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Tuesday, 23 July 2019


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"But the fact is, I need the cameras we have today. ... I need autofocus. I appreciate today's sophisticated autoexposure, coupled with what I can correct using my favorite program, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). And I am reassured by IS. Having instant visual feedback and the ability to check results on the fly has made me a better photographer. High ISOs that can reach into the darkness, coupled with shadow recovery in ACR, has expanded the kind of subject matter I can consider, and being liberated from a set per-exposure cost has made it easier, more comfortable, and more fun to simply play. There was powerful austere beauty in the "purist" version of the way things used to be, but there seems no way around this conclusion: I used to have to work harder to get a worse result."

That encapsulated photography today for a great many of us here ... especially the old film dawgs. I have a friend who teaches film, darkroom and alternative processing at a local college and each time I look at his work I flirt with the thought of shooting film again. My heart LOVES the idea but my head knows better.

Don’t you still own the Exakta you bought a while ago? I would have thought that scratched the itch.

No, Ansel used the term ‘visualization’, and thought ‘pre-visualization’ redundant. The latter term is generally attributed to Minor White.

[You're right. Fixed, and thanks. --Mike]

Amen braugh, especially the playing vinyl part! I’ve recently discovered and been streaming WEVL.org public radio out of Memphis. They have regularly scheduled shows that play old R&B, soul, and blues, and hearing the hiss and pops from old vinyl recordings is wonderful. And maybe I’ll dust off my old Hexar and find some Tri-X too.

"DI just doesn't have the essential magic of film photography—that sense, when you look at an original print, that you are seeing a shadow of the real world. I don't feel that with digital and never have."

I have read sentiments like this from a lot of different sources and never quite knew what to make of them. To me no photographs have any *direct* connection with the world. They are flattened simulations and abstractions.

And, if anything, chemistry-based photographic processes are even more abstract and proprietary and inscrutable than anything in silicon. Just consider how few people really understand how color gets into a negative or slide. Meanwhile, color in digital cameras is mostly a matter of programming, once you've pulled the signal out of the sensor. Tons of people understand programming and basic image processing.

Maybe my overly etached and engineering-driven viewpoint is why I'll never take interesting pictures. But there you go.

I've yearned for a new, easier, more efficient imaging technology since the mid eighties, and yet, I didn't use a digital camera till 2016- for all the purist, nostalgic reasons you so listed... not to mention that I was also waiting for the time when I became convinced that digital had finally matured into a viable, cost effective and convenient alternative.

For me, that came with the GR and X-T1, tools (I first dismissed) that have allowed me greater access and freedom to what I want to achieve. I still love the "old ways," have great respect and admiration for all of it, and will always love and appreciate the 35mm Tri-X look- I also wish that the state of digital today had come some twenty years ago...

"....I used to have to work harder to get worse results. Or fewer good results." The funny thing is, that's a feature, not a bug. I find shooting film (either 35mm or 120) slows me down and makes me work at it differently and the contemplative, deliberate outlook I adopt for successful film shooting, spills over into my digital shooting and makes me a better photog overall. YMMV, as you might say.

I didn't get a chance to comment on the original film-digital post (was on vacation) but for me it's been 17 years digital; before that 23 years w/film. But during those digital years, and right up to the present, I've gone through phases of shooting B&W film for specific projects. In fact, I've just printed a 'zine (that's a "photo booklet" to us of a certain age) that includes a colour digital collection and B&W film collection from the same trip and the results are quite different but (me thinks) quite complementary.

Meanwhile, here I am shopping for a 1930s-era Kodak Brownie No. 2 in great working order because I want to shoot with it (alongside my Nikon FM2 and D810, and Zero Image 612F).

This piece is so beautifully written. You may be becoming old, and you may still be squinting a wee bit, but you sure can turn a phrase. Thanks.

All the tongue-clucking and tut-tutting over how this modern digital stuff allows people to press the shutter release with careless abandon overlooks a serious factor that obtained back in the olden days. Getting your film, developing, and printing even partially subsidized, whether directly through work or via tax writeoff, gave a tremendous advantage back in the day.

Nowadays everybody can shoot five hundred shots at your cousin's wedding. Granted, you may only get one keeper in a hundred rather than one in fifty or twenty five, but digital photography has been a great democratizer in near every field outside a specialist few.

