On the aesthetic of photographic media.

Although I’ve always preferred photographing with film, I’m finding it more and more curious, and more and more a relief, that I am developing an outright distaste for the plasticity (pardon the coarse descriptor) of digital imaging.

Curious, because the distaste for digital has been inversely proportional to the gains this medium has made in resolution, dynamic range, and “realism”.

A relief, because with my film photography I am generally more focused, in a word.

And I prefer the results.

—Peter.

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25 thoughts on “On the aesthetic of photographic media.

  1. andygemmell says:

    100% on the same page Peter. Nothing has really grabbed me in digital. The more you try and create a better computer the more clinical the output becomes. I see this in sensors all the time. The most obvious observations for me was when the original MM was “upgraded” to the Type 246 (?)MM. Though its also across other non Leica formats as well. Sony sensors and the SL is getting closer (tomato face and all😊).

    The D750 I use sits in my cupboard mostly and comes out when I do the small assignments where its required.

    Im off to the states to see Yosemite, Death Valley, Zion and Bryce Canyon in 4 weeks. Ill be taking my Mamiya 7 and Velvia 50 for that trip. Only a slight inclination to take the D750 for convenience factor.

    • I’m glad you’re (1) going on your trip and (2) bringing the Mamiya + film. To not do that would be a mistake.

      Personally, I wouldn’t bring your D750. You may get more images with it, but you won’t be as fond of them. And imagine the freedom of traveling with only the Mamiya.

      My D810 will stay in the rotation because of the reason I bought it in the first place: telephoto use (for photographing my kids’ sports). But most of the time, I will be using my film gear.

    • I agree with Peter. The simplicity of ‘just’ the Mamiya 7 would make you experience the trip much more i think. Have been almost buying the Mamiya for two years now.. I remember Hiking in New Zealand with just a TLR (Rolleiflex). So liberating.

      • andygemmell says:

        Was only a “slight” inclination for the D750. It’ll be staying in the cupboard!

        • jkjod says:

          Andy I’m jealous of your trip! I went to Yosemite a couple of years ago, it was probably my favorite vacation I’ve ever taken. I have been trying to get the Mrs. to go for a winter stay at some point. You won’t be disappointed in the views, that’s for sure, so take a lot of film!

  2. Asiafish says:

    Agree completely. I’m using the original M Monochrom, an M-E and a Canon 6D for digital, and a Canon EOS 650 and Leica M5 for film. Honestly I think I’m off the treadmill other than wear and tear.

    The glass gets better, but The only time I ever wish for a new sensor is when shooting film, and it is it’s a quick wind away.

  3. mewanchuk says:

    (Warning fellow reader: Random musings follow…please completely disregard if in stark disagreement!)

    A most interesting post, Peter.

    In pondering your use of the term “plasticity” my initial assumption was that you were implying that the digital images looked increasingly “like plastic”.

    In thinking further about what I myself enjoy about shooting film, I realized that the finality of the image is a big part of the draw for me: the shutter is pressed, and the instant is etched onto the cellulose. As such, the moment inexorably “exists” (in some tangible form…) and the choices that were made, cannot be made again. [While I do realize that some latitude remains using digital post-processing…] The exposure, tones, grain, focus, and gradients are all relatively fixed.

    As I have remarked before–the grainy imperfection of the film image more accurately reflects how my emotional mind remembers the event. In effect, the photo -becomes- the memory as I recall it.

    For some reason, I do not find that this same effect occurs when pouring through my digital images. (Perhaps it is simple nostalgia–I will grant you that). However, with my digital images, I find that the temptation is always great to “go back and reprocess”. Or add an additional (gasp!) filter. Or sharpen. Or denoise. Or…you get it. There is seemingly more infinite “plasticity” in the digital image–Perhaps, for me, slightly less so in the film one.

    The other issue is one of accomplishment: I simply do not get the same sense of “creating something” with my digital photographs that I do with film. Perhaps I do not print enough of my images. In contrast, with film I am in control of every aspect of the process. If I make an error or a bad choice, the crappy image that results is still the one I made.

