Digital vs. traditional film photography

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The stream of creative juices that flows in Salisbury and Rowan County could make a small river. It’s a good reason to invite passers-by of our town not just to visit “Historic Salisbury,” but to visit “The Artists’ Colony of the Piedmont.” However, the powers that be prefer to lean toward the historic angle rather than take advantage of contemporary creativity and the revenue-producing stream it potentially represents.

When most folks think of art, they consider oil paintings, water colors and an assortment of sketches, drawings and sculpture. The tendency is to overlook the long-established art-form of photography, a fulfilling method of expression that captures the finite details of the world around us, both in natural beauty and man-made objects.

A person who, among others, introduced us to today’s often overused term, “Fine Art Photography,” was Ansel Adams. Where others looked and saw only wilderness, Adams saw the detail in forests, streams, mountains, and the sky to be captured in myriad shades of gray. He translated the natural color of his surroundings to monochromatic statements of creative beauty. Many have tried to imitate his work, but today, we have no true imitators of Adams or others like him, the early practitioners of this medium we call fine art photography.

Adams did his work on film and printed his images on photo-sensitive paper. The images on each substance came to life through wet processing in a darkroom. But those film products are rapidly dying out. Eastman-Kodak, the former venerable industry leader in all types of film, paper and processing-chemical production has been forced to completely regroup and position itself in “the digital world.” While Kodak and a few other manufacturers, particularly in the foreign markets, continue to produce film on a limited basis, the digital-imaging giants, such as Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma and Leica — move ahead with digital advances at the speed of an Indianapolis race car. Competition drives research and development.

A few die-hards refuse to accept that wet darkrooms and film processing represent a form of aging technology that, if not dead, is certainly on life support. Digital photography is not only here to stay, but as its rapid growth speeds ahead, digital imaging comes ever closer to edging film, photo-sensitive paper and processing chemicals toward oblivion.

The most frequent conversation in film vs. digital technology is what can be done in terms of photographic “enhancement.” Often said with derision, as if digital processes have some unfair advantage over traditional wet processing, this relates to projected images in a darkroom vis a vis computer-finished digital images, requiring no darkroom or messy chemicals.

In digital photography, you do work with a virtual darkroom, with the added convenience of working under normal room light. Your darkroom tools are the various types of software that appear on your computer screen to modify prints for the desired end results. Many of those results bear little difference to what a photographer or darkroom technician achieves working with their hands and make-shift tools, the old fashioned way. If the end result is equal to or greater than, and faster, why not take advantage of modern technology?

Now back to Ansel Adams: A common misconception is that Adams could take multiple readings with a light meter and expose a negative that enabled him to make a “straight” print, which is to say a print requiring no darkroom manipulation. But that’s simply not true. Adams made large work prints from his negatives and marked-up the prints to show changes he wanted made on his final product in the darkroom.

He worked with an expert technician in photo finishing who, following Adams’ marks on his work print, manipulated his final print in the darkroom, such as “dodging” and “burning in.” This is much the same as digital photographers do in their “lightroom” with software like Photoshop, and the terms used are similar, such as using a dodge or burn tool. A type of working software made by Adobe, the manufacturer of Photoshop, is even called “Lightroom.” Color filters placed in the enlarger beam can create color effects just as certain types of software create special effects with color.

An argument has been made that more printing control is possible with computer-processed prints. Yet wet-darkroom photographers had two types of technologies in their photo-sensitive paper to help control the appearance of their prints: First were the various paper grades that helped control contrast in prints. Grade two was considered “normal” for well-exposed and developed negative images. Grade one was a soft, low-contrast paper, and grades three and four gave more rich contrast to softer images such as underexposed or under developed negatives. However, with digital photography you can shoot until the image meets your expectations.

The second type of paper technology was the variable-contrast papers in which the photographer kept a graduated set of cyan, magenta and yellow filters to use with the enlarger. This only required one type of paper and the filtered light from the enlarger did the rest. Filters could be changed for “dodging” and “burning-in.” The greatest hindrance in working with this paper was that ideally, it required working in total darkness.

These are only a few of many reasons a number of career photographers that I have heard from have said — after making a complete transition to the digital world — that they would never go back to a wet darkroom. And since they can see instant results with digital images in their cameras, why should they?

A perception exists that more of a challenge is found with film photography vs. digital. Personally, I haven’t found that to be the case at all. In many ways digital is more satisfying and more fun to work with. Digital photography can be more demanding than traditional film photography, requiring multiple skill sets, not only with a camera but with various kinds of software in a computer. So this may be your year to invest in a simple, inexpensive digital camera and cross over into the digital world. Come explore this world with me.

  Contact Bill Ward at