There’s been a lot of talk lately about film making a resurgence. Ever since Polaroid announced a about a year ago that they were ending production of their film, forums, blogs, and photography communities have been ramping up a widespread discussion over the benefits of film. More recently, when Polaroid filed for Chapter 11 less than a month ago, the discussion of film vs. digital was taken up yet another notch. While I am firmly in the digital world of photography, since my roots are founded in the Vivitar 110 I used as a youth, (and subsequently with my brothers Pentax K1000) the subject does hold a certain appeal for me.
So, I’d like to take a moment here on the blog to frame the “debate” from my own perspective. As a digital enthusiast, and at times, an admitted pixel peeper, the benefits of digital technology are not lost on me. At the same time, while technology can benefit us all, in many ways, and across many disciplines, it does have limits. Why? Because of the physics of it. Technologies can only be broken down so far before they reach limits. Data, for instance, can only be broken down into 1’s and 0’s. Likewise with the pixel in photography. Yes, we can advance technologies, and make pixels smaller, but in the end, there is always a limit to what a digital sensor can capture.
This is not to say that we cannot approach film-like quality with digital means. Feathering techniques, plugins, and action scripts can approach film-like characteristics, and many are quite good at it. For some examples of some of the best resources out there, I’d recommend a site called Action Central (www.atncentral.com) that has an impressive array of actions and such. Several plugin sites are also out there that include The Plugin Site, Adobe’s own Plugin pages, among several others.
On a side-by-side comparison though, I tend to be of the belief that film has a degree of smoothness in tonal and color gradations that simply cannot be duplicated by a digital sensor. They are getting very very good, and coming close, but from where I set (like I said, as an admitted pixel peeper at times), a pixel will always have a line that it cannot cross on its own. From that perspective, film will always win. I understand the converse, that when pixel peeping, I am looking at prints much closer than ever were intended for viewing purposes – but that’s just me.
What struck me most about this debate though, was a statement that really hit home, made by my friend, Dave Zarzecki (sorry folks, he does not have a web presence). It was analogy to graphic design and I think perfectly summarizes the difference between film and digital:
Film is to digital as vectoring is to rasterizing
Think about it. Film is smooth and transitions from one tonal area to another blend very seamlessly,so even when you look at a print very close, it’s hard to tell where one color, tone or shade ends and where the next one begins. The same holds true with vectoring…you can increase or decrease your viewing distance to HUGE degrees without seeing any pixelization. By start contrast though, with digital, there will always be lines that the photoreceptors cannot cross for traditional sensors. Wheter they are CCD, CMOS or other bayer arrays, there are fundamental limits to digital incarnations that cannot be surpassed without help. The same holds true for rasterized objects. Lines of demarcation are made, and to cross them, you need help, whether it be in the form of feathering, actions or plugins.
This is not intended to denigrate digital by any means – I love my 40D, and suspect within the next year I will also own a 1st generation 5D. However, a fondness for the early days of my Vivitar 110 (and my brother’s Pentax K1000) will always be there.
So, what about the listening audience? Will digital ever surpass film in tonal and color quality? Has it done so already? Or is it about to cross that line soon? Sound off in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts! In the meantime, happy shooting, and we’ll see you back here tomorrow!