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Film vs Digital Mindset

Richard C. Pitt

Digital cameras have revolutionized photography in many ways, but to my mind the least understood one has little to do with what you do with the resulting image. Instead it has to do with how you look at the act of taking the photos in the first place.

In essence, you trade the cost of film and processing (none with digital) for the cost of your time in winnowing out the bad shots from amongst far more taken at the time, as well as the cost of storing the images securely and quickly.

I've used all manner of film cameras, from my old Agfa box 120/620 that I used to take my first travel pictures at Disneyland when I was a kid, to my father's bellows-equipped Zeiss Ikonta, to several 35mm cameras from the likes of Pentax and Canon, 8/16/35mm movie and a range of plate and half-plate process cameras; even a sheet film process camera that was the size of a small house. Over the years I've shot more film than I care to imagine, and paid tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars for film and processing. In addition, I've purchased film storage ring binders and pages, acid-free envelopes, storage containers and such to store the negatives and slides.

What will it be like looking back 20+ years from now at the costs associated with using my Nikon D70 and its inevitable follow-on digital cameras now that I've made the switch to mostly digital?

What do the changed economics of digital photography mean to my photography techniques?

These are questions I'm addressing constantly in this first year of my use of professional-grade digital photography.

The first aspect, the one I'm addressing in this article, is how I'm affected during the act of taking pictures. What does the fact that my "film" is free do to my mindset when I'm composing, choosing f-stop, shutter-speed, light-balance, bracketing, etc.?

I can tell you that looking back over the first year, my initial thought is "I need more and larger camera storage". Taking time to change every 100 or so shots (on the 1Gig) is not as bothersome as changing film every 24 or 36 exposures with my 35mm Canon, but taking time to dump a card, and even bringing the laptop to do this into, is very different and time consuming. I had purchased a 1Gig Lexar 80x Professional Compact Flash from my local camera store when I purchased the Nikon last August. Along the way I have also added a 1/2Gig card left over from a project at one of my customers' that is a no-name brand industrial card. Hmmm... at the time, this was the equivalent price of about 10 rolls of 36 exposure professional film, processing and printing. Today it's about 1/2 that.

So, time spent changing "film" is still a bit of a pain, but it happens less frequently. The effect is that I can concentrate on the subject for longer without extra camera bodies and having an assistant load for me.

Years ago, I put 10 rolls through my Canon A1 just playing with it when I traded up from my old AE1. I did the same more recently when I again took up film (after my video hiatus with the kids) with a used Pentax K1000. This is a reasonable minimum to test and get to know a new camera/lens combination. Each time I did it over a few days or a week or so - different lighting conditions, different subjects - some familiar, some new, etc. Prior to the more sophisticated cameras such as the AE1 and other "automatic" SLRs, most photographers would only run maybe a single roll through just to make sure the camera was working and the shutter speeds were correct and consistent. We spent more time evaluating lighting equipment and light meters as well as calibrating our darkroom equipment and chemicals. The advent of "programmed" mode such as the Canon pioneered meant getting to know a camera that did many of the things I'd had to do in the past - meter, choose f-stop and shutter speed, etc.

Digital cameras in general and my new Nikon D70 in particular, go even farther with automation. The Nikon adds auto-focus and various potential in-camera image enhancement options. All of these settings and options need to be learned and their impact on the final image understood. Of course you can always just use the camera in manual mode and either hand meter or use the built-in spot system, but hey, you paid for the tricks, you should probably know how to use them; especially since the can come in very handy.

With the D70, what I did was take over 500 shots over a 3 hour period at a picnic I had been invited to that afternoon. As you'll note, I concentrated on details of the people there. Two days later, I took another 500 shots over a period of the day at Fort Langley and surrounding areas, and I did the same several times over the next month in other locations - each session exploring some new aspect of the camera and confirming others that I'd learned or discovered; automatic, aperture priority, shutter priority, bracketing, various ISO speeds in various lighting conditions, hand-held at various speeds, and tripod mounted at r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w speeds. In essence, I "spent" several thousand images learning what my new camera could do and even more importantly, what it couldn't do.

So getting to know your equipment is no longer a really expensive proposition. There is no excuse for you not to know virtually every aspect of its capabilities and limitations

"OK," you say, "that's fine when you're learning, but what about when you're shooting to get "the best" image of a particular situation?"

Well, in the past, depending upon the subject and my intended use of the shots, I might have expended a couple of rolls on a single subject and as many as 10 or more on a session with many subjects (weddings, etc.) The limiting factor was how much I felt the investment was worth, or how much the customer felt was reasonable for such a shoot.

Today I'll shoot as many as hundreds for a single subject and a thousand or more in situations where subjects and opportunities change by the second. My limit is whether I have a data dump for my flash cards, hence my wish to purchase more and bigger ones.

I shoot on the Nikon with image quality setting "Raw/basic" so I get both a raw and a jpg. I use the low-res JPEG to cull, looking for exposure, focus, composition, and lack of unwanted camera motion or subject motion; then it typically gets tossed.

This leads to the next aspect of the difference between the use by most users of film or digital: shoot lots, but... THROW OUT LOTS! and do it quickly!

You probably can't cull from the screen on the camera. Certainly not in a reasonable time since it takes time to use the menu to blow up the detail and scroll around looking at it. What you can do at the camera is cull out the obvious bad shots (oops, I pressed the shutter with the lens cap on, or on manual from the last low-light session and I'm now in bright sunshine, etc...) - you'll know when to push the garbage-can button but mostly you should just keep shooting, keep composing, keep looking for the height of the action and for a better or different composition.
Yesterday, shortly after I started this article, I was sitting on our back deck enjoying dinner when I noticed a dragon fly sitting on one of the bamboo poles in our garden. Over a period of about 5 minutes I took 51 shots. There are a couple I sort of like, but none that really jump out at me.  I may end up throwing out the whole lot.
The first 3 shots were overexposed because I rushed to get the shot and didn't look at the camera setting - it being set for an indoor shot on manual. But this exemplifies one of the aspects of digital - get the shot!
Fortunately, the dragonfly cooperated and, although it flew away a couple of times when I moved closer (and ended up in macro mode on the Sigma 70-300 Macro-zoom), it kept coming back to the same stick.
The turkey vulture shown here flew over me while I was setting up for some shots of fall leaves in Port Coquitlam, BC - and I was fast enough that a couple of the shots were in good focus (at least good enough that my friend David Hancock identified it as not some new eagle :) Sometimes an opportunity comes your way and if you stop to think "I'm paying for this film", you might not shoot just when you really should. This is one of two I kept out of 20 I shot in about 40 seconds as the bird flew over me about 30 feet up.

So I tend to shoot more than I ever did with film, then as soon as possible, winnow out the obvious bad ones prior to doing any editing, printing, or "permanent" archiving. But do I just hold the shutter down and let the camera take pictures as fast as it can? Nope. I've owned motor-drive and "power winder" cameras in the past and I've seen others go through a roll of film as fast as the camera would take pictures trying to capture the "top of the action" shot or in the hope that one out of the 30+ will be the one that is the "money" shot. That technique is for losers. If you want to take that many pictures in a row, buy a movie camera.

The motor drive or power winder are so you don't have to take your eye from the viewfinder to wind in the next frame. With a digital of course there is no winding, but today the processors and storage media are not instantaneous, and the SLR mechanism with a mirror flip-up means you can still end up missing the height of the action. You have to work at timing - but at least you don't pay anything but your time in practice getting it right.

So another, and probably the most significant plus for digital; you can take the opportunity to practice your technique every time you're presented with it.

So do it!

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