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!
"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.