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A Fair Fight? Shooting Film in the Digital Age (A Rebuttal)

I wish I hadn’t, but the other day I stumbled across an essay on PetaPixel entitled 12 Reasons  Photographers Still Choose to Shoot Film over Digital. Bravely, the writer had polled his associates who shoot film and culled their responses down to a dandy dozen. I shook my head sadly, because I’d heard them all many times before.

But the worst part came next. I scrolled down to the comments section. I tried mightily to avert my eyes, but I couldn’t, and the lurid spectacle of grown men and women (but mostly men) verbally beating the living daylights out of each other while thousands cheered them on from the cheap seats proved too much for me. Now, the author seems like a perfectly fine and talented gentleman, and he took a good swing at a combustible topic. He cites an “incredibly dull” BBC article and its assertion that photographers are moving back to film in droves. He is far too kind — that BBC article was B-B-BAD!! Film may not be dead, but you’re going to have to come up with something better than that to convince me that it hasn’t entered late stage dementia.

Speaking of which, I must be off my rocker to want to step into the ring with all you guys and gals (but we all know you’re mostly guys) sporting Topcon Super D’s on your shoulder, Weston Master V’s around your neck, and a brick or two of 40 year old Panatomic-X in the freezer. And to do it right here on PetaPixel, the photosphere’s equivalent of Madison Square Garden — surely, I must be punch drunk!

But here goes, anyway — yet another bout in the endless film vs. digital slugfest. This one’s scheduled to go twelve rounds, so cue the dame in the skimpy outfit, put up your dukes and come out fighting. No hitting below the belt (although accidents do happen) and may the best sensitized surface win!

Hardly. By definition, “perfect” is an irrefutable state that cannot be challenged or exceeded, and there is yet to be an imaging technology that was not or will not be improved upon. The very existence of digital photography and its adherents’ belief in its superior nature is but one example, as was every incremental “revolutionary” step forward in film technology. Pick a point in time, and photography, film or digital, has always simply been adequate for its intended purpose and has always been improved upon.

This sounds good, and it may even be true for the time being, but few have ever proven it in any aesthetically meaningful way. It’s simply ridiculous how much information a modern digital sensor can capture, and coupled with today’s RAW processing engines, it is ridiculously simple to work with that information with a level of precision, accuracy and repeatability that we could only ever dream about in the darkroom days.

C’mon, is this the best you guys can do? This is, without a doubt, the laziest defense of film photography out there, and the one that’s most often fluffed up and pushed out in front when the digital guys start talking megapixels and metadata. I’m not even going to dignify this one with a response.

The author’s fear of a “forgotten century” resulting from lost digital data is quite valid, but what about the many hazy decades that have already happened? The reason you haven’t seen any good Kodacolor prints from the 40’s recently is because they’ve all faded off the paper they were printed on. But a good digital scan of the negatives (if you can find them) and some color correction in Photoshop is often enough to bring them back to life. Crank out a pigment print from your Epson 3880 and your children’s children’s children will be able to see what your cranky old grampa looked like back when Truman dropped the big one.

By the early 80’s, the big secret among photographers was that no matter how carefully they were stored or displayed, C prints would start to fade and turn yellow-green after only about 25 years. Kodak published a white paper describing the phenomena known as “light fade” and “dark fade”, and acknowledged the instability of the dyes used in even its best professional materials.

Fortunately, the even bigger secret among wedding photographers back then was that they didn’t expect the majority of their couples to stay married long enough for it to matter all that much. Wedding photographers used to be such a cynical bunch (I know, I was one of them), but I’m sure that’s not the case today.

You are just as screwed if you keep your old negatives and prints in a cardboard box in a damp basement as you are if you neglect to back up your RAW files to multiple devices and migrate up as newer technologies come online. Sloppy asset management is sloppy asset management, and you will lose your pictures. And that’s the truth.

You got me on this one. I have to admit that I have fond memories of Sprint Buffered Stop Bath and its delightful vanilla scent! Whenever I had one of those all night marathon printing sessions to meet a 9AM deadline, I would put on a Yanni cassette and fill a few little porcelain demitasse cups with the stuff straight out of the cubetainer. Placed around my darkroom, they countered the sweat stained stench of desperation.

Seriously, in this age of environmental enlightenment, it amazes me the lengths to which film photographers will go to justify how they make their pictures. In the opinion of somebody who was around for Earth Day and who proudly displayed an Ecology Flag decal on his ’73 Super Beetle, the elimination of chemistry from the photographic workflow trumps all other arguments against embracing digital as a better alternative for image making.

And I suppose film and photo paper are manufactured with water wheels and windmills, and color labs run on used cooking oil? This is pure baloney — everything needs electricity!

Full disclosure here, however: I do have an old Kodak kerosene safelight sitting on a shelf in my office. And, I once worked with a guy who used to drive us nuts by “dry firing” his empty F1 all day because he liked the sound of the battery powered motor drive…