Back to the past

Like many, I learned the basics of photography before the digital age. Pause while I put on the sunglasses of nostalgia. With the glasses on, I remember the thrill of unpacking the film from its cardboard and plastic containers, fiddling to load the film without exposing too much leader, and hoping to squeeze an extra frame if I was using black and white, which I would later develop myself.

Only 36 shots on a roll, so I had to make every one count. Even so, with slide film I’d bracket either side of the measured exposure which would often result in only 12 unique photos from every roll. The film speed was given but we all had our favourite adjustments to get the results we wanted. Professionals would buy batches of film manufactured at the same time and expose one roll to test the proper settings for that batch. Colour print film had a wide exposure latitude, forgiving any minor errors in exposure (which is why wedding photographers used it). Slide film, and to a lesser extend black and white film, had to be accurately exposed or compensation applied at the processing stage. It had to be a consistent exposure variation for the whole film so we had to decide in advance. Many, including me, had two camera bodies loaded with different films just in case. My preference was for slide and black and white.

When I started, lenses were all manual focus. Film cameras had a great focusing screen with a split prism that made focusing easy in most situations. As my main interest was landscape, there was no need for lightning fast focusing. Part of the appeal for me was the slow, methodical approach and the actual taking of the photograph was almost secondary.

Then, once the snaps had been taken, there was the delay in seeing the results while the films went off for processing. Sometimes, if I was on holiday, I might have to wait up to two weeks to see the final prints or slides. Black and white film was slightly better as I’d process it myself and this could be done overnight. But then, all I’d have was tiny negatives until I printed off the images I wanted. I got good at assessing photographic potential from these tiny reversed images.

And here is where the nostalgia goggles start to leak reality.

I didn’t always develop the black and white films immediately after taking the photographs. Once I left college and the convenience of darkrooms set up and ready to go, I sometimes waited until I had two or three films to do. And then, I sometimes waited until I had more. It was all about the darkroom. At first, it was in my bedroom and had to be set up and put away every time I wanted to use it. And then I set it up in the garden shed and it was cold, damp and uncomfortable. So I started using less and less black and white, which was actually my favourite medium.

Slides came back from the processor in boxes and to view them properly I had to set up the projector. Which meant loading up the magazine in just the right way so that the projected images were the right way up and the right way around. It took time and was fiddly, so I got a smaller viewer for checking the results. And it was more convenient but no one else saw them.

The prints from print film stayed in their wallets and only occasionally got put in albums. I have some of those albums still on my bookshelf. They look impressive but I can’t remember what’s in them. I have sent for recycling more photos that I can remember.

One day, I bought a digital camera. The quality of the results weren’t the best but they were instant and that appealed to me. This meant I could retake the photo straight away rather than wait until I was next in the area. I could see the pictures on my computer and I could edit them without having to go out to the shed dressing in several layers of warm clothing. I didn’t have to breathe in chemicals and wait for the negatives to dry, all the while hoping no dust got on the wet film.

With the nostalgia goggles fully removed, I confess that I sold up all my film gear and went digital and never looked back. I have no regrets in doing this and I think it rekindled my interest in photography. I made the decision when I saw the results from a 6mp Fuji DSLR and for me, the moment when digital quality surpassed analogue quality was when I got my Nikon D300. Not only can I check the results (and for those who would never stoop to such crass activity are missing one of the main advantages of digital technology), but I can change film type and sensitivity without having to worry about rewinding a partially exposed film (and remembering where to wind it back on to afterwards). A modest memory card costs less than a roll of film plus processing and can be reused. Digital is just better.

So today, I picked up a CD with 36 images scanned onto it by the people that processed the film I dropped off to them about an hour earlier. I’d taken the photos on film that was at least four years out of date, on a camera made in the mid 70s using manual focus lenses probably made in the late 60s. And despite all I’ve said above, I enjoyed using the camera. I’d forgotten about the satisfying clunk as the mechanical shutter thumps down on it’s mounting and I’d forgotten about the big, bright viewfinder than made focusing a pleasure. The camera required me to translate the meter reading into aperture and shutter settings by interpreting three little red LEDs. I had to trust it was accurate but I also had to know roughly what to expect. And I found I did.

The images below are from that film. Some of the colours are odd and there’s a lot of grain. I suspect that’s a combination of out dated film and poor scanning from the shop. They were just test shots I took while out and about so they’re not masterpieces. But I have more film, some of which is new, and I’m sure there’ll be more posts about the old fashioned way of doing photography.

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Digital or Film?

I’ve been keen on photography for many years – you may have picked up some hints at that throughout the 238 posts I’ve published since I started blogging. When I first started taking photos, there was no digital photography. In fact. I remember seeing one of the first digital sensors during my last year of college, when we were shown one as part of the ‘what’s coming next’ part of the course. As I recall, it was being developed for satellites to use instead of film.

Over the years, digital has replaced analogue everywhere. Cine film gave way to video, digital tuners replaced analogue and even switches and volume controls have gone digital. Now digital cameras have replaced film cameras and movies for the cinema are being made using digital equipment. Every time that’s happened, there has been a outcry from the analogue users and it tends to follow a pattern:

  • Digital will never replace analogue.

