The current issue of photo technique has an article by Tillman Crane with incredible scope: it’s an overview of black-and-white film for people who have never used it, but who’ve come to photography via digital routes. While I could quibble with a few points, I think it’s a pretty impressive condensation of a lot of information in a few pages. The implicit assumption of the article is that you will make the finished images in a wet darkroom; Crane does not cover using film for capture and digital methods for editing and printing.
Crane makes a few comparisons between chemical photography and the digital kind. It’s there that I differ.
Using film and large format cameras like I do can be a lifelong learning experience. You’ll develop a greater understanding of f-stops and shutter speeds, of metering and light quality, more discipline in composition and more insistence on getting the exposure right because it’s more difficult (or impossible) to fix later.
Crane doesn’t say what kind of digital photography he’s comparing large-format film photography to, but, to make the playing field level, I’m going to assume the comparison is to digital photography using a technical camera or a digital back on a view camera, since that’s the closest thing to the kind of photography that he practices.
F-stops and shutter speeds, metering, and light quality are just as important in digital photography as in chemical photography. In fact, you could argue that it’s harder to get the right exposure with a digital back then with film, since film is fairly tolerant of overexposure because of the way the shoulder of the DlogE curve is shaped, whereas the equivalent curve on the digital back runs into a brick wall at the white point.
I also disagree that film photography requires more discipline in composition, except that digital photography offers the opportunity for perspective correction both before and after the exposure. When using a conventional view camera and a digital back, because the image capture area is significantly smaller than a standard 4 x 5 piece of film, it sometimes more difficult to see exactly where the edges of the frame are going to be; that’s a reason to be more disciplined about composition rather than less.
It is certainly possible to fix some kinds of errors in the computer more readily than in the darkroom, but if you blow the exposure on the high side, there’s nothing you can do to get back that detail.
Crane doesn’t talk about focusing, but I believe that digital photography places greater requirements on accurate focusing than chemical photography, and demands a higher level of discipline in determining the focal plane. That’s because the film plane with standard film holders is not very flat. You are not able to use wide apertures in many circumstances because your film isn’t going to be at exactly the same place as the ground glass that you’re using for focusing. The only thing to do is stop down far enough that the waviness of the film is overcome by depth of focus. In digital photography, the image sensor is virtually flat, so any errors in focusing are yours and yours alone. In addition, because digital sensors, with the exception of those used in scanning backs, capture from an area a lot smaller than 4 x 5, so diffraction is more of a problem and you can’t stop down as far. There’s no live view with the CCD sensors used in medium-format backs, so you can’t focus with the back attached. (The Betterlight scanning back has a rudimentary focusing mode, so it’s a step up in this department.) To top it off, nearly grainless digital captures make focus error more obvious than with chemical capture and printing. Put it all together, and focus is a real problem when working with highly detailed subjects with digital backs on technical or view cameras.
Crane also says of film photography, comparing it to digital:
It’s a much slower way of working but for those attracted to such a pace there is no better way to work.
I agree that the post-exposure part of chemical photography takes longer then the equivalent in digital photography. However, keeping it apples to apples, or view camera to view camera, I see no reason why the pre-exposure part is much different. Well, maybe the second exposure is faster digitally, since you don’t have to put in the dark slide, reverse the film holder and pull the dark slide, or even pull the tab on the film pack (do they make those anymore?). Also, you don’t need the second exposure when you’re working with electrons; in the film world, the reason for exposure number two was to have a spare in case of processing errors, and that doesn’t apply to digital photography (I still make the extra exposure, mostly out of habit. I tell myself it’s in case the camera moves during one of the exposures, but it’s never happened except when it’s really windy — then I make a lot of exposures.).
I suppose no normal photographer would think of this, but I work every day with a scanning back, so I’ll point out that using it makes the pre-exposure preparations take a good deal longer than with film. Line up the shot, open the aperture all the way, cover yourself with the dark cloth, compose, focus, mess with the perspective, refocus, put away the dark cloth, plug the controller into the computer, turn it on, boot the computer, open the camera controller program, put the scanner in the camera, stop down, set the ISO, set the electronic shutter speed, do a prescan, adjust the ISO and shutter speed, mess with the tone curve, find the right color balance, and, finally, do a scan.
I do admire the way that Crane went out of his way to avoid saying that film is better than digital, or vice versa. The photographic world could use more of that approach.