The Never Ending Diatribe of
Digital vs. Film
Every time I
write a column that compares some aspect of digital photography to conventional
silver photography, (1) about 40 percent of the email I get is from
photographers saying that they are glad that I agree that digital photography
is better than traditional film-based photography. (2) About 40 percent
say they are glad that I agree film-based photography is better than
digital. (3) About 20 percent say they don't understand which I think
is better; would I please tell them.
If a carpenter said an electrically-powered nail gun was better than
a band saw, you would say, "Better for what?" What is there
in photography that makes someone think a tool is so special, it can
be used for everything?
When it comes to journalism, the speed of delivery clearly favors digital
photography. Any argument about the superior image quality of film falls
a little short when the film is invariably high-speed negative in 35mm
format. If you think digital photojournalism is the coming thing, you
missed the boat.
It was the coming thing when the wires were shooting digital and the
papers and magazines were using film. Even then, when "digital
quality" was noticably lower than film, I never heard a reader
say, "You know, this digital image is so much lower in quality
than the film image across the page from it."
Now, it's not the "coming thing;" it's the thing. Very few
news publications have their own film darkrooms any more. And the custom
lab across town is not really the answer for breaking news. Photographers
who shoot film are quite often expected to have it processed themselves
and to provide scans from that film.
As the way a publication produces, edits, lays out and stores images
becomes more exclusively digital, the path of least resistance will
be to shoot even feature stories with a looser deadline digitally. I
am told that National Geographic has begun looking at shooting stories
digitally. I would imagine that this bastion of technical quality, but
small page size, will not suffer from digitally shot stories.
Perhaps the final proof that digital is here is the number of good photojournalists
who grew up on film, love film and shoot much of their current work
digitally. Gilles Peress, one of the best photojournalists in the racket,
did his last trip to the Israeli-Palestinian border digitally. Pulitzer
Prize winner Bill Foley was shooting an editorial-style commercial job
and remarked, "I don't even know why I brought my film cameras."
And, remember, these folks are shooting with small, handholdable digital
cameras like the Canon D60, not the larger, less portable digital cameras
and backs with more impressive technical specifications that are used
for studio shooting.
How can they get away with it?
(1) The most obvious limitation of any digital news camera is it's inability
to produce a file that is big enough to produce a really large print
without falling apart. Newspapers and magazine pages aren't big enough
to hold really big prints. The big bugaboo that everybody talks about
doesn't really exist in practice.
"But what about exhibitions of my lifetime of work which is so
much better than everybody else's?" It's not an anwer, but I have
to say that I will be relieved not to see prints as large and as unnecessary
as some photographers' egos. And I will be pleased to see photographs
that could fit on my walls instead of being sized for galleries and
the hallways of corporate buildings.
(2) The highest possible level of technical excellence is not a necessity
in news photography or we would all be trying to cover wars with 8x10
view cameras. The earliest photographs of war were made with view cameras.
But they appeared in print weeks laters as artists renderings made from
the photographs. And, yes, they were often posed.
News photography has changed. Both esthetically and technically. It
is a gross oversimplification, but I suppose you could say today's news
photographs have more immediacy. Digital photography is where we currently
are as we walk down that long path that was started in the middle of
the 19th century.
Next month - why you shouldn't throw away your film cameras.
© Bill Pierce