Erwin Puts On The Fundamental Differences Between Film and Digital Imaging

Discussion in '35mm Cameras' started by Jeremy, Mar 18, 2006.

  1. Jeremy

    Jeremy Guest

    Thought-provoking comments from Erwin Puts' Website
    "But with digital imagery we are in the business of constructing reality and
    no longer in the realm of recording reality."

    In a recent documentary by Arte, the German-French art TV channel the
    revival of the Super 8 film was exposed. Young filmmakers, in particular,
    seem to discover the peculiar characteristics of Super 8 in comparison to
    the now ubiquitous digital recording with the handycam. This is again proof
    of the classical adage that a new medium does not kill the previous one,
    just joins it.

    When photography was invented, the most famous exclamation was that from
    this moment one painting is dead. The contrary happened and painting
    flourished as never before. It just had to re-invent itself and find its
    true self.

    At first, the early photographers copied the classical masters and the style
    of painting. There were no other role models as we would say today.
    Photography flourished after the practitioners abandoned the approach of the
    painter and studied the inherent characteristics of the new medium. In fact
    they found new uses for the medium. The Economist has drawn attention to
    this fact when they noted that a true revolution is only possible when users
    find new goals for a medium well beyond the original ideas. This is
    happening world wide with the cameraphone and every day people find novel
    ways to employ the tools and the technique.

    Today you need to master the digital imagery workflow and without software
    tools as Photoshop, Raw Essentials, Noise Ninja you are not able to get a
    decent image on screen or on print. What is happening behind the scenes is a
    true revolution. A number of photographers have simply switched from film
    emulsion recording to solid state recording and assume that the classical
    photographic virtues will continue to be valuable. This is no doubt true to
    a certain extent. As in the past it is possible for photographer sto make
    pictures that look like paintings and there are painters who make paintings
    that look like photographs. It is perfectly valid to make pictures on
    solid-state media that resemble the technique of recording an image on film
    emulsions. But doing this you are acting like the 19th century photographer
    who finds inspiration in the tradition of painting.

    Photography means writing with light. Without light and an object reflecting
    light rays that can be captured by silver halide molecules, there can be no
    image. This is the essence of photography. Painting on the other hand can
    work from imagination and the painter only needs a brush and some paints to
    create whatever image he has in mind (literally speaking). Photography
    depends on what exists in front of the lens and freezes a scene in time.
    Painting has no sense of the time dimension. A photograph is limited in time
    and space. The decisive moment as it has been called is indeed the hallmark
    of a photographic image.

    The digital image is a strange beast. It is not an image in the photographic
    sense: there is no negative to look at. But there is a tendency to refer to
    a RAW image is a digital negative. The sensor of the digital camera records
    luminance values in a matrix of 3000 by 2000 cells, called pixels. The
    numbers may be replaced by whatever size of the sensor you use. A pixel is
    dimensionless, whereas a chemical negative has physical dimensions. The meta
    data that accompanies every digital file, has information how the colour
    pattern is arranged and this info is used by the software to reconstruct the
    colour information of the scene. Inherently a digital image (file) is a
    semi-manufactured article. Without the meta data the file can not be
    interpreted. And without extensive manipulation by the software in the
    camera or the Photoshops of this world, the file is useless.

    Many commentators in the digital scene will claim that there were many
    darkroom techniques to manipulate the original negative. That is true, but
    the amount of manipulation was and is limited. The essence of digital
    imagery is its unlimited potential for manipulation on the pixel level (in
    photographic terms that would imply addressing every single grain in the

    I am now using filmbased photographic recording and solid-state imagery in
    comparison and I find it remarkable how different both approaches are. There
    is still a widespread but futile attempt to try to demonstrate that
    filmbased images are better than the solid-state equivalents or the other
    way around. In a recent issue of the German magazine "Fotomagazin" there was
    an article that proofs that at the edge of recording performance the film
    based images have an advantage. This is also my own position: filmbased
    recording is still better than solid-state recording. Of course we can claim
    that current digital cameras can record a ten stop brightness contrast, but
    the current printing equipment cannot cope with this contrast range. And we
    can claim that resolution of films is still better than what we can get with
    solid-state imagery.

