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Saturday, May 24

Film V Digital: A Counter Argument

A Gibson classic from his film days

My criticism of Ralph Gibson for ditching his beloved M film cameras in favour of a digital model has been my most controversial post by a mile. Even now, months after it appeared, I still get the occasional comment from readers wishing to give their side of the debate.

The latest to appear in my inbox is from Elliot - no surname - and it's so detailed and thoughtful that I thought I'd elevate it to post status. If someone is prepared to spend a fair bit of time writing a great comment, I want to make sure it's seen by as many people as possible and not just tagged on to the end of a four-month-old post.

I don't agree with Elliot's central premise that producing a good digital image is just as hard if not harder than arriving at a good film photograph (see this post) but that's just been my own experience and everyone enters the world of photography with a different set of skills.

Have a read of Elliot's well-argued position and see if you agree or not.

Sorry to disagree with Marc and others. 

To my mind there is no greater value in an image made via the analog route than a black and white image made via the digital route. One who cannot make memorable or even satisfactory images using film will NOT be able to instantaneously create memorable images using digital equipment. Crap is, after all, crap!

Many vastly underestimate the skill and experience needed to create a memorable digital black and white print. If the final print demands using computer skills via Photoshop or another program such skills are no less difficult to acquire than the skills necessary to dodge, burn, etc., etc., in the analog darkroom.

Some have argued that the ability to skillfully use PS is more difficult then using the tools available in the analog darkroom. Certainly there will be those who disagree and continue to think that editing in PS is simply a matter of pressing a few presets, making a mask or two, and then printing. I venture to say that those here who believe that editing digital files is as simple as making a few key strokes will be surprised at what skills are needed to edit a digital file so as to produce a print that one desires.

Having come from the analog LF world using 8x10, staining developers, contact prints, etc., etc. I can tell you first hand that the making of an excellent digital black and white print is much more than the rather perfunctory steps that many suggest.

If such makes one sleep better, feel free to think that the analog work flow is more difficult and more "manly" then the digital work flow. I wish Mr. Gibson would feel free to comment about such preconceived notions (I emailed my post to Ralph and said I'd print in full any response he'd care to make but there was no reply - Bruce).

If one can capture an image/file via the Monochrome, and the file incorporates the tones and scenic values that one desires, who cares how the file has been captured? 

If Mr. Gibson can produce memorable and excellent prints using his Monochrome and the digital paradigm who cares? Why berate him because he is using a tool that he finds the equal of film and silver paper?

We have no way of knowing if Adams, Weston, Capra, Cartier-Bresson, or any of the greats would have decided to use digital capture. However, I feel reasonably sure that IF they felt that their images with digital equalled the images made using analog then they might consider using both analog AND digital, or perhaps for convenience, switching to digital black and white when the situation allows.

For dedicated black and white photographers, the Leica M Monochrome has completely changed the "digital equation". The availability of advanced black and white pigment inks, ever improving digital papers, and evolving computer programs makes it possible to produce black and white prints with the tonal range and detail that either equals or comes extremely close to what can be accomplished using film and silver printing paper.

I for one can't help feeling that a photographer with the experience, bona fides, and obvious skill of Mr. Gibson would not be using the Monochrome if he wasn't convinced that his work with the digital Monochrome was in any way inferior.

Finally: Best to all on this Memorial Day weekend when the sacrifice of those who served in the Armed Forces is honored and remembered.



Regular Rod said...

Elliot has a point. Take a look at the work of Steve Barnett on Flickr

He uses film, the Monochrom and the new M all with equal aplomb, changing seamlessly between film in large, medium and small formats to B&W and Colour digital. He lets nothing stop him getting the results he wants and it shows favourably.

Film is great but so is digital...


Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks for the link, Rod. Some lovely pics although only a handful seem to be film so I'd say he's predominantly a digital guy - at least going by his photostream. I love the pic "Weir" which just happened to be a 6x6 shot. :)

Nasir said...

Chalk and cheese. They're both different. If someone gave you chalk that tasted like cheese would you eat it? They're both different. The workflow's are completely different. I say enough of the debating, use what you enjoy using and go out and make pictures. I'd be out now if it wasn't so miserably wet out there :-)

Mike said...

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Film V Digital: A Counter Argument":

Elliot makes some good points. I can find my way around Lightroom but layers and Photoshop are a foreign country. I know that I have the ability to learn its intricacies but lack the will. I'm sure that both darkroom and inkjet can produce stunning results.
The big question about digital for many is its reliance on hardware to make the photograph visible and the ever-changing nature of said hardware. The first digital photograph that I ever saw was captured onto a floppy disc - remember floppy discs? I have a license for Photoshop CS3 and have just tried to load it onto my new Macbook Pro. I can't load from the CD as the Mac has no CD slot (remember CDs?) and Adobe no-longer allow an online install (at least as far as I can tell). How long before all current digital files are unreadable by next generation machines?
With film at least you have a tangible negative that can produce a photograph using either traditional darkroom techniques or with the latest scanning machines of this or any future age.
A good discussion on archiving is currently taking place on Daniel Milnor's site (read the second post first)

Good to read the continuing debate, Bruce.


