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Friday, February 7

Why I Resent Digital Imaging


A nice antidote to digital.

A not-so-subtle shift has taken place in my view of digital photography: I'm beginning to actively dislike the whole notion. After writing my piece about Ralph Gibson and his conversion from silver halide photography to noughts and crosses (or is it ones and zeros?), a few readers asked me why I felt that way. I thought it might be interesting to attempt an explanation.

Until the Ralph Gibson post, I hadn't realised that my view of digital imaging had fundamentally changed. But, if truth be told, I actually resent it. There, I've said it. I don't just have a preference for film-based photography and real darkroom prints. It goes much deeper than that. That's a weird realisation as it wasn't that long ago that I was a fully paid up member of the digital imaging crowd with a D700 and a clutch of autofocus lenses (still got 'em). I've published a few digital photography blogs in the past and was exclusively pixelated for about six years.

I was going to call this post "Why I Hate Digital Imaging" until my 14-year-old daughter, Freya, commented in passing, "How over the top is that!" She's right, of course. I suppose if film were to disappear completely, I'd have little choice but to find another obsession or carry on taking photographs with my D700.

The real issue, though, and the reason for my resentment is that digital is a serious threat to the future of film photography. Digital imagers - and some film photographers, too - often ask why we can't just accept the two mediums for what they are. The platitude goes that neither is better than the other: they're just different and deserve to be treated according to their respective merits. If I were still using the D700 I'd probably have no problem with that as it wouldn't be my chosen medium that was under threat. But I'm exclusively film and darkroom and unless we can swell the user base then film is bound to become less viable over time.

A Tenner a Roll?
It's true that it may never actually disappear. There might always be a big enough demand to profitably sustain one or two emulsions but at what price? Would you be happy to have a choice of Rollei Retro 100 or Adox CHS 100 II for a tenner a roll? That's perhaps the main reason that I've got it in for digital and it's why I started this blog. I don't know what influence if any I've had but at least I feel that I'm doing something to stimulate or sustain someone's interest in film and darkroom somewhere. I understand the argument that if society chooses digital and film goes by the wayside then that's just democracy in action and the markets making up their minds. But democracy is also two wolves and a sheep deciding what's for dinner.

I have a lot of readers who shoot some film but also like their digital cameras, and that's fine. Shooting some film is lots better than shooting none at all so please keep doing that. I can't work like that. I'm basically a lazy individual. Think of a real go-getter, remove the go-gettingness from him and you have me - just "real". If I were to use both digital and film I know that laziness, convenience, easiness or whatever would win the day and I'd pick up the D700 again. Not because it's better or more satisfying but purely because it's easier and I'm lazy. It's why I moved to digital in the first place before realising what a mistake I'd made.

I don't hold with the view that film and digital are just different skill sets that have to be learned. I've used both extensively and it's my view that digital is much easier than film. "Period", as Obama is fond of saying but, unlike the President, I actually mean it. At the risk of rubbing some people up the wrong way, pretending the two mediums are on an equal footing is just a cop out and a way of saying that you prefer the easy and convenient route but without wanting to admit it. The alternative is to accept that people switch from film to digital because the latter is more difficult to master and they just want a bigger challenge. Believe that one if you like.

Into The Lions' Den
When I wrote the earlier piece about Ralph Gibson moving to digital, I went onto the Rangefinder Forum to "promote" the blog post. I'm trying to build this blog's readership and that means reaching out to new readers. Anyway, I took a hammering from the mainly digital or digital/film RFF members. I had a few supporters - thank you for that! - but it was largely one-way traffic. As someone pointed out, the argument seemed to split into two camps: A - Those who believe the image is the only thing that matters. B - Those who believe the image is important but so is the process.

The A camp comprised those hostile to my comments re Ralph Gibson and the B camp were sympathetic. It quickly became apparent that we could have been arguing about socialism v libertarianism, global warmers v sceptics or any other topic that completely polarises opinion. There was never, ever going to be a meeting of minds. The Camp A people just do not care about the process, the craftsmanship involved, the degree of difficulty or any of that. If it's a striking image, then it matters not a whit how it was achieved.

The Camp A people pretty quickly realised that I'm not particularly interested in the argument that it's all about the image: there's got to be more to it than that. I understand what they're saying but I just don't agree with it. What if photographers were able to stand before a landscape, download what they were seeing directly from their brain to an inkjet printer and dash off a print. The pure distillation of a vision into a photograph. Would that still be photography? Well, it would be in the minds of Camp A people.

This sort of thinking devalues photography in my opinion. In the minds of many non-photographers, it's the camera that now does all the work, isn't it? It also devalues it in a practical way as skill no longer receives its just reward. At my son's wedding last year, the photographer was a nice guy who was competent at wielding a DSLR. He was making a living doing wedding photography in the digital age and happily admitted that he wouldn't have stood a snowball's chance in hell of making it when film reigned supreme. Why? Because film is more demanding in every way and, to be blunt, he didn't have a clue beyond getting the picture in (auto)focus and the (matrix) metering right.

Open Access
The fact that digital is easier has levelled the playing field in professional photography but not in a good way. It's opened up access to anyone who has enough money to buy a decent camera. Yes, there are still some guys right at the top of the photography profession who are a cut above the rest but that was always the case. Beneath them, there is no longer any sort of meritocratic structure where ability is rewarded accordingly.

