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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Film Vs. Digital


A look at some of the differences between shooting in Ansel Adams’ era versus today

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When we examine legendary photographers like Ansel Adams, we realize that, by today’s standards, the equipment they used was more of a handicap than a secret ingredient. Half a century ago, serious photography was performed in black-and-white, with a great deal of patience and deliberateness using a 4x5 (or larger) view camera on a sturdy tripod. Images couldn’t be reviewed until after the film was developed—and then, initially, as negatives. Today, we shoot digital images in millions of colors at 10 frames per second and edit the “keepers” while still at the scene.

The two approaches resist comparison. It’s difficult to derive objective, scientific understanding when we compare film-based, silver-halide photography to digital imaging. The technology someone like Adams used 50-plus years ago when he was exploring Yosemite has little in common with the technology used by a modern professional shooting with a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, a Nikon D3S, an Olympus E-3, a Pentax K-7 or a Sony Alpha 900. In many ways, it’s like comparing painting with a brush and monochrome palette to spray painting with every color in the rainbow. In other words, almost every element is different.

More Variables
During the reign of silver-halide photography, the type of film and how it was processed made all the difference in the world. Even if a scene was predetermined to be shot in black-and-white, there still were many choices to be made—film speed, brand, spectral response, grain structure, format and, in some cases, emulsion batch. Matching the appropriate developer to the film was another huge challenge, and results varied widely depending on the choices made.

But in truth, it didn’t end there; that was just the beginning. Photographers had to decide more variables—the right combination of developing time and developer temperature, for instance. How much agitation? Swishing the film around too much during development could block shadows, cause streaks or blow out highlights. What type of stop bath to arrest the development process? Could the fixer (sodium thiosulfate) dissolve grain size and, if so, how soon should the film be rinsed clean? And keep in mind that nearly the entire process had to be conducted while the film was in absolute darkness. Last but hardly least, film was fragile and could be irreparably damaged by careless handling.

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