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March 28, 2004

Guest Posting -- Toby Thain

Dear Friedrich --

In my years of following the arts, the biggest story has seemed to me to be the digitification of culture. (Have I ever just come right out and said that? I certainly should have.) It may be fun to argue about whether this novel or that show of new paintings is any good. But as topics they seem to me dwarfed, to say the least, by the question of what's happening to culture generally as it goes digital.

I went into the culture field wanting to yak about books and movies (etc), and to add some product of my own to the culture stream. Instead, wham: along came computers -- and for the last 15-20 years, what's been most visible in the arts is the way that the various fields are reconfiguring themselves as digital waves sweep through them. We wouldn't have rap music if music hadn't gone digital. Magazines, ads and television wouldn't look the way they do if it weren't for computers. Bookselling superstores depend on databases. Copyright, distribution, the final experience of culture itself -- all are up for grabs because of digital technology

Sigh: I've got no inborn interest in this process. I didn't enter the field knowing that culture would be going digital, and I never would have chosen to spend my adult life deep in the midst of these matters. But we're in a period of transition, and that's all there is to it. Perhaps in 50 years the process will finally be near-complete, and culture will have settled down enough so that people will be able to return to having civilized chats about stable-but-evolving artforms. A little late for me, but there you have it.

In any case, it's inevitable that many of our interactions with culture– 70%? 95%? -- will be mediated by electronics. How will that affect the experience of culture and art? It can be helpful to ask these questions. What are we gaining? What might we be losing? How might artists and audiences respond? (IMHO: the most important thing artists can do these days is to take active part in the creation of digital culture, to make sure that art values aren't lost in the process. Artists: good lord, at the very least, put up a website!)

I've learned a lot from the many discussions that have taken place on this blog about digital photography. We've compared notes, we've floated responses and ideas, and we've done a little theorizing and speculating. Many of us have used digital cameras, if in modest ways, so we can speak from hands-on experience. Jimbo loves the detail his Canon digital SLR delivers. Felix puts his Casio in his shirtpocket and pulls it out at parties. Lynn loves taking nature shots with her Canon. I bore everyone with worries about about whether digital photos have the magic film photographs sometimes do. And we all seem to love the convenience and fun.

The other day, a very interesting and informative email about digital photography arrived from Toby Thain, who lives in Melbourne, Australia. I asked Toby if I could run his note as a Guest Posting; he kindly agreed.

Toby has interests in typography, photography, graphic design and computer science, and he's been working in the field of digital graphic art for 18 years. He's also got 13 years' experience as a photo retoucher, separator, color corrector, finished artist, designer and art director. In recent years, he's worked with digital studio images too, and he's been able to make many comparisons between film-based and digital-based photography. He's got a lot of knowledge and experience to call on, and as you'll see a lot of passion too.

Here's Toby's note. Read and learn.

Dear Michael Blowhard:

You wrote that a Kodak engineer told you a top-quality film image contains the equivalent of about 13 million pixels. That is about correct. The information in a 35mm image can usually be summed up in 10-15 million pixels. But this makes digital photography's long march to parity with film seem much shorter than it really is:

1) The story isn't just pixel count; quality of optics, dynamic range, sensor noise, etc, all put digital at a great disadvantage.

2) That resolution figure only applies to 35mm images. Any professional or semi-professional photograph (the minimum standard required, e.g., for advertising) is medium format (2 1/4", or 6x7cm approx). Film of this size carries (measurably) ten times the data: or 100-150 megapixels equivalent. Then there is 5x4" film, which quadruples the data again; and then 8x10" (still used), which would amount to well over 2 billion pixels to approximate. Why would anyone bother?

You can confirm my estimates here.

I've been working in digital pre-press, graphic reproduction, photo retouching and professional photographers for around 18 years and making chemical photographs for around the same length of time, so I have a reasonable perspective on the issue. I've even learned to use a drum scanner (which is the only device that can satisfactorily capture what's on a piece of film).

Everybody who has an opinion on the quality of digital should do two things before they enter the debate: do a few years of chemical (b&w) photography, including darkroom work, and try to find the true limits of film; use a medium format (6x6cm or larger) camera and a good lens; and carefully examine a few dozen high-resolution drum scans from film (I've probably assessed more than 5,000).

I am not holding my breath waiting for digital to catch up; and nobody has to. Film has been nearly perfect for 50 years and thank God, you can still buy it. Like all "revolutions," digital photography regresses the field (quality, integrity) as much as it progresses it in others (freedom, ease). It's a marketing triumph, not a technological one ...

