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how about digital?        for those who like film it's a long way to go

Wolfgang Bleier
Austria, Autumn 2009

Inventive talent and technological progress are major elements of the economic world and the only reason why we can use sophisticated still cameras, whether it is a mechanic rangefinder camera or a high-tech digital SLR. Whether we like it or not, nothing will stop technological progress, neither our personal preferences, nor tedious, meaningless discussions about analog vs. digital photography, which are doomed to fail in finding out which is the better, apples or banana?

This article is about the perception of images made digital and on film, or why some photographers claim that they miss "something" in their digital images and the troubles to express what in fact they are trying to say. This article is not intended to fuel the discussion about digital vs. analog photography.

Wienerwald (Vienna, Austria, 1986), Nikon F3HP, Nikkor Ai 20mm f/3,5

Film and digital imaging are two completely different media, and only since a few years used for the same purpose. Most of the average consumers in fact don’t care about, how their images are made. Whether it was on film, now in CMOS or CCD sensors or anything else in future that we don't know yet, they use products that are mainstream. Nevertheless, analog photography on film, as analog audio alike, had a very long presence in people's life. Major events and important milestones of our world's recent history were documented on film. It comes therefore as no real surprise that many serious photographers hold on to the magic of film and keep it alive with enthusiasm at least for a while, or as long as they can.

CCD sensors were invented in 1969, initially as a memory device, and used since then in fax devices, bar-code readers, TV cameras, video cameras and scanners. While digital imaging in photography was mainly limited to professional applications until the mid nineties, its commercial breakthrough came only in the late nineties. In 1994 Apple's Quicktake 100 was one of the first digital cameras produced for the commercial consumer market. Early digital camera models used more expensive but rather slow CCD sensors, modern DSLR cameras use faster CMOS sensors at lower cost. In general the trend is towards CMOS sensors due to cheaper production cost, most professional equipment, especially medium format cameras and in movie production, is equipped with CCD sensors. Even they are by far not as fast as CMOS sensors, CCD sensors provide a higher dynamic range and are, in terms of image quality, considered superior over CMOS sensors. I should note that you are reading an article that started in 2009, which by today may not be up-to-date in respect of digital imaging technology.
Looking back ten years, the technological progress in digital imaging was that fast, that in another ten years from now analog photographers my not know that digital, in the form we are using it today, was here. Analog film cameras will remain as niche products and with a little maintenance our analog cameras will still work, only the choice of film will be smaller.

Vienna Cafe (2009) Leica M7, Elmarit-M 24mm asph. f/2.8

For photographers who prefer film the unthinkable has happened at around 2010: the performance of digital image sensors caught up with film, sensors in expensive full-frame cameras excel film by now. The question is, do we have to like digital only for that, and my answer is: No, we don't have to. Most people's preference for film is not related with pixels anyway, and apart from that, before the rise of digital image sensors in cameras no-one has bothered with pixel numbers at all. Each type of film is a given fact, grain, sharpness and color rendering were - and still are - the criteria related to film. It is much more about the general quality of film, its tonal range or color characteristics, simply about a medium and equipment that people can easily understand. Average Joe knew about the grain of film, he may not know about the noise in digital images. Unfortunately Average Joe is still after the smallest digital camera with the maximum number of pixels.

About apples and banana

It's funny to see how quick all these comparisons of film vs. digital get outdated. Although, most comparisons of film vs. digital presented in the Internet are at least questionable anyway, since using "low cost" scanners to convert film to digital, of which the results are viewed on computer monitors via the Internet. A correct comparison would require scans made on professional high-performance film scanners, and of course fine-grained film, perfectly focused identical decent lens systems, good light and, last but not least, a solid tripod, in order to get all the quality of film and the digital image under equal conditions. Or the other way around, why not transfer digital images to film and then compare with images shot directly on film? Yes, in motion picture production they can practically finish anything in either way, film to digital, and digital to film. Consumer scanners loose too much information of the film, not to mention the limited color range of computer monitors on which image files are displayed, which then is no longer a correct comparison of film to digital image. These are mostly comparisons of cheap scans of film with digital images, presented at screen resolution. By the way it's quite easy to find out how good film is: just put a slide on the light box and look at it through a magnifier - you will be astonished.