    When we are arguing in this direction we miss the point! The convenience and
    the possibilities of solid-state imagery outweigh the slight losses in
    absolute image quality.

    The whole idea of the digital imagery workflow points to a new way of
    working with images. When I take pictures on film I know the limitations and
    the possibilities of the material. And above all, I know that I am
    definitely fixing an image for eternity. Manipulations are limited. Of
    course I can take hundreds of pictures and hope that one if the images will
    satisfy my imagination or emotion about the scene in front of me. But the
    final image is still the fixing of the shadows.

    When I use the digital camera, I am definitely aware that the pictures are
    intermediate products, simply files that can be manipulated at will later on
    the workflow process. Using the Olympus E-1 as I would use the Leica M7 is
    simply a misunderstanding of the technique involved. Pressing the shutter of
    the M7 creates a fixed recording of a instant of reality, probably
    imperfect, but finalized. Pressing the shutter of the E-1 creates an
    intermediate product, a digital file that can be manipulated in many ways.
    Look at a Raw conversion program and see the infinite ways of manipulation
    of the basic image. There is no hesitation to shoot scores of images at will
    and to exploit your creativity from every possible angle and pose. Images
    are free and at no cost and every possible mistake can be corrected. As soon
    as you understand this, you note that a digital camera is a new tool that
    introduces a totally new way of creating images. The digital workflow
    supports this new way: as a start you can take pictures with a method that
    is essentially what the painter's sketchpad was in the past. You can start
    with a low resolution file which allows you take 1000 images on a 2 Gigabyte
    CF-card, take images as often and as many as you want (12 per second if you
    wish), at every angle and position, review the results immediately and when
    the results are what you had on your retina, you can delete the files,
    switch to RAW and create the real images. With the Raw processors you can
    look at the light table, adjust the relevant parameters, as saturation,
    colour, sharpness and dynamic range, and feed the files in into Photoshop
    CS2 where you can do additional manipulations, fix the parameters and do a
    batch conversion of every number of files you want. You can even superimpose
    two pictures, one with highlights corrections and one with shadow
    corrections to simulate a much higher dynamic range than can be put on

    The options are indeed limitless and go far beyond what the chemical
    darkroom can offer. Ansel Adams coined the term pre-visualisation to
    indicate that it is photographer's job to think about an image and to start
    searching for one. Henri Cartier-Bresson had a theory that you cannot create
    an image but have to wait for reality to evolve into a meaningful pattern
    that you can only capture at the right moment in time and place.

    The emergence of the workflow approach in digital imagery makes these
    visions obsolete and this can only be applauded. It means that the
    traditional style of taking photographs is not appropriate for digital
    imagery. As long as we assume that digital imagery is photography with a
    solid-state sensor , we are like the photographer who tries to emulate the
    process of painting. The often-praised approach of hybrid photography
    (mixing film based photography with solid-state imagery) is as futile as
    trying to mix painting with photography.

    Photography flourished as soon as the practitioners shrugged off the
    heritage of painting and started to use the new medium as a new tool with
    its own laws and possibilities. Digital imagery or even engineering will
    start to flourish when and if the practitioners shed off their heritage of
    photography and start to use the medium as a new instrument for a new
    language for visual expression.

    It is really significant that in today's digital arena the traditional
    photographic companies are doing worst of all. Kodak has a new boss and
    sheds tens of thousands of people again and film sales are dropping not by
    the projected 10%, but by an alarming 30% a year. We all know where Leica is
    standing, losing money and changing bosses by the month. It is the stated
    goal of HP, once a staid engineering company famous for boring but reliable
    computer hardware, to become the digital equivalent of what Kodak stands for
    in the 20th century as the leader of chemical photography. Contax/Kyocera is
    dead; Pentax is struggling, as is Nikon and Konica/Minolta. The big names in
    digital imagery are Seiko/Epson, Sony, HP and Canon, as one of the very few
    of the traditional photographic companies who has made the transition from
    photography to image engineering. And on the horizon we see the names of
    Nokia, Ericcson, Samsung and others who promote the use of camera-phones as
    the means of image capture of the future. Some of the best-known names in
    fashion photography (Nick Knight is one of them) have abandoned the
    classical gear fully to concentrate on the images possible with the
    camera-phone ( 3 million pixels really suffice for full spread magazine

