Imprints: Film vs. Digital – a discussion by members of PWP

Imprints Issue 2, 2010 - Image by Erika Nusser

Imprints Issue 2, 2010 - Image by Erika Nusser

Imprints: Issue 2

Panel: Lucille Tortora, Mary Newman, Cali Gorevic, Paula Berg, Maddi Ring, Miriam Berkley, Elizabeth Arcuri

Compiled by Patricia Gilman

The year 2002 was a turning point in my photography career.  First, I became really serious about photography and second I got my first digital camera.  It was new technology and the prices were becoming reasonable enough for the “everyday citizen.€

On my first trip with a digital camera, I planned on using my film camera for most of the trip and the digital to play with.  I brought 20 rolls of film with me, ended up buying 20 more rolls, and used the digital sparingly.  That ended on that trip.  I loved digital, I hated running out of film, and I became hooked on what the digital camera could do right before my eyes, and I am not alone. Some photographers have embraced this change; some have not.  With the advent of digital photography, many film manufacturers have cut back or discontinued many kinds of film.  But this has not dampened the spirit of many photographers.

This article will explore why some have switched to digital and what they like or dislike about it and why some have continued not only to use film, but to use black and white film and to work in the darkroom.

Black and White Film

Lucille Tortora

The first time I looked through a lens I realized that I had been seeing the world through a camera all my life. I had been constantly framing whatever was in front of me. And then the first time I put a piece of photo paper into the chemicals, watching as an image emerged I could not believe the magic that was taking place!  Since that first moment I have been working in my darkroom creating my photographs by turning them into shades of black, white and grey.

Photography is about capturing light and shadow that is why I still use black /white film and silver gelatin paper. By removing the color of our world it allows me to abstract the world to emphasize the composition, the negative & positive space as it relates to form.

Inspiration for my work is from cubism where artists achieved the essence of the whole through fragmenting their subjects showing them from different angles. It is in my darkroom where I complete my vision for each image whether I was photographing architecture, still-life or landscape. Using my hands to manipulate my images into shades of black, white and grey satisfies my need to create. My darkroom is still a magical place where I can interpret the beauty of this world as I see it.

As I began my adventure in this expressive art form I came across this quote by the photographer, Julie Margaret Cameron “I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me€. Her words closely express my feelings. Images are all around me, capturing fragments, then reconstructing a whole by linking these fragments are the means I use to communicate my vision.

Cali Gorevic

When I began making photographs, I shot only color. In fact, black and white didn’t appeal to me at all. I printed my own color, and spent most of my darkroom time adjusting the color, rather than being creative with the image. Gradually, over a period of several years, as I viewed other photographer’s black and white images, I wanted the opportunities that I felt black and white could give me in terms of creative freedom. At the same time, I learned to appreciate the huge appeal of the silver print.

I have not yet seen a digital print that can match a gelatin silver print for luminosity. Further, they have more depth, inherent drama, and lots of room for creativity, in the camera and in the darkroom.  I have more control with film and chemicals. There are so many subtle ways to enhance a print. I know Photoshop has lots of buttons, but it’s not the same. That may have partly to do with the way people use Photoshop, but images generally seem too……everything: too colorful, too sharp, too manipulated… not subtle.

Third, I love that in the darkroom I can sculpt the light coming out of the enlarger, thereby determining how much, what shape,  touch the paper. It feels more instinctive, more visceral, less intellectual than the computer approach. Since I am also a sculptor, this is very appealing to me.

Of course, digital papers continue to improve, while gelatin silver papers continue to disappear, so it seems inevitable that one day I will be a digital photographer, but I will resist as long as I can. Meanwhile, we film photographers and darkroom printers are very grateful to the sources that remain available to us.

Mary Newman

When asked why am I still in a black and white wet darkroom, my answer is, “I’m addicted to fixer.€ While there is truth to the statement  (a print turns dark without that chemical), that is not the all of it.  I am a fine art photographer who believes a photograph is traditionally made with chemicals, not ink, and, most importantly, loves the process involved in the execution of a gelatin silver print that can only be done in a traditional darkroom.

I began my formal education in photography years ago in black and white and the darkroom is where I started the quest to create, with the proper mix of chemicals and agitation, a hand made gelatin silver print that conveyed a message. Working in black and white suited me because I favored simplicity both in equipment and subject matter. I still prefer shooting with manual or pinhole cameras and photograph a part of the environment in ambient light using film, of course.  Black and white film lets me focus on details, light and shadow, texture, shapes, patterns; all that is left when removing color.