No longer do you have to work at your craft for years, no longer do you really have to know what you're doing because with digital you can just shoot away and make the adjustments suggested by the LCD screen. I do feel sorry for those guys around my age or older who spent years learning the ropes and now have to compete with someone who got a DSLR for their 21st birthday and read the manual.


In The Hole!
The stock photography industry, which once paid a good rate to photographers for the right to use their images in magazines and brochures, has been reduced to a drive-to-the-bottom free-for-all where publishers can buy the right to use photographs for literally pennies. Sadly, there are plenty of people out there who will settle for selling their photographs for sweeties - I used to be one of them. I have hundreds of photographs on stock photography websites and sell loads every year for a derisory amount given the time and effort involved in shooting them. Take this photo, In The Hole. I've got it on quite a few different stock agencies but on iStock it's sold around 45 times and earned just $70 dollars or so. In the good old days, with the same level of sales, it would have earned hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

There are some who make a living from stock and a few who do very well indeed but they tend to be the ones who got in right at the start with big portfolios and whose production line output is on an almost industrial level. Today, it might well take 500 digital sales to make the same as one decent stock shot would have fetched during the film era.

Irony Bypass
After the Ralph Gibson post, one reader, Ian from Ayrshire, asked if I could comment in a future blog on what it feels like to stimulate the level of debate I did at the RRF. "Did you mean every word? Did you fail to signpost the irony? Was there irony?" he asked.

The RRF thread I started has generated almost 500 replies and well over 15,000 views. I think it's great that lots of people thought enough about the issue of Ralph jumping ship to digital in his 76th year to want to respond. From the point of view of trying to reach new readers, I think it was a success.


"Enigma". My attempt at a Gibson-like image but taken before I even knew who
Ralph was. It's looking though the window of a door in an Edinburgh museum.

Obviously, there were plenty who couldn't disagree more with me and I'll never hear from them again. Fair enough. There were the closed-minded individuals who couldn't wait to say that they read the first couple of paragraphs and would go no further, so completely unacceptable was my point of view. There were those who said that Ralph should be free to make his own choices as if I, a libertarian, were trying to prevent him exercising his right as a free individual. But there were probably others who agreed with me or considered the topic thought-provoking enough to bookmark The Online Darkroom.

But I don't want anyone thinking I wrote the post here about Ralph just for that reason. I continue to be genuinely bemused at why Ralph, who loved describing just what was so special about film and darkroom work and why it was so vital to the images he produced, switched to digital. To answer Ian from Ayrshire directly, I meant every word and the only irony was in Ralph's decision to go digital after practically proselytising for decades about film.

It's a Pandora's Box and it's unlikely we'll ever get the digital genie back into the bottle (eat your heart out Barbara Cartland) but we can at least continue to talk up film photography for the great, unique art and craft that it is - and which digital imaging isn't. And that's what this website is all about.

You might also like:

Is It Always Just About The Picture?
A Less Beautiful Ralph Gibson

49 comments :

Reimar Junckerstorff said...

Dear Mr Robbins,
Thank you for your marvellous website. As a film enthusiast it is the only blog I read. I would like to correspond with you but would prefer to do that by email rather than a public forum. Would this be possible? Unfortunately I cannot find a contact email address for you.
Thank you for your help.
Kind regards,
Rei Junckerstorff
Western Australia

morris1800 said...

I,m with you on this Bruce I am definitely a 'B' type photographer . I guess the commercial situation with image sales is the same issue 19th century portrait painters had with the emergence of photography. As for laziness , I guess its an easy trap to fall into . My son who shoots only digital as his camera set to bracketing so every shot he takes 5 exposures ...would I be tempted to do the same if film cost was not an issue , I don't know

Jeff L said...

Exactly.
To my mind anyway.

Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks Rei. And thanks for pointing that out about my email. I used to have an email button on the blog but I must have taken it off. I'll sort that out. In the meantime, you can get me on:
brucerobbins (at) hotmail dot co dot uk.

Herman Sheephouse said...

B all the way for me too Bruce, but then you knew that anyway.
A craft is slowly but surely being buried by people who claim to be photographers but wouldn't know a true photograph if it hit them on the head.
As you know I've written a lot about this too; I hate being driven into a corner but can only compensate for it by being more photographically-orientated than I have ever been.
To anyone else reading Bruce's wonderful blog, buy film, use film, print real silver prints, and put your heart and soul into it - that's the only way . . oh and when you're done come over to my place and have a read there too!

http://fogblog-hermansheephouse.blogspot.co.uk/

Sorry for the shameless plug.

Jan Moren said...

I'm a bit conflicted here. One reason is the part about stock photography and the race to the bottom.

I'm a rank hobbyist; the kind that would have limited my activities to my darkroom and photo albums twenty years ago. But now, with the net, people across the world can find my images. And some small subset of them want to pay me for them to use my images.

I often agree. Why not; it's a hobby, but a bit of extra income is always welcome. And as it's a hobby I'm under no pressure to ask for commercial rates - I do when it's motivated, but more often I ask for a modest donation to Creative Commons, the EFF or similar in lieu of a monetary payment to myself. Getting paid here in Japan from abroad is expensive and painful enough that it's not really worth it to me.

