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Friday, March 27

Analogue is NOT digital


A reader known only as LCL left an interesting comment last week to my post A Less Beautiful Ralph Gibson that rekindled the old "analogue is digital" argument. The gist of it was, to quote LCL,
"People seem to have missed the reality that film is also digital, the data is just stored in a different way. 
"The numbers are represented by dark/lightness of a tiny spot on the film, and the same for the print. If you convert a digital file to a film negative, it has simply been downgraded to a different way of representing the numbers. 
"So if you like breathing chemicals and doing your digital the old slow way, I'm sure nothing I say will stop you."
Well, LCL, you're certainly right as far as your last paragraph is concerned - apart from breathing chemicals! For anyone who hasn't experienced darkroom work then be assured that "breathing chemicals" shouldn't really be something that you have to put up with nowadays. Not only are extractor fans quite cheap but most of the chemicals are now odour-free - or as near as makes no difference - and shouldn't be hazardous at all unless you have a condition that leaves you particularly sensitive to something, such a metol which can cause skin problems in some people.

However, LCL's argument has always sounded intuitively wrong to me. Intuition isn't necessarily a bad way of doing science as many a hunch has gone on to become an accepted theory or at least a pretty good working hypothesis but it's not much of a reason for rebutting his or her statement.

Someone who is in a position to do so - at least to my satisfaction - is Mark Smith whom some of you may know from his Photo Utopia blog or his postings on the Rangefinder Forum. Mark spent some time back in 2008 looking at this in detail after reading a similar "film is binary" claim from none other than Michael Reichmann of Luminous Landscape fame. Michael seems a nice guy and is a "name" on the internet but Mark wasn't going to let that get in the way!

Mark said,
"Here's what's wrong with Michael Reichmann's essay. Film grains are not binary, not even close. They actually are made up of millions of silver particles that when looked at closely resemble a wire wool pad.
"The more photons of light that strike the grain the denser the filamentary structure becomes and the amount of light passed by that structure varies, the structure also develops randomly.
"In his book The Fundamentals of Photography C.E.K Mees states, 'Any silver deposit in the negative will let through a certain proportion of the light which falls upon it. A very light deposit may let through half the light, a dense deposit one-tenth, a very dense deposit one-hundredth or even only one-thousandth'. 
"I think Mr Reichmannn has made the common mistake of confusing the silver atoms that move towards the sensitivity specs with the grains themselves, coupled with not realising that those grains are not opaque and that according to all the text books even the darkest grain will pass some light."
I'd encourage you to visit Mark's blog and check out his "Chumps and Clumps" post which is the same name Michael gave to his original article.

If LCL reads this then he might like to come back in case there is another argument out there backing his assertion. Of course, any other readers with an opinion one way or another are welcome to pile in underneath in the comments.

12 comments :

Brucepalmbeach said...

Erwin Puts puts this into clear focus pardon the pun. In his recent columns on Tao of Leica, celluloid and curves. This is why analog is more pleasing and interesting.

Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks. I'll check that out.

Regular Rod said...

"Film is Digital"? Not really. Digital is the equivalent of shading in tiny squares on a piece of graph paper. Film is the equivalent of microscopic pointillism with no restrictions on where the dots (les points) can fall.

RR

Joe Iannandrea said...

If folks want to use digital that's fine. I don't think anyone's asking them to justify their choice, so I have to wonder what motivates someone to stretch logic to its limit and beyond just to make the case that they're essentially the same. One clue, I think, lies in the number of apps and other products available on the market designed to make digital images look more analog. A second is that I've never seen a single film photographer trying to liken their medium to digital.

DavidM said...

I suppose the link is that both forms of recording may be reduced to a series of dots, randomly placed in one case and gridded in the other. A random distal sensor might well offer advantages and who knows? Someone may be constructing one as we speak.
I can't believe that people can differ quite so much over what can only be seen with a microscope. Surely the difference must lie elsewhere, in other features of the respective processes? It might be more productive to clarify what those differences are, and which of them are significant.
And may I suggest that most peoples' experience of photographic images is from books or screens; few of us see darkroom prints as often as we see the other kinds. I haven't heard similar objections to photographs in books even though today they all involve digital production and the ink dots are gridded as much as the pixels on a difgital camera.