There are many aspects of the darkroom that will always be in my memory, perhaps none so much as the smell.

I really enjoyed this journey down Memory Lane. I was just getting to previsualize my "photographs", then that menu thing came along, and then, if I didn't like my visual, software can change it. Somehow the challenge was gone with digital.

Call me an old grouch but you can't 'previsualize'. Visualization is an action, a mental one but an action never-the-less. It is thinking, forming the idea of the image you intend to create. It isn't just redundant. There is no 'pre'. It doesn't happen until you do it.

I have no regrets about switching from film to digital but there is no question that using film cameras taught me something as simple as the relationship of aperture to shutter speed-something that has diminished in the digital age. I was camping in Botswana earlier this year and spent some time with some of the guides showing the effect that changing aperture in using their digital cameras had in terms of dof. I never took that for granted using film but digital automation has made many forget or never learn. On the other hand, I was easily able to show them the effects thanks to digital and it was great to due a "workshop" in the bush.

Resonated with me pretty much all the way. I really love what digital can do, but I'll never forget that darkroom magic.

Rather than chemical B&W, I want to - someday maybe soon - invest time & some money in hacking an Epson printer to use a carbon ink-set. Last year in an art exhibit in Trenton, NJ, I saw a large print done with that, and it just blew me away with it's tonal range. Think Weston's "Pepper # whatever" or some of Ansel Adams Yosemite work.

Re your post-script: My friend, who like me mostly shoots on film (in fact he also shoots large-format) sent me a comic which is superbly applicable to contemporary film photographers :)

[Yes indeedy...I have a framed copy of that cartoon hanging in my family room. Right next to the stereo.... :-) --Mike]

I miss the sense of control I had using [film cameras], and the feeling of a direct connection with the world [… ]. I feel neither with digital imaging. DI just doesn't have the essential magic of film photography.

That’s an interesting thought, Mike.

I will add that digital imaging lacks the straightforward direct controls throughout the process, from image capture to printing. Computerisation is involved at each step and the software is complex, so that mastery is beyond almost all of us.

Mike, you say that you need autofocus and auto exposure and stabilisation, and (surprisingly) even help with (pre-) visualisation. I respectfully suggest you don’t.

Companies like Nikon and Canon have successfully indoctrinated everyone into believing that they need their technology, their box of electronics, to succeed in photography.

Neither of us are photojournalists covering a war, so there’s opportunity for us to unhitch ourselves from the concept of needing hand-held cameras that can respond in the blink of an eye to fast-moving action.

Instead, I suggest you might need reading glasses or a loupe or just a simple distance scale, together with a small hand-held incident light meter (such as the tiny Sekonic L-308S) and a lightweight tripod.

Around the time that others moved to digital cameras, I discovered a compact 4x5 shift camera (the Cambo Wide DS). That entry into large format led me to a new way of seeing and revealing the world that is simple, direct and satisfying. I have gained a sense of mastery. It even provides a sense of connection to the greats of photography.

Yet, from the comments I get, 4x5 seems to have been verballed by supposed experts as “too expensive”. I shoot thoughtfully, with purpose, and sparingly. I ask people how many photographs of any one subject do they need for their portfolio or album or wall, and they usually reply with an open mouth. I explain that I just need a few that I’m pleased with, and that I get them by first looking and deciding where and when to best to place the camera. The photograph becomes mine.

Mike, to do something about your sense of dis-satisfaction, I suggest: Get a compact 4x5 camera and a clip-on mirror viewer for the groundglass (instead of a dark cloth). And the Sekonic incident meter I mentioned. And a project that interests you. The photos you've shown us from your new locale suggest LF is just the way to go.

I think that's all you and I need. At our stage of life, we need the satisfaction. And a few photographs that we can be pleased with.

Watching one more in this summer's series of space history specials I realized that all the pictures and movies were recorded on film. And they're held up surprisingly well over 50 plus years.

Kodak must have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of all the government funding.

I live 3,000 miles away from you but you can still read my mind. How do I know? Because what you wrote is what I had on my mind. Exactly!

