The analog cloud looming over digital photography

16 May 2018

Almost every­one with a pas­sion to make pho­tographs with a dig­i­tal camera has wanted to make pic­tures with a film camera too. A fruit­less debate between analog and dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy has raged ever since dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy entered the market. It replaced the older — equally fruit­less — debate about equip­ment that made pho­tog­ra­phy more approach­able and effi­cient, the arrival of Leica.

Both of these are unfor­tu­nate events as they set a stage that calls for taking sides between two ideas, tools and styles that are in no way oppo­nents of each other. While they both have their ben­e­fits and pit­falls nei­ther is supe­rior.

My own pho­tog­ra­phy started with film cam­eras but only because film cam­eras were still the norm in the 90s where I lived. Else­where dig­i­tal cam­eras had already taken hold. Back then I recall that car­ry­ing around dig­i­tal cam­eras
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was everyone’s goal. Over a decade later it seems analog film reels are becom­ing all the rage again.

Lev­el­ling the play field

The major shift after Leica prob­a­bly came with the first gen­er­a­tion iPhone that put a camera in everyone’s pocket. This was unimag­ined until then. An army of Android devices promptly fol­lowed suit and rare is the person who, today, does not have a camera on hand.

This does not mean every­one is a good pho­tog­ra­pher, though. Such acces­si­bil­ity was pre­cisely what threat­ened pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers the first time round with Leica; now nobody flinched. In fact the belief that the best camera is the one you have with you cropped up just to show that an iPhone 
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was no less than a dSLR in the right hands. Again, this was not a con­test, but a point trying to be made: a camera does only as well as you.

With a camera in everyone’s pocket lev­el­ling the play field some people felt a dire need to stand out. Doing this with one’s work can be an ardu­ous process and focus­ing on equip­ment rather than effort proved to be an easy way out.

Fads come and go

While dig­i­tal allows for more missed shots, an infi­nite amount of retries and is gen­er­ally more approach­able, film has none of these perks. On the other hand dig­i­tal pho­tographs tend to be crip­pled by tech­no­log­i­cal capa­bil­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly those of the sensor, which do not allow for a dynamic range that is as ele­gant or as wide as film. Plus, film is costly: every click of the shut­ter comes at a price.

Some saw this as a great way to set them­selves apart from the mob’ stomp­ing around with cam­er­a­phones. Others could not be both­ered to invest in film but wanted to make it seem like they were doing to anyway. For the former there have always been, and will always be, film cam­eras and reels; for the latter are sev­eral mobile appli­ca­tions.

This is part of what I always found curi­ous. I have tried many an app that adds fil­ters to your photos, makes them grainy, desat­u­rates them, tints them, fades them and adds tonal curves sup­pos­edly char­ac­ter­is­tic of film 
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. It may appear that I am crit­i­cis­ing film emu­la­tions but noth­ing could be far­ther from the truth: film emu­la­tions will come and go, faux film styles are fads that, like any fad, will die out even­tu­ally. I do see that they have their place; they are their own style and can hold their own any day.

The analog unknown

The draw that analog holds today is in earnest above all this. A couple of decades ago dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy held the place analog pho­tog­ra­phy holds today: to gen­er­a­tions that grew up with film dig­i­tal was the unknown wait­ing to be explored; some were for it and dove straight in while others were against it and shunned it in favour of ded­i­cated film purism.

Analog pho­tog­ra­phy is really no dif­fer­ent today. To those gen­er­a­tions which grew up with dig­i­tal cam­eras film is an unknown medium wait­ing to be explored. Film, though, unlike dig­i­tal, does not also offer eco­nomic free­dom which is where emu­la­tors come in. The ques­tion then is, what should emu­la­tors pri­ori­tise on?

I will have to speak from an iOS per­spec­tive since I shoot with an iPhone. The core pur­pose of a film emu­la­tion app must be the same as any app: an effi­cient work­flow. The app must prefer­ably use iOS’s photos​.app exten­sion fea­ture and allow mod­i­fi­ca­tion of pho­tographs to pre­vent dupli­ca­tion. A ded­i­cated library can become espe­cially cum­ber­some.

Such an app must allow all film edits like tar­geted dodg­ing and burn­ing among others and of course shoot­ing RAW. It must exploit the ease and sim­plic­ity of dig­i­tal pro­cess­ing to make as many fine con­trols as pos­si­ble avail­able within as few clicks as pos­si­ble. In short, again, a photo edit­ing app must be an app first.

The larger pic­ture is some­what an ironic one. A film emu­la­tion app really need not focus on repli­cat­ing film accu­rately. It just needs to do some­thing remotely sim­i­lar, enough to appeal to the pho­tog­ra­pher using it. People can rarely tell the dif­fer­ence between 80% and 85% filter strength. But every­one can tell when some­thing is over­done.

What such an app can do is repli­cate the expe­ri­ence of shoot­ing film which is more than just slap­ping on a filter. Indeed I often find myself rush­ing back to Light­room and Snapped 
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which do not really pride them­selves on any film emu­la­tions on iOS. What cemented this belief for me was an app by name Thirty Six which could have sold itself on fil­ters and film emu­la­tion but did not. Instead it sold itself on the process behind the scenes.

Thirty Six lets you pick a film first (which you can thor­oughly cus­tomise) and then start shoot­ing. The catch is that you need to shoot either twelve or thirty-six pho­tographs with it (like a film reel) and you cannot see your pho­tographs until after you shoot the entire reel and develop’ it. You can see them sooner but at the cost of expos­ing the rest of your reel and ren­der­ing it use­less.

In short Thirty Six replaces the acci­den­tal shot, repeated pic­tures
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and other ben­e­fits of dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy with some restric­tions of film in an attempt to help you focus on the act of cap­tur­ing a pic­ture, look­ing at the world around you, improv­ing your shot dis­ci­pline and pho­to­graphic inten­tion­ally.

Was this the inten­tion of the app? I have no idea. Does it work this way? Cer­tainly. I would not use Thirty Six on a daily basis and I cer­tainly would not use it for my travel pho­tog­ra­phy or any cru­cial work. I would rather hold on to the flex­i­bil­ity of a dig­i­tal pho­to­graph there. But Thirty Six has found itself a cozy place in my arse­nal of apps for prac­tis­ing and improv­ing my pho­tog­ra­phy
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.

My latest exer­cise was making pho­tographs around my back­yard and at home (which is some­thing I do every year) like a blitzkrieg involv­ing, usu­ally, 20 pho­tographs in 10 min­utes with­out rep­e­ti­tions in that ses­sion or year over year. Ten of those pho­tographs are what you will find scat­tered through­out this arti­cle. They were all made with Thirty Six.

This one here is my favourite of the lot: