Friday, April 22, 2011

Digital vs. Film: The Process of Taking Pictures

Yesterday's musings about moving on from Olympus, and whether to buy Nikon digital or film, prompted me to sit down and think about something more fundamental than brand, and that's the medium to use for photography, especially in this day and age. So I sat down and drew up some simple process charts, little things with bubbles and arrows, that broke down the process of photography into discrete steps that are still high enough to convey the overall idea.

Why would I do this? To better understand what I want to do, and to get a rough idea of whether film is still an affordable proposition, both in money and in time.

The first flow is for full-on digital photography. I've broken down the steps into two broad categories, those steps that will essentially occur just once (purchase of camera equipment and post processing software) and everything else.

These processes are drawn with some assumptions. They are:
  • For digital, we're talking any camera sophisticated enough to produce sophisticated output. That can be RAW or very high quality JPEG. No cellphone cameras, thank-you-very-much.
  • For film, any camera that accepts 35mm or 6cm color slide film.
  • Only slide film is considered, and it will be scanned to digital.
  • You already own a computer capable of running the post-processing software. So don't write to me about the cost of the PC.
  • I ignore yearly updates to software. Some people will update, some never beyond the initial purchase, and some will only update when it makes sense (meaning they will skip one or more update cycles).
  • Insurance and maintenance for camera equipment are ignored for this discussion.
  • I'm going to post process my photographs whether they are taken with a digital camera or if they're scanned from slide film.
And now, without further delay...

I have learned (rightly or wrongly) the essential steps as illustrated above. I will comment on what I mean, thusly:

  • Purchase Camera Equipment and post-processing software. The steps are in parallel, but separate, for a reason. When you purchase a 'serious' digital camera, most brands will include limited capability post-processing software. You either accept that and buy something better later, or you can listen to the sale clerk's siren song where you buy your camera and buy something beefier. Either way, you wind up with something. Depending on what camera and software you purchase, you spend anywhere from lots to lots and lots of money.
  • Determine photography tasking. An engineer's way of draining all the mystery and romance out of deciding what photos to take. Bottom line is you have a goal. That goal includes sub goals that boil down to who, what, when, where, and how, and any necessary planning. Like writing a story. If you don't have a goal, then why bother? That includes the noisy ones who say they photograph spontaneously. Like spontaneous combustion. Spontaneity is your goal.
  • Execute photography tasking. Again, draining all that is holy and wonderful out of the act of photography. It's the collective acts, at a minimum, of identifying the subject, composing, and then taking the photo. It also serves as a connective node in the process.
  • Examine photographs in camera. A.k.a. chimping. One key feature contemporary digital cameras provide is the ability to check the shot right after it's taken. You can examine it as a photo or you can check its overall exposure through the photo's histogram. It's a key feature that film cameras don't provide. Why is it important to chimp? Because its insurance to make sure you got what you really wanted. If it's not, you have a chance to try again before moving on.
  • Post process. It's the digital equivalent to developing negatives and making prints in a darkroom. Post processing can be as simple as moving the photos off the camera to the computer to as complicated as the software will allow. This is where that computer and expensive post-processing software come into play. Depending on if your digital photos are RAW or JPEG, there's a tremendous amount you can do with the image out of the camera. I've processed both (and continue to process both).
  • Finished. This is where you can stop and enjoy the fruits of your labors. At this point you can upload to fora across the Internets, send them off to be converted into prints, t-shirts, coffee mugs, etc, or just examine them on your computer monitor.
Now let's see how film photography (might) fit in.

The differing steps between digital and film are outlined in light red. For digital, the biggest difference is the ability to check the results immediately after taking the photo via the camera itself. You can't see the final results of a film photograph until you've developed the film. And to prepare it for post processing you then have to have the film (in this case, the slide) scanned into a digital format (either DNG or JPEG) for digital post processing. Chimping on digital cameras reduces the risk of failure, the failure of not getting the shot. Because of my background as well as my advancing years, I have become very risk-averse. Digital photography strongly appeals to that.

The other major step is purchasing the film. You're going to purchase film depending on what you decided to do in the tasking step, and  you're going to do it every time you go out. You may buy enough to cover this step multiple times, which reduces the purchase to a selection from existing stocks. But it doesn't hide the fact that film is a consumable resource, unlike a digital storage card, which is renewable (via simple erasure).

And finally, you're going to wind up with physical media after the develop step, either negatives or slides. Slides you can easily view via transmitted light (projector or lightbox). I choose to scan to a digital format because I don't want to have to make prints (contact or otherwise) from negative film. Physical media collects rapidly and demands proper storage it you intend to keep it for some period of time. Photographs, slides and negatives can be so ephemeral if you're not careful. So proper (i.e. archival) storage can be another unexpected and burdensome step.

On the surface it appears there aren't that many significant differences between using a digital camera vs a film camera. And if we were to stop at the diagrams, you'd be right. However...

The dirty little secret I harbor is I already have a good film camera, an OM-4T, with a nice collection of lenses. I have used all those lenses at one time or another on the E-1, E-3, and E-P2 bodies with suitable adapters. The problem is shooting film.

Since January of this year I've purchased exactly two rolls of 36 exposure Velvia. I've loaded one roll into the OM-4T. The film counter has been siting at '1' ever since. The other roll is still sealed, pristine, in its box. Why won't I shoot film? Is it because the OM-4T is horrible?

