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One Photographer's Return to Film

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

At a time when Eastman Kodak is announcing that it no longer will sell traditional film cameras in the US, Canada and Western Europe, I think it's important to offer the thoughts of my friend and colleague Paul Gero, an ex-newspaper photographer-turned freelance who is making a name for himself on the west coast as a commercial shooter and wedding photographer.

Paul, who bows to no one in his appreciation and use of PhotoShop, who knows his way around virtually every high-end digital rig on the market, and who has been shooting professionally for well over two decades, relayed the following to me in a recent e-mail:

"Just wanted you to know that after seven years, I've decided to buy a Leica again!"

Not only that, Paul said, but "I've also decided to go back to film for my own weddings..."

This doesn't mean that Paul no longer is shooting digital – much of his commercial work, including other weddings he shoots for a national consortium, remains as high-tech and electronic as the next guy's. What this does illustrate is a point I have been making ever since digital photography took hold, prompting in some quarters the sky-is-falling conclusion that film is dead.

The point is this: There is plenty of room at the photographic table for both film and digital technologies – and there always will be.

For the record, Kodak's January 14th announcement about film cameras was not unexpected. A company that was seriously (some might say pathetically) behind the curve during the initial digital boom, Kodak is trying mightily to regroup and focus on high-growth digital products, such as medical imaging systems and production printing, while still hoping to make a buck on analog (i.e.: film) products. It will still, for example, market its tiny line of plastic 35mm point and shoot film cameras to burgeoning markets overseas, especially in China, as well as in India, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

"[We] estimate that there are 60 million Chinese consumers who have the purchasing power to participate in photography, but have not bought their first [film] camera," declared Kodak spokesman Charles Smith.

Likewise Kodak still will make and market its popular single use, "disposable" film cameras, and most important, it still will manufacture photographic film (a huge part of its annual budget) and will continue to sell it all over the world.

But Kodak also will finally kill off its part of the never-successful Advanced Photo System – that features drop-in film cassettes in P&S cameras, designed for people who like to take pictures, but who hate messing about with film. Though Big Yellow will still make and market APS film, it no longer will make its Advantix APS cameras.

Kodak and many other film and camera makers unveiled this jointly-developed technology in 1996 just as digital was coming on line. Led largely by Kodak, this effort turned out to be about as swift a marketing move as coming out with a new line of buggy whips during the initial rollout of the Model T.

None of which has anything to do, really, with photographers who DO like messing about with film, especially in great cameras.

Photographers who are savvy enough and experienced enough to see digital's pitfalls as well as its potential.

"It's wonderful to pick up [the Leica]" Paul enthused in his e-mail, "and the images that are produced are nothing short of spectacular. I can tell the difference from regular 35mm SLR's as well as digital just by looking at the 4x6's from the lab..."

Of his own wedding work, Paul had this telling observation:

"As much as I enjoy digital, I am finding that the time I spend on the computer [perfecting each image in PhotoShop] is mounting, and I find that, while I may be shooting more pictures with digital, I think I am/was shooting better pictures with film, if that makes sense..."

"I have found that my [picture] count has gone through the roof while shooting digital, but I find that the number of images I would say are 'really' awesome has gone down. I don't know if this is just me or if you have noticed it as a trend either..."


In fact, I have not noticed a difference, either in the quality or quantity of my digital take, especially at weddings. But the crucial difference here is that I only shoot digital in these cases so I can make a digital "executive summary" for a quick-turnaround CD for my clients. My serious, and far heavier, shooting always is with film.

By contrast, Paul quotes younger wedding shooters, many of whom "haven't spent...many years shooting film, if any at all, bursting their buttons proclaiming 'I shoot 4,000 images at a wedding.' Of what? I ask, with tears in my eyes."

This kind of profligate shooting – and profligate is the only way to describe it – calls to my mind a gear-happy amateur motor-driving his or her way through roll after roll of Fujichrome, often with scant regard for individual pictures, simply because he or she is able to do so. Remember: There are no motor drives on view cameras, and the thing you hear most often from these photographers is that working in large format forces one to s l o w d o w n and actually think about the content of the photograph about to be made.

Another factor in digital photo overkill may be the fact that most modern storage media (e.g.: CF cards, SD cards, microdrives, etc.) each can hold 500-1,000 images depending on their capacity and the resolution selected – meaning that a photographer can shoot with impunity with hardly any need to worry about "reloading."

Yet another invitation to shoot first and think about the picture later.

But what about Paul's claim about image quality?

He believes film has better latitude – and it very well may have: especially with negative film versus slide film. "While digital has latitude, especially when shooting RAW [files]," Paul noted, "that often is not an [option] when shooting the fast-paced world of weddings. Film has more latitude, pure and simple."

What may be a fairer description is that digital does, indeed, have great light-gathering power, even in Jpg format, but in order to get the best out of such images one has to do a lot of post-production tweaking in PhotoShop, which can take hours of a photographer's time on a job previously left to a film-processing lab.

This brings up what to me is the greatest fallacy about the cost of digital: that it's "free" to shoot on CF cards or microdrives, since one can download images and re-use media almost indefinitely. Factor in one's time going blind at a computer keyboard, setting contrast, color and God knows how many other factors for every single frame, and sending film to a lab suddenly seems a hell of a lot more attractive – at least to me.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Whenever I lecture about our Venice project, I use this shot of a typical Venetian street to demonstrate the simply unsurpassed quality of Leica glass – and the singular quality you get with fine grain bxw film: in this case Kodak's great T400CN. You can approach this quality with a digital camera, but I have yet to see anything made digitally that matches a gorgeous, lush, simply-delightful-to-hold archival silver print.


Photography columnist and author Frank Van Riper will teach a 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this winter. The Thursday evening classes will begin February 19th and go through March 25th. and will be open to all students who would like to improve their photographic story-telling and/or darkroom skills. Class hours are 7pm-10:30pm. Students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, and pursue that project during the course of the workshop. Weekly discussions of each student's progress will be held, both in class and privately, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the class. Students wishing to also accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. For information: 301-320-7757. Or see website: www.glenechopark.org/brochure.pdf



Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

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Portrait of an Artist – In Half an Hour

The Overpaid Wedding Photographer – Huh?

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