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Tuesday, 28 June 2011


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You have offered some very thoughtful analogies here, Mike. The film v digital discussion is slowly fading away with time, but this latest offers a fresh perspective. I hope Ctein weighs in on the topic.

I greatly look forward to your efforts, Mike! I'm in a very similar place photographically. I'm a digital photographer who picked up a Calumet C-1 8x10 View Camera for the fun of it. My contact prints leave a lot to desire, but an evening spent in the darkroom is my equivalent of an evening of wrenching on a classic car or turning a table leg on the lathe. It's a relaxing escape for me from the trials of day to day reality. If I never sell a print, I will still contend that the investment of time and money was completely worth it.

I think that colour digital inkjet prints are the bee's knees. You would never of got me to make colour prints in the darkroom (I've hardly even done B&W wet printing), and getting prints at a photo store was always a lesson in disappointment. But, I have yet to see a digital print that is the equal of a good chromogenic print. Maybe I haven't looked hard enough, but when you've detrimentally compared digital prints to their cromogenic cousins at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art and at the Brighton Biennial in 2010, where else are you to look? The difference has not even been subtle- night and day when seen in close proximity. Still a bird in the hand.... I do enjoy digital printing, but fear this is all we soon may have.

This really sums it up nicely. I'm full-time digital now but if I had access to a darkroom I'd use it regularly just because I like the process. I think there is an innate satisfaction about investing time in a project and having a tactile result at the end. Hell, I even feel that way about painting a house (and no, that's not an offer).

+1 to this and can't wait to see those articles. I think you've managed to summarise why I'm still shooting film: because it's the only way I get to make black and white prints!

Another thing that you haven't touched on this post (but another one lately) is just documenting history. My grandfather in law has spent his retirement tracing the geneology of his family. He's written a book and has a portfolio of his family on handwritten A3 cardboard -- complete with glued on vintage photos. I tried my best to not look too horrified at the handling of these photos -- he's got a wonderful collection there of history, so I've proposed the next time I go there to bring my V700 and to scan it all.

Even better yet, he brought out a couple of boxes of 8x10 glass plate negatives (and a couple of dauguerreotypes !!), and lent me a box to see what I could do scanning it. I think he's going to get one heck of a kick when I send him a contact print via the post... he's of the opinion that printing from them isn't viable but it's exactly what I hope someone can do to my negatives in about 100 years time...


"widely, but incorrectly, called "ISO"

You had better tell Canon, since there is an ISO button right next to the shutter on my camera. They probably use that since ISO 12232:2006 wouldn't fit on the cameraas nicely.

I really enjoyed my photography class in College in the early eighties. I found out I was better with words than pictures. All my images had long paragraphs on the back explaining them. 8^)

My wife is currently putting together display photos of various family members. For my twin nephews the images she wants I took with my Minolta APS SLR. It is not that hard to go to the folder that has those particular negatives, but dragging the scanner out is a pain - and I suspect I will need to use ViewScan.

Digital certainly is *convenient*.

Mike Jones wrote: "...I have yet to see a digital print that is the equal of a good chromogenic print. Maybe I haven't looked hard enough..."

I have been doing "classic" color print making for over 40 years. During that time, clients professed that my C prints were close enough to dye transfer prints to be called kissing cousins. Some of my clients at Eastman Kodak preferred my prints over those made in house - with the notable exception of those made with their liquid gate enlarger.

IMO, Mike Jones is indeed not looking hard enough. - None other than color master Joel Meyerowitz told me he considers his earlier C prints the color equivalent of daguerreotypes when compared to his more recent digital prints (made from the same negatives) - much wider color gamut, subtle colors that never appeared in his C prints, superior archival quality just to name a few things he considered far better than anything attainable with the "classic" process.

Being familiar with both his Cs and his digital prints (made from the same original negs), I could not agree more.

I haven't printed in a darkroom for 35 years - and I miss the fun of it, and the excitement of watching an image appear in the developer tray. Watching an inkjet incrementally spit out a print just isn't the same.

However, my digital darkroom just astounds me with its capabilities, and the fact I can work in colour - an impossible dream 35 years ago - and that I can produce better quality prints now than I did back then is just wonderful.

Your analogy with woodwork is a good one. Some woodworkers enjoy using traditional hand tools, others use power tools. Both get pleasure from creating lasting and beautiful pieces.


I'm so looking forward to this. I teach darkroom work and am constantly amazed how many young people get the craft element and see it as a fun recreational activity, as a polar opposite to sitting in front of a computer all day which so many people do nowadays. I'm probably an extreme example because I'm the only person I know who even LOVES developing film, I get so excited looking at the negs as they come out of the tank, for me that's the magic moment. It takes all sorts I suppose.

"But, I have yet to see a digital print that is the equal of a good chromogenic print."

This is getting to be a consistent whine for me, but I still don't know what this means. Better how? What makes it better? I really want to know, because I read things like this pretty consistently. What is lacking in digital?

If it's something that can't really be defined, maybe it should say something like "I haven't seen a digital print that I prefer the look of, to a good chromogenic print." Even then, I'd have questions, since digital can pretty much look like anything given the right procedure, but that would help.