The most obvious reason why digital images look different than film is the highlights. People who used film for many years are accustomed to the way film looks. It is graceful when parts of the scenery get too bright or tend to wash out. In this case film resolves nuances and density much better than digital images. In digital images highlights may abruptly clip and look poor as soon as white gets overexposed. Unlike film, digital imaging has little gradual tolerance in the vicinity of white, its characteristic curve heads straight to white, crashes, and the image looks poor as if someone has badly overdone in Photoshop. Nowadays there are too many people who don't even know about film, they just talk about megapixels, not knowing the limits of digital. Hear from professionals in movie-making why they believe that film remains the gold standard in motion capture.

Perceptions are subjective

I am pretty sure that digital cameras will not mark the end of conventional film photography. There will be new types of digital sensors and there will be film, only the choice of film will get smaller. For some reason I couldn't get grip on digital cameras for many years. For several years I used a Nikon Coolpix P5100 digital camera just for convenience and practicality when I needed it for documentation. I am not surprised about that, since some features and the handling of menus of most digital cameras somehow appear absurd. It took a while until I found „my“ digital camera in the M Leica, which is built with controls exactly like the old analog film cameras always had.

Generations (Austria, 1987), Nikon F3HP, Nikkor Ai-S 50mm f/1.4

Particularly I am in trouble with point & shoot cameras, which have control buttons that have little to do with the basics of composing a photograph. I also do not feel that the digital picture is made in-camera, definite, with the scenery and atmosphere captured as part of history from the moment the shutter has closed. As almost everything of the digital format can be modified with image software, and in very many cases it has to in order to improve its rendering, it is as if digital point & shoot cameras would erode that part of my brain, which takes care of composition.

Shooting film, there isn't much choice, especially with transparencies. The exposure latitude of slide-film is small, processing is complex and requires a high degree of precision and repeatability. Everything is done in-camera. Lighting, composition and exposure has to be right at the moment the shutter is released. When the film is processed and the finished product comes back, our choices as to the future of that little piece of slide film become even less. If we did a good job we frame it, if we did a bad job we dump it, or eventually put it in the "may-be-later" section of our archive.

The depth of an image

Recently my attention got caught by a thread in a forum, in which the discussion was about shortcomings of 35mm DSLR cameras to render “image depth” similar to film SLR. The question was, if it's true that digital images look flat, or simply "digital", and do not render that kind of depth as film does. The discussion in this thread became quite lively and controversial, obviously because there are no uniform, standardized criteria applicable to the “depth of an image”.

Indeed, quite often I observe that images from digital cameras appear in some way “flat”, two-dimensional, but I am not absolutely sure if it is an effect inherent to digital imaging, or if digital images, unlike film, are just more prone to loose contrast in unfavourable or diffuse light, or if it is simply the result of cheap lens systems widely used on modern plastic DSLR cameras. The answer to this question is clear as mud. I'm even not sure if everyone can notice the same, as people's perception of quality and aesthetics varies. Meanwhile there are many young photographers who have never worked with film, and they are used to images just the way the digital format renders. Just one thing became clear to me, which is that post editing in image software is an inevitable part of the digital process.

Riviera del Conero (Portonovo, Italy, 1994), Nikon F3HP, Nikkor Ai 20mm f/3,5

On my other website dedicated to analog audio and reel to reel tape recording I address to the differences between digital and analog sound recordings, which are also hard to explain. There I describe that "realism" is perhaps the most appropriate definition of possible attributes of analog tape machines, and that it must be some of the quirky characteristics of analog tape that mimics better how human hearing works, and makes analog sound just more pleasing than digital. The emphasis is on "pleasing", not better in terms of technical specifications. In audio the difference between digital and analog sound, for example from tape, can be noticed even much better than the difference between digital images and photographs on film. In case of a tape recorder, the sound quality is mainly determined by the equipment, its calibration to the tape specification and proper recording, and, unlike in photography, tools for editing of the digital format are usually not available to everyone. That means that the information of the digital source gets to the sound system without manipulation or tricks by those listening. It is also funny to see that professional sound recording studios use equipment to mimic the analog sound of acoustic instruments and there are even artists, who insist on analog recording.

