Michael Sebastian

photography, creativity, and other stuff that moves me

Making my peace with digital; or, Where To Go From Here?

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Kodak recently announced that Ektar 100, its stunningly sharp, saturated, fine-grain color negative film, will soon be available in 4×5 and 8×10 sheet-film sizes. While this is good news on its face, it has led me to ruminate on the future of film in my work going forward. In case you’re wondering why Kodak’s good news should occasion reflection upon less-welcome possibilities, let me explain further.

This announcement should be brass-band, French-Quarter-parade news. After all, Kodak is extending its product line to the benefit of film shooters, in an era of growing digital hegemony. This the same Kodak that is regarded by its relentless, slavering online detractors as a hulking, stumbling global corporate giant. This is the Kodak that is regularly lacerated by film aficionados for its lack of “commitment” to analog imaging, even as it offers new analog products. Coming on the heels of its recent discontinuance of the poorly-selling Tri-X Pan 320*, Kodak’s new film offering is being met with suspicion in the usual quarters.

What’s Kodak’s ulterior motive? Does this mean that they’ll now discontinue Portra films? Is their long-term strategy to abolish any film not based on the technology and production lines of Kodak’s profitable line of motion-picture films [ie, Ektar]?

And so on, and so forth; one’s ears ring from all the online clamor. But what of film’s future? And what of film’s future with me, poor film-shooting schlub that I am?

As regular readers of this blog know, I go through a lot of color negative film in a variety of medium- and large-format cameras; process it myself in a Jobo; scan it with Nikon and Imacon scanners; work the images sparingly in Lightroom and Photoshop; and print the work on an Epson 3800 printer. This analog-digital hybrid workflow has served me well both technically and aesthetically, despite some of the hassles it entails—foremost among them being the tedious scanning of film and the dust-spotting those files inevitably require.

But while the digital-only parts of the workflow seem secure going forward, there are several potential analog choke-points along this progression from film to image. The loss of any one of those legs would mean the likely end of color film photography for me:

  • affordable medium- and large-format color negative film;
  • a serviceable machine (eg, Jobo or Sidekick) to process it in;
  • chemistry to run in the machine;
  • a functioning scanner, and software to drive it.

Taking these steps individually, what is the outlook?

  • I expect to have a decent selection of color negative emulsions for the next three years, and some availability after that—though with a markedly reduced selection of emulsions and formats, and  at who knows what price. By comparison, black and white film will continue to be available as a niche product for the rest of my life and beyond. It will probably be made in small production runs by downsized manufacturers (like Kodak) catering to the hobbyist-and-artisan crowd. The chemistry to process it is simple and can be home-brewed easily and safely, and only minimal equipment is required. However, B&W is a small fraction of my work, so this is of little consolation.
  • My processing machine of choice is a Jobo ATL-1500, a brittle plastic assemblage of circuit boards, pumps, and tubing for which parts are scarce and getting scarcer; repair expertise is even more dear. When it dies (and I had a foretaste of its mortality last fall), I’ll have to try to find a replacement (same or similar, eg Sidekick) to keep limping along a while. That’s only going to get tougher and more expensive going forward.
  • Right now I can affordably obtain C-41 chemicals in quantities small enough to use up without undue spoilage. My chemistry cost is about $2-3 a roll, which compares quite favorably with $8 or more per roll to have it done commercially. I suspect that within a couple of years at most, sourcing the chemistry cost-effectively will become impossible. At over 200 rolls a year, no way am I going to spend $2500 to purchase and process a year’s film, plus wait a week to get the images back. The $1000 difference between DIY and send-out processing, plus the week’s wait, is a deal-killer.
  • Then there’s the scanner issue. I’ve already excoriated Nikon for its abject abandonment of its scanner users in its failure to update its drivers for the latest Windows and Mac operating systems. Fortunately, Hasselblad came through with Snow Leopard drivers for my 646. But at some point it will simply stop making sense for either company to sell, service, or support these increasingly irrelevant devices. I expect the chemistry question to rear its head first, however.

Bottom line: there can’t be much doubt that the future of color photography is digital. It’s just a matter of when. “How to adapt and prepare?” is the question. Considering the metric ton of film gear I’ve accumulated over the years—much of it only sporadically used now as my needs have evolved—I’ve been thinking a lot about the optimum setup to accomplish the work I like to shoot now, or can reasonably foresee shooting later. I want to be able to shoot color film as long as I can; but position myself so that I can roll that investment over into digital gear when the inevitable day arrives I can no longer shoot color film. It would be nice to have to take only a gentle flogging, rather than a world-class a$$-whoopin’, when it comes time to sell the film gear. So time to take stock of what and how I photograph, and what I shoot it with.

