THE ZEN OF FILM VS. DIGITAL GRATIFICATION
April 10, 2009, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Field Notes & Essays | Tags: digital photography, film, Zen
“Mulling it over, I couldn’t articulate it fully but definitely, I knew I had become lazy, really lazy. A spectacular sloth by the standards of shooting film. Film is hard. Film is a stone cold unforgiving killing bastard. Film is once in a lifetime, no excuses. F8 and really, really be there: ready, steady, in focus, correct exposure, and pressing the shutter in synch with life.”

THE LURE OF DIGITAL

Throughout the 1980’s I covered a lot of football, some of it without a motor drive or auto exposure and all of it manually follow-focusing with big glass. Various manufacturers would show up on the sidelines with different versions of digital cameras to try, always promising (or threatening) the same refrain: “In five years you guys will all be shooting digital!” Everyone would laugh and roll their eyes at this ridiculous idea.

It took more than five years, but by 1999 with the introduction of the Nikon D1 I was shooting both film and digital. Five years later, fully two thirds of my work was digital. Now with the D3X and D700 it’s 99 percent digital. The main reason for this shift is simply that the quality of the files is just so fantastic now that I can’t justify the expense of film for most projects. I’m not too precious about my tools; for me it’s all about the image and whatever gets the job done. We are at a point now with the quality of digital where I can make a digital print from a digital capture and show veteran photographers prints they cannot tell are digital. And that brings the discussion back to the eye of the shooter and the content of the images; the camera is irrelevant.

Yet despite this technical advance, lately I’ve been looking hard at what this means for me as a photographer and how I see. Of course I miss film and the traditions I grew up with. Until recently I had been shooting Tri-x almost every day since I was 10 years old so it’s not a small thing to change. I’ve been questioning if what I’m missing about film and film cameras is more than sentimental. I wondered if the differences between the working methods of using film and using digital were more than physical and what the implications might be if so. And bear in mind, I’m looking at this as someone who lives for capturing moments. This led me to do a serious shoot on a personal project with only film. And that experience led me to a revelation that is changing how I shoot digital, for the better. More on that in a moment.

It was at the Super Bowl in 1982 that I first laid hands on a digital camera. It was an experimental prototype Nikon was working on. They let me shoot a frame or two. At the time, I thought the whole idea insane. I remember it being very slow and heavy. I vaguely remember you could fire a frame every few minutes and it had a maximum shutter speed of 1/90th of a second or similar. It was unworkable for sports unless you planned to just shoot peak action, waiting for the athlete to reach the apex of a leap in the air for example. This reminded me of the old guys I knew at my first newspaper who started their careers shooting sports with a 4×5 Speed Graphic. One gentleman in particular–Zeke–looked over my shoulder one day and saw the film I was getting ready to soup from an assignment. I knew Zeke had covered the invasion of Normandy, incredibly, with a Speed Graphic. He took a drag on his cigar and leaned over and shouted “Six rolls! We could have covered World War II in 2 f*****g frames; one for the battle scene, one for the generals shaking hands!”

As the digital revolution unfolded through the 80’s and 90’s and all things analog were being converted to bits I was covering the engineers in Silicon Valley making the breakthroughs. It was clear they were going to change the world and I was very interested in the story more than the technology itself. My background was traditional and seriously analog. I was all about silver and the rituals of the darkroom. Staying up all night printing with MIles Davis on and a bottle of tequila was a necessity. I never imagined that digital capture and output would replace film and silver gelatin paper in my own work. But my curiosity about what the engineers were developing and my proximity led me to experiment early with digital scanners and printers. In 1983 I was transmitting photos to USA Today from forest fires in Yosemite with a steamer trunk size “portable” Scitex scanner. I bought a Mac in December of 1984 and was cruising the early internet immediately through primitive modems. In 1989 I co-produced the first published photography book with digital separations using a beta version of Photoshop. I made one of the first– if not the first– portfolios using a dye-sublimation printer from SuperMac. After three months of hard printing that beast, tweaking the color and density, I put the prints in an “archival” portfolio and by morning all the prints were blank. The ink molecules had migrated to the plastic pages. This is why we call it the “bleeding” edge of new technology. There are dozens of other experiments and beta tests I did with all the latest hardware and software, yet through it all I still never believed it would replace film or wet printing. Never. And that is exactly what happened.

THE ZEN OF FILM

So who cares anymore? Digital is king now. I for one do care, immensely, about the differences between film and digital. Why? I want to make great photographs, that’s why. I still dream every day of trying to make something meaningful that will stand up to time. And I started to get this slow realization that digital was making me lazy. Lazy, as in the opposite of what’s required to be great. No need to really worry about exposure, or to focus or anything. Just point and shoot–a monkey could do it! No need to think at all. This is so seductive and easy to rationalize. You tell yourself, “My eyes are getting bad” or “The auto everything makes me faster” and so on.

I started to worry that with digital I might be losing my edge. Yes, I was making images that I could be proud of and giddy with the instant gratification of seeing the image on the camera’s LCD. But what if I was in fact losing ground? What if I would get so slow and lazy I would miss the picture of a lifetime, the one I’m waiting for every day?