The quality of digital imagery will asymptotically approach film. Only digital boosters (e.g. photographers who've just leased $100K of the latest digital doodads) make whacko remarks such as "better than film."

In my experience, the "better than film" remarks invariably come from photographers trying to justify their investment in the new technology. I have personally never seen a digital image of quality "better than film" -- whether in detail, or colour fidelity, though it is conceivable that the best digital hardware can beat a mediocre film image.

Besides, there's a qualitative difference between film imagery and digital photography. McLuhan has plenty to say on how TV/electronic culture has changed modern perception -- "the balance of the senses." (This process is also reflected in magazine design trends described in your recent piece on "tables of contents.") The internet goes far beyond TV to place us all in a field of simultaneity -- the latest manifestation of his interconnected "global village." Perhaps he can help explain why digital media "feel" different?

I tried to find the right McLuhan quote from "The Gutenberg Galaxy." HMM restates his thesis in enough slight variations throughout the book to make it possible to pick and choose just the right nuance for the occasion! OTOH, McLuhan is a dense jungle of prose, so the best I can offer here might be a paraphrase: "Typography tended to alter language from a means of perception and exploration to a portable commodity." If you substitute the words "Digital media" and "Photography" for Typography and Language, I think it says something relevant. (HMM is very amenable to paraphrasing, his stock in trade being the elastic analogy.)

The main advantage of digital images seems to be portability; and "perception" and "exploration" seem to have been overlooked in the frenzy of convenience and the thrill of buying new pieces of silver coloured plastic. Another McLuhanism that rings true: "Every technology contrived and outered by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization." Both these quotes are from "The Gutenberg Galaxy."

My technical gripes against digital photography have two main foci.

The first, and simplest to grasp, is that it has dramatically reduced image quality at the low end of photographic applications. (Like most revolutions, it does not deliver on the promise that things will be "better" for everyone!) Even a Polaroid camera produces better images than many digital snapshots I have seen offered in a professional context. The typical digital snapshot -- whether taken at home, or by a company employee on site at an engineering project, or by a journalist shooting their own interview portrait, pick up any trade magazine for a hundred examples -- now suffers from BOTH the perennial photographic blunders (lighting being the usual problem) AND computer-related faux pas.

The path of an image from camera to audience is now subject to numerous new process pitfalls involving resolution (how many snap-shooters know how many pixels are enough? for print? for the web? for a poster? can their camera and lens even deliver what's needed? on the whole, they simply don't know), colour (how many Photoshop users understand the difference between Adobe RGB and sRGB colour profiles? how many can colour correct a random image to a commercial standard? in RGB? colour separate it?) and format (e.g. excessive levels of JPEG compression). Most images suffer in more than one of these areas.

These are new hazards for photographers, because chemical photography left many steps of the process in professional hands (few photographers do their own processing and darkroom work). Now, everyone has to understand image processing and colour science to get decent results. This is perfectly analogous to the effects of desktop publishing on typography.

The fruits of the digital photography "revolution," for most users? Pallid JPEG pixel-porridge. They'd often be better off with negatives or slides or Polaroids -- the extra effort still buys more quality. Digital is only defensible when one must cut corners for convenience or cost; and, in my observations, there is a commensurate loss in the end result.

But it's the blatant overselling in the high-end and middle markets of photography (e.g. art, advertising) that really irks. I won't labour the point other than to say that, besides the subjectively noticeable shortcomings of dynamic range and sharpness, scientific and objective measurement puts digital one or two orders of magnitude behind film transparencies. This makes perfect sense to me: Anyone who has handled film and admired the engineering of a professional lens, camera and drum scanner will be less willing to dismiss the decades of development that has gone into the analog process. It's a minor miracle the way optical, mechanical and chemical engineering come together to deliver such a nearly perfect reproduction of nature!

I am not saying that digital won't approach film, eventually; but right now, the hype does not stand up to scrutiny.

Interestingly, just this evening I am chatting with some film people and they are complaining about the quality of digital, even high-end digital, movie cameras because it's harder to do keying and matting due to the artefacts (and probably loss of dynamic range). So they say shooting 35mm film is best, but more expensive than digital. Admittedly the only digital films I can recall seeing in a theatre are "Buena Vista Social Club" and "Festen" -- I don't see many mainstream movies. I didn't find the digital "look" was a problem in either, although the artefacts were sometimes noticeable.

