a confining impact on the subject matter itself: as a consequence, the images are static.
I don’t think this staticness is necessarily a bad thing; somehow you land up with photographs that feel a lot more tranquil and peaceful. In fact, the same can be said of the whole process of shooting film: it’s meditative. The larger the format, the more you think because the implicit cost/ gravitas is higher, and because it’s also more difficult technically – my Arca Swiss 4×5 has no less than fourteen controls on the body alone for controlling movements; that excludes the lens, external meter, film holders etc. And of course – the bigger you go, the fewer bullets you get. (I’ve yet to see a 36 shot roll film canister for 8×10.) Bottom line: larger equals thoughtful, but perhaps at the expense of dynamism and serendipity. Each format has its own strength.
The same popular culture perception that has imposed the threshold of ‘seriousness’ on us has also done a number on what we think is art: anything film is ‘artistic’, but digital is a mere commodity that lands up on Facebook or hipstagram. Hmmm…surely this is contrary to the whole notion of what art is, especially in a photographic context: it is a translation of the unique vision of the photographer, no more, no less. And the medium used should of course be secondary, and possibly also irrelevant. Thus we land up with a lot of very mediocre images from an absolute standpoint that are accepted and perhaps subtly lauded/ praised because they were shot on film; not because they have artistic merit and consequently just happened to be shot on film.
The upshot is that the threshold for digital-source work to be perceived as art is a lot higher; it has to have some quality that is unattainable by the masses and their point and shoots or camera phones. The threshold is higher, the bar is raised. Our collective tolerance for imperfection in digital is much, much lower. Guess what: this has an impact on our subconscious, and as a result, we delete a whole lot more – at least us serious photographers do; I don’t think this statement applies to the blogger who photographs everything that enters their digestive tracts. (Reverse visual diarrhoea, in a sense.)
I do also wonder how much of this is a consequence of control: we know we can make the image perfect with digital at the time of capture; there is therefore no excuse not to go back and do it again until it is, especially if you are in full control of the lighting and the process. Even if you are not, capture rates are so high that you can often get a few in as insurance, ‘just in case’. I do that often, especially when on a reportage assignment: the moments are not repeatable, and you’ve got no excuse for your clients. This of course results in a lot of images that are not bad, but they’re just not as good as the one you ultimately select – and they go on the reject pile. With film, I probably won’t use it in a situation of this level of criticality, and even if I did, I suspect I’d bank a lot less insurance – this significantly claws back the difference in the keeper rate. I suspect the absolute top level of compositional and technical quality for a photographer who’s competent at both media is pretty similar, though the average level for digital – including the discards – is probably quite a bit higher.
There’s a method behind the seemingly random selection of images I’ve used to illustrate this article. Firstly, there are three film and three digital images in this set; they represent a wide range of shooting situations that a photographer might conceivably encounter, all the way from uncontrolled to fully controlled and repeatable. Aside from the obvious that the colour ones are digital – since I don’t shoot color with film to any degree of seriousness or consistency. What all of the digital images have in common is that they are of ‘risky’ subjects: in every case, there is a high chance of failure for various reasons. The soldiers were moving quickly during their parade routine, and light was sufficiently low and background sufficiently distracting that I had to shoot wide open, and the lens I had at the time was one which is particularly brutal at the transition point between in and out of focus – the Zeiss Otus.
Then, we have the fire image which is one that I think of as being stochastic: you have zero control whatsoever of what shape the flames take; but if you have the wrong flames, the image won’t look balanced – all the more so since the flames are both visually very prominent and the whole point of the image. You just have to shoot a lot of frames with the composition you intend, and hope that one of them balances perfectly. Then there’s the watch: it’s a much trickier image to execute than it appears; you have to balance the brightness of luminance material with the ambient – and controlled – light on the case; it’s shot under ideal studio conditions, so there’s really no excuse for it not to be perfect. And you certainly can’t use the unpredictability of film as an excuse for inconsistency if your client asks.
The final image is an interesting one because it’s a bit of a red herring. It looks like a Hasselblad film image, is a Hasselblad image, but isn’t film. Here’s where everything comes together: the subject is rather stochastic – again, we have no control over the moving people, so all we can do to achieve perfect compositional balance is try many variations and rely on our innate sense of timing – but the tonal palette is consciously and decidedly filmic. The process of execution is filmic – digital back on a tripod, low ISO, precise composition of the edges of the frame and fixed structures, exposure to eliminate any possible overly harsh ‘digital’ overexposure – and the end-state results are surprisingly satisfying. Minimal or delayed feedback at the time of capture is also important: we don’t have a feedback cycle to work with unless you’re shooting polaroids; you won’t know if something went wrong until after you develop the film. Having an LCD/ review mode so poor that you don’t use it, or switching off the LCD seems to help, too – as several commenters in the previous article on the psychology of film vs digital pointed out. I believe this is the culmination of experience in both digital and film processes: my aim has long been to get the tonality of film, with the repeatability, economy and ‘conduciveness to experimentation’ of digital. In short: as with all things photographic, there is no ideal; you really have to think of the whole integrated workflow as a learning process…MT
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