Richard Owen said...

I admire those who feel comfortable in the wet darkroom vs. digital darkroom. I never became proficient in a wet darkroom and I started my photo experience in 1978. It would be over 20 years before I shifted to digital but, with my background in electronics, I feel comfortable playing around in the digital darkroom. I still shoot Tri-X and do my own developing but enjoy scanning and printing digitally using Jon Cone's Piezography inks.

MartyNL said...

Analogue is "cotton" and digital is "polyester".

You can wear them both but I know which I prefer!

MorseBlog said...

One I suppose can argue this to the nearly infinitesimal as once you get to a silver halide molecule or a silver atom you are now binary. Not sure I care. I have worked in the electronics industry for over 30 years. Digital has made easier what use to be craft in many areas from printing and publishing to photography. In most areas digital has made us put up with lower levels of quality in exchange for lower cost or convenience. One merely has to sit on a Skype call or listen to MP3 music to see this. Digital photography democratized photography to the point that it is much harder to be a professional photographer. At the same time it has taken the craftsmanship out of it and for me becomes boring. The mark of a good hobby (or profession) is one that takes years to master and understand. For a hobby it should always provide challenges for anyone regardless of ability. I have recently joined 500px and see the over-processed images there and while initially exciting they quickly become sickly sweet eye candy with saturation, HDR or whatever the current trend is. And my goodness how many more images of Antelope Canyon, the Wave, Delicate Arch, etc do we really need. (Sorry I must be grumpy this evening!)

John Robison said...

Digital is nothing without considerable computer processing power. Just a string of data. Silver halide forms a recognizable image, even as a negative, no computer necessary. Even a simple person like me can understand the principal behind making a picture.

DavidM said...

Skills do not evaporate as technology moves on. They move further upstream. Once upon a time, if you wanted to decorate your cave, you had to go out (if you could find the time) and discover some coloured rocks. Then you had to grind them to a powder between two flat stones and mix them with something. If you weren't content with finger painting, you had to make brush by chewing the right sort of twig in the right sort of way.
Plenty of hard-won skills there, you might think. Do we think that all those skills mean that painting is the summit of achievement?
Similarly, in the darkroom, few people make their own film or, coat their own paper, apply their own Bitumen of Judea, or mine and refine their own silver. Does anybody chop down the right sort of tree and make their own paper? We stand at the end of a very long chain of skilled operations.
It's easy to lose sight of this and we should remember, with gratitude, the shoulders that we so proudly stand on.
And in any case, apart from the fun that the picture-maker gets, how much does it matter? We've all seen some very dreary images made on "real" materials.
"Democratisation" is another matter. It has happened before, with the introduction of the Brownie. No doubt the same comments were made then.

morris1800 said...

"Analogue is not Digital" ? Would it be okay to simply say when I scan my film negs or prints, to share with others. They still look and feel like the original film image. Converting to pixels doesn't lose the film 'look' . Just a convenient way to share your analogue images.

DavidM said...

Perhaps Morris1800 has hit on a significant truth.
If digital imaging per se were the culprit, then scanning an image would introduce the digital "feel" to an image. As Morris points out, the difference remains after digitisation. We can deduce from this that it's nothing to do with things like the surface finish of a wet print.
I suggest that this difference may be due to the responses of the sensitive surfaces used in each system. If you look at the curve of film, you'll see that it's not ideal. The toe and shoulder flatten out, distorting and compressing the film's response to light. The response of a digital sensor is much more satisfactory – much "truer".
However, generations of photographers have learned to turn this "defect" into an advantage, aided by generations of physicists, chemists and engineers. It means that film can contain extended highlight and shadow detail, which can be put to good use in the darkroom or even on the film scanner. See how converting an inherently coloured digital image to black and white produces a different effect from converting a coloured world via film.
I'm not a technician, so if somebody knows more than I do, I'd be delighted to hear what they have to say.

A footnote: I should have said in an earlier post "...mean that CAVE painting is the summit..." Apologies for careless proof reading.