The Debate Is Dead?

It’s been a busy, busy week and so I’m late with my blog post. Plus,  I knew what I wanted to post about, but needed a bit more time to mull it over to make sure my ‘assessment’ of the situation sat ok with me. So, finally, here I am. Better late than never? ;o)

While in lived in New Zealand (2003 – 2009), I  belonged to a couple of camera clubs. One was focused on nature photography, the other, a typical camera club. The latter camera club was quite large and a well-established one that had been around for many decades. I learned a lot during the time I was a member there. I was just really getting back into photography after about a 20 year hiatus. I finally had the time and money, after being a student for 150 years, to put into photography. The club has a pretty serious focus on competitions and so the ‘feel’ of the club is quite different from others that don’t have competitions. For me, the competitions were great for learning, but once I got to a certain point, I found their benefit dimished. But that’s a whole other debate for later.

Bird foot prints in the sand. This image has not been colour-enhanced. This is what it looks like on the slide. Cool light in winter, late in the day, resulted in the purple sand.

I was a member of this particular camera club at a time when digital was really just coming in. Sure, digital had been around for a little while, but digital SLR cameras were insanely expensive, about 2-3 MP, and just were not mainstream. Some pro-photographers owned them and 2MP point and shoots were just really starting to find their place in the consumer market. It was the beginning – the very, very beginning of the digital revolution. If you plotted a graph of the number of the digital cameras sold per year, at that point in time, we’d be on the line, just as the curve was barely starting its upward climb. Ya, I mean really at the beginning.

One of the things that amused, irritated and intrigued me at that time, were the discussions going on in our camera club. The “Big Debate” (film vs. digital) was just beginning to play out. Over the next few years, that debate became front and centre in our club and probably most camera clubs around the world. How could it not? Photography, as we had known it for over a hundred years, was on the cusp of changing in a huge way. And people don’t take kindly to sea change. As a scientist, I’m well acquainted with ‘theory tenacity’, which in a nutshell, means that people don’t really like big changes or new ideas (not even scientists). It’s a deeply ingrained human trait. Anything that goes against conventional thinking is viewed with suspicion. It makes me picture people with squinted eyes and furrowed brows. That look of, “Mmmm….. I’m not so sure about this.” As a scientist, I also think that constructive and healthy debate is good. Not just good, but necessary. We should look critically at new technology, ideas, trends, etc. But we should also keep an open mind. I remember being astounded at the fervor of the debates and conversations people were having at the camera club, about digital vs. film. I was also quite surprised by how many people were so adamantly opposed to digital, saying it would NEVER be as good as film. That the quality of slide film would always outperform anything that digital SLR’s could offer. My philosophy with nearly everything in life is ‘never say never’. I keep an open mind. I’m wary and critical in a healthy way. As the saying goes, ‘be open-minded, but not empty-headed’. But the first step is to (even cautiously) consider that something new might actually have value, maybe even a lot of value. I guess narrow-mindedness is a huge pet-peeve of mine, for many reasons, and so when this digital vs. film debate was at its peak, I just couldn’t get my head around folks saying that digital would never, ever out-perform film. I was also amazed at how intense and nearly acrimonious some of these debates and discussions became. But hey, when over 100 years of a certain way of doing things is about to change forever, I guess people can get pretty passionate about things.

Likewise, summer sun late in the day bathed the beach sands in orange and yellow. I have punched this up a TINY bit compared to the original slide, but only to bump up contrast to give it punch. The colours have not been manipulated and I have not ramped up the saturation way up.

So, fast forward to 2011. Is the debate still going on? Are people still arguing about film vs. digital? What do you think? My feeling is, it’s a done deal. It’s all a moot point now. Go to a camera club meeting these days and does the word “film” even get mentioned? Maybe it does when one is reminiscing about the ‘old days’. ;o) But seriously. It was an intense debate at one point. So how did things turn out? What’s the ‘answer’ here? Obviously, the answer is highly personal. Each photographer has their own opinion, and rightly so. But if we look at the numbers – number of digital point and shoots sold annually, number of digital SLR’s sold annually, number of roles of film sold or developed annually. What do the numbers say? I haven’t taken the time to Google it and find the exact numbers. To be honest, I don’t think I need to. I think the results are so overwhelmingly clear that we don’t need exact numbers to see what’s happened. In a nutshell – digital won out.

Again this what the slide looks like. I have changed the hue or greatly ramped up the saturation. I find with scanned slides, I have to really ramp up the contrast a lot as well as using levels or curves to give the image punch. That's my biggest complaint with slides - great for subtle things, but the images really lack that punch and vibrance. They just don't pop the way digital images do.

Sure, folks still shoot film. I still own a film camera – a Mamiya 645 medium format. Haven’t used it in a while although I keep meaning to (but the film is harder to get and developing expensive and more importantly, you don’t get the immediate feedback that you do with the LCD screen on a digital camera). Medium format film is still good. The larger film size brings with it the benefits of greater resolution. But is medium format film still better than your average digital SLR? In my opinion, no. I think they might be equals or in some cases, digital is still better. And for a number of reasons. Quality? Maybe they’re equals, maybe they’re not. I’m still sitting on the fence on that one and not sure which bum cheek should get the sliver.  All the other benefits of digital, in my opinion, mean that digital – as the overall package – wins. I’m speaking for myself here. Others may feel differently and I welcome any comments or opinions on this topic. But I suspect the debate really is over, that the discussion would be pretty quiet. Camera clubs don’t debate film vs. digital anymore. Rather, they debate how many megapixels one really  needs to get that amazing image quality. The debate has moved on.