You need to be careful because you may not like everything that is on my mind. *-)

I agree about black and white chemical imaging and, as my comment to your post that started this discussion said, still practice it regularly. Jazz is my musical genre of preference too. However, back in 1985 I embraced CDs with great enthusiasm. There were shortcomings to be sure in those early digital audio recordings/systems, but they paled in comparison to vinyl's deficiencies. Over time, CDs improved to the point where I would no longer even consider permitting a turntable to be part of my playback system. Although I still have one in a box in a closet. Thanks for the reminder; I should get rid of it and free up some storage space. :-)

Hi Mike. Like you, I've come to need autofocus as I've advanced in age. And high ISO is absolutely critical for the live music photography I spend most of my time on these days - I doubt I could get a shot like this one on film:


The one point I'd quibble with you on is color printing. Inkjet prints are better than most traditional color prints, but maybe not all. I still have a few really spectacular Cibachromes (some of the later ones are probably Ilfochrome). And of course, even these aren't as pretty as the transparencies from which they were made....

Minor White's term previsualization makes sense if we interpret it to be different than visualization. Pre-visualization is one's mental plan for how the print will appear, which leads to decisions on how to accomplish the desired result; the print being the visualization of the scene. The visualization is by necessity different than the scene itself, being 2 dimensional, etc.


Just one more, slightly contrarian thought on film camera use. The received wisdom is that you think harder before shooting and that’s somehow a benefit.

I’d flip they round, the real benefit is that you can’t see the minor flaws at the time so don’t get bogged down in correcting them. It’s incredibly liberating almost as liberating as shooting with a phone and undoubtedly very complimentary to smartphone shooting.

I just souped a roll of Tri-X taken with a Leitz Summar 50/2, a lens made before WW2. I bought it 20 years back and this is the first time I put complete roll through my M3.

I now wait for a dark night to print the pictures.

Sorry, but Tri-X is the reason I prefer color negative. Nostalgia, been there done that ...in real time 8-) I'll stick with my modern Canon Elan 7n (lab scanned negs), and my iPhone Xs.

...For myself, I have to move on. Life is too short to live in the past. There is a lot to be done. So said Henry Rollins. I agree, there is a lot I want to do ...and not much time to do it.

Andy Holman suggests that knowledge of the relationship between aperture and shutter speed has diminished in the digital age. This is probably true in the sense that most people leave their digital cameras on "iA" but it doesn't have to be. My Lumix LX100 (now, alas, gone) had a lovely mechanical dial for speed and a lens ring for aperture. Set both to "A" and you have full auto. I wish more cameras were like that.

It would be interesting to imagine a third, new way of imaging that could come along and replace the present digital one. What happens to those in the previous two historical changes? What will they say then?

Digital cameras can reproduce only 16 million different colours. The B/W film has infinity number of grays. The film has magic. It is hidden in the exposure curve. With film one could dig out different grays (or colours) in a part of the curve where digital jumps from 75342 to 75343. There in no between in the numbers.

The gray scale, I miss Tri-X at 6400ASA (ISO) or at 200ASA. Just develop differenty and the number of grays are controllable.

At this age (68) I need IBIS and optical stabiliser (5 stops). I need autofocus and the EVF is not suitable for my eyes. So a smallish DSLR (like Nikon D500) fills only 1/3 of my needs. No bird-following autofocus in mirrorless in my price class.

So a suitable compromise is: phone camera. I can share my pictures in a way that was impossible 10 years ago. It compensates IBIS, autofocus and high ISO. Nobody cares about a little shake, if they really like the object and the photographic interpretation.

My 3 DSLRs gather dust. I use them about twice a week while the phone is snapping pictures twice a day.


Presumably that's the planning phase where you sit with a map and a cup of tea, marking points on the map where you think you may be able to stand and visualise what image you want to capture.

Only to find, when you get there, that someone has recently thrown up an ugly chain-link fence or a couple of cell-phone repeater towers...

I started processing B&W film in a bathroom when I was about 13 years old (1955),shot film and used various levels of darkrooms on and off until about 12 or 13 years ago. Once I started playing around with digital - scanned and printed first - and saw what I could do, I bought a DSLR and have shot maybe a dozen rolls of film since. I was never very fond of being in a darkroom and mostly did it to try to get the results that I wanted, often with limited success. I love handling my film cameras and will never part with them, use the lenses on my digital cameras where appropriate and fully appreciate that shooting film for all those years taught me a lot that I wouldn't know otherwise.