It has. The driver for this is the camera buying public, who want a cheap and easy means of recording their memories. It seems that nothing has actually happened and no one has actually been anywhere unless there is a photograph to prove it. More photographs were taken this year than in all the other years since photography was invented added together! This huge group of people finance and therefore influence the market. If you doubt that, look at how many new models of compact digital cameras are available, how often a new model is brought out and how prominent the advertising for the camera part of a mobile phone is. Film delivered more quality than the average compact camera user ever wanted, with none of the flexibility and immediacy of digital. As soon as they saw what they really wanted, the camera buying public abandoned film.

  • Analogue is much better than digital.

The key thing here is ‘what do you mean by better?’ In terms of image quality, there may be some circumstances in which this is true today. I can’t think of any, but I’m not all knowing. In any case I’d argue whether it was ‘much’ better. And there is also an argument to say that users of film have, in the main, been users of film for many years and so they are bringing a wealth of skill and experience to bear, which often makes a difference to the final product – prompting the question ‘where does the ‘better’ come from?’ But look at the names in photography – in my sphere of interest Colin Prior and Andy Rouse for example- – who have moved from film to digital. In Colin Prior’s case, he was using 6x17cm panoramic film cameras for stunning landscapes (check out his work here).

In terms of usability, there is no doubt that digital cameras in whatever form are much easier to use if you consider the picture taking to picture viewing process. And they provide instant results that you can share with ease, print from a box in your local supermarket or view on your computer. There is a huge range of cameras from the simplest point and shoot (does it get simpler than the mobile phone camera?) to complex medium format sized digital SLRs. This is what the majority of users want. It’s good enough for them, which may make you splutter your tea all over the screen, but it’s reality.

As a film user for more than 20 years (longer than I’ve been using digital), I finally accepted that digital gave me the quality, control and convenience I was looking for and I haven’t looked back. There is a nostalgia for film (being a bit of a kit head, I do like cameras in general, and I have a Nikon FM2 35mm SLR) but that’s not the same as regretting it’s demise. I hated the darkroom (apart from that magical moment when the image started to appear on the paper). I hated the smell of chemicals (and more importantly, my asthmatic chest hated them too) and I was often frustrated at having the ‘wrong’ film loaded in the camera.

  • Digital doesn’t require the same high skill level as analogue.

This last argument can usually be heard from die-hard film users who, unable to conclusively deny the previous two points, resort to the classic ‘it was better in my day’ approach. This says that because digital photographers can review images instantly, re-take pictures that haven’t worked and shoot hundreds of frames to guarantee a usable result, they aren’t as good as film users. It also misleads by claiming that film users never manipulated their images in any way. By implication, no film using wedding photographer or press cameraman ever had an anxious moment wondering if that never-to-be-repeated moment had been captured. And remember, we only ever see the moments that were successfully captured from history, giving film an artificial 100% success rate – think D-Day or the assassination of JFK and ask whether there would have been more and better quality images had digital cameras been available. Motor drives for 35mm cameras were essential items of equipment for press and sports photographers, so they could shoot as many frames as possible to guarantee one or two usable images. Fashion and portrait photographers machine-gunned through hundreds of frames too. Why wouldn’t they? In their budgets, film was one of the cheaper elements and as their job was to get the image, they would have been irresponsible not to.

The argument that it is easy to edit a photo on a computer falls flat too. It is no easier or quicker to work on a computer than it is to work in a darkroom. The practical skills are different (although the pre-visioning and planning remain the same). But to do a decent job, you need to spend a decent amount of time regardless of medium. Where the computer adds a benefit is in initially setting up (remember ‘dilution 1:17 – divide the amount of developer you want up into 18ths?’) and being able to reproduce the effect consistently. Nothing wrong with that and, of course, the option is there for the die hard post production fan to manually go through the steps each time anyway.

Digital or film?

In my mind, this depends on why you take photographs. My experience is overwhelmingly as an amateur who enjoys the whole process from finding a subject, taking the photo, processing it on the computer and sharing it. In that respect, I love digital as I find I can learn as I go by trying something, checking it instantly and making changes there and then. I use the camera display as a means of learning and improving. My experience of professional assignments has been that I would not have been happy using film as the jobs were too important and unrepeatable to risk mistakes; out of respect and responsibility, I would choose the medium that was best suited tot he job. This attitude arises as a result of having digital equipment available; in my film days I did some band portraits and as there was no alternative, I used film.

But as photography is a hobby for many, it’s about what you enjoy doing. I still fondly recall using medium format kit to take landscapes in Scotland. I’d drag what seemed like a ton of kit up some windswept hill, set everything up, spend ages getting the (manual) exposure and (manual) focussing right, wait for the light and snap. 8 or 10 exposures later (I’d always bracket with slide film, so 2 or 3 ‘scenes’) I’d have to reload. I enjoyed that too.

Which is best? Two answers. Does it really matter and which ever one you prefer. But don’t preach to anyone that your preference is definitive.

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