Everything old is new again.....Photography 180

Originally written for www.prophotoresource.com in 2007 by Kirk Tuck.

I've been talking to a bunch of my friends in the creative world and it seems like we're on the verge of a tectonic shift back in time. And the realization of this impending shift is striking people in diverse fields almost simultaneously. Writers are going back to yellow legal pads or little leather journals to outline their next movie, novel, ad copy or grand opus. Fountain pens are once again accounted sexier than the latest laptops. My graphic designer amigos are sitting around with Bienfang sketch pads and fat #1 lead pencils as they sketch out logo roughs and doodle small icons---on real paper!

I just had an art director from a prestigious agency explain to me why they're going backwards and doing marker comps for their multi-national advertising clients. Seems it's easy to sell the less literal marker comps than the meticulously comped digital collages we've grown used to over the past ten years. And the agency doesn't get locked into using the exact photo they might have presented in the comps......

I asked my favorite graphic designer for some insight and I was startled by what I heard. She said, "It's faster and easier to get my ideas down on paper. It's also less sterile. When I try to concept on the computer it seems to me that the machine gets in the way. The presets push you to conform. The screen makes you filter in assumptions about how things will ultimately look on paper. Designing on paper just feels right".

All this "regression" in the arts mirrors what I hear from more and more photographers. We were so enthusiastic about the promise of "no cost" digital that we swallowed the program "hook, line and sinker." In retrospect we've done one of the stupidest business moves imaginable. We moved from a mature, repeatable and robust system of making images that yielded exquisite quality (and which most practitioners had already paid for the infrastructure and amortized ) into a system that gives us only one advantage: We can do all this stuff quicker than ever before!

I'm as guilty of buying into the system as the next guy. I've dropped tens of thousands of dollars on digital cameras that became "obsolete" inside of eighteen months. I spent years feeding ink into an ever escalating collection of Epson "professional" printers and now, in 2007, I've come to two conclusions about printing with inkjet printers: 1. Traditional photographic paper prints from a custom printer blow away anything I've gotten from any of the printers. 2. The bulk of my money has been spent clearing ink clogs and not making prints. I would add to those two points that my butt has spent too much quality time in the task chair in front of my computer and not nearly enough time out having fun.

I'm even guiltier than most because I just finished writing a book extolling people to give up their "heavy and antiquated" lighting equipment and pursue the Holy Grail of using small, portable lights for all of their work. No matter that my clients still look at my portfolio, select the stuff I shot on medium format film and lit with big Profoto strobes, and ask me to do "that style". At a certain point it dawns on a person that we've really been doing this exercise for ourselves and not for our clients.

Case in point: Once a month a I get together with three friends for lunch. Usually Mexican food. I'm the sole photographer in the group. Mike is a creative director with thirty years of experience, Greg is an art director with 20 odd years of experience and Roy is a designer who's been winning awards since the days of Kodak Double X film (1970's for those raised post analog).

I mentioned that I was getting ready to buy the new Nikon D3 and they all turned on me like rabid dogs. No, more like concerned parents. No, more like exasperated friends.…. "The files are already way bigger than I need!" Said Mike. I mentioned the cleaner, better color. "Once the files hit paper in CMYK you'll never see the difference!" Chimed in Roy. "Oh hell!" remarked Greg before taking a big bite of his enchiladas verdes. "You're just wasting money on all that stuff. Nobody's ever hired you because they know what's in your camera bag. They hired you based on what they see in your portfolio. You're just buying this stuff because you're afraid of just going out and showing your work!"

I trotted out all the arguments we see on the websites. The low noise at high ISO's, the incredible color accuracy, the high frame rate and more. They laughed. "You light stuff. You compose stuff. You have a rapport with people. That's your real job. The camera doesn't really matter." While I was mulling that over Mike (who was honored as an AIGA fellow this year) added, "Besides, I haven't seen anything in the past seven years that I liked as much as the simple black and white portraits you used to do with your Hassleblad. I love the square. I love the way the focus slides away and puts all the emphasis on the sitter's eyes. And I've never seen a good digital conversion to black and white."