I’d estimate that 90% of my recent work has been with my Mamiya 7. This medium-format rangefinder is just about an unbeatable camera due to its huge 6×7 images, spectacular lenses, and lightweight portability. I used it for at least 75% of the urban-landscape stuff on my website; its image quality is above reproach. About the only thing the 7 doesn’t do well is anything requiring close focusing or precise framing, such as tight head-and-shoulders portraiture. For those applications, a MF SLR system is ideal—but I hardly need the TWO I have now.

I began acquiring the now-discontinued Contax 645 system a few years back when I was certain that medium-format digital was my future pathway. This compact, ergonomic, modular medium-format SLR system saw a lot of commercial and editorial use with film. And, born at the dawn of the digital age, it was targeted by digital-back makers when those came on the scene. This was a natural adaptation, given that one can simply remove the film magazine and replace it with a digital sensor in a housing, communicating with the body’s electronics quite nicely. I love holding the Contax and shooting with it, and the lenses are among the best I’ve ever used. Indeed, I owned a used Kodak ProBack for this camera for several years; this camera/back combo produced lovely digital files, the back’s technical limitations and quirky handling aside.

But the ProBack has long been discontinued and is no longer serviced or supported, as far as I know. And it appears that affordable-for-me MF digital backs aren’t likely to arrive before they’re supplanted from below by highly capable DSLR’s with 90% of their performance for 1/3 the price; or by newer cameras sporting integrated MF-sized sensors (e.g. Leica S2—if you can call a $20k+ camera body “affordable”.) For film-only shooting, the larger, squarer 6×6, 6×7, and 4×5 formats rule for me. Thus, the Contax’s smaller and more rectangular 6×4.5cm negative makes less sense for my current purposes. Sadly, to the knacker it goes.

I also have an RZ67, acquired in trade last year. This camera produces beautiful images with its excellent lenses and big 6×7 negative. But it’s a giant beast, unwieldy to handhold, heavy to transport. Moving fast and light with this thing isn’t going to happen; it’s happiest on a sturdy tripod.  Given that the RZ and the Mamiya 7 do many of the same things well, I’d far rather use the 7 for those jobs. So, for work that calls for a MF SLR, I’m considering alternatives to replace both the Contax and the RZ.

Top of my list would be a Hasselblad V series body and two or three lenses. Its square 6×6 negative would give an image nearly as large as the RZ’s, but with the Contax’s ergonomics and ease of handling. The downside is that Hasselblad gear is not cheap; looked at another way, it is now far cheaper used than it used to be new, and should hold its value better than the RZ or the Contax. System components are pretty well available on the used market, and Hasselblad still services the 500 and 200 series bodies. I have to ask myself, though, whether such a purchase would make sense, with the sand running through the hourglass for color film photography. It might, only if I were able to sell such gear without a massive loss when I’m forced to abandon color film and go all-digital.

I’ve been discussing this issue with a knowledgeable and sympathetic friend who, like me, has a foot in both the analog and digital worlds—and who is facing much the same quandary. He is an accomplished medium-format B&W film shooter and analog-darkroom printer, and loves wet-darkroom work. But with young children and the time constraints they impose, he finds himself turning to digital just to keep shooting, and for the color work he’d find impractical to do in the darkroom. Similarly, I shoot also with a Nikon D300, but I’ve done but little work with this very capable camera.

I make no claims here about the superiority of film over digital, or vice versa, and I nod to digital’s workflow advantages. It’s just that I have just never felt that “OMG!” rush of excitement from looking at digital images that I always get with film. This is not scientific or rational; it’s emotional. I love the multi-sensory experience of shooting and handling film. I love uncapping the developing tank and holding that wet strip of Portra or Ektar up to the light to see what’s there. I also like the results I get: jaw-dropping prints that prompt a rush of satisfaction at beholding a thing of beauty. For me, film shooting is like a beautiful girlfriend who drives you insane with her spending and her demands on your time and patience; digital is her practical, sensible, and wholly unexciting sister.

Perhaps I could learn to achieve comparable results with digital. I don’t know, but it’s time to find out. I plan to start putting the D300 through its paces in a way I haven’t yet done. I want to find out whether the digital gear can reward the same degree of effort and study I’ve devoted to film cameras and hybrid workflow. If I can get there with the D300, fine. If not, then I can begin to explore whether the problem is solvable with later technology, or with better intracranial software (seems the likelier answer.)  Or whether I should simply trim the gear-hoard but stay with film until I’m forced to switch, and let the chips fall.

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* Tri-X Pan 320 and Tri-X 400 are two entirely different films that share only a name, for marketing reasons, no doubt.

Written by Michael

March 1st, 2010 at 5:13 am

Posted in None