The Film Is Dead
... and I'm not going to mourn it
Let me make it clear: I'm in favor of the old-fashioned, solid photography, the way it has been for the last one hundred and fifty years. This was my major hobby since the late Fifties, when I discovered the joys of doing my own darkroom work, and is stayed that way since.
This is why I was initially sceptical about switching to digital. My first digital camera, a Sony Mavica, was generating output barely suitable for the Web, after reducing it to 320×240 pixels. I was expecting things to stay that way for quite a time.
Then, in the Summer of 2000, I gave the idea another try, taking a three-megapixel Olympus
Surprisingly, my 18×24cm prints from that digital camera were at least as good as those from film (usually better), and even those at 24×32cm were presentable. I remember people who, not aware of the origin of the prints, would say "This would not be possible with digital".
That was it. My faithful Dynax 600 is now in the capable hands of my stepson, while I'm enjoying the digital domain, never looking back.
This little article may, on one hand, convince some sceptics that holding on to film does not make much sense nowadays, on the other giving the digital photographers a warm, fuzzy feeling of having done the right thing.
Pros and cons
Let me start from the arguments often quoted by those who stubbornly stick to the film medium, commenting on each as I go.
The obvious (and not-so-obvious) pros
I am sure I have missed at least a few points here, but you should be able to come up with more by yourself. At this moment it seems clear that there are no reasons to hold on to film: digital provides results which are at least as good, and with less hassle.
The joy of camera handling
There may be, however, some purely subjective, but equally important factors. You have to like the camera to enjoy using it. And film-based cameras, after a long process of refinement, have reached the stage when handling them is often a pleasure. This applies to both collectible and current models, although for me the period between 1978 and 1985 was the high point in this aspect. Get an Olympus OM-1, or an XD-series Minolta, wind the film and trip the shutter, operate the controls — and you will see what I mean. You will not want to go back to the latest, plastic AF models.
In this aspects, most digital cameras leave quite a lot to be desired. Some operate more like a cell phone than a camera. Digital SLRs are a notable exception, as all of them (except of the Olympus E-System) started out as modifications, sometimes quite crude, of film SLR bodies (even some of today's models have two separate power supplies: one for the "regular", i.e., inherited, camera features, and one for the "digital" functionality).
Things have improved lately in this aspect. Again, Olympus led the way, with the "feel" of their C-5050/5060 compact models being quite similar to that of classic rangefinder cameras, and Epson (most unlikely candidate, I would say) has now a camera which actually is closer to the classic Leica than the digital offerings from Leica are; it even takes lenses in the classic Leica screw mount!
But if you are not sure, put your hands on an Olympus E-10, E-20, or the latest E-1; if you had any doubts, they should disappear.
Back to do-it yourself photography
Years ago, in the B&W film era, dedicated amateur photographers were doing everything with their own hands. This included film processing and printing images on paper.
The situation drastically changed when color pictures became a standard. Color processing, especially printing, is quite a complicated and, in amateur conditions, cumbersome (and expensive!) task. Mass-market labs also offered very attractive prices.
This is why the percentage of amateurs (or even professionals) doing their own darkroom work dwindled sharply. For me at least, this took half the pleasure away, in addition to losing controls over many aspects of the final images. In the last twenty five years my enjoyment of photography went way down, and so did my involvement. I think this was rather typical.
With digital, we are regaining control over all stages of the creative process. Our pictures are no longer at mercy of an underpaid and undereducated mass-market lab technician; nor do we have to pay premium prices for custom-lab prints. We are actually running the whole show; photography is becoming fun again.
When, if ever, did you do your last experiments in infrared? Shooting outside of the visible spectrum may bring most pleasing and quite unusual images, but the process is unreliable and complicated. Special film and processing, problems with getting the exposure right, and most annoyingly, being unable to verify the results until the prints come from the lab. With digital, the biggest hurdle is acquiring an IR filter, and the results are often stunning.
This is only one example. Others, less extreme, may include tabletop studio applications, night shooting — just use your creativity to name more. The road from an idea to its realization becomes much shorter and simpler.
The bottom line
The situation seems clear: the film is dead, and there are no reasons you should hold on to it. With the possible exception of disposable cameras, we may expect 90% of pictures taken three years from now to be digital.
This is not really a big deal — just moving from one recording medium to another; a step, I believe, smaller than that from B&W to color. It is still the light which paints the picture, and still the person behind the camera who is the decisive factor in how good the picture will be.
The film may linger around for a decade or two, but more as a specialty item than a mainstream one. Yes, there are people now who are experimenting with the Daguerre technique from the 1850's, and others, who take pictures with pinhole cameras, and the results are often very interesting. But these are fringe areas. Film-based photography will become one as well, sooner than we expected. After all, it ruled long enough.
This article was originally published in Quest, the quarterly newsletter of the Olympus Circle; June, 2004.
All camera pictures are from the respective manufacturers' promotional materials.
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