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A Eulogy For Film

A Eulogy For Film

I have to admit that I got all nostalgic when Leica announced the M9-Monochrome. I suppose I felt that way, because it used to be that a photographer didn't have to get a camera with a monochrome sensor if he wanted the highest quality black and white images. It made me want to shoot my Agfapan 400.

Back in the days of film, all a photographer had to do was buy black and white film to get black and white images. It was that simple. End of discussion. And he didn't need to buy a second camera body just to shoot black and white film. Why would he (unless he wanted to, I suppose)? Color film and black and white film worked the same in any camera (in case you've forgotten what film was like). And what's more, you didn't need to shoot in color film and then develop in black and white for black and white images. That would not be optimal, not to mention silly. But in our world of digital photography, isn't that exactly what we're doing when photographers shoot with color sensors, only to convert the images to black and white?

Piazza Spagna, Roma. Full negative print. Kodak Gold 100. Shot on a Contax T2.

Piazza Spagna, Roma. Full negative print. Kodak Gold 100. Shot on a Contax T2.

And it's not just the rendering of black and white film that digital cameras fail to optimize. The same can also be said of color film. Yes, color film! You see, with the digital cameras of today, you're pretty much limited to just the one image sensor that comes with your digital camera. That's like being limited to nothing else but Kodak Gold (albeit with all the increments in film speed). But back in the day of film, you weren't limited. You had choices. That's right, choices of different color film with different characteristics, because not all color film were the same. Of the different film type, some where better for landscape, some were better for portraiture, and some were more versatile in all-purpose use. I mean, I used to love my Agfa Portrait 160 the most for candids, because of its lower contrast, lower saturation, and natural color rendition in producing flattering images of my subjects. But then, if I wanted to shoot landscape, I would most likely have choosen Fuji Reala 100. It had great color saturation for foliage, but a little too much for skin tones.

Sigh! The good old days of film. It was a time when your camera was not limited to one specific film. Because of that, you were able to use any kind of film in the market. To have the same level of choices with digital photography, you'd need to have more than one camera body with different types of image sensors for different situations, like having a Nikon D800 Velvia edition made exclusively for landscapes, that natively renders Velvia like RAW files. As absurd as that may sound, it really isn't far-fetched. True, there's no D800 Velvia edition, but there is a D800E that natively render sharper images from the absense of an anti-aliasing filter over it's image sensor. And before you even talk about post-processing, the truth is, no amount of Lightroom will ever reproduce the native sharpness of the D800E's image sensor.

It was then I realized why I became all nostalgic. It was the eureka moment of something that was always in front of my nose. You see, back in the days of film, when a photographer bought a camera for his camera system, what he actually bought, beyond the bells and whistle of full automation, was the camera's range of shutter speed. I mean what else is there? Film cameras were essentially empty boxes that lets light in. And because of that, a photographer was able to use his camera for a very long time without feeling a need to upgrade. I mean why would he need to upgrade when shutter speed technology hadn't really change for decades. It was for that reason that I was able to use my Nikon FA for fifteen years. 

But of course, times have changed, and using the same digital camera for fifteen years would be unheard of in today's world. With the fast pace of technology, you would think it's because of all the new innovations, like GPS or video capture or wireless connections that makes us really want to dump our previous model camera bodies. But like full automation back in the days of film, those are just selling features, and not the reason why people buy digital cameras. What is in fact the reason why people buy digital cameras is actually the image sensor. And because of that, using the same digital camera for as long as my Nikon FA is highly unlikely.

You see, unlike film, image sensors are attached to digital cameras. It's not removable or interchangeable, like film. Film is very convenient. Once you finish a roll of film, you can switch to a completely different type of film. And should film technology ever improve, speaking hypothetically, you wouldn't need to upgrade your camera body to accommodate, with film being interchangeable and removable. All you have to do is load the upgraded film into the same camera to enjoy the new technology. But in the case of digital image sensors, that would not be possible. As a result, whenever the technology improves with image sensors, the only way you could benefit from the improvement is by buying the upgraded version. Unfortunately, that would cost significantly more than buying that hypothetical roll of upgraded film.

And because of the continuous upgrades in image sensors, we're constantly buying - from 6MP to 12MP to 12MP-full-frame-plus-high-ISO to 18-or-more-MP-full-frame-plus-even-better-high-ISO-and-better-color-dynamics to whatever the next new image sensor may be. And all this happening at a planned obsolescence rate of every three years. And as if upgrading isn't enough, now they want to introduce to us different edition image sensors like the M9-M's monochrome or the D800E super sharpness or even Canon with the 5D Mark III, 5DS and 5DS-R. What's next in store for us?

But then again, why shouldn't they do this, now that camera manufacturers took film away from us. Without the need to depend on film anymore, camera manufacturers all of a sudden found a reason to make us buy more cameras, and more often. They saw an opportunity for increased revenue growth, and positioned digital cameras to replace film camera before film manufacturers could come out and perfect an interchangeable image sensor format. Kodak tried with a digital back, but ultimately failed. And Fuji… well they joined the bandwagon and are making digital cameras themselves. And in the end, we've all become slaves to camera manufacturers, waiting for their next iteration of image sensors. 

And boy did I get hooked. In my fifteen years of film, I've never upgraded my Leica M3 and I upgraded my Nikon AF system once. In the ten years of digital, I've upgraded more times than I can count. And it's not just me. It's every photographer I know. We all have more digital bodies than we ever did film bodies. 

Haystacks. Kodak T Max 400. Notice the imperfection on the image - dust and scratches on the negative - another issue with film photography.

Haystacks. Kodak T Max 400. Notice the imperfection on the image - dust and scratches on the negative - another issue with film photography.

You know, it might seem that I'm complaining about digital photography, and reminiscing about the good old day's of film. But in truth, I really don't miss film or processing in the darkroom at all. Good riddance, may film rest in peace. The fact is, I haven't shot film for years, because I'm much too lazy to shoot and process film anymore. As much as I lament on how camera manufacturers have taken film away from us, I love digital technology, especially how editing in Lightroom streamlines my workflow. It's just my eagerness for the next iteration of image sensors that makes me hate myself, because it's so expensive to keep up. I just want it all. And if camera manufacturers start to introduce more digital cameras with different edition image sensor, I don't know what I'm going to do.

But then again, if you do the math, the cost of buying a new digital camera might not be as much as you think. The thing is, the fix cost of buying a new digital camera might seem to be a lot at first, but when you consider the variable cost of film and processing during the lifetime of a film camera, the cost of film might even be more - especially if you shoot a lot. 

Just think of it as the upfront cost in buying the digital equivelent of all the Kodak Gold and C41 processing. That's how I like to comfort myself. But then again, that only applies if you're upgrading one digital camera body every three years. If you also buy the regular upgrade along with buying the different edition image sensors cameras like the M Monochrome and M 246 and/or the D800E, you're going to have to shoot a lot more to make up for you're savings in variable costs.

It's no wonder why the M Monochrome made me nostalgic for film. How I wish for those halcyon days, before digital technology infected us with this constant craving to upgrade every three years. But you know what I have learned in writing this "eulogy." I think I have come to a simple conclusion. Stop obsessing over upgrades. Be happy with your camera, and just take pictures. And if you can't do that, then switch over to film - then you'll never need to upgrade anymore.

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