    The digital workflow encompasses the whole range form creating the basic
    image file, manipulating the data with programs and printing the files to
    get printed images. The software-programs and the computer are at every
    stage necessary and an integral part of the flow. Extract the programs from
    your digital camera and it will do nothing. The more you rely on
    post-exposure manipulation with Photoshop, the more you are becoming an
    image engineer. This is fine. I am no Luddite to protest against new
    inventions. But with digital imagery we are in the business of constructing
    reality and no longer in the realm of recording reality. There will be
    hardcore traditionalists who insist on using the digital camera as a
    convenient means of doing traditional photography, but they will be soon
    outnumbered if not buried by the masses of persons who see digital imagery
    as one of the many instances of an integrated digital entertainment network.

    In the end, it may be possible that true chemical photography, at least the
    BW version of it, will outlast the digital photographer, who will vanish in
    the world of digital imagery that is mobile, virtual and personal: mobile
    because you can do it every where you want, virtual, because it only exists
    in the camera and you can show it to anybody around the globe and personal
    because you can edit the digital file in any way you wish. Does this sound
    like a revolution? You bet on it!

    Some trivia: the first digital SLR was a Kodak DCS-100 in 1991 with a 1.3 Mp
    sensor and $30.000 tag. In 1997 the Olympus D-6000L had the same size sensor
    and costs a few thousand bucks. In 1999 the Nikon D1 had a 2.74 MP sensor
    and a tag of $6000. The Canon EOS-1D from 2001 had a 4.48 Mp sensor and was
    introduced as the camera tthat set the top for sharpness and resolution. Now
    Canon has a 16 Mp sensor, but the claims are the same.
    Jeremy, Mar 18, 2006
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  2. Jeremy

    Colin D Guest

    <snipped article because of length; read it on the OP's post>

    OK Jeremy, thank you for posting that very lucid article from Erwin
    Puts, a respected person in the field of photography. It reflects
    almost exactly where I stand in respect of film vs digital photography,
    with a few relatively minor differences.

    A few of his statements I don't entirely agree with, such as where he
    states that a film image is fixed for eternity - I guess he's trying to
    make the point that the image is final rather than eternal, but maybe
    that's his English usage. Also where he states that without light being
    captured by silver halide molecules there can be no image. A nitpick
    here; strictly, there is no image until the silver halide molecules are
    developed by a chemical process; and secondly, there are other chemical
    reactions that can produce an image - useless in practice for
    photography, but they do exist.

    Also, I don't entirely agree with digital imagery being in the business
    of constructing reality rather than recording reality. Of course a
    digital image can record reality as well as can film. It may be subject
    to more manipulation, or construction, but that is not a given with
    every digital image. And the more the image is constructed, the less is
    the reality, or 'reporting accuracy'. I am rather in the position of
    using digital images as I would silver images, it's just a different,
    and to me, a better way of pursuing my photographic interests. But, we
    can probably write those differences off to semantics, and they
    certainly don't negate the thrust of the entire article.

    I have printed the article, and will keep it for reference.

    Thanks again,

    Colin D.
    Colin D, Mar 18, 2006
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  3. What a stupid article!
    Some artists just want to be different. It doesn't have anything to do with
    the inherent qualities of the medium. After a couple years, people will
    be bored with low quality Super 8 movies and move on.
    What kind of argument is this? There are plenty of DSLRs that can produce
    a decent quality jpeg.
    The only way to make pictures radically different is to take them into
    the realm of graphics arts.

    It there anything new? If you take everything that has been done on film and
    compare it to what is being done with digital, I strongly doubt that
    on average there is anything different.
    This is why there is such a big difference between photography and painting.
    This is extermely silly. Without meta-data, a print film negative is nothing.
    You need to know that there is an orange mask, you need to know color balance,

    Without very complicated chemical processing, exposed Kodachrome film is

    Replacing chemicals with digital circuits is not a revolution in itself.
    Two rather strange ideas are combined in this paragraph.

    First, I looks like the author never heard of scanners. For my workflow,
    there hardly any difference between film and direct digital. Of course
    film needs to be developed and scanned, and a digital image may need
    raw conversion. But after that, it is just digital processing. There is
    nothing inherently fixed in a film negative, that isn't just as fixed in

    The second argument is that you can take as many pictures as you like.
    Well, you can do that with film as well.

