Over the weekend, I attended a CPA members’ workshop. In one of the plenary sessions, someone said that digital photography and conventional chemical photography were qualitatively different in that the former was a left brain activity, and the latter used the right brain. While I thought it was a novel idea, I was at the time, and remain, unconvinced. I’d like to use this post, and perhaps a few more, to go through my reasoning.
Since almost nothing we do is entirely performed by either the left or the right brain, and I don’t wish to quibble, I will modify the statement to say that chemical photography uses primarily the right brain, and digital photography primarily the left.
There are several phases to the photographic process. For the purposes of this discussion I will divide them into capture which encompasses all activities up to the first exposure of photosensitive material, developing, editing and printing, which covers everything between capture and the production of the final print. In chemical photography, editing and printing are usually, but not always, performed simultaneously.
The varieties of both chemical and digital photography are so great that even this simple dichotomy can easily break down. Consider a photogram or a Polaroid photograph, in which both phases are inextricably conflated. A formerly common way of working was to expose transparency film in the camera, have it processed at a lab, and sent to the publisher with no further input. There are many hybrid processes. The standard way of doing photography with a digital component 20 years ago was to perform the capture phase using film, scan the negative or transparency, do digital editing and possibly make a digital print, or send a digital output to a film recorder to make an edited negative and print that with conventional chemical means. Many photographers today use film for capture, scan the negative, do a lot or a little editing, print the resultant file onto film, and use the film as a contact negative for platinum or silver printing. Rather than try to deal with all of these alternatives, I will try to stick pretty close to the mainstream of both the chemical in the digital worlds.
Let’s talk about capture.
For serious film photographers, one mainstream camera choice would be a professional level single lens reflex from either Nikon or Canon. I have not used the Nikon F6, but I have a lot of experience with the F5, having almost worn one out while doing the Green Growing Land series. For serious digital photographers, that ecological niche is occupied by the Canon EOS 1D series, and the Nikon D series. I sat out the D1, but I have extensive experience with all of the variants of the D2 and D3.
The Nikon F5 and, say the D3s or D3x handle very similarly. They take the same lenses, have most of the controls in the same places, and weigh about the same – a lot, unfortunately. They are both big, solid, and kind of clunky. The metering modes are quite similar. Battery life is better for the digital cameras, but both the film and digital cameras have sufficient battery life to get you through any reasonable photo session.
Here are the material differences:
- You don’t have to open up the D3 and put in a new CompactFlash card every 36 exposures.
- There is no live view on the F5, so precise manual focus is impossible.
- The film plane in the F5 is typically not flat, so precise focus is chancy.
- There is no preview function on the F5. The traditional way to do that is to have another camera body with a Polaroid back attached. Now that Polaroid is out of that business, I suppose you could have a digital body that you use for previewing, but that seem somehow perverse.
- There is no histogram function on the F5. See above.
- You can’t change the film speed in the F5 without loading a new roll of film. Traditionally, people deal with this limitation by having a second (or even a third) body loaded with different film.
- You can’t develop one part of a roll of film to N-1 and another part to N+1. See above.
- You can capture images digitally that you’d ignore with a film camera, knowing that you can remove things (contrails, graffiti, telephone wires, etc.) later.
While these differences are significant in some situations, only the last one much affects the way you work, except for speed, the weight of your bag, and convenience, which are all better with the digital camera.
I’d argue that film photography is (admittedly, by a small margin) the more technical experience. You’re more worried about exposure and focus, since you don’t usually have confirmation (using the tilt capabilities of a tilt/shift lens on a 35mm SLR is an excruciating exercise in frustration). Equipment failure is also not on your mind as much when you’re working digitally, so you can go home knowing you’ve got what you were trying for. Anything that frees you up to just worry about the image is one less thing to keep your left brain from demanding attention.