Sunday, 5 July 2009

The truth about film & digital

The word 'Digital' appears no less than 8 times on the packaging of my developed film & prints from Truprint. "We make digital easy!", "Thinking of going digital?", "Got a digital camera?", "Free digital prints", "Make your photos digital" etc etc. It's quite a sales pitch. In contrast Peak just send me my pictures. There's no doubt that the market for c41 process & print has all but disappeared over the last few years. They - Truprint - want to make sure that when I 'go digital' they can keep my business. They assume that 'going digital' is a one way street. Once I've experienced the wonders of digital, I'll never go back. And I'm sure for many that's how it works. How many times have I seen very nice 35mm SLRs on ebay, the description explains "I've upgraded to digital so no longer required", the accompanying photo is badly exposed and out of focus. Some upgrade huh?

I 'went digital' in 2002 and shoot more film now than ever. The truth is that most digital upgraders have never seen the quality that even 35mm film can offer. Film, just like digital, can look great if it's done right. But just like digital, film is usually done badly. OK, for a start, most c41 film is better if you give it a bit more exposure - most exposure errors I've seen with print film is due to underexposure. Shoot your iso400 at 250 or your iso200 at 125 and you might get a better success rate. Secondly, the consumer labs rarely get best results in the prints. Those cheap labs won't allow black on the print. Rather than deep velvety shadows, you get mushy grain filled shadows and washed out midtones. So you upgrade to digital and now you have control over how your pictures look.

Far from being a silver bullet, digital buys it's convenient instant feedback at the cost of a whole new set of problems. Exposure with digital is a pig. The most important thing a digital shooter needs to know is how to read a histogram and how to use the camera's + / - compensation. Trouble is, Joe Snapshot doesn't know or care about this. What's worse is that he can't seem to notice when the camera gets it wrong. Grey snow scenes anyone? I see it all the time. Along with blown highlights and weird colours of course. Just a little tiny bit of in camera work, and maybe a bit of levels adjustment in Photoshop / Elements / GIMP and digital can really shine. But no one cares enough to learn this stuff. Just like no one cared enough to send their film to a decent lab.

OK, here's the bottom line. In the days of film cheap consumer labs messed up most peoples photos. Now with digital, we can mess it up all by ourselves. Ain't progress neat?

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