I took (and sometimes still take) photographs on film over thirty years using all the Kodachrome, Velvia, FP4 and Delta films, and at the time when I started this article in 2009 digital photography existed since a few years only. Whether there are differences between film and digital sensors that some people relate to “depth” of an image is a quite complex question, since image depth can be influenced in one way or another. If I can see differences at all, I would rather explain images on film as more crisp or vivid, some would say the image has more "pop". On the other hand I often do notice that digital images straight from the camera are by far not perfect in that sense and leave room for improvement with image software as the following three photographs taken with a Nikon Coolpix P5100 at Dubai airport demonstrate. The image was just randomly picked from real life, it suffers from available light, the absence of a tripod, and perhaps my drowsiness after a 10-hour flight.
Image No. 1, needless to explain, comes straight from the camera. Image No. 2 was edited in Photoshop for color balance only, in order to be better comparable with Image No. 3 as to image depth. Image No. 3 was edited in Photoshop for tonal levels, contrast & brightness, color balance and with the "unsharp mask" operation. All three images were downscaled to similar size.

Image 1      (for original size click here)
dubai airport

Image 2
dubai airport

Image 3
dubai airport

Dubai Airport Terminal (2009), Nikon Coolpix P5100

Image No. 3 clearly gained three-dimensional depth that we want to see in a photograph, and it shows the importance of correct tonal levels, contrast and sharpness of an image in order to render three dimensions. In the terms of audiophiles it is "airy" and has "space". The depth some people miss in their digital images is probably the result of cheap lens systems combined with laziness to do some post editing with image software. You will have noticed also that the first two images are in fact a bit blur, which is also from downscaling the image size without subsequent "unsharp mask" action in Photoshop, which obviously did some magic in the third image.

Besides of the issues described above a number of other aspects determine the depth of an image. In fact the word "depth" is problematic and can lead to some confusion. "Depth" can be used to refer to several different characteristics of an image, including depth of field and composition, spatial depth, perspective and light control, or the dynamic range of the medium. With respect to light control it is important that the light isn't "flat", but natural and modelling. A lens with the right focal length and a flashlight bounced off from a nearby wall in order that persons don't look like cut from cardboard will completely change the depth of an image. Although vague terms like "rich", "depth" or "natural" are inescapable to describe photographs, they mean much to one and little to another. Many people, if asked to describe what exactly they mean, tend to say: "I don't know, I just miss that certain something".

The difference between film and digital imaging is most probably also a matter of gradation and the random nature of grain in film. When audiophiles are saying about tubes vs. transistors, longplay records vs. CD, or analog tape vs. anything else, "I can’t explain why, but I know analog sounds better”, they simply refer to the phenomena that hearing perception can make a less perfect output actually sound better or more natural. Each part of the process, whether in audio or imaging, affects how the final product is rendered. In the end the image is put together by the most important part of the process, our brain, which can work highly subjective as we have learned from our failures in photography.

A day in spring (Austria, 1985), Nikon F3HP, Nikkor Ai-S 50mm f/1.4

Another answer to the question, whether the perception of flat digital images is real or not, can be found in the zoom lenses used by the majority of photographers. I believe Average Joe shoots with a standard zoom lens limited to 1:3,5-5,6 maximum aperture, not taking care too much about depth of field. Any questions?
And finally there are also those who claim to perceive differences in order to imply superiority or justify a choice of medium or equipment, and when many claim to see (or hear) a difference, others also accept that there probably is one, even there is none.

