Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Film for important pictures?

I waited a long time before dipping my toes into the digital photographic waters. In the end it was only because clients wanted a speedier turn-around.
I have not worked for newspapers for years and of late my editorial work was for magazines where turn-around time is not an issue.
My first digital camera was a Minolta Dimage that, in truth I hated. Noise levels at any setting above ISO200 were horrible! Image quality was nothing to write home about and peering into a screen to take the picture was just too foreign.
I quickly went back to shooting on colour negative and having the negatives scanned.
Using a bunch of Nikkormats, an F2 and an old, but much-loved, Voigtlander Prominent, got me labeled a dinosaur but the images those old gems produced were better than anything I saw shot with a digital camera.
However, this year I had no option but to buy a digital SLR.
I chose a Nikon D40, a decision determined by my limited budget and because accepted even my oldest Nikon prime lenses. The fact that I cannot meter or auto focus with them is of no concern. I have always preferred to take incident readings with a hand-held light meter any way.
I will review the D40 at some other time.

Some impressions

Now, after almost a year’s use, a few impressions:
A digital slr is a wonderful and convenient tool. It is fantastic to be able to shoot and know you have the image. There is no need to clean dust spots off the scans and it is convenient to be able to present a client with a finished image in only a minutes.
In my opinion, quality is equal to, or better than, that of 35mm film.
But despite all of that, I still prefer shooting film. To me digital images appear sterile and lifeless -- perfectly exposed for sure, but nonetheless sterile. They’re a bit like comparing real leather with leatherette or a Timex with a Rolex -- the former do the job and in many cases better than the latter but they’re still not the real thing. Nostalgia? A Luddite? Maybe. Probably.
But there is a more practical reason for my preference. I believe the move to digital communications is resulting in the loss of much history and, in the future, the only history left properly recorded will be the “official” history.
As the author of a couple of historical books -- the best know of which is Days of the Generals, the story of South Africa’s Apartheid-era military generals -- I know how much information is gleaned from personal documents, letters, photographs etc. My mother, for example, has letters I wrote from the operational area while serving with the South African Defence Force in Angola in 1975. The letter Billy the Kid wrote to the governor so long ago is still accessible.
In 20 years time will we be able to say that about the emails and digital pictures servicemen and women are sending from Iraq and Afghanistan? I doubt it.


Those invaluable, personal accounts will disappear.
Even news agencies acknowledge this fact. In the past, negs and transparencies -- even those not published -- were filed and stored. Now, because of the volume of digital pictures shot, those not used, are deleted and gone forever.
Of course images can be stored on CDs, DVDs and hard drives but right now, I sit in my office with a draw of stored documents saved on floppy disks. Maybe I should have kept the computer I used to write those disks!
I wonder about the thousands of weddings and special occasions that were shot on Betamax video tapes and can only imagine how difficult it must be to relive those moments.
I think there is a strong case to be made to shoot important events and occasions on film.

What do you think?


Joy said...

Hi Hilton,

I like your blog - very interesting.



Sam said...

As you may have gathered from my previous two comments, I agree. In ten years my film pictures will look even better in digital because they can alway be rescanned with the better technology. If my digital files can still be read then they will be stuck exactly where they were -- qualitywise. A level which -- at that time -- will probably be a joke.

Hilton Hamann said...

Absolutely right. I remember when the first pro Nikon and Canon digital cameras appeared.
Down here they sold for the equivalent of US$20 000 and boasted 3 mp. Noise at anything above ISO 400 was terrible. Just think how those images would compare with a print made from a 100 year-old neg.
But I love the advent of digital -- film cameras I could never have afforded in the past are now literally being given away.