My friend Mark Allen (LA writer/director) says: "HD feels more crisp and sharp and less organic -- so it isn't suitable for a lot of types of movies ... I have seen some films which were shot HD and looked awful, but I think HD can be shot acceptably ... the most powerful solution for mid-budget filmmakers might be the hybrid solution of shooting on film and finishing on HD (which can then be transferred back to film) because it gives a greater range of post-production control."

Mark also says, poignantly: "Have you ever edited on a flatbed or Moviola? Not easy to do, and it rips your fingers to shreds. And takes 3 times longer." All that pain, for the authenticity and integrity of film -- purely emotional payoffs? It sounds like Mark has weighed the alternatives and finds HD digital expedient: cost, and convenience. The same old mantra. You are right to ask, what is given up when we strike the digital bargain?

"Less organic" -- "crisper" -- "cleaner" -- "clinical" -- all are subjective terms which describe a gut feeling that many people have about digital. But the other forces -- marketing, economics -- do not listen to gut feelings! George Lucas and the whole Progress battalion will march right over the Digital Revolution's malcontents.

At least, so my pessimistic side says. I think Mark has it in a nutshell with the word "acceptably." Digital is "acceptable" for a certain type of work; for a certain quality level and certain styles. But why not demand more than just "acceptable" results! Film aims for sublimity. Some favourite examples: The cinematography of "Solaris" (Tarkovsky); any of Bertolucci's work; David Lynch's dark worlds rely on film's ambience; the astonishing black and white work of Kurosawa; all these have enormous emotional appeal, and only the most ruthless reductionist could argue "digital can do as well." My hands have been in too many developing tanks to accept that. And then we can discuss still photographers: Snowdon; Arbus; even the Apollo astronauts used film expressively (as Michael Light's very hip book "Full Moon," which you can read about here, shows).

OTOH, my father, a Fine Artist all his life (painting, drawing, sculpture, and then digital art for the past 25 years -- see his 3D sculpture gallery here ) -- reminds me that "quality" is also context-dependent: on the web, for instance, digital photography is a perfect fit. Most of what I have written assumes print or advertising or movie or Fine Art photography.

I know I can get emotional about this and come across as a hand-wringing, old-fashioned traditionalist -- which is half true. I don't have much to say on the subjective, qualitative issues; other than, I personally can't live without grain. There is an elusive quality of mood (je ne sais quoi!) that is not easily available through digital means.

You can often see this quality, for example, in innumerable shots taken by Lomo camera users around the web -- it's a lo-fi "anti-technique" (my words) subculture all its own. Here are some examples; and here and here and here.

The irony of course is that we can only experience these images through a digital medium -- the web -- and the ubiquitous, all-conquering JPEG! Perhaps there is a subclique of purist Lomo photographers who insist on authentic physical presence in authentic physical galleries to observe actual prints ... maybe these same kind of arguments occurred between theatre lovers and cinéastes in the early days of motion pictures?

Perhaps there is something to the idea that film requires greater discipline, too. Having wrestled with technique over the years, I am still floored by a flawless shot -- whether a still or in a movie. Despite all this I fear it is inevitable that digital will simply take over; and the qualities of film will become unavailable through simple economics. It's painful to contemplate.


Toby Thain

"Pallid JPEG pixel-porridge" -- hey, I’ve made more than my own share of such gummy images.

You can see some of Toby's own terrific photography -- chemical and digital -- here.

Our thanks to Toby Thain, and may the conversation continue.



posted by Michael at March 28, 2004


My browser crashed as I attempted to post this the first time; I apologize in advance if this ends up being double posted.

Why will the quality of digital imagery asymptotically approach the quality of film? What is the fundamental physical limit that prevents digital from surpassing film? What is this "film limit" that will stop the progress of digital devices, devices that have been improving exponentially for the past sixty years.

The statement about digital "only being defensible when one must cut corners for convience" has it backwards. Convience and cost are the most important to consumers. Just look at Betamax (high quality) vs VHS (longer tapes, for convenience, and lower cost), Windows (convenience) vs UNIX (more stable, better performance, higher cost) circa 1995 etc. Film is only defensible when consumers require the highest quality, which is rare.

Posted by: b313 on March 28, 2004 10:40 AM

A beautifully-informed post. It's one of the sad facts of cultural levelling that ease of use is more salient than quality of results; the same thing happened in music, of course, with the introduction of the CD. Insanely convienient, and markedly less good than vinyl, for most genres. It's a shame we can't abide alternatives and co-existence.

