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Saturday, October 1, 2005

Out With The New, In With The Old

Why reports of the death of film may have been exaggerated in this digital age

Out With The New, In With The OldIt's time to face facts. Everybody who's anybody is shooting digitally these days. Nobody is talking about film anymore. Do they even still sell film? It's all about the digital workflow. What was once called "taking pictures" is now known as "digital capture." Prints have been replaced by "output." Apertures and shutter speeds are passe‚—practically unnecessary. Fix it in post! A $10,000 camera? No problem; everybody has one. If you don't, you're behind the times. You must be a geezer. Must be afraid of change. If you want to be successful, you must shoot digital. Right?

Well, maybe not. The buzz is everywhere, and for good reason—digital technology is amazing and has revolutionized much of photography. But just because it's a hot topic and just because those rapid advancements are understandably exciting and attention-grabbing doesn't mean film is suddenly media non grata.

There are many successful photographers with lots of good reasons why they shoot film—especially in the world of outdoor photography. Before jumping to conclusions, know that it's not just a rebellion against the cost of digital gear or nostalgia for simpler days gone by. Landscape photographers are perhaps the largest population of non-digital pros around, and for Jack Dykinga, the question of whether he should be shooting film isn't even, well, in question.

"There's absolutely no better way for me to do landscape than large-format film, which in my case is 4x5 and Fuji-chrome Velvia film," says Dykinga. "In terms of raw capture of information, if you want to look at it from a computer geek's point of view, I'm capturing roughly 1,500 megabytes of information in a single sheet of film. That translates to about 500 megapixels."

Resolution is obviously a dominant factor for photographers who make a living selling big, beautiful, highly detailed prints. But Dykinga says his choice is as much a function of the camera controls that are available with large format. He can do things with his tried-and-true view camera that he simply can't accomplish in the computer.

"The large-format view camera, with all its movements, can correct perspective and bring elements into sharp focus, critically, both near and far," Dykinga explains. "When you're using a view camera, you've got 20 different controls for focus. So if you have to do that very precisely with a real small digital capture area, you're basically talking about a micrometer, and you're checking it on your laptop to double-check your focus. Whereas with the 4x5, I simply grab the standard of the camera, move it radically and stop it way down and I know I've got it. I'm louping it on the screen so I know I've got it. And it can be done so quickly, without electrical power."

Assuming Dykinga had an extension cord long enough to enable him to reach the remote locations where he shoots, he'd still need a digital capture back for that view camera. Sure, they're available, but for Dykinga, they're just not as practical as a few sheets of film. Scanning backs don't work well in the landscape because they require such long exposures and that all the elements in the image—including trees and flowers and clouds—remain perfectly still for the duration of the exposure or suffer strange color and registration effects. For him, it's a simple question: Why pay for this "convenience" when the film system already works perfectly?

"A lot of people don't realize that landscape sometimes is all about the decisive moment," says Dykinga. "It's usually when the wind stops and the perfect light appears. You wait around all day and then you go like a bullet and you're done. I'm not saying you can't do that kind of photography [with a digital camera], but you can't do that kind of photography and blow it up to a 40x50-inch print that knocks people's socks off. With my 4x5, I can have a flower that's a quarter of an inch in the transparency, and when I blow it up to 40 by 50, I can count pollen grains. Even with a flatbed scanner, we can send out a 300 dpi scan that any magazine can run on their cover and look good because we started off with something big."

Film is a proven system, and for photographers like Dykinga and James Kay, who each make their living selling images for both commercial and artistic uses, the proof is in the pictures. If it's the less exciting method that happens to be the better one for what they do, so be it.

A former adventure photographer, James Kay now concentrates on landscape photography. Ultimately, he says he has stayed with film because of the unique format options. He enjoys shooting with a panoramic camera, and there's just no viable professional panoramic digital option.


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