For me, all of this thinking about the debate over film vs. digital resurfaced because I recently borrowed a Nikon Coolscan film scanner from a friend. I have a huge slide collection and wanted to digitize some of it so I could use it. I hate the fact that I don’t see those images and that they sit in a drawer. I’ve pretty much weeded out a reasonably small number of ‘keepers’ from the reams of slides I have. And those are the ones I thought I’d scan and hopefully do something with. But I’m just not sure anymore. The slide scanner I’m using is a very good one. It’s not a flatbed scanner, but a dedicated slide/film scanner. I’m scanning at about 2900 ppi and my files are anywhere between 35 and 65 MB, depending on whether I scan as a jpeg or tiff, 8 bit or 16 bit. I’ve optimized the captures for image quality. But you know…. even after all that, I’m really  not that impressed. I look at my slides and think, “Enh…..”. They don’t tickle my brain. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m being too hard on them. But they just look different. I prefer digital.

Taken in subtle light, but is still lacking something. Even digital images taken in dull or subtle light have a certain 'punch' to them that film lacks.

The first think I noticed was that they lacked the ‘pop’ of digital – that punch, that contrast, that zing. I looked at my slides on a light table and at the window, just to make sure it wasn’t an artifact of the scanning process. Nope, not really.  And it’s not that my slides were stored improperly. I always stored them in archival-quality sleeves, in a dry, cool place, free of humidity, etc., etc., etc.  My conclusion was…. that film just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. I’m disappointed in film. When I was shooting it, it was fine. It’s all we had. And I always shot low ASA/ISO to avoid graininess, unless I specifically wanted the grain for effect. But now, I’m disappointed. When I look back on it all, I’m really thankful for digital. It suites me really well.

Am I going to finish scanning my ‘keepers’? Yup, I am. But in looking at the results, I think I’m a lot less likely to do as much with them as I first anticipated. I have some slides from places that I will likely never see again – like the Chatham Islands of New Zeland. Heck, the Chathams are a place that most people don’t ever see! But it’s’ a unique place, with a unique story and I would like to scan those slides for a bit of writing and storytelling to go along with them. But as for my slides of the Canadian sub-arctic, of the American southwest, of my 5 months working as a biologist on the very tops of the Colorado Rocky Mountains chasing ‘mountain chickens’? I need to get back to those places. I need new images. I need to photograph them with the technology available today. Maybe I’m being picky, but I just feel like I need another kick at the can.

I like the patterns and colours here, but wish it just popped a bit more. If I try to bump up the contrast or vibrance anymore, then the image ends up looking overcooked.

One thing that confounds my opinion of my slide images (to a certain extent, but doesn’t explain all of my disappointment with film) is that the overall quality of my photographs has improved. Not just technically, but artistically and compositionally. I’m a better photographer than I was back then. And so I should be, if the old adage, ‘practice makes perfect’ is really true. But I think my development as a photographer isn’t solely limited to practice. I feel it’s due in part, to the much faster, more efficient learning we do with digital. We get immediate feedback by looking at the LCD screen. With film, I’d get gung-ho once in a while and record all of the settings (what we now call metadata) for each frame on a roll of 36. But that became ‘old’ really quickly and after a few rolls, I’d be back to my lazy ways of not recording the info. And even if I did record it, I’d have to wait several days to weeks to get my film developed (depending on how much money I had on hand). And then I had to block out a chunk of time to sit down with my slides and my notes and see what worked and what didn’t. I did do some bracketing, but I also tried to get it right the first time. But I never knew until I got my film developed and that lag time in between does not facilitate efficient learning. I know that old slide shooters with years of experience could dial in a manual setting and nail the exposure first crack. Those people spent years if not decades shoot film and slides. But for those of us who were learning at the time, it was both painful and slow. Not with digital. I learned more with digital than I ever did, in all the years with my film cameras. And I could afford to shoot crappy images in the name of experimentation. As a result, my images have improved dramatically (I’m not saying I’ve reached the pinnacle – I still have a lot to learn). But my images are better and far, far more creative than they ever were. Frankly, with film, I couldn’t afford to be creative. Literally, I could not afford the amount of film and developing necessary to let my creative skills flourish. Not so with digital.

So what’s the bottom line? For me, I think the debate is long gone. It’s over. It’s all a moot point now. Digital is IT. There is still a place for film with a limited number of shooters. But mainstream is digital. Hands down. And what have we learned from watching this (re)evolution happen before our eyes? For me, it just emphasizes that we need to be open-minded. Embrace technology to the point that suits you. But don’t just look down your nose as something because it’s new and different. Not every piece of new technology is some magic bullet. Pick and choose what suits you. But at least consider what it has to offer to you. Regardless of whether we’re talking cameras or anything else in life, narrow-mindedness just doesn’t pay. The world is our oyster so crack open the shell and enjoy what’s inside!

A Footnote: During the height of the film vs. digital debate, for those who were all for digital, how many turned to their film colleagues several years later and said, “I told you so!” ;o)

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Filed under Creative Photography, learning, lessons learned, Opinion, Philosophy, technique

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