Friday, July 24, 2009

Your mother lied: Film is better than digital

After a long break, here's a new post...

Your mother lied to you: Film is better than digital.
All technical squabbling aside, film is better than digital because you've got a chance to get the shot with film in too many situations where you miss the shot with digital. We take too many photographs with digital cameras but not enough pictures!

I'm a photographer for a newspaper and have been shooting nothing but digital for about 18 months now. I've never put pen to paper but I'd guess my publication to photo ratio is probably about 1:30. Maybe one photo out of 30 is a picture worth printing.

(As an aside, some of my print-worthy photos get axed by the boss. And he sometimes prints some of my photos that should have gotten round-filed.)

If you doubt this, think about your digital work flow for a moment.

1. Shoot
2. Review
3. Adjust
4. Re-shoot

There are problems with steps two through four. During step two, reviewing what you just shot on the display aft of the camera, there's a problem. While you're cocking about and admiring how nice that shitty photo you just took is, you're likely missing the real picture right then. Whoops, too busy looking at the LCD.

Step three is a problem because it indicates a lack of planning a preparation. Pulled into breaking news but your settings were rubbish? Whoops, just missed a picture while spinning a dial.

Step four is a problem because... well, because it should never have come to this. You should have been done after step one.

Of course being finished after step one requires a bunch of steps prior. In my line of work, I might have to go take a picture of something important at any time. So I've taken to checking my camera several times a day.

When I head into the office in the morning, I turn my ISO down to 200 and set aperture-priority for f8. Are my flash batteries charged? By closing-time I set my ISO to 800, shutter-priority 60. When the sun goes down I turn the shutter down to 1/30 of a second and make sure my charged flash is already ready already.

I realized all this last week when I rolled up to take a picture of some kids having a nice afternoon on the slip and slide. Normally I would have fired 20 or so shots and selected the best to pass up the chain for publication. Instead, I had my camera set properly, with flash ready to fill, came in, waited for autofocus lock and pulled the trigger.

One shot. On the front page.

Some years ago, when I was shooting TRI-X in a Nikon FE, one shot was the rule. Film is too expensive to be cocking about. But we've forgotten that in the digital age. I'm not arguing that we shouldn't be taking lots of exposures with digital, because we should be. (You have to take lots of photos before the digital body buy-in cost offsets film prices.) But every photo we take should be a potential picture.

Timing and luck are 90% of your picture. The remaining 10% is split between having your camera correctly set in the bag, ready for action, and you're getting the bloody shot. If you don't trust yourself (and your kit), you'll have your eyes on the rear LCD checking your boring test photo while the picture is right before you.

Digital can be great. Sometimes having a wink at that first exposure reminds us we're set at f1.4 and 20 seconds after we were shooting the night sky 12 hours earlier. But don't spend too much time on that screen. What are you missing?