So on one hand I do undercut professionals that depend on such payments for their income. But on the other, I figure that I really am a rank amateur, and any professional that can't out-shoot me with their camera tied behind their back maybe doesn't have the skill to hang out their shingle in the first place.

Anonymous said...

For me at least the film cameras are what it is about. Olympus is my chosen 35mm system. My old OM-1 is so perfect it still feels good everytime I pick it up, with almost 40 years of use. Back in 2009 I picked up my first DSLR, a Oly E-410, just to see what this digital stuff was all about. Never bonded with that camera. I have no more feel for it than my toaster or coffeemaker. It is just a plastic thing that takes pictures. I still have it and it still works as long as I have the card door taped up tight. Makes a dandy meter too and I have rigged it to photograph my negatives with an old, adapted Vivitar macro lens. Other than that my wife has discovered that her ipad camera is ok for most family color snapshots and she takes care of that end of the picture taking for scrap books and albums, and posting to the relatives. Meanwhile I have a 40 year old camera that can take the latest flexable "sensor" technology every time I load a new roll.

John Robison

Eric Rollo said...

Hi Bruce
I gave up digital photography or as I like to call it painting by pixels early last year and I am loving finally learning at 56 what real photography is all about. The blending of chemistry and physics to create unique images rather than the purely digital identical copy everytime.
This blog helps me see that film still has a place and that true photography is not just getting the picture right or tweaking it on the laptop, but about the skill of balancing different chemical processes to achieve ultimately a unique image which may or maynot be what was intended.

Eric

Nick Jardine said...

Hi Bruce.

I think that film is, and will continue, to have similarities with the 'Vinyl' crowd.

Initially everyone was scared and worried that digital music would take over, but what's happened is that although the market has become smaller, the niche is just big enough to keep the prices down and still allow smaller companies to make a profit.

I can buy a newly re-mastered vinyl album from a favourite band for not much more than the price of a digital album.

The same will happen with film, it seems to go in cycles. The youngsters got fed up with us old farts and film so they picked up digital. Now digital is boring and the rise in using 'alternative photography' is growing again.

Holga ( not that keen personally) do a roaring trade in cheap plastic cameras and film.

Impossible project re-inventing Polaroid film and Cameras.

Spur doing their stuff.

Specialists suppliers like Bostock and Sullivan doing great trade in alternative processes.

Even the major camera manufacturers like Nikon are tying desperately to get their cameras look retro.

Hip youngsters are trying out new things, like the video you posted of Ian Ruhter turing a van into a huge camera to do collodion prints.

They may not be technically brilliant prints, but they have a vibrancy and youthfulness and they've made it their own.

So while we will see a decline in film, I don't see it disappearing, nor do I see prices rocketing in the future. There will be more experimentation, more Ian Ruhter's , more young people re-inventing 'traditional' photography for themselves.

What we do need are people like you, putting the word out globally. We need places to meet and discuss. Thats the important stuff.

I need to know how I can get my hands on a certain chemical, I can visit a forum and ask someone. Thanks to the internet I can access international markets through networks.

So people will make choices and it might take a wee bit more effort to shoot film but it's still going to be here and affordable.

Remember, people respect craftmanship, people respect care, attention, beautiful and painstaking work. These are all words we associate with film, not digital.

Anonymous said...

I cycle between film and digital. I think the reasons for this are; when using b&w, that I don't have access to a darkroom to process my own films and print my own photographs anymore. I used to belong to a photographic club that had a darkroom for use by members. I must admit that I only joined the club to use the darkroom and rarely entered prints for competitions as I had no interest in the critique side of club life.
So now I have to send my film off for processing and then scan the film to make digital files. Why bother? Why not just shot digital?
My own reasons are that I love the tactile feel of a film Leica camera, I even love the smell of film! I also like the fact that I have a real, tangible result in the form of a sheet of negatives that I can see and feel and this is more reassuring than a hard drive of pixels that depend on software to be able to be output.
That said, the majority of negatives don't get printed. Our best digital work can be made into a negative capable of producing traditional silver halide prints.
With colour it has to be digital, and I photograph in colour. I used to use transparency film (Kodachrome) but now that everything ends up being scanned the logical film stock to use in colour negative. Again, why bother? I know that most of the above is rather off-topic as Bruce is primarily writing about the craft of silver halide photography, but it is not as simple as digital photographers being lazy and some digital printers are as much craftsmen as their silver halide brothers.
What would really help to promote the use of film and silver halide printing would be the availability of darkrooms for hire. A Google search for a darkroom that I could use doesn't find any within a radius of 50 miles.
Bruce, I hope you expand this discussion to include the pros and cons of analogue versus digital storage.
Good post!

Mike.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

No irony. Fairy nuff.

Ian from Ayrshire.

Danny Bronson said...

The switch over to digital has certainly been a boon to some camera makers but not so much for photographers. Buyers are more interested in keeping the cost down and with such an oversupply of images the price is sure to plummet. It's basic supply and demand. Digital has cheapened photography, and I respect it too much to switch over completely.

Antonio Aparicio said...

I am with you Bruce!

Followed a bit of the thread over at RFF but got bored pretty quickly.

