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Defense of Film in The Digital Fortress

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

As you might guess, this year's photo trade show at the Javits Center in Manhattan–the photographic equivalent of being set loose in a candy store when you're five–offered some remarkable news on the digital front.

Leica, Kodak, Fuji, Nikon and many others all offered products or innovations that will make digital photography easier for the pro and amateur, as well as more accessible to the beginner. If some digital products seemed over-the-top for cheesiness (like electronic backgrounds that can be stitched into otherwise mundane wedding portraits–"Yeah, we got married on the moon; you gotta problem with that?") others, like Leica's long-awaited digital back for its conventional film SLR, likely will be taken very seriously, as well as blow the doors off the competition.

Surprisingly, in this bastion of digital image-making, I also found emphatically strong support for film-based photography, despite recent disheartening news from some film manufacturers. In fact, one source from Fuji even ventured the view, surprising even to him, that there has been an uptick in film consumption over the past year, reports of film's impending demise to the contrary notwithstanding.

Even Kodak, beset by management problems for years and cutting its film output drastically (and, some would say, arbitrarily) had its longest lines at Javits where it was handing out sample rolls of its new C-41 process BxW film.

Not to be outdone, Nikon, which has helped shape the market for high-end digital cameras like the D1x, unveiled its sexy successor to the venerable F5–named (you guessed it) the F6. "It will make you want to shoot film again" declared one photo catalog recently. I'll let you know in coming months when I get the F6 for review, but a cursory look at the camera at the trade show was impressive. As always with Nikon's higher-end cameras (including the great F-100, of which we have two) the F6 appears to be built like an ergonomically friendly tank. Its most distinguishing feature is a large LCD at the back–so obvious a digital camera thing that months ago there was some buzz that Nikon–like Leica before it–also was coming out with a digital-film hybrid. But no, what Nikon has done is reverse the equation and design a film camera for (mostly younger) photographers who cut their teeth on digital, not vice-versa. The hoped-for effect will be to make the film camera more appealing to the photographer who views film–not CF or SD cards–as unusual. For the record: years ago when it debuted I called the F5 the greatest 35mm SLR ever made, but gagged at its price of more than two thousand dollars. The F6 is no different, listing at around $2300. Thank God the F-100 is still a wonderful camera–at less than half that.

[The big money it takes to outfit oneself these days (Canon's top-of-the-line digital camera, the EOS-1Ds lists for an appalling, and I think ridiculous, eight grand) is one argument, I believe, for sticking with film and with existing equipment and either scanning negs or chromes oneself, or having the work done by a lab or service bureau, if you or your clients absolutely, positively need or (more correctly) think you need to have electronic images.] More on this below. But first, an overview from the trade show floor:

Most notable on anyone's list had to be Leica's Digital Modul-R. In theory, putting a digital back on a film camera seems logical–after all, one has been able to put a digital housing on even a clunky old Hasselblad body for years now. But it should be remembered: The Hasselblad is a supremely modular system, which always featured removable film backs. Substituting a film back for a digital one on a Hassy, though tricky, was not as daunting a process as shoe-horning digital guts into the place where normally a cassette of 35mm film and attendant take-up space would be.

But Leica has done it, producing an overall package and footprint on its newer SLRs that's not all that different from the same camera in its film incarnation. And this is not just a parlor trick to produce a digital pic and be done with it. The Modul-R retrofit offers superb10 megapixel resolution, all conventional digital formats (RAW, TIFF and JPEG), as well as a firewire computer interface. [I should note here that I am basing my evaluation of the Leica digital photos on impressive examples published in Leica Fotografie International Magazine. I will be running my own tests on the camera early next year.]

The Digital-Modul-R will be available in January and list for $4995, though street price inevitably will be several hundred dollars less. And lest I be accused of being hypocritical, yes, this is a hell of a lot of money, but the fact that one will be able to get double (i.e.: film and digital) duty out of a still-superb film-eating SLR like the R8 or the R9 should count as a big mitigating factor.

Less easy to justify but a lot of fun to contemplate is Leica's new "Leica a la carte" program that now will enable buyers to custom configure a new rangefinder M7 or MP in any number of practical (and not so practical) ways.

Does anyone really need a camera clad in red leather, or in faux ostrich? Perhaps not, but it is distinctive. More useful choices offered to the new-camera buyer cover things like viewfinder magnification and framing, rewind knob tilt (or lack thereof), film advance lever design–even how much or how little "Leica" ornamentation is on the body itself. "There are more than 4,000 possible combinations of designs and features for configuring an unmistakable Leica M7 or Leica MP," the company says. Cost for such customizing ain't cheap: between $3500 and $4700 per body, estimates one Leica rep.

