Frontrange Imaging

Film thinking in a digital world

Fins at Arches National Park, Moab, Utah

Fins at Arches National Park, Moab, Utah

I recently put up for sale a beloved film camera, a Mamiya 7 medium-format rangefinder made in the mid-1990s. I bought that camera for the stunning quality of it’s lenses and the large film that it uses, and the fact that it was compact enough to be carried (with some difficulty!) far and wide into the wilderness.

Camp below Mt. Forbes.

Camp below Mt. Forbes, Banff National Park, Canada. Mamiya 7 image.

Looking back through my image archive, I realized that many of my all-time favorite images were taken with that camera, and that got me thinking…

… about what has changed in my philosophy towards photography over the last 15 years as digital photography came to rule the world of images.

There’s no doubt that digital image capture is technically superior to film, for well-known reasons.

1) The instant feedback allows you to correct composition, exposure and focus immediately.
2) The digital sensor captures a wider dynamic range of light than film.
3) Digital sensors do not suffer non-linear effects like reciprocity failure.
4) You can create any film-look-effect you want, such as high-saturation, grainy, black and white, plus an unlimited number of other effects.
5) It is far easier to tune the image during the “development” process, dodging / burning to control shadow and highlight detail, and fine adjustments of colour and tone.
6) Digital originals (RAW files) aren’t littered with dust, scratches and cat hair.
7) Digital imaging is vastly less expensive than film. Once you’ve bought the camera, digital imaging is essentially free.
8) No waiting for weeks after returning from a trip for film to be developed.
9) It is trivial to carry 1000s of images with you when traveling.

But despite all of these technical, quality and convenience improvements, something has been lost.

Care about the photograph

Morning reflection in Glacier Lake, Saskatchewan Crossing, Banff National Park, Canada

Morning reflection in Glacier Lake, Saskatchewan Crossing, Banff National Park, Canada. Mamiya 7.

Doug and Marty in Bartlett Wash, Moab, Utah

Doug and Marty in Bartlett Wash, Moab, Utah. Mamiya 7.

Film is expensive to buy and process, is more difficult to expose correctly, and you don’t see what you get until weeks or months later. You have to make sure you shot each frame correctly, in the field, because there was no 2nd try after looking at the preview image on the screen. And manual-focus lenses force you to slow down and think about depth-of-field and concentrate on composition and focus.

Digital has made everything easier, cheaper and faster. But sometimes easier is not better.

The result of film being difficult is that shooting film requires more thinking and planning, and being more precise and careful, then when shooting digital. And that results in caring more about each image.

Data Capture as Photography

Elizabeth Parker hut at Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park. RAW vs processed image.

Elizabeth Parker hut at Lake O’Hara, Yoho National Park, raw(L) vs processed(R) image. Canon 6D.

My digital attitude today, especially when shooting in a fast-paced environment like outdoor adventure sports, is to view the photography process as a “data capture”. As long as the exposure is roughly correct, so that the image histogram is centred and the blacks and whites are not clipped, and the focus is good, then the scene was captured, and the “image” can be created later, in front of the computer in Lightroom. Then the exposure is corrected, the colour is fixed, the image can be cropped and rotated, and the original “capture” turned into an “image”.

ilky Way over Gooseberry mesa, Utah

Milky Way over Gooseberry Mesa, Utah. Canon 6D, 30 frames of 120s exposure.

Panoramic photography is very much a data capture process, where the final image is seen in the mind, the needed frames are captured, and then the final image is assembled on the computer.

This “data capture” process is especially true when doing night photography, where dozens of frames are captured over many hours, even over two or more nights, and then processed into a single image using three pieces of software in a process that typically takes several days.

Images like the one on the right, totaling around 100 megapixels and requiring about 10 hours of exposure to capture, were simply impossible to produce before digital photography. Read the blog and zoom in to the image to discover dozens of star clusters, nebula and other deep-sky objects.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this “data capture” mentality, because it allows people to create images that go far beyond what we can see with our eyes, but again, something has been lost. There’s something simple and beautiful about the process of creating the final image purely in the camera.

Applying film philosophy to a digital world

Don’t get me wrong – I can’t see any reason to ever shoot film again!

But it’s time to slow down.

Instead of returning from a trip with 1000 images per week (seriously!) I’m going to slow down, be more selective and careful with setup, composition and exposure in the field, instead of being lazy and relying on digital post-production to fix things up in the image.

Three windows, Zermatt, Switzerland

Three windows, Zermatt, Switzerland. Canon 6D.

And shoot less.

Just because it’s free, there’s no reason to take dozens images of the same thing. I mean, it’s very good practice when learning composition to take a single subject and try and capture 20 different, interesting images of it… but enough already!

For this year, I’m going to focus on quality vs quantity.

And try and rekindle some of the old-school, old-world philosophy of slow and deliberate craftsmanship when taking photos.

– Darren Foltinek, January 2017

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