The analog cloud looming over digital photography

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[^ Either that or camcorders.] 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[^ The quote is from Chase Jarvis’s book ‘The best camera is the one that’s with you’ which featured work he had done using just his iPhone (3G I think).] 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[^ I say supposedly because there is no such thing as a single tonal curve for all films.]. 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[^ Lightroom is arguably the better of the two but Snapseed is a better iOS app with support for modifying photos etc. as opposed to Lightroom’s insistence on being a walled garden.] 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[^ The policy of shooting more photographs just so you have a better chance of finding keepers.] 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[^ There are not many, certainly no arsenal; but if I did have such an arsenal Thirty Six would be on it.].

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: