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Postmodern Analog

I have been thinking a lot lately about digital versus film. It seems to be the latest rage within the pro photographer’s social circles I get a little listen in on through my RSS feed reader. All art forms since the middle of the last century swing like a pendulum between modernism and postmodernism. Going digital was modern. Photog’s who have now learned and shot on nothing but Digital are now swinging back into the postmodern reaction and picking up and ‘trying out’ film. I have to laugh. I am a film junkie. I’ve been doing this for 12 years- back in the day, yo- and I’m not even that old. This hot new trend is oxymoronically not new and not really trendy. Its analog all the way, baby. Real, gritty, authentic. And now analog is all of a sudden sexy. Ha. Just 5 years ago I was defending myself for why in the world I would still be wanting to shoot film. Digital is so much better, don’t you know. But look at us now. All the trendy ‘togs are editing their images to look like film- high contrast, high grain, selective color. They’re going for a look that is so now without the understanding of where it comes from and that it’s already been done. Creating a look is all about pushing the right buttons on all the cool photoshop actions one can purchase so our images look like what all the cool people are doing pushing buttons on their actions. In 10 years we will so easily be able to date people’s wedding albums with all the orange people they contain. Does it sound like I’m venting? Well, maybe just a little.

I gave up shooting film for one reason and one reason only: Convenience.

For 5 years in college, those precious 5 years where I really developed as a photographer, I had at my fingertips an amazing depth of resources. A full-fledged photo lab I worked my way through an Architecture degree as an employee, allowing me the freedom to experiment all I wanted. Full Digital, Full Analog. I’d lock myself away for hours at a time in my own private dark room and print away. I developed a style- not merely a look- but a chemical, temperature and time-based formula. Kodak Tmax developed at 72 degrees for 1 min 25 seconds longer than specified. Kodachrome exposed 1 to 1.5 stops over and pushed to iso 800. Then we graduated and moved away. I always vowed someday I would have my own darkroom. Convert the second bathroom maybe? The resources have been the biggest inhibition to shooting film. Then it also became cost prohibitive. Digitally, if I invest in the equipment, I can shoot a nearly infinite number of images on that initial investment. With film, it’s pay as you go. Digital hands down has given me such an immense opportunity to simply shoot. Like a lot. I take about 50,000 images a year. I am a way better photographer because of it. But everything I do and everything I know is rooted in film.

When I decided to shoot professionally a year and a half ago, Digital made the most sense from a business plan perspective. I can logically argue film is still a financial barrier (it would cost me about $25,000-$35,000 a year to shoot film professionally). I still love doing what I am doing through making digital pictures for my clients. But there has been something missing. In the past 6 months I have had an incredibly deep urge to shoot film again. I miss it. Honestly, as I spend the hours upon hours editing images after a wedding, it is hard not to notice how much I go for a look that I know I could get with specific films. High saturation, vibrant colors, milky skin tones, contrast. Even my presets and actions (which I have made myself) are labeled accordingly (Nat’s Kodachrome, Nat’s Silver Split Tone, Nat’s Neopan, Nat’s Plus-Xpanchromatic) Sure, I have now and again fallen victim to ridding the waves of many trends. I still follow and admire many digital shooters. But personally, there is still something missing. I deeply feel what I am doing could be so much better. Digital is great, but it’s just not film. Sometimes Digital just disappoints. With the exception of paying for film, developing and scanning, absolutely nothing else in my business workflow would change. Even all my printing could still be done off the film scans. In fact, it’s hard not to see how much time sitting in front of the computer I would recapture, how far simpler it would be, how much more in line with my branding and artistry if I dedicated myself to just film.

The desire is there, that’s for sure. I wonder more and more what is really stopping me from taking the leap. Matt is quick to point out the cost issues. And that film is kind of more of a risk in some senses. I think Digital is much more Masculine: If you are wanting to know up front exactly what you are dealing with it will tell you. Every time. It has a screen, a histogram and tons of technical readouts that will tell you what’s going on in there. Keeping up in the field is all about new gadgets, the latest and greatest, spurring on competition of who has what and what’s better. Like most guys, it likes going fast so not to spend too much time on getting the job done. It has instant results that are predictable and efficient. Film is Feminine: With a million things affecting any given moment- light temperature, type of film, exposure, metering, processing- all of which needs to be just right. And you never really see what’s going on when it’s going on. If you have to ask what is going on you either don’t know it very well and it certainly won’t tell you. In fact you just offended it for asking. Maybe you think it’s fat, too? Just the immense amount of unique chemistry involved is terrifying to think about getting involved with and not for the light hearted. However when you get it all right, it just clicks and it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. Film has so much more depth, richness, beauty, dimension, personality. It’s how I think, see and feel. I am romantically drawn in and head over heels in love.

In fact, I’d like to prove it:


The one on the right? It’s okay. It took me a while to edit it to the point I liked it.
The one on the left? Straight out of the Camera.

The digital image looks far flatter to me. Simply, it just lacks some uumpf and character I really dig with the film image. And did I mention I didn’t have to do anything to it? No editing, no manipulation. Nada. What you see is what you get.

Here’s more from what I picked up at the lab today:

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I spend a lot of time trying to get my digital images to look like this. Comparatively, I can’t say the above images are any better or worse quality than what I take with my tens of thousands of dollars worth of digital equipment. All were taken with a 20 year old camera I paid less than $300 for about 8 years ago (don’t knock it- it was a revolutionary camera at the time and the autofocus of your fancy digital slr is built off of it). Sure, they aren’t all perfect, but the look and feel is just amazing to me. The next batch is taken with a $30 toy camera. It has a plastic lens. And all these are on film that has been sitting in my refrigerator and expired in 2006 and 2007:

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