Film vs. Digital

When I say that I have a qualified distaste for digital it might seem to be a contradiction. Digital technology allows me to bring this website into your computer, it allows these photos to be reproduced cleanly and effortlessly, and it has made potential audiences exponentially larger. It also has a steadfast and undeniable place in the world. I can't think of a better use of digital than in the photojournalism arena, where fast-breaking and newsworthy events in the real world or in sports can be shot, transferred to the press room, and disseminated in a fraction of the time it used to take.

A story told to me by my dear old friend, Charles Pearson, comes to mind. He was a Signal Corp photographer in the US Army, and was stationed in France to photograph events unfolding in World War II from just behind the front lines. He was in the right place at the right time in an obscure French town that I was told but don't recall, and witnessed the march into town of the very first surrendering German troops of the war. He and a few assignment photographers from magazines and newspapers were on a roof overlooking the procession, armed with their Speed Graphic 4x5 cameras and black and white film. They shot their film and each had to unload and pack his film in light tight containers and arrange for it to be flown back to England for subsequent transmittal to the United States.

It so happens that a thick fog rolled in, blanketing everything from coastal France to London, grounding all flights across the channel and insuring that the most resourceful photographer would also have a scoop. Charles knew a motorcycle deliveryman and enticed him with appropriate rewards to ride to Calais, get the film on a boat to England, on to his editors in the Signal Corps, and then disseminated to the press. He ended up capturing his scoop and, in typical non-credited Signal Corp fashion, got published on the covers of Life magazine and the New York Times and many other periodicals of the day. But I saw his negative outtakes of the shoot and photocopies of his original prints. This was all lost when Charles died, after a long and convoluted life, and unappreciative relatives "cleaned out" his house and certainly discarded what was not of value to them. But the scoop remains.

Today, he'd have taken the photo and sent it by satellite phone directly to editors in New York City and avoided all of the adventure and drama, but would also have made his scoop or not my milliseconds, if scoops even exist in the same sense. The advantages and the assurances of digital photography cannot be overlooked, even if it is attended by a certain loss of adventure and romance.

There are specialties within professional photography that can gain from digital capture that go well beyond photojournalism. Astronomy is presently using large format digital photography that is more sensitive than film can possibly be. The night sky can be documented in a fraction of the time it used to take. Remote photography, whether done at the bottom of the ocean, from a balloon or other craft, or in space, has the tremendous advantage of not putting a life in danger but now, with digital, the film doesn't even have to be retrieved. The image can be sent wirelessly to the photographer. Any specialization that benefits from speed of delivery and ease of manipulation or modification is tailor made for particular strengths of digital capture. But there are areas that can actually be hurt by an over-reliance on the technology, especially when the exact reverse is seen as strength and truth.

Difficulties in manipulation, when accuracy and truth are paramount, are certainly traits associated inextricably with film. The very fact that photo manipulation has taken huge leaps forward after the advent of digital photography attests to the strength of film for accuracy and reliability of authenticity.

And I can print any negative I've ever shot without electricity, without gadgets, without high-tech programs and electronic machinery. I can use the sun, lanterns, flashlights, flash, candles, etc. I can print during brown outs, black outs, oil embargoes. I can use alternative processes and I can do it in any of the myriad of traditional ways, assuming the chemistry and raw materials are available in one form or another, which is only a function of the will to keep them available.

CDs and DVDs have a life of about ten years and then they must be re-burned. When one considers the holdings of the National Archives and Library of Congress it is mind-boggling to even contemplate putting in place a schedule by which all files might be copied before too degraded, a methodology of actually doing the copying, and a system for cycling through all electronic files. Negatives are supposed to be processed to archival standards that will insure their viability for five hundred years. It's not a leap to decide that a ten year shelf life with questionable technological compatibility in the near term does not stack up to a 500 year "archivability" with unlimited viability.

