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Friday, September 1, 2017

Nobody Cares!

I am watching unfold a handful of discussions online, as usual, and recently I've been seeing a particular breed of photographer crop up. These fellows are the guys who are pretty sure that a large format film camera is what they needed all along to make their pictures awesome. They're wrong, of course.

What's interesting to me is that I remember being that guy. I still own a large format camera, and keep meaning to get it out. But somehow it never happens.

The discussions have the usual back and forths about the superiority of film (no! the resolutions and ranges of dynamic stops and and) but what it always seems to boil down to is some vague notion of feel. "There's just something about..." is a phrase oft repeated in several variations.

Here's the thing. Outside of certain obvious clues which are easily managed if you know what you're doing, you cannot tell. It is not even hard to take a digital photo and edit it into shape to appear like film. Large format film has no special creamy tonality, it just has very fine grain and, potentially, some interesting properties in the field of focus. Those giant 8x10 negatives with all their incredible detail and beautiful color rendition and choirs of angels? You can do that all with a good modern digital camera, except for the angels. Angels are notorious for hating on the digital.

All the amazing properties of film vanish when you start blinding the tests, as long as you avoid the obvious giveaways (which are either errors, or not properties of film vs. digital).

More to the point, nobody cares what medium you used. What they care about is content, invariably. Over "basically pretty sharp" the only people who care how sharp your picture is are other photographers, and not the interesting ones. Beyond "skin looks like skin, sky looks like sky" ditto for color rendition. As for "tonality" I don't even know what that means, and nobody else does either. It appears to be a bullshit term used by photographers to mean "special properties that only very sensitive people like me can see and I can't explain it to you because you are a philistine but it is super important. trust me.'

I've said it before and will, no doubt, repeat myself. The reasons for using film, be it large format or otherwise, have zero to do with the technical properties of the medium. The reasons are, nonetheless, excellent. If you prefer to use film, then you should definitely use it. It does not change the pictures, but it changes you, and of the two, you are the more important one.


  1. While I definitely agree that no one cares, I don't agree that the technical quality of photos -- and by extension, the camera gear that was used to create them -- doesn't matter, only their content.

    This is a mantra of yours, but for the life of me, I don't understand how you are able to separate the technical quality of a photo from its content.

    Without the technical processes that are necessary to capture a photo, the content you worship isn't even visible! (Perhaps what you actually mean is that beyond some arbitrary minimum level, the technical aspects of a photo don't matter to you? And if this is the case, who are you to suggest that they also shouldn't matter to others?)

    Will you also argue that the quality of ingredients or the manner in which they're prepared doesn't matter, only the taste of the finished meal? Somehow, I doubt it.

    Of course, I'm biased here, because I am one of "those guys" who still uses a view camera -- a digital one, to be sure, but a view camera nonetheless! -- and without paying scrupulous attention to a myriad of technical details that many, if not most photographers are happy to ignore, I am certain that my photos, at least, would be much less interesting as a result.

    And while I'm taking issue with you, I'll also add that it's my belief that film does have a certain something that digital cannot (yet) duplicate.

    Which is not to suggest that film is superior to digital, of course, because in many aspects, it's clearly not. But there are still aspects of its performance where, as a practical matter and given the limits of today's technology, it leaves digital in its dust. (This won't always be true, because digital technology continues to improve, but for now it is.)

    For many or even most types of photography, those aspects may not be important, so digital appears to be a clear winner, but for some types of photography, they potentially matter quite a lot.

    As ever, it's "horses for courses" and no one horse is capable of winning every race, just as no one camera or photographic medium is capable of optimally capturing every photo.

    1. Rarr!

      Yes, there is certainly a mostly unspoken "after a certain minimum point technical qualities are (mostly) moot" in my position.

      It's also possible, reasonable, that your pictures are among the few where film makes a real difference. I will note that some of your work involves simply ungodly dynamic range, so it is guaranteed that the medium -- whatever it is -- will fall apart. At that point, the specific ways that it falls apart become important, or at least relevant.

      The tube amplifier becomes quite relevant if your normal mode of working is to overdrive it (cf. every guitar player ever), but for normal amplification of sound it is a rotten solution.

      As for view cameras, I love them. With great love. I would use mine a lot if my life permitted it, but it does not. Some of my philosophy, some of my firmly held and unshakable bedrock beliefs, are probably just pragmatic choices thrust on me by a life involving little kids. If I knew *which ones* I could adjust them, but I don't, so it's pretty much all "I'd die on that hill" dogma!

  2. You've said several times that people can't tell the difference between film and digital. Maybe that's true when the person doing the processing has skill processing digital images and a good eye, but most people do not have both of those. Some of the reason people focus on the differences could be that it's hard to to make digital look like film (at least B&W 35mm film), so most of the time they are, in fact, different. To take the example I know most about (me), I shoot with B&W film because I like the way it looks. If I could get digital to look like B&W film without laboriously massaging each file, then sure, maybe I'd switch. But why would I want to spend all that extra time sitting in front of a computer when I could just shoot film to begin with? In other words, when I say "film looks better," what I really mean is "film looks better assuming a reasonable effort level on my part."

    That said, I strongly agree with your last paragraph. I just like using film cameras more than digital ones, which makes my pictures better. This I know from my several switches back and forth between film and digital.

    1. I must admit, I am chagrined. It has literally never occurred to me to think of it that way.

      Just because it's possible does not, of course, mean everyone can do it, or wants to.

      I have a terrible tendency, possibly as an ex mathematician, to leap from "it's possible" to "therefore it's trivial" which is ... kind of true. But not really.

      Appreciate the reality check!

  3. Situations in which there is a technical difference are rare, but not inexistent. One can build an entire career around them - see for instance Chris McCaw.

    On the other hand, there are quite a few folks who care about non-technical differences, enough that they may not collect a print produced by digital means. The photographers who cater to them specifically emphasize their traditional working methods, some of them are pretty successful, and clearly the medium is part of their success.

  4. If I was obsessed by films and analogue cameras, I wouldn't have shot any series for 3 years. And I dont even shoot with a reflex or medium format digital camera but with an "old" Canon EOS M bought 4 years ago. "Do what you can, with what you have" has always been my motto since I started photography in 1995.