Doug H said...

The weakest link in the "digital is as good as analog" argument is the printing technology, ie Inkjet printers. They are mechanically/electrically constrained; and would require extensive nano-technology to approach parity. Currently, the only recourse is to either use a digital enlarger on silver gelatin paper, or conversion of digital file to film as with an LTV film recorder. Both routes are expensive so why not stay with film?

Elliot said...

I thank the moderator for posting my rather long response. Moreover, I am very pleased at the civil and friendly exchange of ideas that is occurring.

Doug's point is extremely relevant and deserves exposition. I have indeed noted that comparing an analog CONTACT print (which most of us will agree is probably the sharpest silver print that one can create )to a similarly sized analog print from the Monochrome reveals the digital print to lack some of the REALLY FINE DETAIL that one can see in the contact print. The lack of such detail is LESS well noted ( and I believe many would NOT notice ) from the normal viewing distance that one would use for 8x10 prints, but is to my eye reasonably easily seen when walking close to the digital print. Might I state however that unless one has some experience seeing well made contact prints that the differences might not be earthshaking, or even important.

I would also agree that the limiting factor in the digital printing (when evaluating fine details )paradigm is the printing head and the size of the ink drops.

I have studied-and continue to compare-prints made from a digital file made on an ink jet printer to prints made ( same size ) via scanning a negative into the digital work flow and used to make the same sized print. Such prints are made by colleagues of mine. As one might suspect the same limitations of the ink jet technology obtain. Hence I have some difficulty understanding why scanning a film image into the digital realm makes any sense at all-unless one wants to make a larger print from a smaller negative, does not have the darkroom facilities available, or simply finds composing an image easier on the ground glass or 120 viewing scree. I am not at all certain if such scanned negatives make prints that are at all superior to original digital capture of the same scene. Others will likely be able to comment with more facility and knowledge.

I have also taken the same LF 8x10 file and had the file scanned at high resolution via a well known and respected atelier which specializes in such techniques The digital file created was printed via analog using the digital enlarger that prints to Gallerie paper and uses chemicals to process. In the same workshop the file was printed to the same size on a large format Epson printer using Epson K3 inks. The prints were very close in both details and tonal range. Indeed,after seeing the two prints side by side, a very dedicated film photographer was moved to sell much of his analog gear. He is now using a Monochrome.

Elliot said...

Please bear with me just a bit longer. In order to keep my post within the accepted length I felt it best to create a separate post.

To my mind, the comments that point out that one can make excellent prints via both the analog AND the digital route was extremely relevant. Members of our Northern Florida Large Format Group feel the same way. The group is made up of an excellent platinum printer, several skilled analog printers, and some who use both analog and digital.Simply use the tools that are best for YOU, and create the best image that one possible can.

By all means stay with film if you enjoy the analog process. Moreover,35mm film is certainly convenient and easy to use. The availability of more films is exciting! However please understand that those photographers who utilize LF film might find that as one ages the ability to carry all of the LF gear becomes a bit more of a problem, and the efforts needed to develop and print such images can become arduous. Consequently, it is wonderful to be able to continue to produce excellent large format black and white prints using the digital paradigm and the Monochrome.

I must conclude by stating that the comparison of "files" ( film and digital images ) by viewing on a computer monitor is very misleading. Again as most of us might admit, viewing an image on the computer screen provides details and tonal range that are rarely IF EVER realized in the print.

One of course understand that the sharing of images via the internet dwarfs the number of images exchanged via a hard print. In such setting a digital file captured by most up scale "point and shoot cameras" available today will provide fine details and tonal separation that are amazing.

Anonymous said...

Am I correct here Elliot? You have taken an 8" x 10" film negative, scanned it and printed the result using both inkjet and analogue means?
If so I don't see the link between this and your colleague deciding to use a Monochrom. Did he also compare prints from a Monochrom with the prints from the 8" x 10" files?


Steve Mack said...

The final picture is everything. It stands or falls on its own. Nobody cares how hard you had to work in analogue or digital. The hours you put into the image are irrelevant to the observer. All that matters is the final image. We have both processes; use the one that resonates the most with you.

With best regards,


Bruce Robbins said...

"The hours you put into the image are irrelevant to the observer."

Up to a point, I agree. But I don't do it for the final viewer: I do it for my own enjoyment. Yes, I have a blog where people can see some of my pics but I'd still do things exactly the same way even if no-one ever saw them. A bit like Vivian Maier, I suppose.

And it would be a bit of a shame if the final image became so overwhelmingly important that one stopped enjoying the process leading up to it. I can produce similar results using film and digital but film is hugely more satisfying so it's an easy decision for me.

John Robison said...

I've never cared for digital, not because of it's comparison to silver halide, ie. being as good or not. And in regard to the darkroom, well I have never been any more than a hack printer with few skills.


It is the digital cameras I cannot stand. Power hungry little beasties designed by computer geeks.

Lemme describe MY ideal digital camera.

