Film or Digital: Different, But Does It Matter?

November 2, 2011

In film days — with film now — the photographer must learn to see the world the way film sees, to previsualize. One looks at the world normally and, simultaneously, overlays in the imagination how the scene would be rendered on film. Each film, subject to some personal modification, has a particular look to learn. The differences are profound and the learning curve is long. You learn from your failures, from studying a long string of photographic disappointments. It takes years. “How did the pictures come out?” They never seem to “come out” the way the casual shooter sees the scene. And lighting, different lenses, angles of view, exposure, basic mechanical operation of the cameras, chemical processing and many other variables have to be learned on top of and as part of film vision.

Occasional lucky breaks make us look good and can inspire whole fields of exploration, but generally one must develop one’s personal vision before developing significant photographs. With film vision you look at the world with what Edward Weston called “the flame of recognition.”

Dream Time

A big part of learning to see with film is what I call “dream time.” Often, film will not be processed or proofed for days, weeks, or months after exposure. In that time, one carries the image in the mind’s eye, imagining and anticipating, dreaming the image. Time only adds to the strength of the dreamed image, distilling it into its essence. When the film is processed, particularly with negatives, there is still nothing final. One then works to shape the photo into the image dreamed, by printing or other means. You must see past interim versions of the photo to the final vision, until you produce physically the image that existed only in your mind at start.

With transparencies, the chemical processing is the finality. Did you see the photo correctly? Your transparencies would either confirm your vision dreamed or show all aesthetic and technical errors mercilessly.

You’re forced to learn to see photographically because you are constantly comparing the images you actually made with the ones you thought you were making when you dreamed the image. Eventually, you learn to see and dream the film image with accuracy. You see the photo in the mind first. You have film vision.

Instant Gratification Kills Dream Time

With digital cameras, there is a new dynamic. Digital cameras have a look that aligns much more closely, on average, with the way everyday people see. Right away these cameras provide a pretty clean and clear view of the photo just taken, rendered in color that’s snappy and rich. This instant feedback accelerates the learning curve and lets people fix some errors of pre-visualization right away, before it’s too late (mostly). This creates the ever-growing illusion that being a photographer is easy, that anyone can do it. And, indeed, anyone can now easily take a photo that is minimally worth looking at for a half-second or so. But if used in your marketing, that amateur photograph can blow a giant hole through your carefully crafted brand identity.

The ease of immediate digital gratification obscures the challenge to forge a personal vision first, to learn to dream images. That preview on the back of the camera pops up right away and is a pretty good “straight” rendering of the scene. Before you have formed an image in your minds eye, before you can lock your own vision, the camera defaults present you with one fully formed. That camera rendering can immediately “overwrite” your visual expectations. It’s hard to ignore; you have to have powerful imaginative skill to resist this easy seduction and hold on to your own idea of the image. Dreaming images in your minds eye is as essential as ever, but the necessity to practice this skill has changed, become vestigial like an appendix. Film vision skills directly translate to making a digital photographer better.

There’s No Creativity In Post-Processing

You must have a vision in your mind for your photographs. Otherwise, instead of flailing around in the darkroom you’ll flail around in post-processing with Photoshop. The approach seems to be, “If my photographs aren’t good enough, I must not be using the right filters in Photoshop.” More and more people are trying to find a personal vision in stylized post-processing. This has produced an avalanche of photos using the same filter effects applied haphazardly, desperate attempts to bludgeon creativity into ordinary photographs. (I’m convinced that part of the popularity of Photoshop over the darkroom is that you can do Photoshop sitting down.) But if you aspire to any level of art (or just artfulness) in your photographs, you must see the image in your mind first, arrange for it, light for it, expose for it and capture it with the end vision in mind.

See First, Then Capture

This is not to gloss over the fantastic controls in Photoshop or the marvels of desktop printing, tools profoundly important to me in my commercial and personal work, tools whose mastery has been an investment of countless hours, tools I use every day. I’m very grateful for the digital media available to me as an artist. Having and expressing a personal vision with digital photography is as important as it ever was with film. The essential challenge is the same:  see first, then capture.

Film And The Commercial Market

When film was the only option in commercial photography, art directors, art buyers, and creative directors needed to hire professional photographers with demonstrated and consistent film vision. It was an essential qualification, one inexplicable to the bean counters. So sometimes, having quoted a job with real numbers, I would be told sheepishly by my friendly local art director or art buyer at an ad agency some variation upon this line: “Your numbers are good, but money’s tight. The CEO’s nephew has a Nikon and he’s going to shoot the job.”

I would nod sympathetically, acknowledge the the call with a thanks, say keep the lines open, I appreciate the opportunity to quote, let me know anytime if I can help, etc. Then, about three or four weeks later, I would get the call:  the pictures the nephew took are no good, terrible, can’t be used, there’s no way to fix them. Could I still shoot the job for the numbers quoted? And could I do it tomorrow? If somebody was too proud to admit the error, some other photographer would get the job. Occasionally, the nephew’s photos would go to press and create a dreadful mess.

Today, the CEO’s nephew has a shiny digital Canon, Nikon or point-and-shoot. When he shoots the job, his pictures are still terrible. But today, the advertising agencies have people on staff with computers and photoshop skills dedicated to massaging something minimally useful out of the dreadful digital photos that come in over the transom. Add in the accelerating volume of virtually free digital stock photography by people with day jobs who are thrilled just to be published, and the downward pressures on professional photography rates are easy to understand.

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