Black and White film photography is my passion. There seems to be a prevailing "I switched to digital" mentality that we are all subjected to reminds me a lot of a herd of sheep, all scuttling off en masse, to the next thing....

I am an individual. I love the final image and the process provided by analogue and will continue to enjoy it regardless of what anyone else does in their life.

I am a child of the 1960s and bored with the banal homogeneity of so many facets of modern life and the idea that we should al choose the same brand, medium, washing machine, etc. etc.

Antonio Aparicio said...

p.s. I love your site. Keep up the good work. It is a constant source of inspiration and excellent images/tips.

Bruce Robbins said...

"I am a child of the 1960s and bored with the banal homogeneity of so many facets of modern life and the idea that we should al choose the same brand, medium, washing machine, etc. etc. "

Well said, Antonio. I share your view on this completely.

Joe Iannandrea said...

Viewed in isolation there are things I could resent about what digital has done to photography, not least of these being what it has done to the availability of materials. But then I remind myself of what I paid for my used medium format system compared to what the same would have cost me fifteen years ago. In fact when I look at the big picture, on the whole I can honestly say that what digital has done to the world of photography suits me just fine.

The big picture, I should say, consists of more than just bargains on used equipment. For starters my own there and back again journey from film to digital to film once more has given me an appreciation for the medium I don't know I'd otherwise have. Digital capture itself is a nice tool even I've come to find it's suitability as an expressive medium limited. And with current prospects of putting together a wet darkroom looking dim for the foreseeable future I'd be almost totally non functional were it not for my film scanner.

I think a lot of the... well, resentment, fear, whatever you want to call it, that silver halide affectionados feel over digital comes from a mistaken tendency to project the trends of the past two decades forward and seeing film virtually dead in another ten years. But the world is no longer in a giddy rush to embrace the promise of the new age of digital imaging. It's a mature technology that can already pack more megapixels onto a little chip than any sense or reason would dictate. The promise has arrived and we're at the point where people are starting to come around to the realizations that a) digital isn't all that they imagined and b) there's something about film, call it authenticity, that digital can't make up for with any amount of continued technological improvement.

Ten years ago if someone saw you loading your camera they might take note of the fact that you were "still" using film, as though you just hadn't made the transition yet but of course you would sooner or later. It's been my experience these days that even most non-photographers understand that if you're using film it's a choice, a creative decision. Even if you're using a rather ordinary camera (though more so if you're using a beastly old Mamiya RB) it kind of sets you apart. And that, I find, is no so bad either.

Vincent Brady said...

Bruce,
While I generally agree with your post I do think that your statement that the digital process is easier does not quite stand up in all cases. I'm a member of a club that is almost entirely digital and I think at this stage there are only two of us working with film. There is a good number in the club but despite the fact that we have our own website there is quite a few members who never post any of their work on the site. The reason for this we have discovered is that they are not able to find their way around a computor. Not every photographer works in an office where they have to use a computor as part of their job. Some have only come into contact with a laptop when they bought a digital camera. So now they have to master not alone the camera but also the laptop and the older you are the more difficult this can be.In fact I think using a film camera is alot easier. Developing film and working in the darkroom is also pretty straight forward in my opinion. You will nearly always get results and they will improve with experience.
I do enjoy reading your articles even your lower case rants.

Cheers Vincent

Bruce Robbins said...

Very good point, Vincent. Perhaps I should have qualified it by saying digital photography is easier provided you know your way around a computer.

Antonio Aparicio said...

Great video here about analogue:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_g54sFXAzP8

Derek said...

Hi Bruce

Are you aware that Harman Technology have recently launched a new website called Localdarkroom.com.

I spotted this while browsing a photography magazine at WH Smiths today. This site could be a godsend for us film users both new and long established and proves once again that traditional film photography is alive and well.

Regards

Derek

Andrew Sanderson said...

Dear Bruce, I, as you well know am completely with you on this. I am passionate about analogue in its many forms, but often feel like I'm whispering into a hurricane if I try to explain why. These days, everybody who is interested in photography (even in a small degree) can impress their friends with images they have taken. The phone apps and the vast array of software, can take any image and make something wacky or bold or colourful or distressed in seconds. To impress your friends with a darkroom print takes a lot of time, effort and experience, which many can't afford, or be bothered to learn.
As I have often said; Digital photography is like a helicopter ride to the top of everest. -Sure, you got there, but you didn't get there by your own efforts, and that is why there is no sense of satisfaction.

I will continue to do what I love -and write about it, but I don't expect anything from it apart from my own satisfaction at making a print I'm really happy with. Let's leave the pointless snapping to those who are too lazy to learn a craft, and just concentrate on making better work. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
My own blog (which I'm sure you would be ok about me plugging), is all about analogue and how to use it; www.thewebdarkroom.com

One of your comments said something about finding available darkrooms;.They could check out a new website which has been set up by Ilford to do just that; http://www.localdarkroom.com

Mark O'Neill-Old Bar Australia said...

Thankyou for such a provocative story. I am a film and darkroom only photographer who switched to large format b&w just in time to see all the great papers like Kodak Polymax and Agfa Classic disappear. I thought, what is the future then? I have continued and seen many new replacements come into the market. Film and darkroom work is a craft - hands on, you are totally in charge of the end product, not a series of computer chips. Are the great sculptors going to generate their work using 3D printers? Thanks foe helping to keep the CRAFT alive.

