A Grumpy Film Addict Writes….

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Spot the difference, film or digital?

I have a regular page in Farm and Plant Buyers Guide, a magazine that is a thoroughly up to date operation¬† and thrives despite being one of those sooo old fashioned printed (ugh!) media thingies. For the latest issue I used the above image, it’s one I took about ten years ago in the UK and although it’s a reasonable portrayal of the subject I never thought of it as being anything special, that is until I saw it in print.

As a photo it’s still not earth shattering but when printed and displayed on paper, as it was meant to be, it took on a life of its own. It was a picture that spoke to the viewer rather than just being an abstract representation of a solid object, the sum was greater than its parts, and the reason why? It was taken on film. Maybe you are thinking this is a foolish romance, an aching for a genteel past and denial of the present, but I think not. Over the last couple of weeks I have been working on history of tractors and one of my source books is printed entirely in black and white with copious photos, it was published in 2001 so we can be fairly sure that even the most recent pictures in it were also taken on film while older ones had to be which allows us to trace the development of photography over the last century through the photos shown as well as appreciate just how much more informative and interesting older B&W photos can be.

Why this should be so is a puzzle that has in fact been bugging me for a while. Despite all the talk about desaturated digital images being as good or as convincing as film based B&W I have never been persuaded. Film relies on a random assortment of pigments and crystals to record how reflected light has passed through a lens while digital is a rigid array of light receptive cells that accurately measure the energy they receive. The physics involved in describing the difference is beyond me but a difference there certainly is.

The same does not apply to colour photos to quite the same degree and this, I believe, is due the extra information that they supply. Black and white shows the structure and texture of things, colour just adds another layer of information and in photography this extra data swamps the finesse and critical detail of seeing subjects purely in terms of how much light they reflect (or emit) and demands that we also consider the wavelength of that light. We cannot cope with all this extra¬† information and so we lose the purity of perceiving the fabric and are detracted instead by its gaudiness. It’s worth noting that there are 20 times more Rod cells in our retina than there are cones. Rods are more sensitive to light levels but cannot detect colour, that is the job of the cones and despite their greatly inferior numbers they are responsible for about half the visual information our brain receives.

Colour simply blots out the finer qualities of B&W and digital cameras aid and abet this process to a quite incredible degree so if colour is of paramount importance in a photo then digital is the method of choice. Simply removing the colour information from a digital photograph does not put it on a par with film, for the balance of the light’s quality has been upset by the colour filter that is part of every digital sensor.

So is it safe to conclude that the glorious days of film have been destroyed for ever by the advent of digital? Well no, for another very noticeable factor is that the best B&W photos were taken during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when film still relied on silver salts rather than organic pigments, there was a punch and impact about them that was lost long before digital took over. Yet, despite this, a B&W photo captured on film and printed on paper is still a thing of beauty that exceeds a desaturated array of digital pixels transmitted by radiant screen, often by a good margin. Will I be switching back to film for B&W? Of course, I’ll start again tomorrow, something I have been saying for nearly a decade now!

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