In the comments to my last column, Jason asked what kind of situations I thought I might run into where digital wouldn't be able to do the job. Understand that I don't actually expect to run into any such situations; but I can never say never. My training in physics makes it very hard for me to claim anything with absolute certainty. Ask me if the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning, and I'll feel compelled to answer, "very likely."
There are certainly situations where digital makes things difficult, possibly to the point of impracticality. Of course almost any photographic problem can be solved by throwing sufficient amounts of time, energy, and money at it, but I'm trying to be practical here. I ain't solving a digital photography problem by buying a Phase One back, any more than I'd solve a film problem by hauling around an 8x10 view camera. So, if you want to nitpick my examples, please be realistic in your nitpicking.
Medium format color negative was exquisite at rendering fine detail and texture, and I could record exposure ranges far in excess of 10 stops with excellent linearity. I'm also fond of night photography.
Digital cameras are great for doing long exposures, because they have no reciprocity failure. But they're lousy for doing long exposures, because they build up noise. You can eliminate much of the noise if you're willing to let the camera do automatic long-exposure noise reduction, which doubles exposure times. Sometimes that's impractical. If I were the kind of photographer who liked to photograph multi-hour star trails (happily, I'm not) digital would present some real difficulties, while film takes it in stride.
My photograph of the Transamerica Pyramid required more than a 30-minute exposure, because I had to stop way down to get enough depth of field (a view camera would have made life a lot easier). Absent very expensive gear, a 30-minute digital photograph would not come out anywhere as well. Fortunately, it wouldn't be necessary. Without reciprocity failure, the exposure time would drop down to about three minutes. I could likely make this photograph at ISO 400 digitally, with the exposure time under a minute. Running automatic noise reduction will then work fairly well and won't add excessive amounts of time to the endeavor.
Some situations are tougher. Digital cameras can capture very long exposure ranges, but they tend to lose good separation in the darkest detail, and heaven help you if you clip the highlights. That makes a photograph like this one of the floodlit space shuttle Columbia extremely tricky. Almost all the important detail in the scene is in the extreme highlights or shadows, and this subject uses up absolutely 100% of the range of the color negative film. If faced with such digitally, I would probably bracket like mad and merge the photographs together.
Understand this is not an easy photograph to make under any circumstances; while I could (barely) record the scene on a single frame of film, it took me weeks in the darkroom to convert that into a good print. Silver or silicon, this would end up being a lot of work.
The most difficult case is my Jewels of Kilauea book project. This subject matter is a worst-case scenario. The shiny lava gets really, really black; the iridescent highlights are really really bright. Like the shuttle photograph, what's aesthetically important about this subject matter is in the extremes; mid-tones are often irrelevant. Complicating the issue further is that this is subject matter for which texture is extremely important, and fine texture is something that digital has a lot of trouble dealing with. (There are technical reasons for that; I may devote a whole 'nother column to it, some time.)
Making satisfactory digital photographs of this subject is tough enough. Making ones that would blend in with the film photographs I've already made is not an impossible job, but it is dauntingly difficult. This one project has likely been a major factor in keeping me from coming to a decision to go 100% digital.
What changed my mind? First, I admitted that after a half dozen years of stasis, the odds of this ever becoming a book were quite small. Next was realizing that the portfolio already has well over 100 utterly dynamite photographs. That's more than enough for any exhibits or shows. If making any new digital photographs fit well with the film ones turns out to be too tough a job, I can simply decide that those photographs will never be exhibited together. Finally, in the unlikely event the book was revived, it's 90% photographed; I only need 10–20 additional photographs. What winds up on the printed page is sufficiently denatured from the originals that I'd have no problem making the book look like a seamless whole.
No photographic medium can be all things to everybody. Looking for perfection in the arts is worse than a fool's errand. I've decided that the ways in which digital is not perfect will present as little obstacle to my art as the ways in which film is not perfect. I lived with film's warts for 40 years; digital's won't faze me.
Ctein's column appears on TOP every Thursday morning.