(PS - I don't mean to be argumentative. I just read comments like that a lot, and don't understand, and would like to.)

I look forward to this series, Mike.

I am three years your senior. Although I certainly did snap thousands of chemical frames (and still do a few) I have never, never worked in a darkroom.

And I doubt I'll do so now. But I think it will be fun to follow along, rather like watching a show on fishing...while snacking on Mrs. Paul's.

The "paid profession" bit has always been a sideshow. The vast majority of film images were never taken for pay of any kind. The lions share was snapshots - mementos, I-was-here type shots where the personal connection to the subject was everything. They've long since migrated to digital cameras, and now to cellphones; whichever is more convenient irrespectively of technical quality.

Photography as a craft is a distant second, in film or digital, and users that work for pay is close enough to a rounding off error that you can mostly ignore it as far as the direct market value is concerned (the marketing value of the "pro" prefix to non-professionals seems to be what keeps a lot of such gear in production). Becoming mostly a craft rather than mostly a mass medium isn't only negative. It will tend to mean less choice and higher cost, but also higher-quality stuff on average, as the remaining buyers tend to know better what to look for.

As a photographer who went to art college to learn to throw pots I regard your comments as a personal affront.

Just kidding. It was right on. :-)

I can't say I didn't, on balance, enjoy my time in the darkroom. But I can say I didn't enjoy the skin rashes and breathing problems.

So, while I understand the emotional attachment to black and white printing, I can't say I'm ever going to do it again.

For many of us film diehards it's more than "craft". The classic mechanical cameras of the 60's and 70's have never been equalled in feel and control interface by modern cameras. Witness the interest in the Fuji X100 with a shutterspeed dial, aperture ring and *GASP* a shutter button threaded for an old manual cable release. If it had a PC flash terminal I'd fall over in a dead faint. My goodness, it almost looks like a real camera. There is among us film holdouts a longing for such simplicity in a compact digital camera. Oh of course there would be a need to set up various parameters in the camera but these buttons could be hidden when not used. Another nice feature would be to turn off the preview screen and review images when you get home. That would sure beat trying to evaluate your last shot on a 3 inch screen while the rest of the planet has moved on. I know many photographers get along just fine with a menu driven interface to basic camera control.

I'm not one of them. I'm sick to death of cameras obviously designed by people who have never held a Nikon F or Canon FTb or Olympus OM-1 in their hands. "Oh yes, you can set shutter speed manually, just open the menu, scroll to exposure setup, go to sub menu, scroll to 'manual exposure' icon, select 'shutter speed', now hold down the 'function button' and then with the other hand you........" I'm already 62, not gonna live long enough to fool with such nonsense.

Nice job of establishing a context for film, Mike.

Doing something because we want to, as opposed to need to, is all the difference.

Well, I had the 'craftsman' epiphany last night, around 1am. After putting up 5 rolls to dry, the results of a last 'flush the buffers' weekend before my daughter is born, i saw at least one interesting shot on each roll. That was mighty pleasing, but moreso was that I had to make on the fly adjustments to each step of my processing, judgement calls that came from...oh dear lord, 24 years of darkroom work(I'm 36, so, that's...well, a damn big number of years to be doing anything:)

I realized fully, then, that I didn't gives a rat's patoot to where my images may be shown - after all, some navaho blankets tell stories, but they all keep you warm. And I can make a warm blanket, and that's enough.

Bad, tortured, analogy. but there ya go.

(But glory be, there's nothing like your wife and son smiling at you on a perfect 6x7 negative, side by side with a railroad bridge in fading sunset, that makes it worth every light-struck, missprocessed, out of focus, or just plain bad shot!)

I can't wait to read these. My enlarger is sitting poised ready for the construction of a darkroom. All the printing I did in the past was certainly for the craft of it. It was difficult to explain to some friends that I was taking a bunch of photos but only ever intended to print a couple (of course this is the way it is with digital).
On the subject of exceptions that prove the rule - my university chemistry department has a glass blowing workshop. It is amazing the little bits of glass that you disocver you need that noone regularly manufactures.

Since childhood, I've wanted a darkroom. I had a battered darkroom basics book that moved with me from home to home for many years--through college, marriage, and the birth of my first child. A year or so after a bought my first digital camera in 2000, I let go of the idea and finally gave away the book.

A couple weeks ago, I bought an old Omega D2. Next week, I'll be printing photographs in my own little makeshift basement darkroom. It took about 30 years and shooting almost nothing but black and white film for the past year, but I finally got around to it.

Mike, you just nailed (better than I have to date) the major reason I shoot almost exclusively film and don't see that changing any time soon.

I'll shoot digital on occasion because it's a good way to put things up online quickly, but I really don't derive any enjoyment from it.

If it ever does become impractical to shoot film, hopefully by then at least one camera maker will have created a digital camera which doesn't leave me cold or broke.

"This is getting to be a consistent whine for me, but I still don't know what this means. Better how?"