Brian Hamill said...

Bruce,

Great blog! I've read more or the whole thing over the last few days and agree with much that you say. I'll continue to follow it avidly. Well done!

Having just got back into film - and for the first time in my life developing my own negs (this was something I'd wanted to do around 30 years ago but somehow life got in the way) I sympathise with the sentiments in your Post, and I worry that in ten years film photography may become even more esoteric and arcane than it is at the moment. Whilst it is easy to understand, taking a pop at the digital mob, many whom have known nothing else, won't rescue film. The genre is confronted by a plethora of risks that need to be understood and mitigated properly. My son (aged 21) was amazed by the process of changing bag, develop, stop, fix, wash, dry etc, and intrigued by the photochemical process. But that of course is superficial process - there are the finer points of type of film, timing, temperature, graininess to name a few, never mind the move into the dark room.

From where I sit, I think if safeguarding the future of film photography is to be achieved, we would need a concerted campaign to:
- bring young people into the art;
- differentiate the added value of film photography (e.g. huge tonal and dynamic range) from its digital counterpart;
- demonstrate how the two genres can fit together and complement each other;
- get camera clubs on board;
- thought leadership from very senior and respected film photographers; (I rather think Ralph G followed the money on the Leica Monochrome) and support from industry leaders like Ilford, Kodak and other film manufacturers.

I'm sure others will have loads of ideas on the sort of things that could be done.

I hope this helps the debate.

Brian

Joe said...

I was a film user from 1984 before I got a Canon 400D for Christmas in 2005, which I used it all the time when I ditched film.

But I got very bored of hours on Photoshop.

So in 2012 I bought a darkroom and started using film and now apart from the odd grab shot on my smartphone or Canon, I am strictly film. Both Mono and more so Colour.

Film ticks 3 major boxes for me:

1) It has greater luminosity, especially for colour. I always half the ISO to get 1 stop over exposure for details in the shadows and make the colours sing.

2) I don't do anywhere near as much post editing as I did with Photoshop. Which saves time. And the look and feel of Medium Format is so different to digital, and even 35mm. I enjoy looking through the glass finder on my Mamiya 645.

3) And because I am actively engaged in the process of developing Mono (I send my Colour to the Labs) and printing, dodging and burning, etc, I use my skills to make a picture I want. This is very satisfying and keeps me fit. All that standing, walking and thinking in the darkroom makes me feel good.

I spoke to Ilford Labs UK today and their sales are going up. So good news.

Antonio Aparicio said...

Joe wrote: "And because I am actively engaged in the process of developing Mono (I send my Colour to the Labs) and printing, dodging and burning, etc, I use my skills to make a picture I want. This is very satisfying and keeps me fit. All that standing, walking and thinking in the darkroom makes me feel good."

I agree. The physical engagement is very healthy isn't it. I was in my darkroom last weekend and although I felt tired from the standing and walking bit I actually felt more refreshed and physically/mentally satisfied than than sitting at a computer.

Loic said...

I do agree with the positive of physical engagement…

I had forgotten this point when I was writting some arguments about why I prefer analog photography making… They are there :

http://www.bozat.fr/blog/argentic-en.html



Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks for the link, Loic. I liked your explanation of why film and darkroom work is special to you. Well said!

zauhar said...

Bruce, as one of your fellow travelers (I was a strong supporter on the RFF discussion) I really enjoyed reading this. You have a great site.

Regarding the 'race to the bottom' of rates for stock photos - this has of course affected every single area of creative activity. Words and images are both cheap now. The internet is an astonishingly effective machine for enabling greed at the top, and providing loads of 'opportunity' for creative people - like taking on their third job in the service sector. ;-(

In any event, I appreciate the eloquence and force of your arguments. I actually prefer the folks in the digital crowd who proudly assert themselves, rather than hear mealy-mouth stuff about 'it's all tools, only the image matters'l etc.

All the best,
Randy

Dean Waters said...