    Having said all of this, there are hundreds of thousands of talented photographers taking much more evocative photos than I, using fantastic digital gear. My preference, then (I assume) is much more a reflection of how my mind works.

    (And yes…I do realize that most of our film images are now made digital…so I guess my point really is moot, isn’t it?)

    🙂

    Anyway, thanks for starting me on the journey…long ago…

    -M.

    • First of all Mark, you are being too modest. Your images are some of the most evocative, and definitely the most “real”, I’ve seen in the current blog landscape.

      Regarding your point about our film images being converted to digital: I’m not sure that makes your point moot, because even digitized film images still have a character/look that escapes most software conversions to B&W I’ve seen of native digital files (if that makes sense…I need to think about what I just wrote).

  4. Linden says:

    Perhaps Peter this will bring a nice segue into a discussion on emulsions. Dare I say it, even more than a discussion on CMOS v CCD, it is in discussions on, say, Velvia v Portra, or Acros v Tri-X that we are talking personalities imposed by film stock. There is so much less latitude in PP compared to digital that one really needs to decide ahead of time which film will deliver the desired end results.

    • Hmmm… although I’m sure that would make a great discussion, it is outside the scope of my current knowledge. I tend to be a one trick pony for B&W (Tri-X) and colour (Portra) film. When I first started working with film, I tried other types, but immediately settled on these.

  5. Louis says:

    Photography is simply the capture of light. Period.
    I think the argument about the “look” of film vs digital is fun but somewhat pointless as I believe similar results can be achieved with either.

    The big difference with film is that almost all of the variables that are so hotly contested are fixed. Choose a film and you have completely and effectively fixed the sensitivity, dynamic range, color saturation, shadow detail, highlight compression, etc. You also have a very tightly limited number of shots. This forces you to “think” and photograph differently as your choice is subject, exposure, etc., must factor in the limits of your film. Most importantly, your image results are a direct consequence of your success (or failure) to make these judgements.

    By contrast, digital is a much larger blank page. Compared to film, most sensors offer limitless possibilities. (Consider that the fastest B&W emulsions were ISO 3200-6400 and that with push development. The images were grainy and super contrasty with limited detail.) Thus, most people don’t “think” through the entire process from the scene in front of them, to how the sensor will capture, to how that will print. Digital offers us much broader range, and that’s the problem. With infinite range we seldom choose ‘the best’ set of technical limits.

    There are some exceptions to the above, but they are far less common today. The entire body of Ansel Adams work in the Zone system was to expand and overcome the above. What Adam’s showed first and perhaps best was that being able to “think” through the limitations of your selected medium could produce astounding results. Even so, Adams showed that the film-paper dynamic range was fixed, and that the artist had to factor this in when choosing subject matter, exposure, development, and printing. In today’s parlance that is sensor, iso, capture, and post-production.

    For what its worth, the above said, your images (Peter) make exceptional use of the ‘limits’ of the M9 sensor. You have have trained your eye and brain to capture and extract the most from every scene. An admirable achievement.
    You are now on to other things (120 film, D810, etc) – of which you are likely to do and enjoy equally well.
    Perhaps the part that we (you) enjoy the most is learning how to see, and then translating that via your medium.

    • Louis, I agree with most of your very thoughtful comments, but I almost stopped reading beyond your first statement (that similar results can be achieved with digital and film). It’s the one point where I beg to differ, although I will concede that digital and film images often come close to converging with respect to their appearance.

      As for the last point, about making exceptional use of the limits of the M9 sensor. First of all, thank you for that kind comment. But as I was reading Aaron’s thoughts below, I really did question whether it’s a function of me “learning” the limits of the M9, or is it that the M9 sees the way I see. I’m not sure.

      • Louis says:

        Thanks. If you haven’t already done so, read some old Ansel books (The Negative, The Print). I’m happy to loan them to you if you like. The goal of the photographer is to “visualize” the image. Insomuch as you think a camera “sees” the way you do, or vice-versa, that goal is achieved.

        Eh. I started working in a camera store as a teenager in the late 80’s. I continued as a hobby all the way through the early 2000’s. Back then we had hundreds of combinations of film, chemistry, paper. We had endless debates about which film? Which developer? Which paper? Which lab? Which camera? etc, etc, etc, Not so many emulsions around anymore – so now I guess they’re all pretty good.