Digital imaging technology is not in the vanguard of process yet, and will still have to go a long way until it is fully developed like film. When we compare early digital images with those of today, the improvement is amazing, and in some years from now digital images will render better than those of today, most probably much better than anything we know today. Before digital existed, it was in the way different films rendered, as well as lenses and different film formats. The choice of exchangeable film is driven by personal preference and by the intended results as an artistic element, in the digital format the comparison between sensors is mainly about the „better“ sensor, which in a way is poor. Manufacturers should stop waving so much with pixel numbers that no-one needs, and rather focus on how realistic, crisp, with how much depth - you name it - digital images render. But this is probably not on their agenda, since a commonly accepted measure for image quality, which they could broadcast in their ads, does not exist.
Although I still can't grasp the purpose of switching an entire camera industry to the digital format, it is obvious that this change was driven by the necessity to create new business with new products in an industry that was on a harsh economic decline during the 90's, when computers came to our houses as a new toy to play with. This change is not only about the comfort to shoot and delete bad images, or that someone wanted to eliminate the film industry, it's about our instinct to play with new gadgets and features, which manufacturers invent (and play with) in order to drive their business and competition. Not only was the rise of the digital format quite destructive to the film industry, it has also changed Average Joe's personal work of art. These days Average Joe spends more time by making up his mind, which of the bad pictures to delete, instead of giving proper consideration to the aspect of depth of field in his photographs before pressing the release button.

Click - frame no. 36

I shot slide and black & white film by preference for many years and sometimes still do, and I know that one roll gives me 36 shots only. Especially with slides it is absolutely essential to create a complete image before the moment we release the shutter – and that’s good for considerate work.
Today I mostly shoot digital and almost every digital image I take is post edited with image software, even though state of the art cameras are meanwhile incredibly good. Whatever the digital image will be in future, we don’t know yet. When we put a 20 year old slide film on a light box and look at it through a magnifier, we view something really impressive. We don’t just look at a slide, we look into a slide, and projecting it looks almost as good. Apart from color images, black & white photographs are a class of their own anyway. It is that kind of subtle magic inherent in silver halide emulsions, which makes black & white images so attractive.

san sebastian
Summertime (Spain, 2010), Leica M9, Elmarit-M 24mm asph. f/2.8

With film it is easier to understand the medium, to know the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of a certain type of film, which allows us to size up the outcome. Some say it is a disadvantage to have the film replaced every 36th shot. I am telling them it isn't, no matter if it's because I am on frame no. 36 or if suddenly I want to see the world in black & white. Besides that there is no such day on which I could take 200 photographs in a row, I always know at least what kind of film comes next. I load a specific medium into my camera and get focused on that certain type of film. With this in mind, I am still happy with film in analog cameras and the click of the shutter.

The years after 2010

I started this article in 2008, and "completed" it in 2009. "Complete" is what I thought it is in 2009, not taking into account that this article is about digital imaging, and that things may will change. Meanwhile things have changed. DSLR cameras are even bigger, heavier and faster than last year and got another twenty something of auto focus points, and Leica's digital M8 has evolved to the Leica M9 and in 2013 to the Leica M Type 240, which is a sophisticated and yet simple, straightforward camera which makes it hard to say no.
Leica cameras are known not to be crammed with useless features, and this kind of quality remained also in the digital M Series. A digital Leica M is as puristic as a camera should be. Everything one needs has a dedicated control, and everything one doesn't need simply isn't there. Its menu is limited to the essentials in a single level menu, every menu item is a menu item without breaking up into several menu banks. It happened in 2010 that I have picked up a Leica M9, which later I have replaced by a "simple" M. Well, it seems that I became more open-minded, or lazy. Whatever the truth is, the M Type 240 is a high-grade rangefinder camera that weighs so little that I don't want to take it off my shoulder, a camera that can come with me everywhere, anytime. I can take it even to dinner and not look odd, quite to the contrary, a Leica looks posh. M-Leicas are demanding. It is a serious camera, which insists that I, the photographer, set the focus and exposure metering for old time sake, and that I take care of the aperture, thus the depth of field. Thank you Leica for not giving me too much convenience, thank you for letting me take my photographs.

From time to time I really miss film for its distinct characteristics and ability to perfectly resolve contrast and color shades in the highlights, but I also got deeply acquainted with the advantages and high image quality of a professional full-frame digital camera, which still features the process of taking photographs slow and with consideration. More about this and the exceptional M Type 240 may follow in another article, sometime or other.

Stay tuned ...

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