Mulling it over, I couldn’t articulate it fully but definitely, I knew I had become lazy, really lazy. A spectacular sloth by the standards of shooting film. Film is hard. Film is a stone cold unforgiving killing bastard. Film is once in a lifetime, no excuses. F8 and really, really be there: ready, steady, in focus, correct exposure, and pressing the shutter in synch with life.

To test this seemingly irrational fear, I decided to shoot a new project using film and manual settings. It turned out to be incredibly difficult at first, like giving up hotel mini-bars difficult. Like running up a sand dune blindfolded while trying to thread a needle difficult. But some things you don’t forget and after a day or so my mind razored up and I noticed I was again unconsciously adjusting f stops and pre-focusing while I was raising a camera in anticipation of a moment, just like in the old days. Soon these mechanical procedures happened automatically, unconsciously, naturally and in so doing I was changing. I was much more aware of light and therefore of the unforgiving nature of the film. I was bending my brain back into a film mindset. I could feel the difference and started to grasp the outline of a theory.

With digital, so much can be saved. Not only do you have the LCD to alert you to whether you got the shot, to adjust exposure and composition, but you can back it up via wireless, double memory card slots, downloading right there onto hard drives and so forth. The processing is much safer overall and risk of losing the image goes way down. Sure we get the odd electrical storm inside a memory card, but this is insignificant compared with film dangers.

With film, so much is at risk. You are never, ever sure you got the shot until you process the film, and depending where you are in the world and your assignment this could be days or weeks, or in the case of my old friend Frans Lanting, months! You learn to be psychic and to live in denial. You are denying your burning desire to see what you got. And sometimes when you think you sort of missed the shot but are not quite sure, you can deny it for the time being and move on, hopeful yet ignorant. (Contrarily, with digital you will know you missed the greatest shot of your life right then and there, thus inducing plans for suicide, and casting a pall of depression over your shoot.)

With film, not only might the exposure be off, but the processing is fraught with peril. Even if you process yourself mistakes can happen, it’s chemistry for Christ’s sake– and even the best labs have the rare but deadly disasters. Just protecting the film from the shoot to the lab is sometimes a minefield of stress and worry. Try getting a hand check at Heathrow security sometime. The rolls of film are like uncut diamonds, objects that simply cannot be replaced. You sweat, you bleed, you age until it’s safe.

The state of mind required to shoot film is one of heightened, intense concentration and analogous to the mindset required for Zen meditation. It’s pure zen in fact. You are truly living in the moment, electric with anticipation, open to life unfolding before you.

The state of mind when shooting digital is more relaxed, more easily distracted. It’s more like everyday life, nothing that special is required. Especially if you are in fact trained as a photographer and have some skills. The camera does leverage your abilities, no doubt. But while you have your head down checking the LCD guess what? You just missed your pulitzer. That LCD is crack. You just can’t get enough. We all want instant gratification and here you have it. Bliss. Yet the act of constantly checking the back of the camera is taking your head out of the game. You gain a useful bit of knowledge but at what cost? I know it also can save time we used to spend covering our asses with brackets and snip tests and whatnot but if it’s moments in time you are after, I now believe it’s the disciplined Zen mindset you need.

So my theory is simple: there is something really important, perhaps magical, about the fact that film is so unforgiving that it creates a special mindfulness in the photographer, which in turn increases the chances of making great pictures.

Is that a big breakthrough? For me it was a bolt of lightening. I’d slid down into the warm tub of digital complacency and lost discipline and needed correction. Yet I really love my digital cameras for all the practical reasons listed above and so I figured out a compromise. It has not been easy, but it’s all about limiting my use of the LCD. I try to never look at the devil LCD and I often will put the camera on manual exposure or manual focus to keep those neural pathways oiled. I’m not fully going back to the complete mechanical world, but by creating a limit on the LCD I put my mind back in the moment, open and thinking, ready for that shot of a lifetime.

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69 COMMENTS

69 Comments so far
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I really enjoyed reading your article, and have committed myself to an LCD free life for the short-term future.

Comment by Christopher April 10, 2009 @ 1:39 pm
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Right on, hope it helps…d

Comment by menuez April 10, 2009 @ 4:41 pm
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We approach this debate from a slightly different angle. Sisse and I were raised on shooting Kodachrome, not the more forgiving Tri-X or color negative films. Therefore we are very precise in our exposures, and bracket our shots to obtain the perfectly exposed digital negative. When you live and work in Paris, New York, or London, where there still exists top-notch labs, with the knowledge and expertise for processing film, it can still be attractive. However when you travel and go through security, we all know the involved risks and stress that exist.

Four years ago, we were on assignment in Israel and decided to have the film processed locally. We found the ‘best’ lab in Jerusalem. In the beginning, the film looked okay, but when we came to Roll 70, most of the colors had all disappeared and there was only a muddy-magenta image left. We were experiencing a lab that no longer was prepared to handle E-6 processing. It was devastating. From that moment on we decided to embrace and perfect our knowledge about digital imaging. We love how it has freed us up so we can be more creative and experimental than ever before. Surely it has increased the work-load in the field, but we would much rather see our photos each night, instead of waiting for weeks to know if we have succeeded the way we intended. Throughout the day we do not look much at our LCD screens, only to quickly check exposures. We know all how unreliable they can be anyway.

Do we romantically yearn to shoot film again? Perhaps, but only when using larger formats, when you really approach making photographs in an entirely different way.

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