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And in Other News, Film is Still Dead. Well, Almost.

It's interesting. Just fifteen years ago, hardly any working photographers were shooting digital. Today, hardly any are working in film anymore. Out with the old, and in with the new. Or is it?

Many photographers today were brought up on digital and have never worked with film. Some shooters will always be attracted to film of course, whether from nostalgia or simply because they can't justify the cost of upgrading, or perhaps from an aversion to all things digital based some deeply held philosophical principal. Whatever. But most of us who were shooting back then made the leap or were pushed to the world of digital at some point over the years.

About a month ago, Canon quietly announced it was ceasing production of its last remaining film camera, the EOS-1V. Actual production ended eight years ago, but it took this long to sell through the remaining inventory. I doubt sales warrant any future offerings, but on the other side, Nikon still sells their F6 and the venerable FM10. It seems unlikely to expect throngs of Canon shooters making the leap to Nikon over a love of film though.

Earlier this year, Fujifilm discontinued sales of 36-exposure rolls of Superia 800 and Superia 1600. Interestingly, they will continue to market both in 24-exposure rolls. Fuji Neopan ACROS 100 will be discontinued in October. Industry news reports have shown a steady drip of film after film, format after format, ceasing production. Sales simply can't justify continued production and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the early days of the transition to digital, typical arguments against centered on comparisons of resolution. In terms of raw megapixels, early digital cameras couldn't compete against good film scans.
But such comparisons could never be apples to apples. Film recorded information in its irregular grain patters. It' not enough to suggest that if there are six million film grains that the information they represent can be preserved in a six-megapixel scan. To retain all the information in the original, a scan would have to accurately render the shape of each of those grains, requiring considerably more pixels than if the information had been recorded digitally to begin with. With upwards of forty megapixels in today's top of the line digital SLR's, the resolution debate is resoundingly ended in favor of digital capture unless one choses to change the goalposts to compare 35mm digital sensors to medium format film frames. Even then, it would not be easy to argue for film.

Today's digital SLR cameras win in other ways too. It's simply not possible to suggest that a film camera could compete against digital in the realm of low light, high ISO shooting. I remember being disappointed based more than once following my attempts to shoot with fast film at ISO 800 and above yet today I can get great results easily digitally shooting at far faster ISO. Subject brightness range measured as the difference between the darkest areas with detail and the brightest shows that digital has much greater latitude than was possible with film. Even if one adjusts tone curves after the fact to great a more dramatic, high-contrast image, they can do so now with complete control, and with visual feedback as to what the result will be. I used to love the look of Fuji Velvia, but it was just too temperamental to shoot in tricky lighting, so I would switch to more forgiving Fuji Provia. Today, I can shoot into the sun digitally with much greater assurance that I am getting what I'm after. Digital wins again, hands down.

As a bit of a tangent, I used to have a respectable vinyl LP record collection back in college. When the compact disc format was introduced, I thought it was great not to have to worry about pops and clicks, but that a good LP still sounded better. Something about the digital encoding of a CD losing the complexity of the harmonics or something. I forget. The compact disc won the day, and the rest, as they say, was history.

But as anyone who keeps up with what's cool knows, vinyl has made a bit of a resurgence these days. The LP format has been declared dead more than once, but this time, the victory goes to analog, not digital. There are countless independently produced, albums getting released on limited-run vinyl records for no other reason than that vinyl is cool. Today, as the music industry is moving toward a digital download model for distribution, doing away with physical media completely, the old-fashioned vinyl LP is making a comeback. When I replaced my old LP records with CD's, it was always a bit disappointing to see how small everything seemed. That big, beautiful record sleeve had been replaced by a small square booklet inserted in a CD jewel case. In the last couple years though, I have been purchasing a limited number of records, and I must say, I'm impressed. Some of these things are true works of art, not just in terms of the music, but visually so, pressed in heavy-weight colored vinyl, and packaged with true attention to detail. Vinyl can indeed be cool.

So, is it possible for film to be cool again? I doubt it. While the comparison between photography and music seems perhaps relevant on the surface, it breaks down when you dig a bit deeper. What we're talking about here is the format for music distribution not for music recording. The state of music production has gone fully digital, with no looking back. In photography, the result is the print. It's this that gets distributed. And guess what? The ability to custom print on demand has flourished over the last few years. Numerous companies can print a true work of art from your image file these days. After you shoot it on your digital camera, just upload it online. And that's very cool, too.

Date posted: July 1, 2018


Copyright © 2018 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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