Confessions Of A Film Zealot VI

Since grabbing my X100 and then recently binge buying the X-PRO-1 and then subsequently raving about them I have had a few comments, emails, etc regarding my switch to digital. Not so. I still love to shoot film, I consider it the ultimate luxury in this photographic endeavor of ours. Of course I use digital cameras as well, when I find one that gratifies me I will shout it from the roof tops. I try to do my part and actually buy products that meet my expectations as a photographer. I like what Fuji is doing and hope they keep going in the same direction. Anything that inches in the direction of at least getting me even with some of the characteristics I enjoyed with film is fantastic. Small unobtrusive cameras with some of the imaging characteristics I happen to like is a great thing.

Are we there yet? Nope but any manufacturer that moves us towards that gets my vote. So where are we? Hmmm well at least there are a couple of compact cameras with really good lenses that render somewhat like we all had when we shot film but the digital medium itself has some short falls that I would love to see addressed as well. Someday I really do hope to have a great little digital camera that I can shoot the way I want to shoot it under everyday circumstances, along with a simple strait-forward workflow that gives me similar aesthetics to what negative film gives me.

Yes there are "film emulations" out there - do they look anything like the real thing? Uhhhhh, ummm, No! Not by a mile. I own every single one of them - every one. Including the somewhat overhyped VSCO for both ACR and for Aperture 3 - yes I have tested the "calibrated" cameras as well as the not calibrated. I have done the same thing over and over again with every product out there. Let's take a look at a semi-random sample…

Ignore the dirt and dust for a moment - this is a quick and literally dirty CrappyScan™ of the real thing - not optimized for anything just sort of neutralized real quick to give a similar gray and a similar black-point for a digital capture. Let's look at a Nikon RAW processed in Aperture 3.

Hmmmm not that different except for the dirt and scratches. If I happened to shoot them in the same light and same angle of light they would be even closer. The film has the disadvantage of the sun being directly overhead in harsh mid-day sun. The D7000 would look like real dog doo-doo in that circumstance unless you underexposed like crazy to save various color channels and then "fixed it" in post. Now let's take a look at the "best thing since sliced bread - carefully constructed - tested - calibrated - blah blah blah" VSCO applied to the digital file…

What the hell… It was closer before. Why the hell is the color all f'ed up? Why is there so much forking grain at such a small image size??? WTF? This is like how film is when it's all f'd up. So emulating film is like putting all the bad things in and emphasizing them like a caricature and somehow not getting any of the really luscious good stuff that goes along with film. Now before I get a bunch of "expert" digital dudes piling on me about Noritsu vs Fuji vs. Whatever or whatever cockamamy other crap that might rationalize what I just illustrated let me say this: Film does not always look screwed up, in fact the black point adjustment I made to the film illustration is far less than any Noritsu, Fuji, or default automated scan I have ever received from RPL or anywhere else. VSCO on your average digital RAW file looks nothing like the real stuff - if you shoot digital a certain way and then you make it just so in a very certain way and your film scan is a little screwy and and and and you can make them look similar but the most important thing here is the one word that has nothing to do with any particular "post processing" treatment and that is actually shooting pictures. You must must must shoot digital far differently than film and then post process it a very particular way and then run "simulators" on it to sorta-kinda look like film does in some bizarro world.

The shooting part is probably the most important part to me and how that translates to output. Let's face it - real world light doesn't like digital very much or actually digital doesn't like real world light very much. With negative film you can make lemons into lemonade in a very strait-forward and non-intrusive way. Just expose liberally and it will look fantastic. With digital you really have to jump through hoops and tie yourself in knots to deal with contrast reduction in order to begin to get a similar result. In many many circumstances - namely natural light without screwing with fill light - that is light I love to shoot in. With digital the circumstances of doing that are extremely narrow. With negative film - the world is your oyster. Yea in a studio I can make either digital or film look almost exactly the same. In those narrow circumstances where digital looks good - film will look about the same.

Unfortunately when you start turning your shoot into a studio shoot it looses a lot and bogs you down. No matter how you slice it you are very much less in the moment. For the kind of stuff I like to shoot and the circumstances I like to work in - film trumps digital for now. Let's look at the image at the top of the post. This is the very first roll of "new" Kodak Portra 160 I shot. One of the things I like to do with my first rolls of a new film is to torture test it. Namely I want to see what happens when I beat the living daylights out of the highlights with extreme prejudice.

The shot at the top is an exercise in craziness - something that will not work in digital or even pretend to work. Not a great shot but a testament to good highlight transitions. Portra 160 is very very very good. The only light source is the window behind daughter #2 and #3 in a room with dark mustard walls, dark wood furniture dark stained floors etc etc. Virtually no fill. The catchlight is actually coming from a mirror across the room but far to the girls' right. I pointed the meter into the shadows below the frame. Opened up another stop and shot. I wanted to see what happens to the highlights when they fall apart.

This is a crappy walgreen's 1 hour auto-scan not even close to what you will get with RPL and it does great. Without exaggerating the best digital going wouldn't have even handled the shadow to highlight transition of the arm closest to the camera let alone whats going on at the very top of the white dress. Heck it wouldn't even handle holding the hottest highlight of the shiny navy blue let alone outside the window. Try something similar with your dSLR - I have. Even the top of each girls hair would be a very strange looking mess of blocky dark and white jaggies. One more note - daughter #2's hair (white dress) is almost black in appearance when witnessed with your eyes (don't ask - I think all females MUST screw with their natural color/texture).

I am not down on VSCO - I can see where they are coming from but there is still work to be done on their part and more importantly by people that work on digital sensor technology to render highlights in an attractive way under anything but optimal circumstances. I will continue to support them - In fact I will do an in-depth review and comparison to real film if anyone is interested. I have already done it myself a bunch of times. I just have to figure out where all those negatives and corresponding digital files are then organize it.

For now - I continue to look at film as the ultimate photographic luxury and anyone not shooting it, at least a little, is really missing out on a wonderful thing.


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