What a very thought-provoking article. I find myself in a very similar position, in that increasingly I resent digital photography, but feel guilty about that resentment, which seems rather irrational.
I had a bit of an epiphany on a dull winter’s day when sorting through my photography books. Like many photographers I have a stack of photography books, some going back to the seventies, and I noticed that the number of good photographs in terms of subject, composition, lighting and so on, had increased dramatically recently with the advent of digital photography. Compare say the BBC wildlife photography competition portfolios from 20 years ago with today, and while the images from the 1990’s were great, the ones from this year clearly have an edge. Same with my photography books, many of the older images were so-so, but recent portfolios from the likes of the garden photography competition are astounding. So this got me thinking why this might be the case. I came up with three possibilities.
1. That we have all become better photographers, irrespective of improvements in equipment. This is possible I suppose, instant feedback from my digital camera allows me to learn more about composition and lighting, so I may be a better photographer now because of it. With the internet we also also exposed to a greater range of quality photographs to aspire to, but perhaps not that great an effect overall.
2. That digital cameras allow us to take better photographs. I’m sure there is an element of this, better autofocus, matrix metering, a wider range of lenses probably all contribute, but in many ways the best film cameras already gave us this anyway. In terms of operation, my Nikon F100 has pretty much the same functionality as my Nikon D700. I should be able to take the same ‘quality’ of photographs with either.
3. That digital allows us to maximise our chances of getting a good photograph. I emphasise chance here. A good photographer will obviously pre-visualise what they want and know the shots, they can make their own luck. For me, If I go out to a sporting event and take my Nikon D700 with me, I’ll set it to 5fps and start shooting whenever anything interesting might happen, and I may come back with over a thousand frames. Somewhere in there, should be a few that are good. I can then crop them due to a decent resolution sensor, adjust colour balance, tweak in photoshop to remove anything I don’t like, and they’ll look good, very very good. My part in the creative process is really minimal. I held the camera and pointed it in the right direction.
This really was where the rot set in. There are wonderful images out there, and if I was a pro photographer, and my living depended on it, I would be 100% digital, no question. If only the final image mattered, I wouldn’t worry. But I want to know that I am a good photographer, that the input to the creative process is mine, and that if my images improve it is down to me, not the fact that I took a hundred images and select the best one later. I suppose my resentment of digital photography is partly down to the inevitable loss or price increases of some of the products I still use, film, chemicals, darkroom equipment, but it’s also down to the de-skilling of photography. I have a friend who makes a decent supplementary income from portrait photography of children and pets. He images are quite good, but she doesn’t know what an aperture is as the camera never moves off program mode. She’ll take a few hundred images in half an hour, and chances are that some of them once processed in photoshop, will be fine. I’ll also go to a gallery and see landscapes where the sky is obviously added in from a different image, or where television aerials are obviously removed to improve composition. I just find it all rather distasteful.
A good photographer is still a good photographer, whatever medium they choose, but if we only consider the final image, then to me, that erodes the skill of the process. How do we distinguish the ‘happy accidents’ from the real craft?
Right, whinge over….

Bruce Robbins said...

Nothing wrong with a good whinge - and that was a very good one! I'm quite happy to admit that my digital images were more striking than my film ones but, as you say, that's more down to the technology and Photoshop than my ability as a photgrapher. At the end of the day, I just missed the whole film and darkroom process and culture. Simple as that really.

Bruce Robbins said...

Forgot to say that there's a small river near Glamis in Angus called the Dean Water...

Dean Waters said...

Nice to know I have a (hopefully nice) natural feature as a namesake!
Further to my post above, I was recalling the photographer at my wedding a few years back. Most pros were by now ditching their MF gear in favour of digital, but I really wanted a film photographer for the wedding photos. Eventually I found one who was close to retirement so didn’t see the need to replace his Bronica SQ. I was obviously quite pre-occupied during the wedding and didn’t find the time to chat to him about his gear, but he was great, not too intrusive, and for all the formal shots he took perhaps two or three shots of each group. I doubt that over the whole of the wedding he used more than three or four rolls of 120 Portra, which would have been 48 pictures tops. I saw all of the contact prints to choose which ones we wanted, and they were all sharp, well exposed, well composed and well lit. In contrast, in the weddings I have been to since, the photographer seems to have their finger constantly on the shutter button. Even on the formal groups they seem to take well over twenty shots for each, and I can’t say that the overall quality of the images has improved much. Not only that, but now we have to contend with the frankly cheesy ones of the table dressings, cake, barman and so on.
By the way, courtesy of pros ditching their film gear I managed to pick up a beautiful Mamiya RB67 kit for next to nothing, something I had always wanted but never dreamt I could afford, so there are some positives.

MonoNation said...

First comment here, came across the site via a recent comment at The Online Photographer.
Personally I expect film to be around for the foreseeable future as a niche/art supply product and agree with Nick Jardine's comment above ("Now digital is boring and the rise in using 'alternative photography' is growing again")
In my town there are still thriving art supply stores but fewer & fewer "camera" stores and it may be that after the last camera store closes (displaced by big box B&M stores and online) those art stores will still be there, perhaps selling film and paper along side the paint and canvas.
I teach B&W darkroom continuing ed. classes and the students are mostly younger - 20-30 range. They are the future of film photography. One thing to remember is they all have digital cameras and use them. That is, unavoidably, the context for film photography now.

Regards,

Dave.
http://www.pbase.com/eldenfoto

Wolfeye said...

I too, "switched" to digital when I could afford it. How long ago? 2004 maybe, a Canon 10D. It's a remarkable camera and I still enjoy using it. The camera I replaced it with, the 20D, is still mine to this day.

My real estate photography is 100% digital. Why? Because it never goes anyplace but cyberspace. Nobody ever prints the images. I see zero reason to use film if it's never getting printed.

Yet, I still use, and love film. I develop and scan nearly everything. Sometimes I print. Ever do color in a wet lab? You are sooo right about digital being easier. Even when I go hybrid (scan and inkjet print) I appreciate the digital convenience. I think I've made 10-20 color prints in my darkroom that I really like. OTOH B&W, I've never done digital. It's fake. Too easy, too clean.

I don't make my living in photography but yes, the MWAC who are suddenly professionals have killed what little wedding business I did once upon a time. Or maybe I just sucked at it. :) While I can't resent digital because I've learned so much about film photography through it, I do see your point. I suppose I'll resent it if I can't shoot any film, some time in the future. For now, shoot film! Enjoy!