DV does some things very well, when it's used by people who know how to use it; the shifting, blurry, vague dread of 28 Days Later owes a lot to its DV medium, for example, and I don't think the movie would benefit from increased clarity. Sometimes the fun is in the pixel dance.

Posted by: Linus on March 28, 2004 11:13 AM

Well maybe the resolution is that if you look at photography as a way of self-expression, then chemical has some advantages.

But if you look at it as a means of communication, as a way to illustrate an idea or as concept, digital is far and away the superior medium simply because it allows us to do things which we could not do before.

My own little contribution to cuture -- my book, with some 200 photos and 50 sketches in it -- would have been absolutely impossible without first digital layout and then digital photography.

In some sense might the book have been better if it had been done chemically? Maybe. But not really. First of all the book would never have been done because of cost, so the comparison is illusory. And then if you really want 'bang-for-the-buck,' the first thing you'd do is improve the basic skills (composition, understanding of lighting, etc etc) of the photographer (i.e. me) rather than change his tools back to chemical. Knowing where to stand to compose a shot is far more important than whether it is digital or chemical.

There may well be things which chemical photography can do better than digital. But mere communication is NOT one of them.

I have looked through a fair amount of stock photography in putting together City Comforts and I used only two shots (of places in Europe-- too far to travel). The phots were in most cases were far better technically. But the photographers did not know what to shoot. And that's the key thing about photography: knowing what is significant and worthy of recording.

To me, photography should be a basic skill like writing. Both are important but without something to say, they are merely empty technique.

Or am I missing the point of the guest post?

Posted by: David Sucher on March 28, 2004 11:51 AM

Another aspect of the digital transformation is in projection -- our art history department had a consultant in to talk to us about what we're going to have to do. You see, Kodak has announced that it will stop manufacturing slide film and slide projectors in 5 years, and Fuji is supposedly talking about the same thing.

We have about 125,000 slides (lots of duplicates, details, and multiple views of the same building or object, of course), 5 full-time professors and occasional use by the studio artists for lecture days.

We do have the great luck that our entire collection is already catalogued on a database, so one step is finished. The consultant was here to talk to us about the process of scanning (how we'll afford it is the least of our worries at the moment, though he'll be submitting a proposal) and then how we'll project the images for teaching. Projected digital images may approach the quality of slides, but it isn't going to be soon and it isn't going to be cheap -- and we have 3 classrooms in the building to convert.


By the way -- one of my senior colleagues remember professors who yearned for the days of medium format lantern slides. I've seen architectural slides in that format and they are stunningly better than anything we've get now.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler on March 28, 2004 3:57 PM

I keep trying to get worked up about the replacement of chemical photography by digital photography, but it just ain't workin'. (Incidentally, I did a fair amount of darkroom work with B&W photography back in art school, and I think I have a pretty good idea of what can be done there.) The fact is, with a digital camera I can load my photos into my computer, play with them in Photoshop, and use them in a zillion ways (including posting them on this 'blog) that I never could in the old days. And I can do it all in far less time than I could crank out a final 8 X 10 B&W print after painstakingly changing the contrast, exposure, etc. in one trial after another.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 28, 2004 5:16 PM

The one thing that is annoying about the digital revolution is Kodak's retreat from film. They either already have abandoned or have plans to abandon all of their great product lines.

I like digital, but I`m pretty disgusted that slide film is being summarily abandoned. As the big producers like Kodak and Fuji leave the market, it gets harder for "boutique" labs to do the job of developing slides and making prints.

I'm primarily a manual-focus shooter, and prefer to use the great Nikon all-mechanical SLR bodies. (This is extremely useful on long wilderness trips - a splash won't hurt an all-mechanical camera body.) So far Nikon has made every effort to support their manual-focus users in the autofocus era (they even introduced a new manual focus camera with a mechanical shutter in 2001). That Kodak can't do the same is pretty pathetic.

I don't want to get into the film vs. digital debate. I like digital, but it sure doesn't meet my needs right now; and it will never meet all my needs. I'll need film for as long as I take pictures.

What I can't understand is why Kodak is doing this. I'm sure someone will trot out some Schumpeterian arguments about how this is such a great thing, but think of it this way: Kodak is not primarily a camera maker. They don't make printers. They don't make scanners. They don't make computers. Sure, they can enter those fields, but they've never been a leading electronics company. How can they beat all the competition? Why does it make business sense for them to give up the one thing they did well, and leave so many users with ill-will towards the company?