My purpose in making a photograph is to depict the subject as honestly as possible and at the same time, capture a sense of wonder; one that inspires a connection of my world to the viewer–something that goes beyond the subject. With black and white, giving a feeling or mood to the photograph is everything because it attracts the viewer to it and then allows that viewer to see something not noticed before.  To my mind, nothing does this better than the gelatin silver print.

In the darkroom, I can create the mood of the photograph as I have control from beginning to end.  I start by developing the film.  Surprisingly, I still have a choice of developers depending on how I envision the look of the print.    Do I want mid-tones or do I want a lot of contrast?  Do I want it grainy or smooth? Generally, I use a moderate developer that gives a slight grain. After developing the film and drying it, I contact print the negatives. Seeing the images come up in the developer tray for the first time is still magical.   I make some test prints and then choose one to work on.  I return to the darkroom, put the negative in the enlarger and the procedure of working towards a final print is set in motion.

At this stage, I can still exert control over contrast and tonality by choice of print developers, split filtration and development, and printing papers.  Paper choice these days is very limited so I use either Ilford (cold tone) or Oriental (slightly warmer) variable contrast, fiber-based, glossy papers.  I can selectively highlight or deflect features playing with the enlarger light; adding it  (burning) in selective areas or blocking it (dodging) on the print.  I can spend many hours forgetting the outside world, printing and reprinting one image sometimes with disappointing results but frequently with satisfying ones. I get annoyed when other responsibilities interrupt my work.  But the time does come when I am happy with the print.  After it is fixed washed, I give it a second archival bath ending with a dip in selenium toner that assures maximum stability and longevity.

I will continue to work in black and white and hone the craft of printing in the chemical darkroom for as long as I can because that is where I make my art. The hours spent there are cathartic yet productive and well worth the effort.  It is extremely rewarding to see the result exhibited under gallery lights: A beautifully printed, luminous, hand made, gelatin silver print with crisp whites and deep blacks and that  elusive quality which compels a viewer to gaze at it.

Paula Berg

Why do I still shoot only black and white film?

First and foremost, I am very attached to my manual, rangefinder cameras–a Leica M6 and a Mamiya 7. To me, automatic cameras–film and digital–feel like machines. My cameras feel like a part of me that heightens the connection between my eyes, my mind, and the world around me.

I am also very attached to the process of shooting and developing film. I probably could produce better photographs if I could instantly see the image and make on-the-spot adjustments. However, I experience this kind of critical thinking as an intrusion upon connecting with the subject and a barrier to losing myself in photographing. I prefer to keep photographing and the photograph separate, and I love the revelation of inspecting newly developed film.

Finally, I am very attached to the tradition of black and white photography and great photographers like, Atget, Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Callahan, Arbus, Capa, Model, and Sudek. It is this art form that I am most moved by and this tradition that I want to be part of.

I have made some concessions to the digital age. About five years ago, I gave up darkroom printing. I now scan and digitally print using specially produced black and white inks. While I never had space in my apartment for a darkroom (and had to rent darkroom space), I now have a “lightroom€ and therefore can spend much more time printing and improving my skills. (This transition was not heart wrenching. I never formed an attachment to the enlarger or inhaling chemicals.)

But, continuing to shoot only film is not without anxiety and it can be a little lonely. I worry that my favorite black and white films and developers–or film and developer altogether–will disappear from the market. I worry that my scanner will break and Nikon will no longer produce parts for it–(this rumor periodically races through film photography listservs). And while being on the margin is not unfamiliar, I sometimes feel a little excluded when other photographers excitedly discuss memory cards, pixels, and the rest of that digital photography stuff.

But, even as technology is threatening film photography, it is also keeping it alive. There is a wonderfully generous group of committed black and white and film photographers in Cyberspace. The gurus of black and white printing, Paul Roark and Jon Cone, have developed black and white inks that can produce beautiful prints, (and both always respond to my emails). Steven Shaub, who has a blog called the Figital Revolution, is (like me) constantly experimenting with different combinations of film, developer, and paper in search of better black and white scans and prints.

So, I try to remember that, like with all things in life, it is best to just relax and savor the present; because the way that I photograph with film now is more fun than ever and one of the great joys of my life.


