2008-09-10

Film Renaissance?

Since I started photography, my online hangout of choice has been dgrin.com. I consider it my home on the web. Dgrin welcomes all photographers, but its emphasis is overwhelmingly digital. Since I started my quest for film, I've also been lurking in apug.org. Apug is strictly film. The two sites are polar opposites on the digital/film divide. And most vocal advocates on either side seem to be the old guard; the guys who've been doing this for thirty plus years.

On the digital side you have guys who're glad to ditch film and everything associated with it: the chemicals, the cost, the slow turn around time, etc. They love the new technology, the fast processing, and the ability to shoot thousands of frames at no cost. On the other side you have guys hanging on to film like grim death. They don't like the new technology, they don't understand it, they think it leads to lazy photography, and they think the quality of digital is inferior to film. The two sides stare at each other across no-mans-land, one side fearing the death of film and the other side thinking it can't come soon enough. Meanwhile, us amateurs are scratching our heads wondering what the war's about.

The rumors of film's demise are greatly exaggerated. In fact, I think film is about to undergo a renaissance, and it will be lead by amateur digital photographers.

The thing that's always kept me from pursuing photography was the high barrier to entry. Not only was the equipment expensive, so were the supplies and processing. The learning curve was steep and slow. Mistakes were costly. Digital has much lower barriers to entry. Although the equipment is no less expensive, the immediate feedback that digital provides flattens the learning curve considerably. There are no processing costs, no supplies to buy, and mistakes cost nothing.

However, while entry level DSLRs are relatively inexpensive, the costs quickly escalates once you get past entry level. A high end amateur DSLR body costs around $3000 and a top end pro model around $7000. Medium format digital is completely out of reach, with medium format digital backs costing around $30,000. Digital large format is still the realm of the super-exotic. There are no instant-read large format backs, and scanning backs cost as much as medium format digital backs.

Most amateurs will stick with what they have, making incremental upgrades. Some will bite the bullet and invest in more expensive kit. Others, however, will move into film world. I know of several dgrin members, myself included, who are interested in film, especially large format. I can only speak for myself, but I think they're interested in film for the same reasons I am. First, it's new to them. A lot of digital shooters are neophiles, and they dig new stuff, even if its over a hundred years old. Second, they're not necessarily interested in the fastest workflow. They want to take the best photos they can, with the best gear they can afford, for the lowest price. Used film gear fits that perfectly. Third, digital is still limited to point&shoots and DSLRs. If you want to explore large format photography, film is still the only affordable way to do it. Finally, they're fascinated by the process. Digital photography is just like any other electronic gizmo. You press a button and it magically does what it's supposed to. Digital cameras fall into the same electronic fog with the ipod, iphone, video game consoles, laptops, blackberries, etc. Film cameras are different. The fact that you can do something as complicated as photography by purely mechanical and chemical processes is fascinating. Personally, I find the fact that a pro camera like the RB67 can be purely mechanical with no electronic or digital controls to be completely mindblowing.

I think you'll see more and more amateur digital photographers take advantage of the current availability of inexpensive, pro grade film equipment. Film will never go back to being the medium of choice for professional photographers. However, I think film still has a long life in the amateur world.

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