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 Prints have been replaced by “output.”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 4×5 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 4×5, 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 40×50-inch print that knocks people’s socks off. With my 4×5, 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.

“I shoot with a Pentax 67 and Fuji GX617 panorama camera, which aren’t available in digital format yet,” says Kay. “Once these options become available, I’ll have to take a look.”

When Kay says “take a look” at digital, he doesn’t mean consider buying a computer and possibly incorporating it into the workflow. Like most pros today, Kay already works within a digital workflow—it’s just that the process starts with film. Sometimes, he uses his Nikon Coolpix 5400 as a digital preview for a shot, as well as for scouting locations. Beyond that, every print for sale on his Website is made from a drum scan and a LightJet digital printer. Dykinga doesn’t use a digital camera for his professional work at all, but neither is he afraid of the computer. Both photographers are adamant about the fact that they’re simply choosing the best tool for the job, and at this moment the best tool for capturing their subjects is silver halide.

“The tight grain and color reproduction of Velvia have always provided great results,” says Kay. “I suppose that’s why every landscape photographer I know still uses film. If I was still predominantly shooting sports and people images, I probably would have switched over to a digital 35mm SLR long ago.”

“Photography is just a medium,” says Dykinga. “What I can’t stand is this adversarial stuff. I have yet to hear a bunch of writers having the discussion, Are you working on an IBM Selectric or a word processor? Who cares! It’s just a tool. And if you’ve got the right tool for shooting birds and it happens to be a digital, image-stabilized autofocus camera, then great. I’m not going to try to shoot a spoonbill flying into the camera with my 4×5. I’d be insane. By the same token, I say people are just as silly even with the best 16-megapixel cameras trying to shoot a landscape.”

Adds Dykinga, “There are plenty of instances—bird photography, sports photography, photojournalism—where I think digital capture is the way to go. Fast-moving things that autofocus can track, image stabilization allowing you to shoot slow shutter speeds, being able to push your film and leave an assignment and know what you’ve got—all those things are really great assets. It’s a big tent and there’s lots of room for different ways to approach things.”

Dykinga and Kay are so comfortable choosing film because it’s a proven system that has worked for generations. From a purely business standpoint, their biggest assets are their images. They can’t afford to make some of the leaps of faith than an amateur can. Along with knowing the results they’ll achieve from a particular film, it’s equally crucial that they know the integrity of those images and that they will survive long term.

Says Kay, “When shooting with digital, due to the amount of adjusting required for a RAW file, it’s very difficult to remember what the scene actually looked like when it was photographed. The final image has become much more subjective. With film, I can always grab that original and put it on a light table to see how the scene originally appeared. I also like the option of being able to store a piece of film in a file cabinet that I can always lay my hands on. No worries about losing the image due to a hard drive crash.”

Dykinga also wonders about the ins and outs of storing bits and bytes of images. “Is a vacuum cleaner running by the file cabinet going to destroy something?” he asks. “If you really feel that your work is valuable, do you want to trust it to something that’s not quite completely hacked out and proven in the long haul? We know that digital works, but the film way has been working for decades. It’s a pretty inert storage media, and it’s infinitely variable. From a business point of view, having something tactile in my hand that I can look at, see what it is, knowing that it’s a system that’s going to have legs, it’s going to last, it won’t be the next eight-track—it’s infinitely marketable.”

For both photographers, their old-school methodologies stop shortly after the film comes out of the wash. They each incorporate digital technologies in all other aspects of their work—from retouching to printing and even delivering proofs or images for publication to their clients.

“Once my film is edited on the light table, virtually my entire workflow from that point on is in a digital environment,” says Kay. “After I complete the film-editing process, all the best images migrate over to my scanner. I immediately scan and save digital versions of the best images so I have every photo in both transparency and digital form. The client chooses an image from the selection of JPEGs and we’ll produce an in-house, high-resolution scan if we don’t have one already saved to disc. We then send the high-res TIFF file to our customers via our FTP site, which eliminates any need to send out original transparencies.

“It’s not that I find film charming or quaint; I’m simply looking for the highest-quality results I can get, and the results provided by Fujichrome Velvia are still spectacular. As much as I may find it an emotionally enjoyable experience to learn how to work with a new digital camera, I consider my decision to upgrade simply a business decision, not an emotional one.”

Adds Kay, “Even though I’d prefer to spend time out in the field shooting, I get tremendous satisfaction from working with my images in Photoshop. The ability to digitize images has opened up an entire new world for photographers where we can control virtually every aspect of how our work is used and displayed. I think few photographers would choose to return to the pre-digital world.”

Dykinga also uses the computer to aid both his image-making and the way his business operates, but he’s not as excited about spending quality time at the computer. He tries to keep his technical preoccupations in perspective by asking himself a simple question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

“Do you want to be a photographer or do you want to sit in front of a screen?” ask Dykinga. “I decided that I can hire people and pay service bureaus and labs to do the work and do it better than I could ever do it. I’d probably have to shut down for a year to learn the digital process, and at the end of the day, I’d be staring into the computer monitor, which I don’t want to do. I’d rather be out smelling the roses.”

Visit Jack Dykinga‘s website at www.dykinga.com; visit James Kay’s website at www.jameskay.com.