The reason I won't shoot film and will shoot digital is the immediacy of digital. With digital I can take the results from the camera at any time, day or night, and begin to work with my photographs. Film is not that way.

I can't process Velvia (or any film type) so I have to drop it off and wait for the finished results. That means I have to go somewhere during business hours, drop it off, wait for it to be processed, then go back at a later time during business hours and pick it up, then go home and finish up. I've reached a point in my life where I hate that. Call me feckless and lazy, but I don't think I'm alone in this attitude. Before I drop a dime on any "serious" film camera gear, I'm going to have to overcome this mental block.

As I wrote yesterday I've got a set of goals I'm working towards, goals I hope to accomplish by December. One extra goal I will add to the list is to learn to embrace and enjoy film photography again. While the process diagrams don't convey this, going back to film is going to require a fundamental shift in my attitude towards photography. I'm going to have to learn to trust my pre-visualization skills again as well as re-learn discipline, skills I once had but have lost in this age of digital photography.

Will it make me a Better Photographer? Who knows? All I do know at this point is I better find out before I sink any more money into film gear, or it's going to wind up sitting in the back of my drawer next to the OM gear I currently own. And that's truly unaffordable.


  1. One way to deal with the processing delay issue is to just shoot B&W and process it yourself. For B&W, I think I like the look of film better anyways.

    Then again, regardless of whether I'm shooting B&W or Color, I now always scan it myself. Why? Even at the better places, the default scan-while-processing option produces results noticeably sub-par to what I can do on my own gear. Unlike your average back-in-the-day point-and-shooter, I actually do hold my film photography to the same standards as modern digital. As such, it only holds up if I use both good film and good scanning.

    That being said, there are a variety of good negative (print) films also worth using, even if you're going to just wind up scanning them. Print films have higher exposure latitude, which makes them more forgiving of imperfection. For B&W, my current favorite is Fuji Acros 100 (or Kodak Tri-X 400, depending on the look I want). For color, Kodak's new Ektar 100 gives you that same fine-grain punch you'd normally need to shoot Fuji Velvia (slide film) to get.

    Of course now you have another cost factor to consider... Quality scanners aren't cheap, and aren't that easy to find anymore either. But for anything medium-format or smaller, my Nikon Coolscan 9000 will blow the socks off of the usual processing-shop auto-scan and any cheap(er) flat-bed scanner. (yes, I can get usable 60MP scans off medium-format Fuji Velvia and Kodak Ektar) Of course scanning is still a time-consuming pain in the butt.

    P.S. While a bit more tedious to use, my smaller 35mm-only Nikon Coolscan V is up for grabs, if interested.

  2. Interesting analysis and presentation.

    Regarding film, I'm with Octo most of the way. I use slide film only on extremely rare occasions, and none of those have happened in almost a year. Right now a roll of Provia 400X, my transparency of choice, is almost $10 @B&H, while Ektar 100 costs $4.50 for 135 and even less in 120 format. E-6 processing is also more expensive.

    Where I differ is in using C41 process film only; that said I do have a good-quality lab across the street from where I work, and another near my home. I can duck out, drop off a few rolls, and have them done by the afternoon. I then do all of my own scanning, using a Nikon V for 135, and a cheap flatbed with a good holder for 120. I'd love a Nikon 9000, and if I stop buying cameras, maybe I could afford one.

    I've standardized on three films:

    Ilford XP2 (iso400) for black and white, in both 135 and 120 formats. This has a somewhat different look than traditional B&W (the grain is backwards) but captures great tones and scans reliably.

    Ektar 100 for 135 colour. It's very similar to slide film, and its colour response changes with overexposure which can give an unusual creative control. It's too fickle for my MF cameras, though.

    Portra 400 for 120 colour, and soon as a 'high speed' option for 135. I typically over expose it by one-third to a full stop, and can't tell the difference in the results. Bulletproof and rewarding.

    It is easier to deal with slide film only because it gives an original colour reference. Getting the colour balance on film scans can be a real pain, and while negatives aren't any more difficult than slide, at least they don't need a machine to interpret them.

    I haven't used a digital camera for my Serious Fun photography in almost a year; snapshots and product shots remain (mostly) digital. After my last big outing, I have to say that there weren't any big surprises from the ten rolls of film. I knew what the finished photo would look like as I was taking it, correctly predicted which would be the two best, and didn't take a bunch of photos that I knew would flop just from thinking about what I saw in the viewfinder.

    That's not to say that I didn't come home with plenty of duds and a scarcity of masterpieces – that remains a result of the photographer, and doesn't change with the camera.

    What I have found is that the number of good photos that I produce has more to do with the time I spend than the number of exposures that I take. I've learned that I can't compare frame-for-frame costs between different formats, whether film or digital. Whether it's 9-on-120 or 36-on-135, a roll ends up around $10 and will give three or four photos that I'm pleased with, and about as many that I'll consider decent. Of course digital has no direct costs – and the computer and data demands can be greater with film – but I take better than a hundred photos with my D700 in the same amount of time and end up with the same number of good images.

    Between those two things – negative film for lower costs and a realistic estimate of how much film I'll actually use – I find that the consumables are fairly reasonable. I'm certainly not about to leave behind all of the benefits of digital photography, but the expenses of film don't stop me from using the cameras – and medium – that I prefer.


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