We're at a disadvantage, David, because we can't show prints over the internet. It's like not being able to hug someone over the telephone. It's the medium that's the problem here. I'm just saying.


Mike, you are not a jerk, you are highly intelligent, write beautifully, to the point, always have something to say, and I always learn something from your post.

David and Mark et al,

Of course I can only comment on what I perceive, but my two examples are pretty damning. At SFMoMA some inkjet prints by William Christenberry were exceptional by not only by their method of production, but their lack of depth, they looked flat in tone. This establishment displays mainly chromogenic prints, and I have seen there Jeff Wall's work as transparencies. You cannot understand his work until you have seen it like this!

In Brighton last year the Biennial Exhibition was sponsored by Hewlett Packard, with all works displayed around the town produced on their printers and paper. I was not the only one to complain, according to those I spoke to.

These are just examples, but there they are, and for the present I have seen nothing to suggest that a digital print can equal the depth and luminosity of a chromogenic one. Maybe, I'm incorrect or perhaps this is like when we were told CDs were superior to records?

It seems Mike that you've had a hand in quite a few of us new converts. I bought an M6 in January and have been having a tremendously fun time shooting film. Just ordered a hundred rolls of hp5 today :). Would never have even thought of picking up a film camera in this day and age had it not been for some of the articles on TOP. Thanks again for opening up the world of film to me.



I readily concede that I often marvel at the quality possible with digital. The main reason(s) I love to shoot film is simply for the... aesthetic and tactile pleasure of it. I guess it's downright silly, but I love the way (metal) film cameras look, feel, and operate- it really enhances the experience for me. And since I have the luxury of not being a pro, and don't shoot hundreds of exposures a day, it's also more economical.

There may very well come a time within the next ten years when a digital camera is made that satisfies my aesthetic parameters within my price range. Only then will I trade tactile experience for convenience- and hope I don't regret the change. In the meantime, I confess that I sometimes have momentary lapses of anxiety when I feel the whole world rapidly passing right by me (like I'm the only guy left without a tattoo), but then a sense of calm inevitably overtakes me- I don't need the latest iphone, I don't need any iphone, period. But someday, I may just get a tattoo of a roll of Tri-X.

I do envy my pro architectural photographer friends who have gone digital professionally, because the process can be so much faster and the certainty of leaving the site knowing that you got every exposure right is a great stress reliever, but... the architectural photography service I offer my conservation architect clients is that of shooting in B&W film so that a very archival artifact exists for several lifetimes after we're gone. I believe this is probably one of the few legitimate reasons for continuing to shoot film in a professional context.

At least this is what I tell myself as I sit at the computer scanning roll after roll of 120 film and dust-spotting and working the scans up in photoshop. Yes, after the film is developed, I'm digital from then on. Incredible control over the image in photoshop and extremely nice prints on the latest inkjet papers.

And the very thing, craft, that will keep film alive is also what is pushing labs to close down. As a bigger proportion of film photographers process and print themselves, labs become less and less relevant. Witness the famous Parisian lab Picto, which has just announced it will no longer process film because there's not enough demand anymore.

A quick search didn't return any result in English, but here is a piece about it in French:


It's funny, I sit down to read this as my scanner is humming along, slowly scanning the four rolls of film I just ran in the kitchen.

Film is alive and well at my house, and I can't wait to hear more from you on the topic.

Of course, I didn't quite get that 1 year 1 camera 1 lens thing going...i got distracted by other cameras, lenses and formats. I've managed to stick to 1 (non-instant) film though! (It still counts as one film if I use it in 35 and 120, right?)

I took it on the chin being at the vanguard of digital printing... a hard slog at first. There was just no way my prints from 9 years ago were ever going to be able to withstand the Florida sun, even with Epsons best materials. Only now with K3 Magenta and K3 Green am I getting prints that can withstand a sun room or outdoor placement (patio in the shade). Kudos to the engineers for getting us this far, kudos to the Nash editions boys for making me a believer, and kudos to the photographers like Caponigro who were willing to really invest the time to make digital prints shine. Now, if someone can just simplify color management...

I've returned to using film from digital and love it so much more. I've been asking myself why and there are a number of reasons:

I sit in front of a computer all day so developing and printing film is a welcome relief relief from that. When I get home from work I have no desire to spend my evenings sat in front of a screen but losing myself in the darkroom is all too easy.

The tangibility of film and the act of developing is somehow more satisfying than seeing the result of carefully arranged ones and zeros on a screen. Human beings enjoy having something to hold.

I seem to make better photographs on film, simply because I have more respect for the medium. I know it's not very easy to fudge a decent result at the end so I take more time over each frame. Also, I don't have deep pockets so every wasted frame is painful. Despite that, the pure relaxation and enjoyment I get from using film far outweighs the costs.

I'm 28, by the way, so haven't had a life time of using film. I use digital when I need a rapid result but I don't seem to get the same emotional response from my good images. I know I'm going to be priced out of using film at some point in the future so I'll continue to make the most of it whilst I can.

I can identify with the crafting. I doubt I'll ever get back into a wet darkroom, but if I did, this would be one of the reasons. I still develop B+W film, and while that has the same sort of satisfaction you get from baking your own bread, it's feels more like a technical skill rather than a craft to me.