Trust me, there's way more to the neverending digital vs. film discussion than issues of convenience and communication.

Posted by: Haystack on March 28, 2004 7:58 PM

Michael Tinkler,

I was really surprised to hear Fuji is leaving the slide film business. They make the best film for landscape photography, IMHO. If they go, that stinks (I'd sooner see Kodak go than Fuji.)

It sounds like your department is being pushed to make the full switch to digital. I can't predict the future as well as I'd like, but I'm sure that high quality slide projectors will be available
for the next 15 years at least. Check out Leica's projectors. Forget Kodak - of course they'll tell you that you "have" to switch *everything* to digital. That's their entire business plan right there: making everyone's life miserable in order to support their bizarre scorched-earth strategic decisions.

Lest I start sounding like a curmudgeon, let me reiterate that the digital revolution has been great for photography. Hell, I'll be scanning my slides sooner or later, and as soon as Nikon digital SLRs hit the right price, I'm so there.


I think that comment was a little over the line. It seems to me that many film photographers are very taken aback at the breakneck pace at which Kodak is dropping film support, and concerned that Fuji might do the same (although it does seem a little less likely.) I don't think anybody's asked for a subsidy. I'll pay a premium to get what I want - which is access to slide films like Fuji's Velvia 50. But with each passing month it seems more and more apparent that that isn't going to be possible in the future. And the baffling thing is, why?

Posted by: Haystack on March 29, 2004 12:29 AM

This sort of trade-off is, of course, very common in the history of technology. I know people who griped about the quality of computer typesetting in the mid-'90s compared to the traditional systems it replaced, but it's gotten much better since then.

I'm reading an old history of the phonograph (From Tin Foil to Stereo [1959]), and the authors claim that late-period, hill-and-dale Edison cylinders were audibly superior to the lateral discs that replaced them. In fact, Edison held many public "Tone Tests" circa World War I in which theaters full of people could not distinguish between a live singer and a cylinder.

And yet, phonograph technology marched on and eventually exceeded the quality of those cylinders. I'd bet that within 10-15 years, digital imaging will meet and surpass film quality in most applications.

Posted by: PapayaSF on March 29, 2004 1:12 AM

people ... griped about the quality of computer typesetting in the mid-'90s compared to the traditional systems it replaced, but it's gotten much better since then.

Not that much better, and in many ways still playing catch-up, but that's a whole other guest posting...

Posted by: Toby on March 29, 2004 4:57 AM

Haystack -
We're sticking with slides as long as we can for tactical reasons -- NO ONE wants to have a departmental Visual Resources Center in which we have to teach classes with two projection technologies at once! So until the entire collection is available for digital projection AND all 3 classrooms have "at least adequate projectors" (our mantra) we won't be switching. Our propsed timetable (which we haven't submitted to the Provost, she-who-must-be-obeyed, yet) has 4 years at the minimum. I have a feeling that the funding won't be be so generous that we can do it that quickly, even.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler on March 29, 2004 9:14 AM

Mr. Thain and the rest of 2blowhards readership:

Yesterday, in a rather irritated mood brought on by nothing relating to this blog, I snapped out a ridiculously judgmental response to Mr. Thain's thoughtful, informative and sincere piece. I humbly apologize for being such a jerk and, worse still, venting my temper on a guest. (I have since removed this remark from the posted comments.)

Michael and I hope that we maintain an atmosphere of civility at our 'blog, and I am quite ashamed to have violated our own standards.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 29, 2004 9:28 AM

Here's an interesting blog post "on how the switch to digital photography has affected the aethetic at Sports Illustrated."

Posted by: Edw. on March 29, 2004 1:21 PM

we should all feel very fortunate to live in a time where we have a choice. i use both film and digital and i love both environments equally. content and what an artist has to say is more important than what kind of technology he is using. one must wonder, if given a choice, would winogrand really choose film over digital. wasn't the content of his vision more important than the fact that he was using grain instead of pixels. if you have ever seen a winogrand contact sheet you will know exactly what i mean. paul mccartney records on digital. not because of convience but because of the myriad of creative options this world has opened up. The question shouldnt be about which one is better, but which one will help the artist get their message across.

Posted by: dog3 on March 29, 2004 2:10 PM

I'm not convinced that there's that much quality difference between digital and film, but then again I know almost nothing about photography. For instance, if someone shows you a photo in a book, magazine, or internet, are you able to tell of it was originally digital or film?