I remember very well using 5 1/4" floppy discs routinely but can't even contemplate reading them now. They were the norm not 20 years ago. In 20, 15, or even 10 years will any of the present storage technology even be viable? If we move on from present technology will the readers for the old systems be around still, will repositories have kept up with the recopying of voluminous digital files, and will they even have the budgets to keep recopying? This is especially poignant given the fact that planned obsolescence is a reality and companies operate specifically by getting consumers to move on to the next thing.

One of the funniest exchanges I've encountered occurred on one of the photography forums I log onto now and then. They can be wonderful places for gaining information because they are universal and nearly immediate. But this encounter with a series of posters to the forum was enlightening for its lack of closure or finality of a solution or definitive help. A forum member queried the group with a question about how they dealt with storage of large digital files, particularly the photographic type. The question received a flurry of responses, discussing the merits of one method or another (DVDs, CDs, hard drives, etc. etc.) but someone could always shoot down each suggestion or have one that he/she felt was better. Finally after many posts someone suggested saving them as a certain type of file, and then outputting that file onto film that could be physically stored in a safe and archival manner. I wrote finally, suggesting that maybe this was a round robin and that the best way would be to shoot film and then go to digital or whatever other end might be needed. I think I shut the thread down with that comment, but it is strikingly apropos. Why not film because it is physical and holdable and fairly stable, and can be digitized and treated as a digital file from that point on with a primary source saved in a nice, safe, and flat sleeve.

The most important product of a shoot is the primary source, like a research item, and it has to be stored properly and drawn from when new information is needed. An odd attitude has been fostered over the years, and that is that most people tend to treat the 3x5 photos from the quicky print shop as primary, and look at negatives as bothersome byproducts of the photo session. I've seen engineers throw out negatives after collecting a processed roll from the photofinisher, and more often than not they are misplaced even if they are kept. With this attitude, how can anyone have faith that an ephemeral digital file that backs up a photo will be cared for, even if stored via one of the accepted methods.

In the field of preservation we rely on historic photographs to show structures in context, to glean information about details lost. Many of the photos contain such information as secondary information to the subject or even as background, and many are photos of seemingly discard-quality that ended up in a shoe box or equivalent catch-all. It has become too easy in digital photography to erase photos of same quality rather than to consign them to the shoe box. The delete button is taking away our sublime link to the seemingly mundane. Bad negatives tend to hang around and can be interpreted at a later date. Digital images, many bad and some even good, can hang around in storage media and not ever be seen again, or might be lost to degradation, but can also just be deleted.

The first time I ever saw old Cirkut photographs was a revelation. I was at the National Archives in College Park, MD and stumbled upon an exhibit of panoramic images drawn from the archive's collection and hung. One in particular pulled me in. It was a shot, on 16" film (Cirkut #16 camera on film 16" wide by about five feet long) of a group of nurses and hospital staff standing in front of a grey stone institutional building. Each person was recorded down to the last detail, but what was most amazing was what was visible in the background. A man was frozen in a window in the building that stood some fifty feet behind the group, presumably watching the shot being taken, and he was just as clear and recognizable as each of the subjects. I was captivated and had to learn more.

Years later, after having discovered what Cirkut photography is and how it is done, I met Gordon Roth, a Cirkut photographer. He invited me to join him while he shot various groups of alumni at a Princeton University and to learn and help. He was doing the job in conjunction with a panoramic firm from the Boston area. They brought with them a modern 2 1/4" pan camera, as well as some Cirkut cameras, and examples from each to encourage sales. When I looked I was stunned how different the pans were. The photos from scans from the 2 1/4" negatives looked okay on there own, but when seen next to the Cirkut contact prints, the former looked like amateurish, out-of-focus slop and the Cirkut photos revealed every face in detail. I can't imagine what the equivalent in gigabytes would be.