There are facets to using analogue cameras and techniques which may have an indirect effect on your photography - it's not all about technical quality and ease of use. However this post is about printing, so I'll just wait for the next installments with interest.

NB A hybrid process I've been considering is digital negatives and contact printing - any thoughts / experience of that? No dodging and burning of course (at the exposure stage).

Oh no - here we go again. The article is about film as craft, but it feels like it's slipping inevitably towards the 'digital can do everything film can do' discussion, again. As a person who grew up using digital cameras, and works every single day with digitally-produced media, I can say that simply isn't true.

Having relatively recently discovered (color negative) film, I can state quite categorically that the aesthetic is totally different, the way that film responds to light is totally distinct to the characteristic look of a digital sensor. I'm actually at a loss to describe all of the differences, but if I shoot the same scene side-by-side with a digital and a film camera, then the rendering (especially of out-of-focus areas, or patches of bright light) is of a totally different kind. (Try taking a shot of an arrangement of thin twigs brightly backlit and with a shallow dof to see the way that film handles this gracefully and beautifully, in contrast to the way that the sensor handles the subject. I'm not suggesting this as a common scenario, just an extreme test example where some of the particular differences are highlighted).

Naturally, post-processing can attenuate the differences - but the raw material is so totally distinct that digital ends-up looking like a parody of the film image: it may add grain and contrast and desaturate color (and so on), but it cannot transcend the limitations of the initial capture.

btw Mike - you've also repeated the mantra that digital looks "better" than film "especially in color" several times recently. I honestly wonder whether you're up-to-date with the latest color-neg films from Kodak. Take a look at this page, for instance, and tell me that the plastic, artificial skintones of so much digital imagery is "better":


Finally!!! The beginning of the filmapalluza!! Rock it Mike!

One reason I'm sticking with film is that my equipment--both camera and darkroom--will last out my lifetime. With anything computer based, the need to upgrade or replace seems pretty well incessant.

As to the flatness in digital prints that Mike Jones alludes to, I think one cause may be inappropriate sharpening. I don't think it's as much a problem with sensors that lack an anti-aliasing filter (Leica M9 and medium format sensors), but across the board sharpening is the standard for the majority of sensors which have an anti-aliasing filter. "Restoring sharpness" quickly deteriorates into sharpening edges that should remain soft. The contrast between sharp and soft edges is an important component of visual depth. Making darkroom prints is a good way to regain a feel for appropriate sharpness, and I recommend it to those who print digitally.

I'm looking forward to the posts too as this comes at a very apt time for me: after a few years of developing and scanning black and white film I've just bought what I need to set up my first darkroom from scratch. (It's a great time to buy too - everything I need to get printing including paper and chemistry for under £100!) I recently sold most of my digital gear partly for financial reasons but also because I found I wasn't really using it. I'm in love with the look of black and white film and trying to ape that digitally seems not only a bit pointless, but a bit pretentious as well somehow. I'm an IT/graphics professional and my "craftmanship" in Photoshop is pretty good, but I print digitally infrequently enough that I end up using a couple of ink cartridges just to unblock the print heads each time; so on to a new craft! It may not be "cutting-edge", but as Atget proved, just because a method's considered obsolete doesn't mean it's no longer capable of creating great works of art!

Q: Why do you still shoot film?

A: Because I feel like it.

A perfectly valid answer, IMHO. The potential of the traditional darkroom has not changed. And yes, the "craft" aspect of the process is important, too.

The beauty of a digital camera is being able to delete the picture that didn't look good right then and there. However, we do not only learn to delete pictures, we learn to discard the whole camera. And it's not just the cameras. There's a disturbing lack of permanence in all things digital. Our purchase decisions are already based on the knowledge that the equipment will soon become obsolete once a newer and more powerful model comes around. Digital technology has shifted photography into a disposable culture (or at least greatly accelerated the transition). And as human desires increase and we are never satiated the damage to the world's eco-system has grown. Thus, we need to wake up to the fact that the throw away lifestyle is not sustainable. I am firmly of the opinion that, as this sentiment takes hold we will be slowly warp back to film. The golden age of obsolescence, the heyday of digital gizmos, will go the way of the buffalo.

So I was at my son's little league game last month and took some snaps of the little heroes with Tri-X. I printed a few in the darkroom and scanned the others for emailing to the parents. When I returned to the next game I gave some prints away and the parents were quite complimentary about the images and the "vintage" look.

They asked how I achieved the look (which was absolutely nothing special, just kids playing ball) and I told them they were film/darkroom. Not one but two of the parents were very surprised, since film wasn't being made any more, nor was it being processed anywhere. They wanted to know where I got the old film.

And that's film's situation today. People think it no longer exists and can't be processed. I probed a bit with the parents and we figured out the culprit was Kodachrome; they saw the news from last year and assumed the stories were about all films and all processing. They didn't read the stories of course, but then why would they?