I don't expect to ever be in a darkroom again and will probably only shoot an occasional roll of film simply for the nostalgia of handling the cameras. I'm not super technical and shoot to please myself so digital works just fine for me. I also produce better prints than I (most of the time)did in the darkroom, without the back pain, eye strain and odor issues. Works for me.

Re, Ernie Van Veen’s featured comment.
This made me understand my real reason for never warming to digital.
I’m quite the opposite to Mr. Van Veen. All things electronic totally boggle me. Always have. I use the digital world appliances with out the slightest understanding of all the complexity. If things go wrong I am helpless and have my wife or one of my sons try to work out how to fix it. And I’m also a bit of a pessimist. Modern digital cameras are so complex that how would one know if something is working or not? Error code 56? It might as well tell me that ‘your monkeys have stripped socks’ for all the good it does.
Now, I can pick up an old Pentax H3v and in a couple of minutes tell you if the shutter is capping or the lens aperture is sluggish or if the advance is slipping. But a 5 year old (age equivalent in digital years) DSLR? Turn it on, press shutter button, if you hear something then maybe it works, not sure but maybe.

The B/W film has infinity number of grays.

This really isn't true. The actual "number of grays" that you can reproduce in film is a complicated quantity to compute mostly because we don't really understand exactly how film reacts to light, but also because it's a complicated tradeoff of signal to noise and sensitivity and how those change over the capturable range of values. But whatever it is, it's not an "infinitely continuous" set of values the way people seem to think it is. If we take enough samples with enough bits per sample, you won't be able to tell the difference between that result and a "continuous" picture. Exactly how many bits are needed is of course a hard question to answer.

Still, reasonable back of the envelope calculations (based on how many film grains are in a given area of film) say that something like 16 bit samples would capture as many different grays as 35mm film and 32 bit samples might even be enough to dominate even slow large format film.

This idea that film (or tape) have some magical infinite level of resolution is, IMHO, a weird and harmful myth. Life is always more complicated.

I am fully with Ernie Van Veen here. As for me, if it hadn't been for digital (scanning, post-processing, inkjet printing) my 1970s England photographs would never have seen the light of day and would still be languishing in the form of negatives and contact prints only.

In those days I was severely handicapped by the need to skimp on film, and, as I realized much later, I also lost quite a number of images through camera shake, severe underexposure, excessive grain or what not. Also, I still remember the agonies of deciding, when I could afford a roll or two, whether to buy b&w (fine grain or fast?) or colour (slide or print, and, again, what ISO?) Digital would have given me the freedom to shoot whatever took my fancy to my heart's content. And, never having had a darkroom to speak of, I would not have had to wait some forty years to see my images "enlarged".

So, for me, no more film; others' mileage may vary.

scurrying back to eBay to revisit film camera faves from days gone by
If you ever feel inclined to write a post on, say, 5 (or 10) 35mm cameras you'd like to own (for interchangeable lens cameras, maybe with a limit of 2 lenses per camera), I for one would read with great interest.

It is an odd sort of prejudice in a world that has turned the word 'chemical' into a curse, that people think that all the complex chemistry that went into a film emulsion was somehow less contrived and artificial than the (much more direct) manipulation of data, which is actually very simple in essence.

Chemistry or physics? Doesn't matter to me, but I accepted than a photography was an artefact a long time ago. Nothing much has changed, just the science.

However, it is interesting that those who took the trouble to learn the chemical craft feel out of sorts with the physics. It is because it requires a computer?

I am not sure it's their fault. I remember lots of excellent technical advice from Ilford about their FP4 film, and once you got the hang of it, you just kept using it. Nor was there any shortage of wisdom in magazines and books about the finer art of pushing and printing.

Most books on digital processing are just a list of recipes. They don't bother explaining the technical details, so it's hard to actually plan a shot from scratch. No publisher wants to try and sell an actual text book on the subject (I know, I tried).

Relying on the internet for technical information is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle from thousands of pieces, some of which are from a different puzzle, and all without a picture.

Film was at least predictable. Digital has been sold as being so easy, but it isn't. Or rather, it isn't really any more difficult, but there is no easy way to learn about how it actually works.

And that's from someone with a degree in chemistry and 35 years in the technology business.

The camera has become a gadget, and it's lost something of the mystique along the way.

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