Sometimes new and improved better is not really better. With digital technology new and improved better hardware really is always better. Unfortunately the marketing machines of the 21st century have latched onto this notion and use it to continuously beat us consumers into a never ending consumption chain on just about everything.
Let's take bicycles as an example. My brother is a bike nut. Specifically a mountain biking nut. The bike industry and aftermarket has latched on to this digital newer = better, older = useless like flies on shit. The pace at which these companies want to sell you new everything that is completely different than what you have at an insane amount of cost has outpaced computing equipment, digital cameras, and just about everything else you could think of.
How do you think they accomplished this? Well you are used to it. They do it with specs. You know like computers and digital cameras. With computers it is absolutely true that your two year old computer is worse than useless assuming you are part of the rest of us that consumes far far more data on a year to year basis. With digital cameras it's somewhat true depending on your application and aspirations. With bikes? Ummmm. Really? Of course not. Well it may if you are in the top 4 bikers in the world that win or lose really does come down to that 2 one hundredths of a second. For normal people and even fantastic bikers that have variations of more than that based on what underwear they chose to wear this morning - not really.
I chose bikes because it's fairly obvious to us non-bike-nuts that it's fairly ridiculous. I just wanted to cement a thought process. Now I want to bring us back around to photography and offer a couple of things I learned even back in the days of film. Specifically that spec improvements in image making devices are fairly immaterial when translated into the real world of your photographs. In fact some of them may even be detrimental in ways that are not so easy to nail down in terms of specs.
Let's take two examples. Kodak TMAX 400 and the Leica 35mm Summicron. By any measure TMAX 400 is a far better film than TRI-X 400. Not just the new version but the old version as well. I tested the crap out of it when it was released. It's far more flexible from a technical standpoint. It does have finer grain than TRI-X. Has a much more linear response than TRI-X with highlights that go on forever. When I say highlights that go on forever they really do in terms of building linear density and producing separation of detail.
The only issue with all this better-ness is that I don't like it as much as TRI-X for most things that I shoot in most of the conditions I shoot it in. The color response is a hair different in ways that I like to see when I shoot people. This would make no difference if I shot with filters because the filter would most likely overwhelm the slight difference. Sure there is fantastic detail in the highlights too bad it's so hard to print and render that detail if you don't use a very rigorous zone system and/or take a lot of time to make a print. I definitely would be all over this film if I shot large format all the time. I may even like it better if I shot landscapes and used filters for most of my shooting. I don't. For what I like and how I shoot the contrast and separation is in all the wrong places. The improved grain, response curve, and sharpness are completely meaningless to what I want to see and in many cases detrimental to the way I want images to look.
It's almost the same story for my Leica 35mm Summicron. I sold my beat up 35mm Summicron (that's Leica speak for f2) and got the newest version. The best one on the planet in terms of resolution and contrast and wonderfulness. At the time it cost a crazy amount of money. Now it costs even more. Too bad I like the way it renders images less. Why? I don't exactly know but the improved sharpness and micro-bullshit and contrast do absolutely nothing meaningful in the context of my photography. Maybe it's the way and how fast or slow it transitions to out-of-focus? I really cannot put my finger on it. I guess it really would be better if I were trying to use it to make microprocessors or something in my basement. Too bad I am making photographs.
The confession is that like all photographers, I fall into the delusion that some concrete tool specifications, some sort of improvement in the medium, something we can buy will have a marked corresponding improvement in the photographs we make. In rare cases it may. If you have very specific requirements for a very specific issue that is stopping you from making images you want to make it sure will. In most cases (especially with digital cameras) it will improve irrelevant aspects of your lousy images and do nothing for the good ones. In a few instances it may even have detrimental side effects that you didn't predict or even consider.
Shooting film reminds me of this all the time now that I have a bit of perspective.
Ps. Image at the top is from my very first test pack of 35mm TMAX 400. I have others from the same roll that I may show you how awesome the dynamic range is and why it doesn't matter that much…