Posted by: asd on March 29, 2004 2:45 PM

For an opposing point of view, it would be useful to try The counterargument seems to be that while film offers slightly more resolution in 35mm form than current high-end digital cameras, film is generally noisier, so that the actual perceived quality of a digital image may be better even at a slightly lower resolution. In any case, few people ever see a print from either medium that fully showcases the full quality that's possible. That's particularly true with reproductions using three-color processes on the papers used in even high-quality magazines.

I have several friends from my magazine days who are pro photographers, and they've converted so that perhaps 80 percent of their current work is shot on digital. They're happy with the results, as are the art directors (both magazine and advertising) who are their clients. I'm looking forward to soon moving my Canon lenses to an EOS10D body -- I've seen some stunning images made with that.

Finally, the improvement curves of the two technologies are vastly different. There's little question that within the decade, electronic imagining will be better than chemical in every objective way -- though I'm sure there will be artists who will still love and make beautiful works from the quirks of the older technology.

Posted by: rashomon on March 29, 2004 2:56 PM

For an opposing point of view, it would be useful to try The counterargument seems to be that while film offers slightly more resolution in 35mm form than current high-end digital cameras, film is generally noisier, so that the actual perceived quality of a digital image may be better even at a slightly lower resolution. In any case, few people ever see a print from either medium that fully showcases the full quality that's possible. That's particularly true with reproductions using three-color processes on the papers used in even high-quality magazines.

I have several friends from my magazine days who are pro photographers, and they've converted so that perhaps 80 percent of their current work is shot on digital. They're happy with the results, as are the art directors (both magazine and advertising) who are their clients. I'm looking forward to soon moving my Canon lenses to an EOS10D body -- I've seen some stunning images made with that.

Finally, the improvement curves of the two technologies are vastly different. There's little question that within the decade, electronic imagining will be better than chemical in every objective way -- though I'm sure there will be artists who will still love and make beautiful works from the quirks of the older technology.

Posted by: rashomon on March 29, 2004 2:56 PM

What will be really exciting is when digital bodies can emulate medium format or 4" by 5" or even 8" by 10".

Many smart people are unaware that the best landscape images aren't made with Canon or Nikon SLRs. They're made with cameras that use much bigger film than the 35mm format. These big formats allow unbelievable richness and detail and resolution, especially when blown up to huge, gallery sizes.

The classic example is Ansel Adams. He did his work with a huge 8" by 10" camera (the film for those cameras is simply massive, and the resulting images are breathtaking when blown up to gallery size - and far better, at that size, than anything possible on a 35mm or a digital.) If you scanned one of his images, the resulting file could be up to hundreds of megabytes in size.

When digital can emulate that, then the party really begins.

Incidentally, this can explain why some magazines have switched over to digital and others haven't. Digital is the best now for news, sports, most advertising, and fashion. Digital does everything 35mm can do. But for arty landscapes, medium and large format film still provides the highest quality. (National Geographic did their first all-digital spread recently, but they're a notch or two below magazines like Arizona Highways in terms of image size and quality.)

Posted by: Haystack on March 29, 2004 9:26 PM

FWIW, one photog I know tells me that a big diff in terms of audience acceptance is that many of us are fond of film-type grain -- it can seem moody, or poetic, for instance. But almost no one (edgy types excepted) has become fond of computer-chip-style noise, which for the moment anyway most of us experience as unpleasantness.

I wonder if the general public will develop a taste for digital-style noise. Any bets from anyone? I'd like to think the answer is no. But then I remember digital typography and layouts, and how ghastly most of it was at first, but how the edgy people decided it was cool to like everything awful about it (jaggies, lines and rules with no character, pictures dragged off the side of the page, etc) and now we have a kind of general house style whose basic elements are what would have been considered "lousy design" 20 years ago. Maybe (alas) the pop-y surgical quality of much digital imagery (as well as computer noise) will come to be experienced as groovy, new, good and desirable. Maybe people will look at traditional-style beautiful photography (as they now look back on well-designed old magazines and ads) and see nothing but datedness and squareness.

Awful thought, but I guess that's where I'd put my money. Seems to me that when we imagine that the new thing will eventually rise up to the level of the old one, we're usually wrong, because what tends to happen is that a whole new aesthetic based on the nature of the new thing largely wipes out the old aesthetic.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 29, 2004 11:56 PM

Why will the quality of digital imagery asymptotically approach the quality of film? What is the fundamental physical limit that prevents digital from surpassing film?

