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Modern Dancer

This was shot in Cuba ten years ago, using a Leica M6 with Elmarit 24mm f2.8 lens and Neopan b&w film.

I’m google eyed looking at digital cameras like xr1r, a7r, leica mm, olympus em1… the best small-sized digital cameras out there. I’m not happy with big bulky DSLRs so been looking at the compacts which have developed very well but on closer inspection are lacking some key ingredients.

I’m trying to find something to go with my x-pro 1 that would do better IQ and have better DR plus some film looks re colours and texture, might go for a Sony xr1r which has good dynamic range but I prefer what I’m seeing from the Olympus em1 offering film looks.

Well digital photography in small cameras still hasn’t matched the dynamic range of film with respect to DHR, doesn’t offer infinite grey tones, and ignores grain, typically lacks any texture up close. I don’t like the silky-smooth look of digital photos when printed a large sizes, to me there is an obvious element missing, texture, so there’s a sensory disappointment coming from film background. Also when shooting digital it’s hard not to review on the LCDs and that breaks the flow of photography for me, reviewing is post shoot work and offers excitement and surprise to an otherwise boring stage of photography.

Some of the bulky DSLRs are supposedly achieving the dynamic range of film – Nikon D800 – but that’s only at low iso speeds and in raw, and I don’t believe most of what I hear that’s usually marketing hype. Sure you can do HDR photos of static subjects by taking few exposures and compiling in post but that doesn’t work for anything that moves.

The film we shot on was always as much a part of the photos as the lens or camera we used, personally I would rate it as equally important to the lens quality. Digital camera makers practically ignore the importance of this missing quality.

There are colour profiles added to some digital cameras for jpegs but Raw is still the same boring looking image that must be post processed to replicate film looks. Show me one digital image from a Dslr that has been convincingly processed to look like Kodachrome 64 colours.

Even looking at Arrivals & Departures by Jacob Aue Sobol of Magnum Photos, I wasn’t impressed by the digital images coming from Leica digital even after the intensive post processing work done on them. Pushing and pulling dramatically in post – digital doesn’t have it whereas a film scan does due to it’s grain and dynamic range. Those photos are just black and white from Leica and still digital fails to come close to film.

It’s time for me to stop trying to find a digital camera that does film quality, although I’m tempted to try the Olympus em1 for its film like quality, typically digital even with grain software applied doesn’t compare to film and the post work is so frustrating.

Digital is great if you want professional beauty shots or smooth textured product shots, but there’s no gritty options for photographers who value film grain, who relate soulful photography to the surprising and organic results of shooting film.

You just can’t find images with the texture and dynamic range of film coming from any digital cameras, the top end digital cameras still only perform best when the lighting is perfect, so they still miss shots in real life that film would catch with style.

There’s talk for years of an organic sensor and Fuji with Panasonic are promising some new sensors that will double the dynamic range of current sensors and probably look more like film if they are organic. We don’t know when this invention will be realised in a camera but we look forward to it.

A good photo is often one that has been captured on the verge of exposure limits, photos like this will be stylish on film because grain will add to the drama but this is where digital fails, digital photos do not look good outside normal or boring exposure limits.

I’m sick of hearing all the leading camera companies still compete around auto focus speed and maximum resolution, they’ve continued to ignore the many other camera and exposure qualities that contribute to artistic photography.

Olympus has a set of ‘art filters’ on their em1 camera which I’ve seen good results from online, but I think they require further post work to improve upon. The Olympus colours I’m seeing in photos online appear far more like the film colours I want but I’d be surprised if this little camera sensor will not reach it’s limit quickly by enlargement.

The bottom line for me is a lack of film grain with digital, it’s not easily appreciated on screen here, but enlargement of film photos to any size beyond lens or film resolution of detail will present attractive grain, an endless organic texture.

Grain is not uniform, it reacts and manifests in relation to exposure, development and film type, forming clusters and variety of size, so it is very much part of the character of artistic photographs. Grain appears random and organic, imbuing soul to prints from film as they go larger.

I’ll continue to shoot digital but give preference to film for what I feel is artistically important work. It is a pain and a worry to travel with films through airports and x-ray machines but I’ve never had a problem in the past and digital offers a backup.

Digital cameras that perform well are expensive, and your own photography work is valuable, that’s why it’s very important to factor many considerations before commiting to a new system. I like the Fuji x-pro 1 because it’s relatively cheap and very handy but the image quality only goes so far. The x-pro 1 and Olympus em-1 are both systems with good lenses and good variety of lenses.

The x-pro 1 uses software to correct lens distortion in-camera on certain lenses, this is becoming popular with manufacturers and a very hidden process, one that is undesirable in my view as it is without doubt misleading re lens quality. I don’t like the basic idea of software manipulation of my photos on capture, for me the lens is the only thing between subject and sensor or film.

It is easy to see the lack of detail in corners of images using this lens correction software which corrects barrel or pin cushion distortion, but it looks good on sales pages to show lack of distortion. In my view distortion of lenses would be great! I’m trying to find out if its possible to switch off the software on x-pro 1 to get at the distortion on some of their lenses… Bill Brandt kind of interest.

The black and white photo of the dancer was scanned on an old scanner – I must rescan on my v700 – and it was shot on high contrast neg film.
It reminds me why I will continue to shoot film… if film continues to be available, the choice has dwindled dramatically in recent years. In future I will shoot film as a priority with some digital back up shots, and to use as comparisions with equivalent lens to show why I choose film over digital.

In the photo above, film grain appears quickly over resolution of detail but it was a fast film I chose for versatility on shoot day and I knew its grainy look would compliment the spirit of the images. The photos were about composition and line not about resolution details, where detail is lacking due to light and speed of exposure limitations, the detail or texture void is filled with attractive film grain.

There is an overwhelming choice now for cameras, it’s very hard to choose and writing about it helps me, bulky dslrs are on the way out as smaller cameras reach similar quality standards. Film cameras offer battery-free and electronics-free reliability with unique print qualities. For most print requirements up to 60cm wide, the quality and ease of digital workflow wins, but for larger prints they look flat and without texture compared to film, unless you’re shooting on medium format digital cameras that cost over 10k and weigh 2kg.

Shooting on 35mm film or compact 120 film cameras, still wins for texture and depth when appreciating large prints artistically. You can dodge or burn a digitised film photo in photoshop, it will compare to darkroom print work and look good printed, but digital photos can not be manipulated harshly in the same way because they don’t have the film grain texture. It’s a great artistic advantage to imbue that handmade style of darkroom work on prints that was popular before digital.