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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Digital Downsides

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

At Camp David last year, at the Clinton-Barak-Arafat summit, news photographers shoot frantically as the world leaders meet. As the three men walk along a pathway there is a great shot in the making. One photographer nails it; another muffles a curse as he misses it. His digital camera has "hit the wall" – reached the limit of its multiple-shot buffer and shut down to automatically process its images. (The shooter who successfully made the shot realizes how lucky he was; the exposure he made was the last one available before he too would have "hit the wall.")

For all the fun I am having with my new Canon digital camera, stories like these convince me that I never will abandon conventional film photography – at least not any time soon.

I add that caveat because a troglodyte like me can appreciate the amazing technological leap that digital photography embodies, even as I revel in the velvet shutter release of my Leica M6 or marvel at the beauty of a print emerging from the developer.

The ease and speed with which images can be made and, more important, transmitted great and small distances simply is unmatched by any other visual medium.

That in itself is a miracle.

But I say with fair confidence that traditional, film-based photography never will be replaced by digital simply because nothing I have seen from digital so far – or, frankly, am likely to see – so changes the playing field as to make film-based shooting obsolete.

And that really is the crux of the matter. It is, as I have said before, the old horse and buggy vs. automobile analogy. Old Nellie was replaced by the Model T simply because the car was superior to the horse in virtually every category save companionship. (And even there I'm not so sure, given the sentimental attachment that some folks have to the buckets of bolts that get them to and fro.)

At best, I see digital becoming a vitally important adjunct to film, especially in newsgathering and reporting. Fine art photographers of a certain type and temperament also will be drawn to it because of digital photography's ability to change, alter, or otherwise transmogrify their images. (By the same token, don't expect any reputable photojournalists to go digital because they want to doctor their images. Or think that a fine art photographer loves digital imaging simply because it is fast.)

For all of the indisputable upsides to digital photography, there are a fair number of obvious and not so obvious downsides as well. Anyone looking to make the digital plunge, from the rank amateur to seasoned pro, must consider the good with the not-so-good.

First, to me, there is an aesthetic difference that I admit may not be all that significant given the computer's ability to change things after the fact.

During our month-long trip to Venice this winter to make black-and-white pictures for our next book, my wife Judy and I worked with no fewer than five different black-and-white films, each chosen for its specific characteristics. We used Kodak T400CN, as well as Ilford Delta 3200, in both 35mm and medium format, as well as 35mm Polaroid PolaPan instant black-and-white slide film.

A non-photographer might think that black-and-white film is black-and-white film is black-and-white film, but you know as well as I the differences one gets from changes in film and format. And that is precisely what Judy and I sought, as we worked within our self-imposed monochromatic palette, tailoring film choice to circumstance. We loved the punchy, contrasty grain we got in our 35mm late-night available light images. At the other extreme, the comparatively long tonal range and phenomenally tight grain pattern of the T400CN, especially in medium format, created beautiful, even elegant, pictures that were the polar opposite in tone to those made with 35mm Delta 3200.

Had we worked solely digitally, shooting the equivalent of the 150 rolls of film that we actually used, our initial images all would have had the same "texture" or visual "feel." A kind of plastic sameness one often finds on videotape, especially when compared to movie film.

Still, as my friend and colleague photographer Peter Garfield points out: In conventional photography, "you bring to the table what you are looking for in the film base. In digital, the same thing can be said – but it happens in PhotoShop."

That is to say one easily can alter the tone and texture of an image after the fact, adding grain, tone, even out-of-focus blurring, to create whatever kind of image one likes, up to a point. In this I am reminded of Philadelphia shooter Michael Fuhrman's experience some years back with a client who saw one of Fuhrman's brilliant color images, of several open cans of paint, and asked to use the image, but only after Michael digitally changed the color of paint in the cans.

There is just so much the computer can do, Fuhrman told the client, convincing him that the altered image would look dull and artificial. Furhman wound up reshooting – on film.

Leaving aside the whole question of whether it is ethical to remove or add elements to a photograph once it has been made (of concern to journalists and documentarians, but certainly not to artists or advertisers) there also is digital's other, more prosaic, dirty little secret: shutter lag.

Shutter lag – a maddening computer processing lag between pressing the shutter and actually making a picture – is prevalent on even today's highest-end, multi-thousand-dollar, digital cameras, notes veteran New York Daily News photographer Harry Hamburg.

Hamburg, who shoots with state-of-the-art Canons and who can't remember the last time he shot spot news with film, says that digital is "a whole new way of shooting." On the high-end cameras, the fraction of a second shutter lag problem can be minimized, he says, by "tickling the shutter release" to, in effect, fool the camera into thinking a picture is about to be made. However, on less expensive cameras like my $900 Canon G1, there simply is no way for it to work as fast as a conventional camera, or high-end digital. For example, when I recently photographed first lady Laura Bush delivering a luncheon speech to a Hoover Institution meeting, I had to dump one of every three pictures I made of her because my camera simply was too slow to catch the expression I wanted.

Finally, there is the question of archiving and retrieval. I've been down this road before, complaining that any technology that advances so spectacularly so frequently will leave many of its clients in the dust if they do not follow the technology curve – at their own expense and at their peril if they don't.

Take Peter Garfield. Several years ago, he transferred hundreds upon hundreds of his film images onto DAT high-resolution tape – state of the art back then. But then DAT faced deterioration problems and was succeeded by CD-ROM. So Peter had to spend valuable hours seeing that all his stuff was transferred to CD.

The other day he noted ruefully that it's probably just a matter of time before he has to go through the whole process again for the next new thing: DVD.

Swimming inevitably against the tide of new technology to keep his images alive and viewable.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

My Great Digital Leap Forward

Death (and Love) in Venice

Venetian Formula: Go Slow, Stay Sane

Preparing for Venice

Great Photography Books: A Dinner Table Debate

Cuba: Taking Strong Exception




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