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.
Sometimes, you can’t help but feel that the mood of a particular event or evening fits a particular camera; some time back I was invited out to a casual evening jazz concert/ jam session. There is something about black and white film and jazz; I don’t know what it is exactly, but I think the two compliment each other perfectly. Perhaps it’s the way the smooth richness of the brass instruments is the auditory compliment to the rich 3/4 tones of film*; or perhaps it’s because the whole affair invokes another, earlier, era. That said, the relatively low light was challenging due to the inherent sensitivity limitations of film, traded off against image quality – the tonal look I prefer for film requires mid tones, which tend to be pretty thin with faster emulsions. Not to mention the challenge of focusing under such low light – fortunately, I had the F2 Titan, whose focusing screen is really quite excellent – snappy, and easy to discriminate the focus transition even with very fast lenses. I hadn’t used that camera in so long, I’d forgotten how transparent a photographic experience it was; your view of the world is reduced to what’s inside the large finder, and your fingers are only the three controls – focus, aperture and shutter, with a thumb cocked around the winding lever to help secure the right-sized body, and nothing more. It’s what the Df should have been.
*A discourse on the relationship and similarities between photography and music is something I’ve been meaning to write for some time, but I’m still trying to learn enough about music to have enough descriptive language to adequately convey the concepts. Increasingly I’m starting to feel that the written/ spoken language really is inadequate for the description and explanation of visual ideas; perhaps that too is another article for another time.
These photoessays will have far fewer images than the usual variety, simply because the number of images taken is necessarily lower. I’ll shoot perhaps 12 frames in a productive day. To confess, I’ve actually been hesitating a little over whether to post these at all, because even though the loss from print to screen is enormous, there’s an even bigger loss between full digital files to web. There is simply no way to represent them in such a way that doesn’t throw away most of the tonal subtlety and immersive detail. I’ll do it anyway, for the curious. But upfront I will say that something is definitely missing…there’s a ‘digitalness’ to the images at this size that isn’t present in the full size images; I suspect it’s because once you shrink an image this much a lot of the subtle tonal and microcontrast cues that say ‘film’ are downsized into oblivion. Just so you know: you’re looking at an image that’s been reduced to about 0.5% of the original size. MT
Many of you will know that earlier this year, I acquired a large format 4×5″ studio monorail. It’s an Arca-Swiss F Line with standard bellows; it has full but ungeared movements on both front and rear standards, a telescoping monorail and takes Graflex film holders. I paired it with a Schneider APO-Symmar 150/5.6, which turned out to be the right choice as I’ve not yet felt the need for longer or wider – somehow, it matches my perspective perfectly. Film – my beloved Fuji Acros 100 – and spare holders arrived a little while after the camera, and I’ve had a complete working setup for about a month. Today’s article comprises some collected thoughts after living and working with it for a while, from the point of a primarily digital photographer who’s also gone back to revisit medium and now large format film.
It’s been a little while since I posted any images from Kuala Lumpur; the truth is that I don’t actually shoot that much in my home city these days. Partially it’s because I feel I’ve really plumbed the depths of most parts of the city; partially it’s because I try to keep some potential in reserve for when I have to go out and review a camera – finding new material in a city in which you’ve shot close to 200,000 frames is actually quite tough.
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?
It’s been a long, long time since I last shot slide film. 2006, to be exact; I stopped for two reasons: one, I was shooting (and developing) through about a third of my pay every month in film; secondly, scanning was beginning to take up all of my spare waking hours. And even then, I was never that happy with the results. But then, every so often – and I was a much, much worse photographer back then (not that I’m that good now, mind you) – you’d get one slide back that was so immersive, so detailed, so crisp that it was like peering into a little world of its own. And then you’d feel the itch to do it all over again. Sometimes this would happen a few times per roll, and then you were well and truly done for.
For serious photographers – the kind that buy cameras to take pictures with, not for bragging rights or spec sheet counts – creative choice is good. And perhaps the largest and most divisionary of all of the creative choices available to a photographer has been whether to go film, digital, or a combination of both. Don’t expect to get a concrete answer one way or the other after this article; rather, I’m going to explore the less obvious rationale and strengths for both options.
There are many reasons to shoot digital. There are many reasons to shoot film, too – beyond the simple ‘I want to’. Though I find that for color work, digital is significantly better than film due to the level of control and accuracy it produces, film remains my medium of choice for monochrome work. The reason has to do with nonlinearity of tonal response, especially in the highlights – film never quite seems to clip under almost all circumstances, and this jives with the way our eyes see the world very nicely indeed. But there are typically two things that stop people from trying film: workflow, and perceived cost.