Thursday, January 20, 2011

From Film to Digital: The Transition, Why make it, and What it entails.

On request from a few readers, I decided to write about the transition from film to digital. Since there are really an unlimited number of topics and rabbit holes to follow in digital photography I will try to stick to the basics of what I would like to know if I was making the transition. There are many aspects that one forgets to think about in such a transition. For those who have still not switched, here is a quick summary of some advantages and disadvantages of going to digital.

Advantages Digital:
High ISO capability and ISO change without changing film
Virtually unlimited shots
Immediate Feedback - see the image on the back of the camera or on a tethered computer
Infinite adjustment in software
- easy color adjustments
- Black and White
Easy to sort, store, send, archive, create printed books, post on the internet, etc.
Ability to pull detail out in shadows and highlights by combining multiple bracketed photos

Disadvantages Digital:
(Can be)Way more time consuming
- time required to learn to use software to properly adjust color
Still can't get the detail and color of film
- frustration with color spaces and all adjustments for a good print
More expensive

For those who have switched, myself included, I wanted to give just a look back to why it is worth it.

For several years I stuck with film for most of my work, preferring my Nikon F5 to all of the digital offerings. Then I got my hands on a D70 and I started using that because it was a lot cheaper than getting all of my rolls of film developed. This left me with many pictures on my computer, but none printed. When I did decide to print the photos, the prints were often more expensive and of a much lower quality than what I got with film.

It was not until Nikon came out with the D3 and D700 that I put away my film cameras. Although I am tempted to pull them out from time to time, the hassle of developing, printing, scanning and the delay involved prevents me from dusting off the F5 and putting some new Fuji Reala, Velvia, or NHG-II 800 film in it shooting. After looking over my Japan photos and the amazing color rendition and detail that I get from them, I begin to reminisce about those days.

Lets start with some criteria for comparison.

I would like to start with what can be the main criteria for some - Cost:

One of the first reasons people moved over to digital is that they did not have to pay to get film developed. True, it did cost me roughly $3 for a roll of Fuji Reala 100, roughly $3 for professional developing, and $0.40 per high quality print.  For Digital it cost me nothing, other than the cost of a CompactFlash Card which was roughly $250 a year if average the cost of cards I have gotten over the past 5 years. But then I had to get a card reader, usually about one a year at $40, a computer, and external hard drives to store the photos. The computer I use is a Macbook Pro with 8GB of RAM, which was $3300 when I first got it. The external hard drives and backup drive were $400 a year, each. And still $0.40 per print. So if I add up all of the costs, for just those components over 5 years, I could have shot roughly 140 rolls of film or roughly 5000 shots for the same cost. I haven't even added in the cost of Photoshop or other software or the cost of the high end digital camera that one has to buy to get close to film quality. Luckily this cost has come way down in the past few years. I remember the older Kodak DCS cameras at $25k which are now not as good as the cheapest Nikon digital SLR.

After looking at this cost alone without even considering the time consumed trying to get my pictures look their best I had to ask myself was it worth it. For me the answer is a resounding YES!  Why? If I had to narrow it down to just one aspect of taking a photograph that digital works better for me than film, it is high ISO performance. When I look at my older film photos with their great color rendition and detail I start to question why I use digital at all. Then I realize that the old photo was taken during the best time of day with perfect light on a tripod at f/8 at 100 ISO compared with one of my favorite recent photos which was taken in low light at f/8 and ISO 6400 with very low noise on the D3.  I could not imagine trying to get the shots that I now take on a regular basis with a film camera. Just being able to adjust the ISO allows me to walk the streets in a bright sunny day with a ND filter and shoot in bright sunlight at f/1.4 and then step inside and shoot in candlelight at f/11. (The exact opposite of what I would think of when making this transition when using film.)

How did it change my workflow?