Wandering though the Javits Center for one of these trade shows can cause instant visual overload and, to be honest, I tend to limit my time at them to 4-5 hours max. Above all, what this show is is loud. And in the hoopla that attends any of these photo events the loudest and most egregious bellowing comes from wedding photographers, each hired by various equipment or camera makers to demonstrate the latest in wedding portraiture and lighting. It doesn't help that every one of these folks is wearing a wireless mike that amplifies his or her voice to add to a general cacophony of hype and attitude.

("If it hurts, that means it looks real good," one such master allowed as he cajoled his wedding-bedecked models into a contorted pose–on the floor.

"[Look] happy, Sam," the master barked, "more teeth, Sam, chin down Sam..." It was supposed to be romantic but with bride and groom entwined on the floor it looked as if this guy were photographing the aftermath of a post-wedding car wreck.)

But at another booth, the hype was much less frantic–and much more impressive–as photographer and Fuji tech rep Michael Bulbenko ran the new Fuji Finepix S3 through its paces as a digital portrait camera.

Again, I am sending this out is a preliminary dispatch–I'll be getting this camera for future review as well. The S3 is the successor to Fuji's brilliant, "moderately" priced pro-level digital SLR, the Finepix S2–which I have been using in our commercial and wedding work virtually from the day I got one to review. At roughly the same list price (around two thousand-plus) as the S2 initially, the S3 features several nice refinements, as well as one huge step forward. The S3 now runs on only 4 Double-A's, not, as with the S2, four AA's and two pricey lithium batteries to power its pop-up flash. Of course, Bulbenko notes, this arrangement can eat up battery power if the flash is used a lot, and recommends powering the S3 with stingy, rechargeable nickel metal hydride cells.

The big change, though, is in the S3's sensor, and extended "dynamic range." Infinitely greater than that on the already-impressive S2, the range on the S3 goes a long way, Bulbenko says, to approximating the way film behaves when exposed to light. Although he concedes that nothing right now can match the forgiveness of negative film in terms of over- and under-exposure, the S3 goes a long way toward eliminating one of digital's biggest pitfalls: blowing out detail in light-colored highlights–highlights which, once lost, can never be retrieved, even by the best PhotoShop guru.

Which nicely brings us back to the question: why abandon film in the first place?

Why indeed?

Slowly, but with increasing frequency, I am shooting film for my commercial clients, then, instead of giving them contact sheets, or slides to go blind over, giving them CD's of my scanned film images for them to edit at their leisure on a computer screen. In nearly all cases, I hold onto the film should anything ever happen to the CDs. Granted, there are control issues here. Giving a CD to any client also effectively surrenders control of those images, no matter how hard you try to police it. But I factor that into my pricing and get a fair return.

Much more important is the quality of image one still gets with film. Fuji rep Steve Herstatt notes that Fuji's commitment to film is firm and longterm. Fuji, Herstatt noted on the trade show floor, "is very committed to silver halide film" and also committed to "fulfilling the needs of all kinds of photographers."

And significantly, Herstatt says , even with all the advances digital has made, and is making, "film remains the greatest place to start in the image-making process" because of the medium's incredible ability to record detail at both ends of the light-dark spectrum.

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
Wedding portrait or accident scene? Leave it to a photo trade show to bring out the cheesiest in wedding photography. God must love wedding shooters because he made so many of 'em – all looking for a new angle to dazzle the clients. This photographer is not really taking the bridal couple's pulse after a nasty fall; he actually is posing them for what he insisted would be a gorgeous portrait.

© Frank Van Riper
Leica rep Ralph Hagenauer proudly shows off Leica's long-awaited Digital-Modul-R back that will turn any of Leica's R8 or R9 film SLR's into a fully functional digital camera. Though similar technology has been available for larger medium format cameras for several years, the Module R is the only interchangeable digital back now on the market for 35mm – and Leica is promising a digital version of it legendary rangefinder M-series cameras within the next two years.

© Frank Van Riper
Tired of cookie-cutter cameras that look like TV remotes? Take the plunge and order yourself a custom-designed Leica rangefinder model. With "Leica a la carte," consumers can choose from among 4,000 possible combinations of leather, engraving and other features to create their own one-of-a-kind camera – for a price, of course.


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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Weighing Digital's Speed Against Daunting Delays

New Tenants in the House of God

Panorama Pix, Sure – But With a Holga?

Fuji's New S20: Pro Camera Wannabe

Artful Politics: Beauty From Electoral Chaos

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Making Tricky Birthday Pix

Of Diamonds and Dugouts And Polaroid Fantasy

What I Learned in School...

Stand in Ansel's Shoes and Make the Same Pic? (Sure)

What Price Purity? What Level of Skill?

The New FZ-10: If it Ain't Broke...

Muriel Hasbun and the 'Layering of Memories'

Burnett's 4x5: Covering Politics the Hard Way

Leica's Digilux 2: The 'Analog' Digital

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The Available Light Wedding

Tiny Digitals: When Smaller is Better