This summer I went to Manchester twice in one month, on my first visit I spotted an area in the city centre just off of Portland Street and thought it would make a good photographic location. The area was a mix of Victorian brick passages and arches beside a 1960s office complex, a perfect urban landscape, maybe? So on my second visit not only did I bring a camera I asked my friend Paul Turner who lives nearby out for a beer-and-shoot. After, we chatted about how an area is worked by two individual photographers and how interesting it would be to compare our photos; especially as Paul shot digitally and I used film. It was from this discussion that I asked if he would like to write about the subject for this blog post.
The Difference by Paul Turner
After a bite, we headed out to a place in the city centre as a starting point and we both happily wandered around exploring angles, shapes and colours, the kind of stuff that gets us photographers fired up. When out and about you can't help but see similar options for shots and there was some overlap on what we noticed, this is a big part of the pull of going out with someone else, you can both pool ideas and two pairs of eyes are always better.
Despite occasionally becoming separated, we did, in the course of the evening, pounce on the same opportunities for compositions. Things and places often present themselves as gifts in condition and framing. Consequently, we ended up with a small number of the same images. Well, I say the same image, not strictly the case because Tom was using his trusty Hassleblad with 80mm lens, so, 6x6 square, and I was using my full frame Nikon D750 and so 35mm format.
The images are going to differ slightly of course, but in what way and why? Well, the framing was very similar indeed but what struck me about the difference was that often debated one between film and digital, the framing difference was there but almost incidental. The difference in how each medium reacted was the most noteworthy.
For the purposes of this piece I am only going to be talking about the direct comparison of these shots because the whole subject is huge, the idea of comparing these images came about after a discussion between the two of us. It isn't often that you can directly compare a set of film and digital images taken at the same time, so this seemed like an ideal opportunity. I'm not going to be talking about mono film/digital or anything like that. It is purely about these images and to that end it is interesting to see the shots side by side as a comparison...
The first thing that struck me, and I have noticed it in the past when looking at film alongside digital, is the way in which film can render point light sources; it is much gentler and more natural; I think it is more as the eye sees light sources because of the diffusion. Digital, on the other hand, is clinical in its treatment of point light and star points can usually be seen, depending on aperture type and setting. Nevertheless, in order to get light to behave more as the eye sees it with digital, it requires a bit of processing to tame that sharpness in the original file, this isn't an easy thing to pull off and can look forced and unnatural. I don't bother usually, just accept it as it is. Film on the other hand just does its thing and light has a soft transition from source. It pours out and exudes in a lovely smooth glow. Contrast is also worth looking at too. Film has less of it in the case of these images, but I am so used to seeing film it looks right, well, it looks filmic. I'm searching for a word but only filmic fits. Maybe that's it then. It just has its own quality and we should just leave it at that? Rather than trying to emulate it? No we, it seems, are always trying to emulate it. Whether it is a preset as a digital setting or an Instagram/phone widget we are always trying to get it 'filmic'.
Despite all the above, digital images are clean, they are able to show a large degree of dynamic range and detail with little loss in quality throughout, thus scenes are rendered accurately and if handled in a balanced way, a clear depiction of the place. They are a superb starting point for any rendering, whether needing a filmic look or not we have a great representation of a place and its lighting condition(s) complete with large dynamic adjustment potential, provided the original exposure is done correctly. Is it as it was seen by the eye while there? Well, it's a good start, filmic, maybe not but hang on where's that Portra plugin? I see contrast rendering and light quality differences in these shots to be the main points of note. Colour shifts are there throughout the comparison but I don't think they are as affecting to the feel of the pictures. On a personal level, maybe film has qualities that I recognise and is more natural to my eye, I don't know whether it's through seeing more film images throughout my life and it being tied up with my nostalgic heart, or that it's is just softer and more natural, I can't be absolutely clear. Both formats strike a chord on different levels, I'm not going to say if one is better than the other, just that there are differences and they can be stark.
Medium format digital is being rolled out steadily so any format will eventually be catered for and digital detail is available to all. Film is still available, albeit at a price, but it is still being produced. What I will say is, it's a great time to be a photographer, few would argue with that? Ultimately I'm choosing both formats, they are both valid tools for expressing creative intent and ideas, after all, isn't that what photography should be about? Now, wasn't there a chippy somewhere here...