Chapter 13: Film Vs. Digital

In 1888, George Eastman made a move to popularize photography as an affordable way to capture images by offering his first “people’s camera”, Kodak №1, to the market. “You Press the Button, – said the advertising tagline, – We Do the Rest.” Today a slogan like this would sell somewhat fewer cameras, since modern means of computer processing re-introduce “doing the rest” back into the life of an amateur photographer. It is now much easier to get exactly what you want, color-wise, by going digital. However, the Eastman slogan bears much more meaning than it seems.

First of all, when George Eastman offered his amateur camera, there was no Photoshop – and the image processing tools (to be used in a darkroom) were quite large, not to mention labor-intensive. Only a few photographers could afford to develop and print their own images. Eastman had a task of proposing a universal solution to the market, so he needed to make sure that the majority of the customers accepted it. In other words, an image captured with the new, affordable camera had to please everybody.

Secondly, the results of Kodak’s research of color perception and reproduction proved extremely significant in shaping the global history of color photography. For example, one of the most defining works on the subject, The Reproduction of Color (that withstood its 6th edition in 2004), was written by a Kodak affiliate, Robert William Gainer Hunt. A scientist, whose list of titles includes Visiting Professor of Color Science at the Color&Imaging Institute at the University of Derby and Assistant Director of Research at the Kodak Research Laboratories in Britain, Dr. Hunt has spent 36 years researching color reproduction. In his book, he writes: “The reproduction of colour is a fascinating subject; its understanding requires many different branches of science; artistic and aesthetic considerations are also part of its character; it involves a wide variety of industrial enterprises; it presents complexities to challenge the most astute; yet its climax is an event of the utmost commonplace: looking at pictures.”

Modern digital photography simply doesn’t have this type of legacy. Today instead of film we have a light sensitive matrix with light filters of “optimal” spectral characteristics. The recording medium is a file that receives data from said matrix. The matrix developers, like the developers of RAW data conversion methods, do not rely on research involving artists and art scholars. They also lack enthusiasm when it comes to incorporating the experience of the previous generations into their practice. Just take a look at the list of industry leaders in professional and semi-professional photography (not to mention mass market!):

  1. Camera makers: Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax, Fujifilm, Samsung, Hasselblad, Phase One, Leica, etc.
  2. RAW conversion software developers: Adobe, Phase One, Apple, Bibble Lans Inc., “native” software provides (see above), etc.

Which of the above-mentioned companies can boast a research and development experience in photo aesthetics comparable to that of Kodak? Only Fujifilm, yet even they are not so eager to capitalize on this experience by using it in camera production. And when such attempts are made, it is the tastes of the mass consumer (who will gobble up any oversaturated folk-art) that set the agenda.

The last decade saw a shift in the market requirements. Digital photography has revolutionized both the technology and people’s perception. Some years ago mass market got its hands on bright, sharp images with pure (compared to grainy film) colors and loved them. Now we have a whole generation of consumers brought up in this emerging tradition. Nowadays, the task of a professional photographer is to capture the reality “as is”, and may be add aesthetic details later during RAW conversion and post-processing. An amateur is to be happy with an automatically created JPEG, converted by the camera using some pre-determined generic settings so arranged that the resulting colors would satisfy just about anybody.

In reality, since not all of us – even the ones who claim to be professional photographers – have enough knowledge and visual experience, mass photography produces an avalanche of overly bright, “screaming”, badly harmonized images that form the basis of the current public taste and its subsequent crave for “pure” colors. At the same time, there is a growing number of photographers, who, at some point of their artistic development, begin to question the status quo and feel unsettled by the standardized chromatic solutions on offer.

Is digital photography irredeemably bad? Do we really have to choose whether to make the switch and go back to shooting film? Is the old way better than the new one? Here is how Ieno Dulovich addressed similar questions in the middle of the 20th century in his book My Equipment – My Pictures:

“Film or Plate? There is only one correct answer to this question: film, of course! (Even if your camera will work with both). Some 25 years ago this issue was still debatable. Time passed, and the market saw new camera models, yet few of them would be suitable for plates. The industry is busy perfecting film, and plates are no longer a priority. Add to that the size and weight of the plates, the time and effort it takes to recharge your camera – also, let’s not forget how fragile those plates are – and you already have formed a case for film. The only argument for working with plates is the possibility of individual development. It is quite handy, but if you look at the process more critically, individual development only means more “individual” mistakes. It is a completely unnecessary practice, given the current developments in the negative image producing materials and equalizing developers. To be honest, even in the heyday of the plate I would often develop them together – a dozen per bunch, or more. I would return from my trips and stick up to 16 4,5х6 cm plates into a single glass bath: landscapes with cloudy skies, dramatic sunsets, shots made against the sun, – the lot, and I still managed to get decent negatives”.

Dulovic realized only too well that, rather than fighting progress, one must learn how to use it to achieve their goals. The technological advance of the recent decades is extremely fast-paced, and it is counter productive to cling on to the old ways of doing things. However, it would be equally unwise to disregard the knowledge about color and aesthetics accumulated by the previous generations of photographers. That is exactly why there are still young photographers who are happily pouring colloid emulsion on the glass plates and experimenting with 150-year-old image production techniques. It is also interesting to note how Dulovic’s words about favoring batch-production to individual development (and individual mistakes) still ring true today. We have all the means to process each image using a wide arrangement of tools, yet in doing so we only increase the likelihood of individual mistakes.