    With video, there is lots of experience with cheap recording media.
    Unfortunately, without vision, recording more video doesn't help.

    The samething applies to digital photography. Taking more picture mostly
    results in more boring pictures.
    I guess Erwin Puts didn't bother to visit the HCB exposition that is
    currently in Amsterdam.

    HCB's pictures show that you have be in right place at the right time and
    press the shutter at the right moment. Many of his pictures are unique.

    I guess that even with landscapes, there is only a very small window of
    time when the light, clouds, etc. are optimal.

    I wonder if he read "the negative". Small digital cameras are just as
    limited as (or even more limited than) the print film Ansel Adams used.
    Deciding what record when the subject contrast exceeds the capabilities
    of the medium is just as important today as it was when AA was writing
    his books.

    Yes, digital does give a bit more feedback. But if have any idea what the
    final image is supposed to look like, you will not get good results.
    And a million monkeys will eventually come up with the works of Shakespear.

    If you want random images, you can do that with film as well. There is
    nothing new in this respect.
    Photography does not have anything in common with painting. But, most
    photography is not really that different from painting upto the invention
    of photography. Some paitings were pure imagination. But a lot of paintings
    tried to show what the artist saw as the reality. Not really any different
    from a lot of photography today.

    Using DoF to isolate subjects is just about the only thing that is more
    or less impossible with painting.

    It was the painters who had to re-invent themselves.

    It is quite possible in a digital world, artists working with film will have
    to re-invent themselves as well.
    Ones again an example where artists just need something that looks different.
    Yes, photography can be combined with graphics arts. However, that doesn't
    have anything to do with digital capture.

    Graphics arts can be combined with photography. For example, you can
    try to combine Escher-style patterns with photographic elements.

    However, that is no longer photography. And I sort of doubt that the
    people who feel a desire express themselves using photography will embrace
    image construction using graphics arts techniques.

    As long as the goal is to produce a photograph, direct digital is just a more
    convenient way of doing what was also possible with (scanned) film based

    There is nothing new. Just like most movies (whether recorded on film, or
    using a video camera) are not really that different from what was done a
    100 years ago.

    Are cameras in mobile phones going to have much impact? They are going have
    an impact on recording important events that were not often recorded
    before. For any kind of news, it is much likely that there will also be
    some images.

    But other than that, snapshots tend not to have any photographic qualities.
    Even worse, there is good chance that many snapshots will not be preserved.
    Just like in the past people used to write each other lots letters and, more
    importantly, used to archive those letters. There is of course no records
    of most telephone calls (at least officially). With e-mail, some people
    archive their e-mail, other people don't.
    Philip Homburg, Mar 18, 2006
  4. Jeremy

    Scott W Guest

    He has some interesting ideas but I think missed perhaps the fact that
    for most people who are still using film the image is still going
    through a digital image phase before being printed. From this
    standpoint then the film image can and is manipulated as much as the
    digital image.

    In some respects he has missing much of the point of the digital
    revolution in photograph. A huge part is that photographer can have
    full control of how their color prints look, this is true either
    scanning film or starting from an image from a digital camera. Even
    for BW work having the image in a digital format gives one far more
    control when with a wet darkroom.

    "In the electronic age, I am sure that scanning techniques will be
    developed to achieve prints of extraordinary subtlety from the original
    negative scores. If I could return in twenty years or so I would hope
    to see astounding interpretations of my most expressive images. It is
    true no one could print my negatives as I did, but they might well get
    more out of them by electronic means. Image quality is not the product
    of a machine but of the person who directs the machine, and there are
    no limits to imagination and expression."
    ~ Ansel Adams, An Autobiography, 1985.

    Scott W, Mar 18, 2006
  5. Jeremy

    Jeremy Guest

    I believe that he is comparing the "fixed" quality of the image negative (as
    interpreted in the classic sense--before scanning and digital manipulation
    came onto the scene) with the characteristic of images born digital to be in
    a state of change--that the digital image is virtually guaranteed to be
    tweaked, manipulated, changed--if only because it is so easy to do so. Back
    in the days of negatives and enlargers, one could not easily change the
    image that was fixed on the film. It could be dodged, burned and cleaned up
    a bit, bit it remained fundamentally the same.