Maddi Ring

The reasons to switch to digital are as personal and varied as the choice of camera.  For some it is a matter of working at the cutting edge of technology at all times, for others convenience and others…well the list is long.

This article is about why I switched from film to digital, and although it may not resonate with everyone, there will be elements that almost all can relate to.

When the digital format first appeared I had been a dedicated film photographer for about 35 years.  Specifically, I was a color film photographer who worked exclusively with transparencies. I found individual slides easy to sort, place in trays for shows, view for color, contrast, and composition without a contact sheet, and select for a single print.  My ultimate product was a print as large as 16×20, sometimes of a cropped part of the image, and group slide presentations.  Resolution and archival quality were of primary importance.

Traveling with a friend who had “gone digital€ I was first struck by two things.  First, the stops to change film were gone and, second, the images there to review and edit on the spot. Much of the work I needed to do after the 40+ rolls of film were processed in NY was finished by the time we landed at JFK. WOW!

Did that do it? Not quite yet.  I purchased a small point and shoot digital for snapshots but “serious€ work was still done with film. Resolution and archival print quality were still my concerns – until the major camera manufacturers (Nikon for me) introduced cameras that were high enough resolution to produce the results I wanted (without costing several thousand dollars), and printers appeared in the prosumer market that produced high quality archival prints.  I bought a Nikon D200, went off to Antarctica and South America for the three week maiden voyage of my new equipment, shot images like crazy and have never looked back.

What do I like about the new technology?

No more stops to change film; Immediate image viewing; Control over so many aspects of the image on the computer;

Dry darkroom rather than wet (or need to send out for printing); Electronic submissions for exhibits etc;

No more dupe slides needed; Space saving and easy image filing and storage;

No more film to buy and processing to pay for (Note – the startup costs for digital are considerable with software, dowloaders, cards, hard drives, printers, chargers etc. but once that is done the incremental cost of shooting is virtually zero)

No more carrying 40-50 rolls of film on a trip and then running out of film while out for a day shoot. (Note – electronics need to be carried but they are less bulky than film)

No issues with airport x ray; All that extra room in my freezer

What do I not like?

The need to ensure electricity and appropriate converters when traveling, to remote locations

Other than that very little – I have found that my sorting and selection process takes longer with digital photography since I have so much more I can do with an image and there are often so many more I have to choose from.

Miriam Berkeley

I bought my first digital camera, a small 5.1 megapixel point-and-shoot Sony, in the summer of 2004, and when I warily turned it on and looked through its LCD screen for the first time I felt uncomfortable and thought I would never adjust to it. Twenty-four  hours later I was hooked on the instant gratification the camera provided and gradually, over the next few years, as I moved up to cameras with more megapixels and more controls, the ratio of my film to digital shooting  reversed; I have not actually shot any film professionally for more than a year now.

But even before I began shooting digitally I had bought an inexpensive scanner and begun scanning  some of my negatives and slides. I photograph writers for book jackets and related uses and publishers or magazine editors would call and want things right away, often “yesterday.€ Using my scanner I could scan and send immediately, with no need to make a print or duplicate a slide and then ship it.  At the same time, I could make adjustments to  my images with the Photoshop Elements software that came with my scanner, and improve their artistic quality relatively easily. The inexpensive enlarger in my bathroom darkroom had been problematic for some time and I could not figure out where its problems lay; now I could scan the flawed prints I made with it and make adjustments that produced more pleasing images.

A turning point came for me one day about five years ago when a publisher contacted me with an urgent need for an author photo whose book she wanted to sell at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Despite no training or digital sophistication at the time, I was able to scan the rather grey print I had on hand, whiten its whites and deepen its blacks, and transmit the improved photograph. When I got to Frankfurt I saw a perfectly fine print at the publisher’s stand.

Around the same time, and shortly before I bought a digital camera, I got a call from a German magazine asking for a picture, which they needed the next day, of a writer I had  never met. Serendipitously, he lived in NYC, was out but soon responded to my message on his answering machine, and we were able to set up a quick shoot for that same afternoon. I dropped my slides off at a lab, the lab rush processed them, the magazine’s NYC representative picked them up examined them,  and then scanned and transmitted a few choice images to the magazine before the issue closed.