Modern photographers working with digital images cannot rely on a similar tradition of color research, and often have to blindly navigate in the “ocean of possibilities” that is RAW conversion and image processing software. There is no boat, swimming is problematic, and although it appears you are free to move every which way, in practice you consider yourself lucky to not have drowned. In other words, we sure learn a thing or two about adjusting settings along the way, but it does not always result in a better image.

Wouldn’t it be better, then, to return to film? The safe haven, where people with background in engineering and art are ready to support a photographer in his coloristic solution at the stage of emulsion development. It does sound enticing, but in doing that we would have to say no to the many advantages of the digital photography: speed, sharpness, dynamic range, lack of grain, high resolution, low cost etc. Are we ready to do that? I am not. Moreover, I am not ready to seriously consider film photography as a viable fallback option, neither am I going to try and make the colors in my images look as though they were shot with film. For me finding solutions for harmonizing digital colors without saying ‘no’ to the advantages of digital photography is a far more exciting challenge.

The film market has also changed in response to the new technological advances of the last 10 years. Nowadays, the manufacturers prefer neutral, scan-friendly film solutions. For example, a true-to-life Kodak Porta film now exists to replace both Kodak Porta NC (natural color, lower color distortion) and Kodak Porta VC (vivid color, higher color distortion), while the famous Kodachrome ceased to be in 2009.

My task is to take the best film had to offer and mix it up with the best in digital photography to get a recipe for creating good images. Does it mean that I will have to make my colors film-like when processing digital photos? I don’t think it’s a good idea, to be honest. First of all, it is a complicated endeavor, imitating film. Since the color shifts in film photography are achieved by redistributing contrast in the emulsion layers, toggling the white balance in a digital image will not give you the same result.

Depending on the subject, different layers of a photographic film take up different amount of developing solution. The layers that have been exposed to the maximum degree require more chemicals, while the other layers are left to “starve”. The resulting color misbalances are very much producer-determined, and each particular misbalance pattern is associated with a certain type and make of a film. Because the results are so connected to the subject and light conditions, it is very difficult to replicate similar processes in digital photography.

Imagine that we take a picture of a person holding a Color Checker (say, ColorChecker CC24) with two cameras, digital and film. Other conditions – lighting, framing, exposure, and lens – shall be absolutely identical, and the only difference in two images will be in the method we have chosen to capture them. Once the images are taken, we will develop the film through a standard developing process, and scan it. After that, we will create an ICC-profile from the Checker that is now also part of the image. Having done all this, we should get a color profile for this particular film in these specific conditions of lighting, development and scanning – a whole list of variables already. Now comes the most interesting part: we will apply the profile to the RAW file captured digitally. Will the digital image imitate the colors of the film? Initially, yes. Should we change just one parameter, however (for example, lighting), applying the same profile to this new, slightly altered image will yield a different and even unpredictable result. It may or may not seem aesthetically appealing, but this judgment will be carried out on the basis of our perception of color rather than on the implied similarity to an image captured on film.

Another reason for me to steer away from trying to imitate “analog” colors is the variability of chromatic solutions that can be received from one and the same film. While it is true that each film bears its distinct “character”, practice shows that different photographers achieve different results with seemingly identical tools. As we already know, photographic film is made to meet a variety of conditions and challenges; parameters that are taken into account include subject, color – its temperature, intensity and contrast, – and even geography of the location. There are films tailored to the needs of photojournalists, landscape or portrait photographers; to the wishes of those who prefer natural, or, in contrast, distorted colors. Finally, there is no limit to a photographer’s creativity when it comes to getting unusual colors from “standard” film. Some shoot in conditions directly opposite to those the film has been created for; others experiment with conversion filters, cross-processing, overexposure and underdevelopment with later push/pull processing; some prefer processing their films manually and vary the intensity of chemical mix, others play with processing time and temperature, or take the game a step further and introduce changes at the stage of printing.

The methods mentioned above are expressive tools available to a photographer. And while each of them utilizes the peculiarities of certain films, color dyes and contrast settings, not a single one aims at achieving colors characteristic of a particular make or type of film. Color harmonies determined by the photographic emulsion pre-sets just help a photographer “paint” a beautiful picture – in the same way as carefully selected paints help an artist. However, an expensive set of paints will not make you into an artist (even if you are able to put together a harmonious palette). Likewise, your photographs will not become more interesting just because of the quality of your film or camera. I have already talked about it earlier, but I feel this idea needs repeating.

To me, the colors of the photographic film are the embodiment of artistic experience, and as such they do give a photographer a decent head start. They allow us to create our own chromatic solutions by relying on the ready-made palettes. This definitely makes our lives easier, and reduces color-related stress by letting us concentrate on the creative side of photography.

Later, I will come back to the discussion of practicalities related to using analog experiences in digital photography. It is, of course, a challenge, but by no means an unbeatable one.

LIFELIKE: A book on color in digital photography

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