Now my whole carefully constructed rationale for plugging away with digital was on the ropes. I was shaken and confused. So I called the photographer who's work I've admired for years. You probably have a guy like this in your market. The photographer who is so good and who's work is so nuanced and informed that you'd hire him in a heartbeat if you were an art director or an art buyer. For me it's Austin photographer, Wyatt McSpadden. I wanted to know how Wyatt handled the transition to digital.

"Digital? You're talking to a man who shot 180 rolls of medium format film in the last two weeks!" He shouted. (He didn't really shout but it seemed like it). He's got a digital SLR but only uses it for clients who (and I'm paraphrasing here) "Don't give a ________ about your style, they just want a usable file, quick. I want clients to hire me for my style. And I spent twenty years working on this stuff and I'm not going to go and reinvent the wheel just because someone needs to sell cameras!" He went on to say, in his west Texas way, "I shoot film so I can use the lights and the lenses I love. That's what makes the photograph work. It's not the sensor it's the way the lenses write to the sensor. If the sensor doesn't matter then I'll choose film. That way I'll skip who storage issue and get better looking work into the bargain."

I wasn't totally convinced but I had just read Selina Maitreya's book entitled, How to Succeed in Commerical Photography,and I was putting together a new portfolio to show around. As I scrounged around for images I was shocked to find that the stuff I loved and wanted to show was all generated pre-Y2K. Every last shred of it was shot on a Hassleblad or a Rollei. The contact sheets were easy to read and the negatives were easy to scan. And the prints that I ordered from my local Costco (using their profiles and specifying "no mods") were worlds better than my best tries with Epson's 4000 series printers at 1/3 the actual materials cost.

I've always felt uneasy composing in the awkward rectangle that comes standard in most digital SLR's and I've never felt that I could justify the $20,000 or so that would be required to get into the medium format digital club. That's when my "oh so wise" wife, Belinda suggested that I get rid of the "binary thought process" that seems built into most working photographers. We try to shoe horn what ever the latest and greatest camera solution that comes along into all of our jobs. It's all or nothing. The D3 or the 1DSmk111 and nothing else.

The reality, as my wife pointed out, is I can shoot on whatever I want to. I can match the solution to the job. I can match the camera to my vision. I don't have to have one "ubercamera" that does everything. She gently nudged me out the door with orders to buy some medium format Tri-x and give the old ways a little try. Ohmigod! I'd forgotten just how good these cameras were. Just how bright and detailed the finders could be. The magic of a Zeiss telephoto at f4 or f5.6.

So where does that leave me? Well when I shot a lake property development from a helicopter I sure as heck thought the Nikon D2xs was the right tool for the job. I knew that the Fuji S5 camera and the Nikon 18-200 VR was a great solution for shooting 800 iso in the corporate offices of a client who wanted "available light/slice of life" images of people working in their offices. But I knew with equal certainty that my Rollei 6008 with a 150 mm lens and a pro pack of Tri-x was just what the doctor ordered for the experimental studio portrait I wanted to shoot. And nothing beats my little "beater" Mamiya 645e for walking around the streets of the city shooting stuff with Fuji Provia 100f.

What have we gained by going digital?

1. We can do stuff more quickly.

2. We can see what we got, right away.

3. Clients don't have to pay for film and processing so (supposedly) more money goes to our fees.

4. We can shoot things without lighting them due to the good high ISO performance of the camera.

5. It (seems) easier to take great photographs than ever before.

What have we lost by depending entirely on digital?

1. We can do stuff more quickly. At least it seems that way. The shooting goes faster but the burden on the back end grows exponentially and the clients rarely see the hours that go into color correction, retouching and archiving of these images. If they don't see it they don't value it. That makes our fees harder to swallow. What might have taken a day to light and shoot now might take a half a day to shoot and half a day to process. That still adds up to a full day except now all the plumbing part of the job is invisible to the bill payer. Personally, I liked handing stuff to my lab and letting them do the back end but we've trained our clients to think of us as "one man bands" and have let us push ourselves into becoming lab operators and color separators. We've lost our free time. We've lost our ability to depend on highly qualified experts to take our work to its highest level. But we've delivered a delivery schedule that's burdensome.