My new year's resolution for '11 was to set up a darkroom, which I did in January. I've been having a ball ever since. Mike, your comments on craft are spot on. It just feels good to work with light and chemistry and to make something solid, and watch it floating there in the rinse water.

Doesn't matter if the picture is good or bad, or how long it lasts. It's just fun.

I'm functionally digital these days - shot all of about 4 frames on the 'blad and as many sheets 5x4 last year - but in the process, I decided I needed a "look", an appearance into which my output should slot, and promptly discovered DxO Optics with their excellent film emulations. So now, after any amount of work in PS and other tools, I frequently punt images into "Provia-space" or "selenium-toned FP4+ -space". The results make me happy enough.

Stan B. -- I don't have a tattoo either. But you at least have a good idea for one.

Enjoy your film! Using it because you like to is the best possible reason (same as for digital).

I was handling a Fuji X100 last night (friend turned up at an event we were both at with one), and the first thing that struck me about it was how light it was -- much lighter than an M3, for something about the same size and with rather the same look. I do like the amount of information in the viewfinder (that's configurable, and I was using how she had it set not changing it), and the dedicated aperture and shutter speed controls.

I started developing b&w film and printing in my makeshift darkroom back in 1973. I was 14 at the time. The last time I stepped into a darkroom was to teach silver photography at the local college about three years ago. Funny thing, if you remove the "digital" and the "film" labels, photography is still about using a lens to draw with light. Many of the skills that I acquired in the old film days have dovetail well with life in the digital world.

"I hasten to add, to forestall the inevitable jumped-to conclusions, that no, I am not "returning" to film. Unlike some (and no disrespect to them), I don't happen to see film and digital as an either/or proposition. I shoot digital. Just not exclusively. And no, TOP is not becoming a film-only site (I'm sure somebody's going to say that, somewhere). Our coverage by and large will not change."

It just goes to show that even the most patient amongst us can develop a healthy dose of justifiable crankiness as a blog administrator.

I agree that digital is a different, and different-looking medium; I was speaking more about the potential properties of prints. Digital's two main failings to me are skin tones and highlights (contrast/DR is difficult to master in both media), and learning to handle both is the chief technical challenge of working with digital. (It's bizarre to me that hobbyists universally fixate on "noise" in the shadows, which doesn't matter much, and largely ignore highlight detail and highlight transitions, which do matter.) The biggest hurdle is judgement: learning how a print should look. That's equally difficult for most people in both film and digital.


Dear Mike Jones,

I cannot deny your personal experience, nor can I speak to the quality of any digital prints you have seen, nor to any matters (nor idiosyncrasies) of personal taste -- you'll like what you like.

But those imponderables aside, the notion that chromogenic prints are in any way superior to inkjet prints by any possible objective measure (other than surface finish) is completely incomprehensible to me. I can't even imagine such a possible claim, the difference in quality is so great in digital's favor.

Great debate occurs over whether digital prints are better or worse than dye transfers, with cogent arguments being made both ways. Personally, I give the overall nod to dyes, but it depends on the photographs-- often it's a toss-up and sometimes digital wins. I have some photographs I'll never print as inkjets. I have others I'll never make dyes of, because I know the inkjet prints would be superior.

But chromogenics??? They don't even play in the same league.

It'd be like arguing over which is the best sushi restaurant in the Bay Area and someone says, "Well, that box I picked up at Safeway was superior." My brain doesn't even know what to do with that.

pax / bemused and befuddled Ctein

I've often wondered why film, silver printing paper etc. isn't sold at the high street retail level through art supply stores now rather than camera/photo stores (which often carry limited/no selection anyway). Persumably something to do with distributors, but I suspect if these products are going to be sold in future through retail outlets at all that is where it will be.

* It's pronounced "WALK-uh-shaw," or sometimes something a little closer to WALKIE-shaw."

I wonder if Garrison Keillor has learned that yet. More than once on "A Prairie Home Companion" when he read his audience letters, he'd say something like, "to my family in wuh-KEE-sha."

I love digital. I have for a long time now. We film I could never get an image from a 35mm film that I could enlarge reasonably to 24x36 inches. With digital I have, repeatedly, from 1600iso files.

But the thing I do miss about film, is the anticipation. There's something to be said about having to wait to see what you have. It's exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, when processing. But when I was shooting, there was no point thinking about it, no chimping, no temptations, just shooting. There was a certain glory in that. (And I don't have the will power to not look, at least now and again, at the LCD.)

Must be a different place, or else he ain't from here. It's definitely not pronounced like that.


I set up my very first darkroom just one month ago. I'm really looking forward to future posts on printing. Your tips about Adox paper and Adotol WA developer have been spot on.

Well, at the risk of joining this party too late, I am totally looking forward to your writing on this craft that I also love so much. You're the guy to do it, Mike, and the printing world misses your voice at times.

I must say that the one thing I take issue with is the sentiment that photographers don't have to get into film and shouldn't "worry about it for a second." In fact there is a very good reason to worry about it, at least for a few seconds: if enough of you abandon film, it will disappear.