I'd like to defend my statement, with the qualification that I am not insisting that digital technology will always be inferior, but for the next few years (there is disagreement on just how many years) there will be no point in comparing "state-of-the-art" digital and "state-of-the-art" film formats. Right now, digital can only really compete against 35mm - so anyone who wants to beat it need only reach for a bigger camera.

Secondly, if we compare the technologies of digital/CCD and chemical/drum scanner, we find that they take diametrically opposite engineering approaches to the problem of digitisation, and this has consequences both for the quality of result, and also the difficulty in achieving the same objective quality. Everyone believes there is "exponentially" accelerating rate of progress in these areas, so everyone expects that the reaching of any arbitrary technical milestone is only a matter of time. However, the vastly different engineering challenges inherent in chemical versus digital have something to say about whether it's even worthwhile to aim at the same goals.

The characteristics of a CCD (charge-coupled device, the 30-year-old invention that makes digital photography possible) are that it has a separate physical sensor for every pixel in the captured image; and to achieve resolution, these sensors must be as simple and small as possible - microscopic in fact. The size of each sensor limits image pixel count and puts serious constraints on dynamic range, signal-to-noise ratio, addressability, and sensitivity. Each new generation of digital cameras brings incremental improvements but these are fundamentally difficult issues to work on at the semiconductor level.

The design principle behind the drum scanner, a machine the size of a small car, is exactly the opposite. The mechanical system is engineered to achieve incredible spatial resolution; a transparency or "reflection" original (print) can be addressed with precision of typically 1/20,000 inch. The other half of the device is the optical sensing pipeline: high intensity light source, optics, photomultipliers for each colour component, analogue-to-digital converters, and colour processing hardware. The entire machine and its processing pipeline is at the complete disposal of every single pixel. (Compare this to the necessarily unsophisticated tiny silicon machinery which has to process a digital pixel.) The photomultiplier itself is a remarkable analog component; in this application it achieves a dynamic range of 1:10,000 or so - the practical limit of chemical media. The drum scanner is a specialised instrument, a powerful microscope for digitising film and print images.

Analogously, the way to achieve better spatial resolution from film is to make it bigger. This does mean bulkier, heavier cameras - sometimes impractical outside the studio - for a significant quality payoff.

Of course the drum scanner is not portable. It's useless if you need to wire a press shot from the stadium. I realise digital cameras offer important new freedoms and possibilities. My complaint is about the overselling of digital; that the overheated marketing is designed to obscure the fact that there are indeed two worlds, two very different philosophies, in photographic technology - and that they are not equivalent. It's particularly irritating to see professional photographers taken in by the hype - buying studios on hire purchase and then forced to sell digital images, regardless of whether, after finally plumbing the possibilities, they believe in them. This may turn out to be commercial good sense (digital is cheaper to shoot) but can also mean artistic death.

My last paragraph expresses the fear that marketing will win. There is historical precedent for this, although the losers can be remarkably tenacious: vinyl records, sailboats, petrol driven cars (just kiddin'), horsemanship, valve amplifiers, steam trains, etc. They tend to move from industrial best practice to mere recreational anachronisms for Romantics such as myself.

Posted by: Toby on March 30, 2004 4:27 AM

Resolution, resolution, resolution. Only film allows you to see into the photograph or reveal the inner luminosity that renders objects on a 2D surface as "real".

The great advantage of digital is ease of composition (post-corrective framing and cropping, etc. Good composition on film requires a good eye at the viewfinder in the first place.

But digital images, even extremely hi-rez, have a curious flat lifelessness. They seem to be things in and unto themselves.

The day one of these ridiculously expensive devices equals anything photographed with available light via the fabulous precision lens and super speed range of my vintage Pentax S1 is the day I will switch.

Posted by: Dave F on March 30, 2004 6:09 AM

As a consumer, after switching from cassettes and vinyl to CD and from analog to digital camera, I'm never going back. Analog is not worth the additional effort and cost, and the low end is ghastly compared with the digital low end. (The only exception would be those cute cardboard disposable cameras.) I guess the audiophiles and professional photographers don't like digital; they can have all the crummy Made in Paraguay cassette tapes and Kodak MAX cameras they want.

That's one sample point for you. You're welcome.

Posted by: x on March 30, 2004 4:33 PM

I am terribly biased and will leave it at that.