Digital shooting is a fine way to improve one’s photography because changes one makes in settings are immediately apparent on the LCD screen.  Although I suspect that my eye has not changed significantly since I began taking photographs many years ago, I think my technique has certainly improved and digital feedback in recent years accelerated the learning process, in part because I shot and evaluated more photographs.

Gaining the trust of my subjects became easier because an author did not have to take my ability on faith but could view him-or-herself on the camera screen; someone in an initial hurry might then give me more shooting time, which allowed for a wider variety of imagery. I also did not have to stop to change rolls of film, although I might have to wait for my digital shots to be processed by the camera.

I should add that although it is a relief not to have to beg for hand inspection of film when I travel,  a switch to digital does not necessarily make life easier, as instead of large quantities of film, I now have to pack card reader and hard drive, batteries and battery chargers, and a variety of connecting cables, and sometimes a computer as well

It is clear that digital skills have for some time now been essential to my professional life, although the ubiquity of all manner of digital apparatus has also meant vastly increased competition by amateurs eager for publication with little or no recompense.

But what about art? Some people still feel that a digital print cannot match the quality of a photograph shot with film and printed in a traditional darkroom, but their numbers are decreasing for many reasons, including the greatly reduced availability today of photographic film and chemicals and fewer processing labs. But modern cameras, scanners and printers are getting better all the time, and Photoshop plug-ins and other software, such as Nik’s Silver Efex Pro, can mimic the look of a wide variety of traditional films. Even film aficionados are often sorely challenged to distinguish between a photograph shot on film and one onto a compact flash card.

Film stalwarts will often print digitally while, on the other hand, digital files may be put onto film, so that film and digital processes are intermingled in the work of many photographers. Is there any doubt as to the artistic quality of Walker Evans’ WPA photographs shown in New York a few seasons ago in huge scale and great detail

thanks to advances in digital techniques?

There is, of course, nostalgia for the way most of us learned photography, and the thrill that comes as an image emerges in the developing tray . [There are health dangers in a traditional darkroom, I might point out]. But digital photography has its own artistic satisfactions: the ability to experiment and play with images, to combine photographs, to add text to a photo or draw on it, to easily adjust or alter color, texture or shape or otherwise transform a photograph, and to make any number of other changes. Imagination is an essential ingredient in all art, and it is not limited to a single medium.

Liz Arcuri

My transition from film to digital was a gradual one.  It began to evolve in 1996 when I got a job at  CUNY.  On the technology side, the job required software proficiencies that I didn’t have and like several other employers in the mid-90s, CUNY offered its staff technical training.  I took advantage of this opportunity and attended computer classes in several applications–including Photoshop.

On the creative side, my boss would often ask me to take pictures of building projects (across 20 campuses).   My interest in photography up to this point was strictly black and white, but I began to shoot color because many of the images were included in presentations, reports and in-house publications.  I used my own camera (a Pentax that had served me well for years prior) but there were often deadlines associated with these assignments, and the turn-around time in between shooting and having the prints in hand was very slow.  So it came as no surprise when in 1997 my boss handed me a brand new Kodak DC40, 1.5 mp. digital camera.  In my efforts to keep up with technology, I embraced the chance that I was being given to learn digital photography.

I became comfortable with the process–working with color images in the digital darkroom and printing from my office computer. No more stressing out to make deadlines, waiting for prints to be processed or running to and from the photo lab.  These were a few of the welcome advantages the digital camera offered.

For my personal photography work, I continued to shoot black and white film and rent darkroom space.  I view black and white as a more artful form of photography and I wasn’t quite ready to let go.  Plus, I never had the passion for shooting color (whether it was using digital or film) that I had for black and white.

In 2002, I began to experiment with a more expensive digital camera. This one was 7.5 mp and had raw capability. I became consumed with its use and eventually put the film camera away forever.  It was a hard decision–one I felt pressured into making and one that I mourned.

Seven years later, I’m caught in between worlds.  I shoot digital, but still see the world in black in white, always searching for black and white subject matter–interesting elements, shapes, textures, forms, contrasts, lines and grids.  While I enjoy the convenience digital photography offers and believe high quality prints can be produced from a computer and an inkjet printer, I typically do not take advantage of the creative output options offered in the digital darkroom.  To achieve different kinds of creative effects, I tend to rely more on the camera’s built-in features than manipulating a photograph through the use of image editing software.

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