I point this out all the time, but it's largely ignored, except by us film photographers who worry constantly about the deletions of old emulsions and the every-downward spiral of Kodak. Please worry about it, just a little, and, hey, maybe buy roll now and again for old time's sake and for the sake of saving a wonderful craft from extinction.

The biggest problem seems to be that various forms of film are no longer available. i.e. Fujichrome Quickloads and even Fujichrome sheet film in 5x7 size.

I shoot with a Leaf Aptus 75S on Contax 645 which replaced my Arca Swiss Field 4x5. The only thing I really miss about film is the look of Fujichrome films. Digital just doesn't have it though its own look is OK too just not as pretty as film.

I have considered going back but the momentum toward these films going away stops me.

Dear Mani,

Dunno if this will help, but I hope it will--

It may be useful to you to keep in mind that, in broad terms, digital photography is like work with a really unforgiving slide film. Best practices for slide film are very different from those for neg film.

My unscientific observation has been that the film photographers who (on average! your mileage will differ) adapted most easily to digital were slide photographers. Color negative photographers had more trouble unlearning their now-bad habits*. B&W photographers even a worse time. I expect vice-versa will also be true, on average.

Pace latent-image's remark about poor digital printing, I suspect there's some of that going on there, too, with printers not altering their practices and habits to deal with a medium that "thinks differently." Also, way too many folks who are new, relatively speaking, to digital printing. Wet print had many decades to mature. So, lots of bad advice and practices out there for folks to "learn" from.

(BTW, Latent, you're right. Digital prints do tend to go flat. It's readily adjusted for when creating the image file. It's not hard. Folks who don't haven't become good printers, yet.)

pax / Ctein

*example-- overexposing negatives is cool. Overexposing slides is really not!

Dear Folks,

A broad thought.

Photographers often confuse what a print medium can do with what they typically see from it. This is not a new thing. For example, one often heard the comment made that color (chromogenic) printing had the problem that you were stuck with one paper grade, unlike B&W.

What was really going on was that probably 90% of color printers never bothered to keep more than one color print paper on hand. The range of contrast grades wasn't great-- maybe spanning from Grade 2 to Grade 3. But think of how much worse off your B&W prints would have been if you had only Grade 2 paper and not also 2.5 and 3.

99% (another number I'm making up) of color printers never bothered with contrast-control masking. Extra work, but it's what you did if you REALLY wanted contrast control in color, and if you made it part of your routine it didn't take long and it wasn't hard.

But hardly anyone did. So there was a common wisdom that you didn't have any contrast control in ordinary color paper.

A lot of what I see people complaining about in any print medium is simply the result of less-than-great craft. Whether it's darkroom or digital. Don't get the two confused. Doesn't matter if 90% or even 99% of the printers do it the bad way. That's their problem, not the medium's problem.

I think that's even more true for digital than darkroom. In the darkroom, wrapping your head around a new technique often means learning new craft, so there are two learning curves to surmount. In digital, it's all technique.

pax / Ctein

"My unscientific observation has been that the film photographers who (on average! your mileage will differ) adapted most easily to digital were slide photographers."

Hmm, that's really interesting. I've never heard that before, but you could be on to something there.


I dunno, I think it's SORTA the medium's problem if it demands something like contrast masking to do well. If the natural and easy and common way to do it results in too much contrast, but there's an intricate, hard to learn, and time consuming workaround, I'd say that's partly an inherent weakness of the medium. I still take your basic point, though, without disagreement.

The *only* great Cibas I ever saw (run-o'-the-mill Cibas set my teeth on edge; I almost couldn't look at them) were some of Richard Misrach's Desert Cantos--either he or his printer was a master at contrast masking, and he used the matte paper (which few people did because it was supposedly much less archival). The prints looked really good. But I'll bet they were really hard to make.


This is just to say that I like the photograph Cuyahoga a lot. And in a dreamy sort of way, it reminds me of the first Wright glider. M. Johnston fecit?

As a film photographer, I think I specialized in underexposing B&W negatives (in low light), and then managing to rescue them in the printing. You'd think, over 30 years, I'd find some way to adapt things so I at least averaged properly exposed, and perhaps biased the errors in the less-damaging direction, wouldn't you? Sometimes I think I'm too stubborn.

In color I mostly shot slides until the late 1980s. Early digital capture is definitely like slides -- I have to watch out for blowing the highlights all the time.

One place where digital doesn't seem to me to have caught up is in flash event photography. I got consistently better results with color negative film and quick on-the-move flash than I can even with current-generation digital with the matching (completely new system) flashes (Nikon D700 and SB-800 flash for me). One reason is that the TTL flash now works off a pre-flash, so there's added delay, and people with fast reactions get a chance to blink.

Of course, I can get by in more situations without flash these days.

Hoo boy, where to start? This post sure touches a nerve for me. I love to read about crafts and I craft vast dreams about what I'd do if I pursued those crafts. Then I move on to another craft and dream some more without ever taking much part in the craft. Then I beat up on myself for not actually doing the craft when I feel unsatisfied and in need of accomplishment or fulfillment for my emotional health. I've been told by a psychologist that I need to get into a craft and enjoy the "doing" of it and stop fixating on the final product and whether or not it meets my dream standard. I sure could use the Zen and Flow that doing a craft would provide. Plus, I love old things like mechanical cameras and clocks so digital doesn't hold a lot of allure to me.

