30 September, 2013

Film vs Digital, Part 1

[There is now a more detailed, head-to-head comparison in Part 2 of Film vs Digital.]

There are more than a few fans of film still out there.

I was reminded of this by the recent offer of a free download of DXO’s Film Pack 3. The “Film Pack” is a program designed give your digital photos the look of one or another of the of the classic films stocks. I suppose that it’s particularly useful for those times when you’re nostalgic for the “good ol’ days” of Tri-X, D76, squinting at contact sheets, dodging and burning, and variable-contrast papers.

And, yes, there’s quite a bit of nostalgia going around. One of my favourite photographers, Steve McCurry, asked for the last roll of Kodachrome that rolled off Kodak's line in 2009. As you can see in the video above, McCurry travelled the world to to take those last 36 shots. McCurry probably used more Kodachrome – and put it to better purpose – than any other photographer. He was a good choice for the honour of the last roll.

Photographer Jeff Jacobson’s also memorialised Kodachrome in his book, The Last Roll, published by Daylight Books. Paul Simon even wrote a song about Kodachrome.

But it's not just colour that being missed. In a post on The Online Photographer, Kevin Purcell talked about the Film Pack and the work of Sebastião Salgado. Salgado photographs in digital, processes his black and white images in DXO's Film Pack, and then creates an inter-negative, from which he prints – using the tools of the traditional darkroom.

Everyone is entitled to go with what they know. If you like film, stick with it.

An image captured on film is different to a digitally captured image. Film is still better at capturing areas in the highlights of a picture. At the brightest levels, film 'rolls off' more slowly. That's just a fancy way to say that the highlights move to completely white more quickly with digital. The manufacturers know this, so in many cameras the built-in exposure is set conservatively in regard to highlights – they underexpose a bit just to be on the safe side. The result is that some of the detail at the other end, in the shadows, is lost. It's not a perfect world.

Kodachrome was around for 74 years. It's debatable exactly how long digital photography has been around; but it's pretty clear that from its rough beginnings to now it's been about 25 years. It took digital about 21 years to not just pass Kodachrome by, but to kill it.

Me? I'm not weepy about the loss of these films. The control that we get from digital more than makes up for its other failings, particularly when working in colour. With the latest cameras, the new printing inks, the current papers – the results are already magic.

My NEX-6 leaves my last film SLR (Olympus) in the dust. And my Epson 3880 printer blows the doors off every darkroom I ever used.

But, just you wait.

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