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Beyond Pixels: Capturing the Soul of Film Photography in the Digital Age

Updated: May 8

A portrait of a woman with dark hair styled in a high bun, holding a vintage Minoltaflex camera on a tripod. She wears a black turtleneck and a silver necklace with a pentagram pendant. The image is shot against a dark background, emphasizing her striking blue eyes and gentle facial features. The overall mood is serene and focused, highlighting her connection with the classic camera.

First and foremost, let me note that few people in the modern world, especially among the younger generation, really understand the term "film photography." However, this does not mean that this type of photography has lost its relevance; rather, we sometimes switch to using cheaper and simpler technologies and processes, but we lose something more quality and organic in the process.

What are we talking about? Few of today's generation are aware of the fact that film photography, like vinyl records, carries significantly more information than their most advanced digital counterparts. Don't believe it? But it's a fact. For example, a medium format digital camera can deliver from 50 to 150 megapixels (it's worth noting that larger pixels increase the number, not the quality of the picture) while medium format film cameras (typically 60x70 mm) produce 418 pixels and more. Potential developments in scanners will only increase the gap in favour of film. Besides, film involves an atomic-molecular level organisation of the chemical process, whereas digital photography is still based on the principles of digital and optical engineering, and it's too early to talk about reaching the level of molecular and atom control in the context of photography.

Now let's move on to another, and perhaps the main aspect of the quality of the final product, i.e., the photograph: Dynamics and colour depth: Film photography is often praised for its dynamic range and depth, particularly in how it handles light and shadow. Film can capture subtle nuances in both bright areas and shadows, which digital sensors may clip or lose details in. This characteristic is particularly valued in challenging lighting conditions, where film generally provides a more natural gradation of tones (Galdino, Vogel, & Kolk, 2001). Colour richness and authenticity: Many photographers and viewers perceive film images as having a richer colour quality, often described as "warmth." This perception is partly due to the colour rendition of film, which can be more pleasing to human skin tones and landscapes. The organic nature of film's colour response to light, including its nonlinear response to various light intensities, often yields more emotionally resonant images (Davies & Fennessy, 2001). Handling of overexposure: Film has a unique response to overexposure. Unlike digital sensors, where overexposure leads to a complete loss of detail in bright areas, film exhibits a shoulder in its response curve, allowing it to retain subtle details even in bright highlights. This attribute often makes film more forgiving in varied lighting conditions (Trumpy & Flueckiger, 2015).

The question arises, why then do we all use digital devices and technologies in photography. The answer would seem obvious - consistency and predictability in colour management. Digital photography provides a level of control and predictability in colour management that can be essential in commercial and scientific applications. Modern digital systems allow for precise adjustments in post-processing, significantly easier colour calibration, and consistent results across different devices, which is more challenging to achieve with film due to its dependence on variable chemical processes (Tuijn & Mahy, 2000).

However, is this really an advantage for the photographer? For a beginner and inexperienced, yes, this is indeed an advantage and an opportunity to train in choosing, depth of field, setting up a frame, exposure, managing lighting, camera settings, adjusting subjects, models etc. Because mistakes will be visible immediately. However, as the photographer's skill and the quality of his photos increase, digital photography loses its meaning because now the attention is drawn to the harmony of colours, their depth and richness, if you want – the organic quality of the shot, which cannot be artificially reproduced, just as life itself cannot be artificially recreated.

Additionally, the time spent preparing for a shot with a film camera forces the photographer to continuously train their attention, more carefully choose the composition and lighting settings. Ultimately, by refining their experience and skills to the maximum possible level, a photographer is able to achieve higher results precisely in film photography due to the organic quality of colours, their depths, the quality of shadow transitions and shades, and a wide dynamic range.

In summary, although digital photography can offer post-processing of light and colour and is distinguished by consistency, predictability, and ease of integration into digital workflows, film photography remains unmatched in certain artistic and aesthetic contexts, although it requires significant effort and skills from the photographer. Ultimately, the choice is yours – easy and simple, or complex but high quality. The choice between film and digital often depends on the specific requirements of the project and the subjective preferences of the photographer and their audience.

In the end, some people like urban styles of glass and concrete, while others appreciate the boundless grandeur and perfection of nature, which makes us different and, I hope, interesting to each other.


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