        Our old analog debates were over am coffee at the store, or pm beer at the bar across the street. Now we debate in pixels via blogs. Franky, I think the coffee and beer debates were more productive… or at least more fun.

        I enjoy your images and blog. Keep up the good work.

  6. Antonio Russell says:

    I never switched to Digital myself (bar my iPhone which I love…). For me Film is an aesthetic choice: it just prefer how it looks. It connects with me more than digital. Much more.

    • Antonio, you never switched to digital? Wow, you my man have saved yourself a fortune! I bow before your wisdom. If I had done the same I’d have saved myself a lot of trouble and false starts.

  7. One more comment Peter on the increasing divide between human perception of the scene and digital perception of the scene. In the industry’s relentless march to continually make more “capable” tools with higher ISO abilities, it has created a larger gap between the eye and mind perceives a scene in terms of light and how the tool is capable of seeing the scene.

    I believe that a lot of the CCD vs CMOS discussion is actually an acknowledgement of the dissonance of the camera not seeing like the eye sees. The M9 with a 35mm Summilux basically tolerated light like the human eye – during the magic hour, the photographer’s ability to see the scene and the camera’s ability to see the scene were synchronised; most all CCDs when paired with a fast lens were tuned in a way to more or less match the film range, which more or less matched the capability of human vision.

    As ISOs go through the roof, suddenly the camera sees more than the eye, and is the (real) photographer really asking for that capability? We are, after all, trying to record what we see to remember or lives, not what we don’t see for bragging rights about who has the most technically capable tool.

    That plasticity is true, and largely

    • andygemmell says:

      A good point Aaron and couldn’t agree more.

    • Aaron, your assertion that most CCD sensors (when paired with a fast lens) “see” as the photographer’s eye sees is quite fascinating. When I look back at the digital cameras I’ve enjoyed using the most: the M9, the Nikon D70… they were CCD cameras (hence my bias towards CCD), but I never thought of the “reason” I enjoyed their output, beyond thinking that I “liked” the output. Your view is a step beyond that: these cameras’ sensors see light the way I see light.

  8. I’ve been mulling over your thoughtful responses (while distracted about my whole Canada Post experience: http://prosophos.com/2016/01/25/canada-post-watch-no-parcel-yet/ ).

    Please give me some time and I’ll respond.

  9. Cory Laskowitz says:

    I think its the PROCESS that makes analog photography so appealing. You have to see the outcome in your mind, and then develop it. My stereo is 70’s stuff, and its the same. I use a tube amp and like film, the texture is more organic, and true to life. I hope your wait is over soon Peter.

    • Cory, I know Mark too enjoys the “process” of film photography, but I have to confess I’ve always found the developing and scanning stages quite tedious. However, the end result keeps me coming back for more. That, and also the lack of a shutter delay when I am photographing with an M film body are very appealing. As is the tactile enjoyment of a purely mechanical device. Hmmm…. maybe I too enjoy the process!

  10. John G. says:

    Peter, I find all of this a very interesting transition as I have so much respect for your photography.

    I have been chasing a digital solution since 2004, but have yet to find what I am looking for. My favorite pictures are my step-dad’s family photos taken with one of his Nikons that he develops and prints. This has has been his process since the 60’s and the results remain astonishing in my eyes, especially as I struggle with digital.

    I enjoy the convenience of digital photography, but I have yet to produce results as good as I have produced or seen on film. 90% of the pictures I have hanging in my house are film photographs. For me…they just look better. I keep trying with digital, but I’m certainly not there.

    I also detest scanning film. So it’s either a full digital workflow for me, or I need to commit to a proper darkroom so that I don’t have to print in my basement (walk-out) after dark when the moon is not full.

    I gravitate to your site as I have been so impressed with your photographs. Your influence has certainly been the primary reason I now own M-E and 50mm Summilux ASPH.

    I’m curious to see how things work out with your “new” equipment and am sure my Summilux will be spending more time on my M6.

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