2. Oh boy! I can look at the little screen on the back of my camera and I'll know when I got the great shot. Or, shooting tethered, the art director and I can see when we got "something that will work" and we can stop right there and go on to the next shot on the list. That really sucks. In the film days, before immediate gratification, we would shoot and shoot. Not to waste film but to explore the possibilities. Often the "portfolio keepers" would arrive after the perceived high point of a shoot. The fun shots seemed to manifest themselves when everyone was sure we were covered and they started to relax. Makes me think we should turn the little digital camera screens on to "Polaroid" our lighting and composition and then turn the little devils off so that their "magnetic" pull doesn't lure our avaricious eyes.… There's a lot to be said for not knowing exactly what's there until you see it.

3. Clients think digital photography is free. That's not, per se, a problem with digital but it changed the economic model of professional photography and we've been battling the unintended consequences for the last seven to ten years. If clients think that all materials are free then how do we pay for the yearly advances in digital cameras?

4. We've lost the good stuff about shooting film. When we used to shoot with medium format cameras and medium telephoto lenses we got a wonderful falling away of focus and sharpness that created a fabulous contrast of sharp versus soft. The smaller format digital cameras just don't do it. We've invented all sorts of work-arounds like selecting, feathering and adding guassian blur to the background of a digital image but it never looks quite the same. We've lost those big, juicy viewfinders with acres of visual real estate. We've lost that fabulous black and white tonality with scads and scads of tonal differentiation (and you know you're either lying or blind if you insist you can get great black and white conversions from digital) that we routinely got from Tri-X and Plus-X films. And even simple things that translated into a higher quality workflow through to four color printing, like you, your client and your color separator all looking together at a medium or large format chrome (transparency film for the post analogers) on a color balanced light box. That paradigm created a universal color standard rather than the turf wars of "who's monitor is calibrated better than who's" that we've lived through for the past decade.

And finally, who among us hasn't felt their rear end grow larger and their lumbar region ache as we've spent far more time hunched in front of our computers than we every imagined.

I know we can't really put Pandora back in the box but we can at least admit that digital isn't the end all and be all of imaging. I suggest that you finish reading this article and seek out a store that still has a few dusty rolls of medium format film left. Brush the cobwebs off your Hasselblad, Bronica or Mamiya camera and try shooting the way you shot ten years ago. Then scan your favorite frame and compare it with your best digital work.

Chances are you'll look for opportunities to re-introduce film to some part of your business. I suggest you position your ability to shoot on film as the "high price spread" of your enterprise. You'll likely find several unintended consequences of this decidedly Quixotic experiment: You may find that clients treat you more like and artist and less like a technician. You'll find that you will have created a differentiating niche that effectively separates you from every "Tom, Dick and Sally" sporting a digital Rebel. You'll find that labs have evolved in a way that make shooting film more streamlined and efficient. As well as more cost effective. And you may find that the specific tool does affect your seeing.

Here's our workflow: We shoot on our favorite film stock (for me it's ISO 400 black and white negative film) in a Rollei 6008 in the studio. To check exposure I can either use Polaroid or my trusty Nikon D2x as a sub for Polaroid. We drop the film by our favorite, full service lab (yes, they still exist!) and ask that the film be developed and scanned. Holland Photo in Austin will give you darn good proof scans for five or six bucks a roll (Yes, a roll, not just a frame) and they'll give em to you on a CD. We upload the scans to Smugmug.com to share with our clients. They pick one frame and we call the lab and have a real, burned and dodged, fiber based print made to order. The film itself is our archival back up! Try it. It's amazing and it requires just the amount of time it takes to upload to your gallery. You can be back out shooting within 1/2 an hour. No more butt time. Someone else has already color corrected your files during the scans.

So what does this have to do with battery operated strobes? Well, you actually can use strobes with your film camera. In fact they work better than they do with digital SLR's. But that's a subject for another blog.

Sorry for the rant but it was amazing when I finally tallied up what we walked away from when we abandoned film. And it's nice to realize that we don't have to get locked into one way of doing things to the exclusion of everything else. Sometimes film rules and sometimes digital rules. But it's absolutely great to have both.

Next month (if this rant doesn't end my career) I'll be talking about the advantages of using guide number flash instead of TTL flash. Honestly. And I'll have images to prove my point. I hope you'll be back for a read.