So...I am SO looking forward to these forthcoming postings! Even though I have dreamt of doing most of the crafts Mike mentions, I always seem to return to B&W photography at some time or another. I even have bought two David Vestal books for help before they are gone from used book land forever. I never could put into words why I love reading about old cameras but calling it a craft hit the nail right on the head, Mike. Crafts seem to be a huge part of the zeitgeist right now (with prices to match). I just wish I had spent the money on film, a camera and a "Leica year" before I became unemployed for 6 months and looking to make a career change that will start paying me less than I made out of college 12 years ago! I'm still stuck on what old film camera I want: a Konica T4 with 40mm lens or a Pentax MX with the 50mm f/1.4. I need to just grab any old camera and get on with it! So all of you who want to start a craft, take it from me and just get on with it! If only I followed my own advice...

Dear Mike,

I don't disagree. It's a more nuanced conversation that I made out to be. Mostly I'm reacting to the frequent flat-out assertions that some medium produces lousy results as compared to an older, more familiar one. On occasion it's true, but 99% of the time the defect isn't in the medium But the person who's been using it.

To use the example that started this, it's entirely possible Mike Jones has a golden eye, like Oren Grad (and, people, Oren really does!) But absent that low-probability explanation, I can't come up with any plausible way in which chromogenic prints would be considered superior to digital ones. Other than poor printing.

Regarding contrast masking, are you possibly getting it confused with color-correction masking? Contrast masking has to be learned, like any darkroom craft, but it is really fast and easy once you learn it. I would typically set aside an afternoon for making masks for negatives, and I could mask anywhere between 50 and 100 negatives in that time. Enough for months of printing. It was tedious and uncreative… but so was spotting prints. Sometimes art is just a bitch. Anyway, that's why liked to do it in large batches, so I could get it out of the way and not think about it.

Color correction masking, on the other hand, does involve a considerable amount of finickiness and rocket science. People who aren't familiar with it should think of it as the darkroom equivalent of rolling-your-own color management. I still don't like it.

Regarding Ilfochromes, I've seen two other examples of superb Ilfochrome printing. One of them being Joe Holmes' (and why are you not surprised), and it's one of the big reasons why I firmly assert that he's a better printer that I am. Both the printers doing superb Ilfochromes went to truly heroic measures to do it, even by my standards. So in that case, yeah I do have to blame it on the materials. There are just some things it's not reasonable to expect a decent printer to do.

On the other hand, all print materials and media have their serious annoyances and limitations. One of my big gripes about darkroom materials is the overall characteristic curve. That S-shaped curve works very well for certain kinds of subjects, even the majority of them. And when you try to do anything that isn't the norm, say, good quality night photography, it gets massively in the way. Black and white film photographers went to extreme compensating development. That trick doesn't even work in color. And even for ordinary subjects, if you're doing modified development to increase or decrease contrast, what happens to the toe and shoulder of the curve frequently gets seriously ugly.

Most darkroom people don't even think about that, it's so much like air for them.

And then there's the business of properly matching films and papers, which we've both discussed at some length. I'll bet you a bagel that at least 2/3rds of the people who hated TMAX films were folks who are using print papers with short, brilliant toes. Combine that with the linear highlight characteristics of a typically developed TMAX negative, and you've got a blown-out highlight problem that almost makes you long for digital. Know what I mean?

Like I said, it's a nuanced discussion, but I think if one needs to have a blanket rule, it should be that before declaring a newish medium to be lousy, one should consider it equally likely that lousiness lay with the person using the medium.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

On the slide film/digital thing, I've read comments similar to Ctein's before (from Thom Hogan, among others) and it chimes with my anecdotal experience too. Until recently I'd never used film, and the limited skills I have were entirely developed on digital equipment. A few weeks ago I picked up an old 35mm rangefinder (another TOP "convert"!), and without the crutch of my trusty histograms I expected to struggle with exposure. It didn't turn out like that at all - B&W film has much more exposure latitude than I'm used to, and I almost feel like it's encouraging me to be sloppy. It doesn't surprise me at all that someone going the other way might have real problems with the transition.

I forgot to add that I really like Cuyahoga too.

A point derived from Ctein's posts, but that he hasn't quite made explicitly: digital printing is also a high craft.

Good digital craft's not just about pushing a button and having prints coming spitting out of a printer, although you can do that. You could also do that with black and white film -- with newspaper developing machines. Shove the film in, five minutes later you get the film out. Thread the film into a printing machine, five minutes later, get the prints. None of this invert-the-tank-gently time-wasting b.s. Good-enough is fine.

I've been to lots of photo shows, and it hadn't occurred to me to like digital prints either more or less well. At the art-show level, the quality is pretty high whatever the medium (with some exceptions, but the exceptions are not really not medium-dependent, I don't believe.)