    Viewed in comparison to the "fixed" image on film, digital images can be
    radically changed from what the original file looked like. I think he is
    suggesting that the direction that digital imaging is headed is toward a
    workflow where the original image is merely the starting point, and the
    final product often bears little resemblance to the original image (not
    always, but very often, of course).

    It would appear that virtually everyone that takes digital imaging seriously
    makes routine use of PS, PSP or other editing software. As one's skill set
    improves, there is a tendency to try more types of image manipulation from
    the editing software's tool kit. Back in the film days, before scanners,
    the emphasis was to create the image at the time the camera took the shot.
    The photographer had an entirely different orientation. Now, taking the
    shot is the first step, not the last step.
    Jeremy, Mar 18, 2006
  6. Jeremy

    sobolik Guest

    "This is again proof of the classical adage that a new medium does no
    kill the previous one, just joins it."

    I like reading rational approaches to the subject compared to emotiona
    Photograph is like any other thing as long as there is a market ther
    will be supplies. There is a huge market restructuring under way righ
    now. That restructuring is not really reflective of rabid photographer
    needs and wants, just the masses. The muscle car era can be said to b
    done and dead by looking at the present market for the masses. Th
    rabid Muscle car enthusiast has no trouble however.
    I do not care if the masses embrace the digital such and such. I wil
    still be able to pursue what ever I want including the Super 8 that i
    mentioned. I will still be able to take a 35mm photo of the guy as h
    takes fashion photos with his cell phone.

    "This is again proof of the classical adage that a new medium does no
    kill the previous one, just joins it.
    sobolik, Mar 18, 2006
  7. Jeremy

    Scott W Guest

    Wouldn't you say that virtually everyone that takes photography
    seriously makes uses of programs like Photoshop? The people I know who
    are really getting all out of film that they can are all scanning and
    adjusting to some degree their photographs. People like Gordon Moat
    are quick to tell me that the old limits of 35mm photograph have been
    expanded with the use of such things as noise reducing programs.

    Scott W, Mar 18, 2006
  8. Jeremy

    Alan Browne Guest

    Shoot slide film. WYDIWYG
    Alan Browne, Mar 18, 2006
  9. Jeremy

    Scott W Guest

    In the case of photography you might be correct, but the statement that
    a new medium does not kill the previous one is not in all cases
    correct. There are any number of medium that are gone. The
    Daguerreotype is gone. Glass plates are gone. Ask someone who owns a
    Betamax VCR about the new just joining the old.

    Kodachrome, one of my favorite films to use in the past is close to

    What is clear is that the new medium can kill off the old when it
    competes directly. For example there are other slide films that
    compete directly with Kodachrome. Photograph never did really directly
    compete with painters, at least not a painter who was any good.

    In the end whether digital "kills off" film will depend on your
    definition of killing off. But it is clear that film is moving into a
    new state of existence where at best it will be harder to use and the
    choices will be much more limited. I would be willing to bet that the
    number of people who engage in painting today far exceeds the number
    before photography. But the number of people who are doing film
    photograph is greatly decreeing with the introduction of the digital
    camera, because for the most part the digital camera does directly
    compete with the film camera. When you sell more cameras you don't
    sell less paint, when you sell more digit cameras you do sell less film

    Scott W, Mar 18, 2006
  10. Jeremy

    Scott W Guest

    I find this an interesting area, it seems like side film makes more
    sense not that we have fairly good cheap scanners and yet I believe the
    fall of slide film has been faster then print. A good many of my
    photos are in fact slide and for the most part this is where I get the
    better scans. This is more luck then anything else, when I was young I
    did not want to pay for enlargements but wanted to see my photos larger
    then snap shot size, a slide projector was the answer at the time.

    But I tend to like the colors that I can get from print film better
    then slide, which often look a bit over saturated and high contrast to
    me. But print film is not easy to scan and I have never gotten as good
    detail with it as with slide film so it is a trade off either way.

