May 13, 2009

Film vs Digital: My Perspective

I admit it, I am an iconoclast by nature. What works for me, I use. I dislike change. After decades of shooting film stock and believing in it - the process, the images, the look. the feel, the very smell of the chromes - the change to digital imaging did not come easy. It comes down to a simple concept, analog vs. digital, a solid physical medium with palpable substance as opposed to the clinical 0's and 1's of digital encoding. One you can hold in your hands, feel and admire, while the other is an ephemeral object which does not exist in the physical world until the final print is executed.

A point of perspective. I was at a major dive operation, assembling my favorite outfit, a Nik III with a 15mm lens and old-style viewfinder, when I proudly told the resident photo pro, "This is my big animal machine." She looked at me and slowly, almost sadly, said, "Can you spell D-I-N-O-S-A-U-R?". Well, it took a bit of time but I have overcome that personal hurdle and am happy - no, thrilled with the change. I will explain why as concisely as possible.

1 - Image control. The latitude of 1/3 stop under or 2/3 stop overexposure when shooting chromes (positive transparencies) means you have to be pretty much spot on in your exposures. It is a great learning tool but so many otherwise potentially great shots end up in the round file. Shooting a RAW digital image allows 2 stops either direction, similar to shooting print film.

2 - An instant learning curve. The ability to review images immediately after shooting rather than waiting until arrival at home and retrieval of the images from the lab, both for exposure and composition, cannot be overstated.

3 - Post production capabilities. Rather than submitting a chrome to your client and trusting the editors and tech people to treat that image with the integrity it deserves, digital tools allow the photographer to maintain total control over the process of optimizing the image, ensuring the very best presentation of the work.

4 - Storage space. Instead of storing slides in slide sheets and binders often taking up many, many feet of shelf space in the office, we store images in space efficient hard drives. Even with proper caution of three duplicate drives, it is a no brainer.

5 - Image accessibility. With proper keywording (I use Lightroom), one can access images in seconds instead of going the tedious process of searching through dozens of binders, if not hundreds of them, trying to find that image you know you have but just can't seem to put your fingers on.

6 - Image numbers. For years we were limited to 36 exposures per camera system on a single dive forcing us to pick and choose subjects. Now, with a large capacity card and flexible high quality zoom lenses, we can shoot hundreds of images on a single dive, bracketing to our heart's content. Of course there is still the tedious editing process but that is a separate subject.

Which brings me to a story that will portray me as either laughable, truly dedicated or simply crazy; I will leave that determination to you. Years ago, when I had only a single Nik V, I used to dive the Frederiksted Pier in St. Croix on a regular basis shooting the incredibly rich macro subjects found both on the pilings of the pier as well as in the rubble of the floor. As it was both tiresome and time consuming swimming back to the base of the pier and clambering up the rocks, I used to carry an extra roll of film in my mask. After exhausting the first roll I would float on the surface in the lee of one of the pilings, rewind the film, open the camera and change film (all very carefully, of course), tuck the spent roll back in my mask and continue the dive. Man of man, do I love digital!

So, the final word. As much as I used to love film, shooting digitally has won me over completely. And, the quality of the final image? All I can say is this. I recently did a major installation at a facility, 24 images in 18 frames (32x46 inches minimum framed size), a mixture of film and digital. Side by side, even with some images shot on medium format 6x4.5cm film, the digital images shot with a Canon 5D won hands down. Just imagine the results with a high megapixel Hasselblad! I have even sold my last film camera, a Fuji G617 (6x17cm panoramic camera) because, after experimenting with stitching digital images into pans recently, they simply looked better. And, the file size of the digital image and the scanned chrome was comparable so ...

Even though it was done kicking and screaming, my transition is complete. I only wish it had happened sooner!