I unclip the back from my OM-1n, I clip on a digital back that is no thicker than the old data back. I grudgingly attach the power supply, about the size of the old power winder. The camera operates and feels right, an old friend. And glory be! A real focusing screen for all my manual focus Zuiko gems.

Then I awake and realize it was all just a dream and will never come true. So I shrug, load a roll of B&W, and go my merry way.

Anonymous said...

Bruce, as you no-doubt know, this post can now be read on leicaphilia


Nick Jardine said...

A few comments from Mike that I have some doubts about:

1) 'I have a license for Photoshop CS3 and have just tried to load it onto my new Macbook Pro. I can't load from the CD as the Mac has no CD slot (remember CDs?)'

- You can buy an external Apple USB superdrive, an option available via Apple's website store when you configure your purchase. (£65 in the UK). There are a host of cheap CD drives out there for anyone to buy from numerous online shops all for under £50, one at Curry's for £19.99. It's crazy to think that you're going to limit using a software programme worth £100's because you won't buy a cheap external CD drive. Where's the logic in that ?

2) 'How long before all current digital files are unreadable by next generation machines?'

- They never will be. There are countless cheap software options out there to convert image files as well as being able to do so in Photoshop. Since my time in using digital cameras - some 15 years, the Jpeg, TIFF, and PSD formats have always been around and joined a couple of years later by RAW. These are standard formats and as long as their is a demand for software conversion then software companies will always develop the necessary tools for conversion if it's even needed.

3) 'With film at least you have a tangible negative that can produce a photograph using either traditional darkroom techniques or with the latest scanning machines of this or any future age.'

- aren't scanners part of the digital age ? Not sure if you should be including them in the analogue camp ?

As for having a tangible negative, what happens if there isn't any silver gelatin paper manufactured anymore ? Or indeed, any chemicals produced to allow you to work in an analogue darkroom ? Surely there is more risk of this workflow being made obsolete before digital technology which is in the ascendency ?

I'm both a film and digital fan, brought up on film, moved to digital, then came back to film, much like Bruce's journey. I see the merits in both technologies and happily use them equally.

I just find your arguments don't stand up to the reality of both digital development, software technology nor the everyday reality that sees the vast majority of photographers, both amateur and professional, using digital cameras. For the likes of Canon or Nikon or indeed Adobe to make a wholesale change in file formats that would leave a vast catalogue of unreadable file formats would be industrial suicide on a swift and massive scale. It simply won't happen.

steve said...

Film v digital their both fine choices whatever floats you boat is my opinion.

I get the feeling 150 odd years ago the same agreement was going around about painting v Daguerreotype.

Bruce Robbins said...

I would probably have been in the painting camp. If I could paint I wouldn't bother with photography at all!

Anonymous said...

Nick, like you I use film and digital. I too see the benefits of digital photography but I do worry about the need of a plug to be able to see digital capture: not so much now, but for future generations.
Yes, I can buy a CD reader at this moment in time; but how about in 10 years time? What will happen to our collective digital archive: the history of the early 21st century, as technology marches forward and what was commonplace gets left behind. Remember VHS tapes? How many of us have still got a VHS player?
If silver halide paper stoops being produced I can coat my own and at least get an image from a negative. I will be able to scan it using the latest scanner that has not even been invented yet.

The advantage of film is that it is low tech. It can take advantage of whatever image capture happens to be available and the photograph can live again.

The advantage of digital is that multiple copies can be made and saved.

I'll probably end up using digital more than film, but I still think that for any photograph to stand a chance of survival it needs to exist not as a negative or a digital file but as a print. That way someone just may like it and keep it.

You make some good points, Nick, and I agree with many of them. Having photographs in ephemeral form just make me nervous.


Steve Mack said...

And in the end, the whole process is fun for me, since I have the good fortune to be an amateur. My film camera favourite is a Contax IIa I picked up about 3 months ago. I process, but don't print (yet) my B/W film, and I have hopes of someday setting up a darkroom. I have far more film prints than digital. But digital has its place too.

Anonymous said...

Adding to the debate is this test of Leica MM and M6.


Thomas Rice-Smyth said...

Give Ralph a break… He’s had a long association with Leica and the ‘Limited Edition M-Monochrom’ is nothing new as an example his ‘Ralph Gibson Signature Leica MP’ which is still available on his website.

As for him switching to the dark side and using an M-Monochrome I’m not sure I have seen anywhere that he is going to shoot exclusively with it.

I have been a huge fan of his for the last 40 plus years and during that time he has switched from atmospheric b&w such as in the 1970 Somnambulist ( ) to more extreme b&w and then the use of colour such as ‘Brazil’. I also realise that his work has been characterized by very high contrast and grain. The grain being so prevalent that it absorbs, surrounds and can at times define the essence of the image.

If his intention is to use the M-Monochrome exclusively I think we should wait to see what he does with it. If he just imports his images into photoshop and applies a ’Ralph Gibson filter’ to them then I think it would be time to question his motives. But if he does as many artist do explore a new medium and in this case digital, so what! We can then make judgments and comparisons based on new work.

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