David M said...

So, we go into a shop and buy a ready-made dinky little camera and a ready-made lens. We buy a roll of ready-made film in a nice handy cassette and use all our skill and judgement to open the back and put it in. We press a button thirty-six times and then, UAOS&J to take it out again. We might rotate a couple of rings on the lens. We might even use our shop-bought light meter.
Some of us will send it off to a stranger to be developed and some of us will do something as difficult as washing up, but easier than making a decent omelette.
Then it might go into the shop-bought enlarger. We press a button and an electric light shines onto the ready-made paper. We perform some more washing-up actions, quite possibly following the instructions on the packet. And, because we didn't get it quite perfect at the taking stage, we do it again, but waving our hands in the air.
And all this gives us the right to be snobbish about what somebody else bought in a shop?
I think I ought to say that I use film myself, for reasons that I sometimes find difficult to explain to outsiders.

Bruce Robbins said...

And brain surgery is just cutting a wee hole in someone's head, removing a dodgy bit of brain and stitching it all up again. Simples!

David M said...

Brain surgery certainly involves cutting holes in people's heads, plus a great deal of knowledge, experience and skill. Perhaps it's not strictly comparable with photography, because surgery is essentially teamwork.
I don't want to suggest that darkroom printing doesn't need KE&S too, just that it's also dependent on an extensive collection of manufactured devices and consumables. It's not like modelling in clay or weaving baskets: it's not "handwork."
Perhaps the thing to note (if we are to use surgery as an example) is that surgeons commonly use the most modern equipment available, including digital imaging. They even use 3-D printing and digitally-guided scalpels.
I've never heard of a surgeon assessing surgery by any other criterion than the outcome for the patient – roughly the equivalent of saying that the final print is what matters.
I do think that any debate on digital photography is muddied by the huge number of app-generated images, most of them, I suspect you'll agree, of little merit. 'Twas ever thus, even in the days when film ruled.
Clearly, some people can gain great satisfaction from their time in the darkroom. I am one of them, but personal preferences should be seen as just that, and not elevated into a general principle.
As far as I can see, the quality of the final image depends more on the visual and aesthetic skills of the printer rather than the equipment and materials they choose.
I may well be wrong, but until I see convincing evidence, I find myself obliged to totter on the fence, admiring the greenness of the grass on both sides.

Bruce Robbins said...

I'm reminded of historian David Starkey's quote that most people sit on the fence because they rather enjoy the feeling. :)

David M said...

I hadn't heard that. Excellent. Thank you.
I'm a rather reluctant fence sitter. A good sharp fence can divide more than my loyalties.

At a bit of a tangent – I sometimes wonder why enlarging onto silver/gelatin paper, in particular, generates such strongly-held opinions.
I have a friend who produces gum bichromate, cyanotypes and other kinds of non-standard print. He greatly enjoys the craft part of what he does but I've never heard him complain that these new-fangled dry plastic films and electric enlargers are ruining his life.

I came from the Zone tradition where the ideal was to visualise, expose and process a film so perfectly that it would print, without cropping, onto grade 2, with no interference other than a careful attention to exposure and development. Somewhere, I might still have a Fred Picker print that he claimed met these criteria. He may have thought so, but I couldn't possibly comment.

Justin Renault said...

I Started out learning on digital, and actually became quite attached to my camera. Before I shot film, I was drawn to the manual process, so I started using old Nikon manual lenses on my canon digital camera.

I inherited my dad's old Nikon FM, from the late 70's, a couple months back and fell in love with it.

Film for me is such a richer experience, a slower, more thought out art form. I have learned to take my time, get my exposures right (usually) the first time. Not being able to see instantly the image I just took makes me approach photography completely different than shooting digital.

Not to mention the tank-like indestructible build quality of the old Nikon's, today's DSLR's can't touch that.

I still shoot digital, mainly because of film and developing costs, but when I do, I shoot it as much like a film camera as I can: manual lens, no image review, no burst shooting. I try to get it how I want it out of the camera, instead of sitting in front of my computer messing with it for hours. That's for the birds. I no longer have the attachment to my DSLR that I used to have, not like I do to my film camera.

David said...

Is it ironic that I used my computer to read out this article using the Steven Hawking digital voice while listening to it in the bath?

Having had my digital equipment stolen from me over a year ago I have now reverted to the cheaper analogue equipment one can purchase on the online site everyone knows.

I started with a camera and a roll of film. After my local lab destroyed my film I then bought my own developer. After messing up either the exposure or the developing times, many rolls later I am finally getting closer to what I would expect of film and am enjoying the process much more than I ever have with film.
Are my pictures better?
Probably not, but I do get more shots I like from 38 exposures than I would have with the 300+ I would have with digital.

This puts at odds my day job of being a digital retoucher. Dealing with digital pictures everyday of varying degrees of expertise from the "pro" photographers it has dawned on me that my job is even more important for the new digital photographers working to make their mark in the digital age.

I strive to go the opposite direction to all of these people with my photography and enjoy every step I take in the analogue world.

Bravo on a great article and please keep it up.

Bruce Robbins said...

