Why I Still Love Film

Yep, two posts in one day when I can't manage more than that in a week. I decided to post a quicky just so you don't think I have somehow decided digital is all that it needs to be now that I have a digital kit that makes me happier than I have been a long time. I didn't all of a sudden "see the light" and have no intention of ceasing shooting film. While they make it I will shoot it. I will probably shoot more digital frames than film frames but I will absolutely guarantee I won't end up with far more of my favorite personal images on digital - at least not yet.

While I think the Nikon D600 is one of the best DSLR's yet from a holistic point of view I am far from satisfied with digital in general. What it does well is great but I still want more. Most of what I want as you know is more of what film did and still does very very well - not more of the same ol' same ol' incremental improvement of what digital has always done well. The D600 brings in some real and tangible improvement in dynamic range. It also (imo) brings some improvement to image acuity compared to my previous bayer/aa-filter cameras. Maybe not as much as my X-Pro-1 but certainly noticeable.

One of the things that I didn't really emphasize enough in the post on my out of the blue decision to grab a Nikon 105 DC was how much it is still important to me that it will work extremely well on my film bodies. I am not a huge fan of aperture ring elimination. It makes no functional difference, it's not like you have to use it on cameras that have a front control dial. From my point of view it's just cheaping out on FX lenses. Yea go ahead and do the "G" thing on the DX lenses but on the FX lenses - especially the $1000 and $2000 lenses… WTF? The fact that the 105 DC happens to be the old "pro build" in every way including an aperture ring sealed the deal.

Yea I could use the G lenses on my F100's but I rarely use them - I really prefer using my MF bodies in most of the situations where I choose film. Where I don't choose film I would rather use my D600. That's just the way it falls for me. A secondary (for now) factor in not being super comfortable with the G lenses is that there is no easy way to use them on non-Nikon cameras like the X-Pro-1 etc. It doesn't matter that much to me at this point but I can see myself wanting to do this down the road with more than one of my Nikkors. Will there be some complicated adapter that connects electronically? Doubt it… maybe but I rather not depend on it.

On to the film thing… The image I posted at the top of the last post on the 105 DC shown directly above for the lazy and the image at the top were both shot on ancient 50mm lenses wide open. In fact they were shot with a Nikon FE, a Nikkor-S 50mm F1.4 single coated lens, and Kodak Portra 160. A couple things I want to point out here about the characteristics of film that I love.

First off is the way that film - even when processed and scanned by Neanderthals renders skin and especially skin in mixed color temperatures. No matter which people/skin oriented negative film you happen to choose even in mixed light they do a fantastic job of rendering pinkish-to-brownish skin unbelievably well. It may tend toward a little cool or a little warm but it still looks "right". Digital sucks at this. Epic Fail sort of sucks. Yea yea yea I can fix it in post. Yea I can get the color temp correct but it's not a quick fix in a heck of a lot of real world shooting conditions. It's a true pain in the ass for some people's skin in many many many lighting conditions that have slightly mixed light.

Generally because digital is too saturated for good skin and has too much contrast in all the wrong places but not enough where you want it. The reason isn't important - the result is. While I have no issue fixing this if my end goal is one image and I happen to be getting paid for it. I really do not want to deal with it for dozens of images shot in a bunch of locations in varying lighting conditions. It sucks and is actually harder than you may think. Think it's easy? Hmmm if so then why are 80% of the images that float around have really lousy rendering of skin? The ones that don't are usually one-offs and DEFINITELY not OOC JPeg and usually are not mixed temperature.

Check out the Walgreens color balanced Portra for a moment. Two different color temps of light. Two different auto-corrects that are not even close to being "neutral". One warmer one cooler but the skin still looks like it should. No nuclear orange in the lower mids. No perception of green-ness in the shadow transitions even though a lot of the reflected fill in both these shots are coming from a light green wall out of frame. Oh and primary colors in all the neighbor hoods have good relative saturation.

There is the key - great color is not about making all the colors nuclear its about saturation and luminance relationships. Film does this automagically in a lot of cases. Digital - what comes out of cameras generally sucks and it's roll your own. Honestly I usually don't even bother. I will take it from horrible to less horrible with WB and be done. Unless I happen to be getting paid.

The second thing I want to point out is somewhat related to the comment I make a lot about "digital contrast in all the wrong places but laking in the right places". It's also very related to how you shoot - especially negative film. With negative film in the old days there are two contrast curves - one for the film/developer and one for the printing paper. Over decades these became very fine tuned to interact amazingly well over a large range of exposure densities on the negative.

If you shoot consistently you can do the same thing with a preset curve in post with digital. In reality you need about nineteen preset curves for different lighting conditions. So many that in a lot of cases it's easier just to do it from scratch and stamp it to all the shots in that particular situation. I do this but even so it's lacking because digital is lacking in DR and a few other things that I cannot completely define or in some cases don't understand why various "built in curves" to cameras and RAW processors are done they way they are done.

When you net this all out it doesn't matter what the factors are there is a tiny little thing that bothers the crap out of me. We all know to make sure that you dump a lot of light into people's eyes right? If you don't your people shots will look like crap. Here's the rub - even when you do - without exception because of the way all the crap in digital adds up there is no way to get around screwing around with local adjustments to make eyes render the way film does. Try stamping that to 4 dozen shots at a time. Ummm nope.

I thought I would mention this - check out the eyes in both the film shots. This is how they should look - no I didn't over do it in post. Yea I blew the focus in one of the shots but that is the way the grand-daughter's eyes look right now. They are making the transition from baby blue eyes (like most babies) to whatever they are going to end up being. At this moment they are very very deep green surrounded by hazel as you can see. They stand out. Think that happens in digital? Nope. In just about every single circumstance you need a local adjustment in the eyes. Too bad people with not a lot of experience do it wrong and it stands out in not a good way when done in post.

Honestly I don't have the energy to do this to every single shot I make. I should but I don't. Maybe it's some sort of passive-aggressive semi-self-destructive half-rebellion against doing repetitive manual labor foisted on my by digital camera sensors and all the plumbing that plops out an image in front of me as a starting point.

Don't believe me. Here is a digital shot (note the absolutely neutral color balance) with some curves and color adjustments to make it look even remotely reasonable. Namely shit loads more mid-tone contrast but no local eye adjustments.

Hmmm kind-a-flat actually kind-a flat all over but not really at the edges. Hence contrast in all the "wrong" places. Yea I do local adjustments for money shots to not only fix things but to make them perfect and enhance "nature" even on film. I am probably not going to do this for everything I shoot especially just to fix what should already be there from my point of view. Can't I just have my skin and eyes render like film without being forced to do shit I used to have packaged in? Please… Oh and while you are at it - good start on improving highlight rendition but keep on going. In fact skip the ISO jump next time and leave that for the product cycle afterwards.

Long live film - and more importantly let's hope that digital improves in a couple of areas before everyone forgets how much work we didn't have to do when shooting film.


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