Film Vs. Digital

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

This Article Features Photo Zoom

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 4×5 (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.

We’ve succeeded at making things easier today. Not to diminish the skill and accomplishments of today’s digital photographers, but zipping through RAW images by clicking a few presets can’t even begin to compare with the intense labor required to coax the full dynamic range from a 4×5-inch black-and-white negative while making a contact print on sensitized paper. Once again, the variables were overwhelming—paper type, developer, exposure time, dodging and burning, etc. It’s a miracle that so many wonderful, masterful prints were created under those circumstances.

Clearly, we’ve gained so much by going digital. Digital photography is immediate. It has given us the ability to replicate images with 100% accuracy and consistency, and has dramatically created new avenues to share images. And perhaps the biggest gain of all—the technology has expanded the art form and has enabled hundreds of thousands of people to create high-quality results with little or no formal training.

But we’ve lost some things, too—at the very least, some of our ability to visualize how a scene will appear as a monochrome print. Thanks to the immediate feedback provided when we review images on a three-inch LCD, we no longer require that level of perception. We’ve also become less deliberate. We can shoot and shoot, and even fill cards with 1080p video at 30 fps, and then delete 95% later. In the old days, every shot counted. Today, the question is less about what to shoot and more about which images to keep.

Getting Digital Colors Right
When film was the medium of choice for photography, and transparency film, in particular, color management was something that the lab took care of by making sure your slides were processed in good chemistry at the right temperature and by using your filter of choice on your lens. If you took your film to a good lab, you got predictable results. With digital technology, to get your best output, color calibration is a necessity.

Calibration ensures that the colors you record in-camera are the same colors that display on the monitor and, in turn, the same colors that you get in your print. If the system isn’t calibrated, predictable results are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, and you’ll waste time, energy and money trying to fine-tune your prints. With products from companies like Datacolor and X-Rite, “what you see is what you get.”