    Scott W, Mar 18, 2006
  11. Jeremy

    Jeremy Guest

    Puts' article was not about whether people are "getting out of film," it was
    about the fundamental difference in the approach when comparing film with
    digital. His comments were thought-provoking because they went deeper than
    the usual "how-many-megapixels-does-it-take-for-digital-to-equal-film" line
    of thought, and instead they point out that the respective workflows are
    different. Digital imaging is evolving into image manipulation, where the
    final product often is much different than the original image, as recorded
    by the camera. Film photography, because of its built-in characteristic of
    being resistant to manipulation (especially when the photos are taken in the
    classic manner of film-to-enlarger-to-print, or from camera-to-slide) and
    steers the photographer into creating final image in-camera rather than in
    post-shoot manipulation.

    And all you do is continue with that one-track argument that "everyone is
    going digital." This thread is not about the masses "going digital." It is
    a discussion of dome of the less-discussed factors that differentiate one
    medium from the other.

    Please stop trying to turn every post into an argument that only Ladies are
    sticking with film.
    Jeremy, Mar 18, 2006
  12. Jeremy

    Jeremy Guest

    I meant Luddites, not Ladies . . .
    Jeremy, Mar 18, 2006
  13. Jeremy

    Scott W Guest

    You made a point that people taking digital photography seriously are
    using programs like Photoshop. I was pointing out that this is not
    limited to digital photograph but that people doing film photograph
    seriously are also using programs like Photoshop. And I pointed out
    that people are getting higher quality prints then before because of

    Are you telling me that you don't scan your film as part of your

    Scott W, Mar 18, 2006
  14. Jeremy

    Annika1980 Guest

    A few of his statements I don't entirely agree with, such as where he
    Film images may be "fixed" into a format that resists manipulation more
    than digital images, but this doesn't mean that the film images are
    closer to reality. It just means you're stuck with what you've got.
    Digital images by their very nature are easier to manipulate and thus
    easier to get closer to reality as well as farther away from it. If I
    want a photograph to look "real" I'd much rather take my chances with
    digital rather than be stuck with what the film image gives me at
    capture time.

    The whole idea of photography as "capturing reality" is kinda bogus
    anyway. There's nothing real about a lifeless two-dimensional image.
    Video does a better job of capturing what is really happening. All
    photography can do is attempt to capture a slice of time, and the
    photographs themselves are a representation of what the photographer
    "felt" more than what he "saw." If it was all about reality we
    wouldn't still have B&W.
    Annika1980, Mar 18, 2006
  15. Jeremy

    Colin D Guest

    Strewth. How'd you make the jump from Luddite to Lady? {"-)

    Colin D.
    Colin D, Mar 18, 2006
  16. Jeremy

    Jeremy Guest

    'Twere my spell checker!!
    Jeremy, Mar 18, 2006
  17. It must have been a Freudian slip......
    William Graham, Mar 18, 2006
  18. Jeremy

    Gordon Moat Guest

    This is about all anyone really needs to read in this. Anyone involved
    in commercial imaging knows that good images were possible in print ten
    or more years ago, the era when drum scanners, PhotoShop, and a handful
    of high end imaging applications changed imaging. Today there are
    choices of digital capture, passing the film and scanning stage
    entirely, and many want that one or two less steps.

    It is still possible to use film and the latest digital imaging
    techniques to create truly compelling quality images. Unfortunately few
    seem to care about that. There is substantially more emphasis on the
    technology than on the images . . . and that is really sad.
    Gordon Moat, Mar 18, 2006
  19. Jeremy

    Gordon Moat Guest

    Absolutely, I will confirm that. You have to understand that I come to
    photography from both a fine art and a commercial printing background.
    The techniques I used in illustration, mostly scanning then finishing in
    a computer, apply quite well to photography. Given access to very high
    quality scanners, and the knowledge and experience necessary to get the
    most out of imaging software, some quite impressive results can be
    achieved. I would never mislead someone into thinking this is easy; it
    definitely is not, and those who think it is easy are either clueless or
    kidding themselves, or they are happy with mediocre.
    Gordon Moat, Mar 18, 2006
  20. Jeremy

    Gordon Moat Guest

    I will again confirm this statement by stating that nearly all my colour
    images have been digitally printed, though my fine art Chromogenic
    prints are never manipulated.

    I think people using colour film who are not scanning are missing out,
    at least for larger than 8" by 12" prints.
    Gordon Moat, Mar 18, 2006
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