Film: Shoot -> drop off for Developing -> pick up developing -> Pick keepers -> request Prints -> pick up prints (-> Scan and archive/Post online)
(had to pick ISO to match what I was shooting, except for cameras with changable backs)

Digital: Shoot -> Transfer to Computer -> Pick keepers -> ADJUST (color, sharpening, etc.) -> Print/Post Online

Notice that I put Adjust in all capital letters. This gets to one reader's question:
Why is it more time consuming? As human beings, when there are more options there are more decisions to be made and many different paths to take. With film, when you take the shot aside from some small adjustment in the development and printing, most of the work is done. With digital the initial capture is just step one. There are so many ways to process the digital photo even years later. (You can make an exact full resolution copy instantly and change it however you want, nondestructively!)
(Right now I use Adobe Photoshop and tools for Nik and onOne Software, as well as Capture One Pro for tethered shooting and to do my adjustments. I use Lightroom and Capture NX for adjustments as well. For sorting and picking keepers, there is nothing better than Photo Mechanic. It is simply the fastest application out there. )

For those coming from film, some new terms to learn  and notes to follow are:

Colorspace: sRGB, AdobeRGB, ProPhotoRGB. (Stick with sRGB when you share photos online or send to print)
File formats: RAW, JPEG, TIFF (shoot RAW + JPEG, adjust your RAW files and save the final output as JPEG sRGB)

White Balance: This is what the camera sensor and computer sees as white. This should be set properly in the camera if you shoot straight to JPEG, but don't worry if you shoot RAW+JPEG. The RAW file can be easily adjusted on the computer by picking a white region of the photo for the computer to see as white. (18% grey)

Sharpening: This is how much of a specific algoriithm us used to accent details. Adding too much makes the photo look "crunchy" JPEG files out of the camera have sharpening applied, you will need to adjust your sharpening based on your desired output medium in your photo editing application, such as photoshop.

Gamma: This is the calculated base luminance value or for lack of a better work brightness of an image.

All of these terms will start an unending debate online about what is best and each one ends with another tool you should buy.

Steps to take:
To keep it simple. To transition, here is what I would do if I had to do it now.
1) Keep your old lenses (Unless they are old kit lenses.)

2) Find a decent digital camera that works with your lenses. Some models cannot drive the autofocus on the older lenses, etc. Also some manufacturers, such as Sony, can use other manufacturers' lenses. Do your research, but don't "wait for the next model." There will always be something newer and better.
3) Get a Mac and install Adobe Lightroom on it. There are an infinite number or reasons that I would do this. Most have to do with quality control and getting the correct color and brightness in your photos when you send them out to be printed. I would go with a Macbook to keep it simple. (The cost of the camera and the Macbook will set you back a bit, but you will thank me later. Using the Mac with Lightroom you will have a stable platform to work, print, share, post and search the internet on. For me the Mac has always been hassle free. My PC's have been plagued with equipment failures, endless viruses, and other headaches. You can always get a refurbished or used Mac as well.)

4) Utilize the infinite resources on blogs, books, etc. on the internet. For example here on my blog.
BUT - and this is a big one - DON'T BUY ANYTHING! ((else), for at least 6 months) Just because there is some new fangled toy out there that does not mean that you need to buy it. There are many great tools out there and ten times that many hunks of useless garbage. You are new to this so take it easy and stick to what you have for a while. Learn the camera and all of the adjustments in Lightroom backwards and forwards. Take pictures, look online, take some courses, and learn. Don't become gear obsessed, that will come soon enough. You will find that there is a ton of gear out there for digital photography. The more you read, the more you will want to buy. Learn through your own experience and when you find something that you can't do, then look into gear.

Avoid Overexamination "Pixel Peeping":
Unlike the film days now there are many in the digital world who look at pictures with an electron microscope, picking out the smallest imperfections in photos in an obsession to find the best gear. Don't fall for that. A good photo is good because of the subject, the composition, the color, and numerous other factors. While it is good to have a sharp photograph and an out of focus mess might not be what you want, most of the digital cameras out there at this point are capable of producing sharp, in focus pictures.

I hope that you have found this helpful.

Links to check out -
Ken Rockwell's take in film vs digital
my post - The Best Way to Learn Photography

Who still shoots film? Well from what I have seen there are plenty of people in their 50's and 60's who have a pile of old lenses and their old camera from before their children were born who are now retired and ready to go out and shoot again. These people have a lot of experience, but they have been out of the game for a while. I am amazed at what my uncles produced within days of getting their new cameras. Gone are the days of family slide projection shows... of course now they have email...

Why buy a Mac and Lightroom? Yes a computer is expensive and so is software. Well, so is your time. If you really enjoy pictures and you want a gateway to shoot, print and post things on the internet hassle free, I have found the Mac to be the best and easiest way to go. This move will save you time tweaking and editing as well as playing to get things right. This solution just works the first time and every time. You can even make photo books right from iPhoto which comes with the Mac.

Oh - and you can do video with a digital camera...

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