One of large format's unique abilities lies in the fact that it has huge surface area which translates to huge information storage capacity. We shoot in large format film for various reasons, and this capacity is one of the paramount reasons. If the facade of a monumental building is shot in 8x10 black and white film, it inherently stores a huge amount of information about that elevation in a silver nitrate and acetate physical from. It has been estimated that its storage capacity is upwards of the equivalent of hundreds of megapixels of memory. A 5x7 inch sheet of film stores a bit less than half of the 8x10 inch sheet, and consequently a 4x5 inch sheet can accommodate a bit more than half again of the 5x7. On the other hand, a 35mm negative is shy of one-thirty-sixth of an 8x10 inch sheet. In order for the same amount of information related to a facade to be stored in 35mm, a photographer would have to shoot a whole roll of 35mm film of various aspects of the elevation (with inherent present-day censorship as an unfortunate by-product). And four 4x5s or two 5x7s would be required in order to retain the same information potential. It is hard to place digital in this hierarchy because there is so much variation and so little standardization, but, barring a discussion of the problems of digital storage, a low resolution JPEG is not even as good at storage as 35mm (and most people shoot small JPEGs even if their cameras can shoot impressive TIFFs or RAW files). TIFFs and RAW files hold a lot of information but they are not up to large format and are certainly as ephemeral as any other digital file.

And why would it be necessary to keep the information potential of a shoot the same? When you consider that a portion of an 8x10 negative that is the size of a 35mm negative imparts the same information as a lone 35mm negative, it can be seen that a detail on the facade can be seen as well as if it had been pinpointed in 35mm as a diagnostic item of importance. I believe that all recordation projects should be approached with the "80 square inches per elevation" rule (that can be distilled from the formula above) so that appropriate information can be obtained. And when this is adhered to there is little reason to drop below the 4x5 inch format size, since the shooting should be done from a tripod, no matter what the format, with a good range of quality lenses, and there would be little advantage in time or materials if done adequately.

For some reason people have come to believe that a professional is needed to shoot on film but that anyone can shoot digital. This may have its roots in the perceived belief that digital can always be fixed in PhotoShop or its copies. For truth and accuracy in photography this is an appallingly bad idea. In terms of cost, manipulation time eats budgets just as quickly as on-site time and the results aren't as polished anyway. The most hackneyed look today is already the manipulated look. And bad photography is bad photography no matter how you look at it and what you do.

I doubt very much that anyone would suggest that the Rosetta Stone, Roman scrolls, the Declaration of Independence, an early book off the Gutenberg press, the letters of John F. Kennedy, or the negatives of Ansel Adams should be digitized and destroyed. They can and are digitized routinely in order to facilitate dissemination and utilization through digitized processes, but it is heartening and satisfying to know that the originals are protected for future generations. Primary research materials are the hallmark of scholarly pursuit, yet a complete reliance on digital imaging and texting of everything we do is putting that primary potential at risk. There is absolutely no insurance of prime. Just as the photography companies have foisted a reliance on their products as preservation of memories while allowing improperly fixed and cleaned black and white negatives to be churned out with a tandem belief that they are archival and color negatives and prints to become the mainstay of the wedding and childhood archive when they are known to be unstable, the computer and storage companies are insuring that our stored digital memories are at risk. But so much is lost because we are now committing items to archives that don't even have primary source status.

And much of this problem is profit-motivated in nature without the slightest thought to what is right or wrong. It used to be that companies would make whatever made them some money. Now they drop products that don't make them a predetermined large sum of money. Digital capture has put fear into the corporate board room and investors and they are all clamoring for the demise of a viable product because it is not profitable in the 21st Century sense. When black and white photography was invented the end of portrait painting was hinted at. When color came onto the market black and white was given the same fate. Now that digital is here, we hear of the demise of film, but digital is not doing it. Making shareholders happy is to blame.


Rob Tucher Photographic Documentation    6A River Road    High Bridge, NJ   08829    908-310-9490    rob@tucherphoto.com