As for people who start heavy breathing when somebody mentions film shoulders, you can get all the shoulders you want with emulation software, as long as you have enough information in the digital image. My daughter has an iPhone for which somebody sells a "Polaroid" app which gives rather startling emulations of old color Polaroids...this out of a cell phone cam. Better stuff is available for more serious post-processing.

So the question is...how many people who either are, or yearn to be, serious silver printers, have ever tried to become serious digital printers? It seems to me that this yearning is very much akin to the yearning to throw pots, a somewhat archaic activity which, though it is capable of producing masterpieces, most of the time produces the equivalent of a cat photo. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

(Who has thrown a number of pots in his time, and knows whereof he speaks.)

"So why would you get into film photography, then? I think there's one basic reason: because it's a highly developed, beautiful craft, and crafts can be fun."

Do you think that digital photography is a highly developed, beautiful craft as well, and fun too? Or not?

Dear Toto,

I think there's an implicit word -- "manual."

The whole making-something-with-one's-own-two-hands thing. Darkroom printing is lots of hands-on manual craft.

Me, I don't think I get off on the whole hands-on thing. I get off on results. But a heck of a lot of people do get off on it.

Someone's who has never done darkroom work may very well not realize that it's a craft thing, until someone like Mike points it out to them.

pax / Ctein

Still have not finished my dark studio to print. I can only develop (35mm to 4x5, auto and 8x10 mainly manual). I would wait for your and I hope I can catch up next year.

Funny - I was on this page earlier today and read ctein's comment referring (helpfully) to my post, but decided there was no point replying as no-one would see anything written at this late stage. Well, apparently film articles continue to engage TOP's visitors, as the number of posts since this morning has grown significantly.

So, just for the record, I'll say that his answer was based on a misunderstanding: my journey wasn't from film user to hamfisted digital user, but rather the reverse.

I've been using and manipulating digital stills and motion for (a few too many) years now. So it wasn't a case of "unlearning bad habits" from film, it was a sudden epiphany - a wonderful realization that film gives me waaaay more liberty in the way I can shoot. I no longer have to think about holding highlight detail; I don't need to worry about how an indoor shot might be spoiled by the sunlit window behind my subject's head; I can shoot a portrait in midday sun-dappled shadow under the apple tree... and so on, and on...

Film these days is mostly represented as a kind of nostalgic throwback. Even Mike's trying to keep it alive by invoking the joy of the PROCESS. I couldn't give a rat's *** about the process, to be frank. I just love - LOVE - the freedom.

I'm an excellent traditional black and white printer, if I do say so myself, and I've got the silver-gelatin prints to prove it. Nevertheless, I don't miss the effort it took to produce an exhibition-quality print. It wasn't so much being in the dark for hours, breathing chemical vapors, and contorting my hands into weird shapes to dodge and burn, it was having to wash and dry fiber-based prints. Any who's done it can tell you that producing a flat, ripple-free 16x20 fiber-based print is a pain in the butt. It would be one thing if I had collectors lined up to buy my work, but that ain't the case and may never be.

That's why these days I prefer a hybrid workflow. Whatever film I shoot gets scanned (I own a Nikon Coolscan V), adjusted in Photoshop, and saved as a "perfect" negative that I can then use to make "perfect" prints on a large format printer. No dark, no fumes, no huge printer washer, no huge and heavy print dryer. Plenty of paper choices.

All this being said, I wouldn't be nearly as good a digital printer today if I hadn't learned how to produce exhibition-quality B&W prints the traditional way.

Dear Mani,

I did understand your journey. There'll be the counterpart misunderstandings in your direction that the film -> digital people suffered.

pax / Ctein


I'll look forward to the series--I can always use some tips, but I want to thank you for this excellent post. I work (and occasionally teach photography) at Penland School of Crafts, which is one of those schools that teaches glassblowing--and ceramics, blacksmithing, woodworking, etc. Every bit of it pretty obsolete, unnecessary, and deeply satisfying--a few people even make a living doing these things.

I love your craft analogy and have been making the exact same argument about our traditional photo classes (we're running an eclectic, hybrid program in photo with a bit of confusion about what exactly our program's identity is right now). My argument is that traditional photography is now exactly like everything else we teach--obsolete technology being practiced for reasons of aesthetics or personal satisfaction.

I've taught photo twice at the school (the rest of the time I do the marketing) and both times I was prepared to have a conversation with my students about why anyone would want to bother with such a cumbersome and slow way of making a photograph. Those conversations never happened because the question never came up--everyone was too busy making pictures to worry about it.

Great to see more articles like this, Mike, myself I have a lot of fun using my large format camera gear, I mostly use a hybrid method where I process the film and scan the resulting negative, my nice comfy little office where I am writing this used to be my darkroom, I moved my film developing station into my laundry room, I load my film into daylight tanks ( my own design ) in my bathroom. It works great for me and as I mentioned the view camera is fun to use. Just so you think I'm not some kind of film nut, I shoot digital every day for my job as a photojournalist ( shooting for the same paper for 27 years ) I have been shooing digital since 2001 and love it, I would never want to go back to film for my newspaper work. I hated making up those color chemicals !


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