But given this bias, I should note that tastes are shifted by technology. I became an audiophile because I was mesmerized by live, unamplified sound.

And one of the things that really bugs me about some audiophiles isn't even digital -- it's the microphone. So many people love the sound of the mike. I realize Frank Sinatra couldn't be heard without it, but still...

I go to theater pieces and jazz clubs where audiences expect to hear amplified sound even in tiny clubs. A small production of West Side Story could have been done without any mikes, but instead had to sound like it was being sung in an electric bathtub. Sigh. I like analog because only analog does analog sound (like woodwinds or the human voice properly). But people actually like some mechanical sound.

And now with digital, I don't think people like digital distortion, but they are becoming absolutely intolerant of grain and noise.

I concede that bad photos are worse than many cheap digital shots, but only if you value low noise dramatically.

And not all noise is equal. Digital noise is worse than grain. But that too is taste.

Thank god I can still shoot slides and listen to vinyl for a little while longer.

Posted by: audiophile on April 1, 2004 11:33 AM

Mark Allen has linked me to very relevant and interesting discussion of HD/film tradeoffs and how they're "changing the rules" in filmmaking:

I continue to see the sense of picking the right camera for the job - sometimes it's film, sometimes it's DV, sometimes it's HD. The camera has to do what the scene calls for. ...

I very much want to talk to both camps and see if anyone is closing deals without a film print, and what the shape of that deal was.

... "HD is not film. If you can afford it, just shoot film" was advocated by several panelists.

I pitched in "HD is not film...but that's OK." It is a different medium with different capabilities.

Keep in mind HD can't do a lot of things we take for granted with film. Because the image sensor is so small, the image is recorded onto a tiny area. That means any inconsistencies or dirt or smudges on the lense are magnified on the HD sensor. So better lenses are required to get similar results.

Also, because of the small sensor, HD doesn't have the same depth of field that film does. This creates all kinds of issues, like having to get waaaaaaaaaaaay back with the camera to get separation between your actors in the background to achieve depth of field.

...DV doesn't look as good as film. One can argue the semantics of the viability of a new medium to death, but from both the technical and casual observer's standpoint, DV doesn't do well in an auditorium. There can be field issues (we'll cover it later), the colors are smeary and vague, and the biggest sin is the general lack of detail and sharpness.

...Well shot HD, such as on the high end HDCAM cameras, is gorgeous and detailed, with rich colors and tack sharp detail.

My selective quoting doesn't do the material justice. If you're interested in film versus DV versus HD, read this blog!

The computerisation of typography is also often used as an analogy... I am familiar with that particular process having watched and participated in it since PostScript was unleashed 18 years ago.

Posted by: Toby on April 2, 2004 9:37 AM

"We wouldn't have rap music if music hadn't gone digital."
Just a little teeny, picky point that's sort of off topic, but -- we DID have rap music before there was digital; and what do we make of hip hop artist/DJs who use vinyl to sample? (And yes, I know there are digital DJ samplers now).

Posted by: Jim on April 7, 2004 1:41 PM

The resolution debate aside, the other huge advantages that film has over digital have been all but overlooked here.

Firstly, film, in particular true B&W film, is virtually "future-proof" - i.e, the image will always be able to be retrieved without the continual archive updating that is the case with digital. Though colour film may fade and drift in colour balance over time depending on storage conditions, B&W film, properly processed and stored, should last potentially for centuries. Although traditional chemicals/printing papers may not be around then, there will always be some method of retrieving a visible image.

The same certainly cannot be said for digital, with floppies all but dead, CD heading that way, and DVD the last stepping stone before RAM devices take over (and this is just technology covering the last 20 years or so). With file formats, programs and hardware architechture changing at such a rapid rate, it is a safe guess that most of what is taken digitally today will be irretrievable in 30-40 years unless it is continually updated in the meantime.

Secondly, an image on film is visible - you need absolutely no equipment to see what it is. No computer with a suitable program to open the file, no card reader, no electricity. I think many museums and libraries which changed to digital archiving systems for their images are beginning to realize, with quite some regret and financial penalty, that film has it all over anything digital in providing a "once-off" job.

So if your photography is of the "throw-away" type (advertising, magazines etc), then digital is certainly a contender. But if you are an aspiring Weston, Man Ray, Steichen, Adams or Cartier-Bresson and fancy your works to be available and reproducible centuries hence, then digital doesn't even make it to the starting blocks.

Posted by: Fred N on April 11, 2004 12:26 AM

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