David,

I had to laugh at the idea of a voice robot reading a post out to you in the bath. We take so much technology for granted. I was sitting in McDonalds car park the other day with a coffee watching the satellite feed from the World Cup on my ipad via McD's wifi. When I was a teenager that would have been pure sci-fi.

Don't worry about your film images not being as good as the digital stuff. They'll get better and, as you know, the analogue process is so much more enjoyable and satisfying for guys like us than chasing pixels around a screen.

Anonymous said...

I'm considering scanning negatives to make enlarged negatives for carbon transfer or other alternative processes. Otherwise, the feeling I have when I've mastered a process, or simply just understand the materials enough to see the final image through the viewfinder is much more rewarding that sitting in front of a computer. As an interesting side-note, an acquaintance of mine is the manager of a portrait studio. They used Mamiya RB's with 645 backs and 6 exposure rolls of Kodak. Printed on a San Marco printer with El Nikkors. They taught non-photographers how to take good portraits of people. After switching to digital, the manager complained that there might be 2 or 3 good images out of 100 and seriously considered sticking in a small memory card. Just cranking out images is junk. Wedding photographers who used Speed Graphics and even 8x10's would present like a dozen images, generally all amazing. Now you look at the wedding with 500 4x6's taken from a dslr and weed through so much junk.. It's quality, not quantity. I'd rather have one amazing image, or twelve amazing images than a stack of diluted junk.

Jack said...

A very interesting article. I couldn't help but feel, however, that you were suggesting that the time and effort put into shooting film results in better ptohgraphers and better photography, seemingly because less dedicated photographers would be put off by the inconvenience of film? I am 23 and have been shooting exclusively on film for about 4 or 5 years now, and I don't really consider myself to be a very good photographer (not that I wouldn't like to be).

My point is that film cameras aren't really any less available to bad photographers than digital ones are.

Digital is more popular across the board, to good and bad photographers, because it's more convenient, a factor that you seem to want to completely dismiss.

Anyway, just know that I am mostly on your side here, I utterly love shooting film.

And I really love that shot of the window through the door, by the way.

Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks for your comment, Jack. My anti-digital rant is a personal opinion and I'm well aware I hold a minority view. I've freely admitted elsewhere in the blog that, purely in terms of the final image, I take more striking photographs with digital than film.

But the point is that I find the digital workflow to be one-dimensional, boring and repetitive. I love the film process - absolutely everything from choosing the film and developer right through to matting the darkroom print.

If I were a digital shooter then I'd be depriving myself of a huge amount of satisfaction and enjoyment even though the final image may be as good or better. Summing up, I'd say that digital imaging is like sex without the foreplay. :)

Donato Chirulli said...

Hi,
I'm on the opposite way as R.G.

I'm just starting back with analogic after 10 years of digital photography. I was an amateur in '70s/'80s and then lived my life without photography. In '2000s went back to photography and become a pro.... so I could be considered a digital photographer....but, after millions of digital images shot (and thousands published in book, magazines etc.), I felt the need of a more slow, intimate and thight psycological (and physical) approach to photography.
I believe that Image is Importantant (Type A), the way how it's produced is important (Type B) but.... Who thakes the shots is by far the most important.... (Type C..? ;-) )E.g. Michelangelo was (and considered himself as) a sculptor...but was forced (by the Pope) to be a painter..... He din't wanna be...but he was "Michelangelo"..so became one of the gratest painter ever, even if he didn't want to... ;-)

Deborah Darnell said...

Wholehearted support for your views! I feared I was the only one left who'd relished opening up the Kodak catalogue (worked at camera/photo shop when photography was 'real'), picking out a new filmstock to try out, deciding what speed to shoot at, how to develop it, what paper to use for prints...

Tech Pan (my true fave), Kodalith Ortho (did something extraordinary w/it once I've never seen replicated), Infrared B/W & color, Recording Film, etc. Oh how I miss the whole creative process, 1/2 imagination, 1/2 science..... As an archaeologist, I now perforce shoot digital (still and video) for documentation purposes, but only feel truly at home with film, and am working on projects that honor that, and what only film can offer.

To build on your analogy (24 July 2014), digital imaging = self-stimulation w/porn, film photography = making love w/one's soulmate. First may be quick, efficient, & get the desired result, but the second is about connecting and creating something unexpected and greater than the sum of the parts!

Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks for your comment, Deborah. You're certainly not alone. You do realise, though, that you've just called digital photographers a bunch of wankers!

Deborah Darnell said...

Oops :-/ It did occur to me, alas too late, that I ought to have clarified that the comparison was entirely personal. I have no idea what anyone else's relationship is with their art and chosen medium, and am not in a position to judge that at all. And I am certainly joined at the hip to my various HD cameras despite my joyful reverence for motion picture film.

Maybe I could've cited the difference between riding a horse and driving a sportscar? That also seems to capture it. To me, what photography used to be was fulfilling in intangible ways that I am still trying in vain to find in the digital world. Whether behind the lens or in the darkroom, I was always in 'flow' (see: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), that perfect balance of challenge and (at least perceived) competence, when one loses all concept of time.

The challenges in digital imaging are different and I don't always enjoy them. Mostly, though, I just thought the metaphor you advanced rang true and was too apt & amusing to ignore :-)