In Part 1, we introduced you to the cult camera that is the Yashica T4, made famous by Terry Richardson. And as discussed before, Film is Dead. In terms of the economics, the way we consume photography has changed to the point where 35mm film is relegated to a niche for hobbyists, purists, and hipsters. Film will never see the mainstream light of day again. But, when the automobile took over for the horses, we still loved our steeds. Today, we still love film. Instagram, Facebook, and the native iPhone Camera app all have “filters” to emulate the film look. Is it just nostalgia? Or is there something missing from digital?
Digital Sterility vs. Film Texture
Do you remember the Super 8? The film movie cameras, not the motel chain. It was slightly before my time, but I certainly recognize it when I see it. If you take a look at the Lexus commercial below, it captures the feeling of “film” very well.
Film has a texture to it, or as Patrick Bateman might say, “the tasteful thickness of it“. It is a feeling that digital doesn’t have. Digital is clean, precise, and sterile. The way our Bayesian sensors interpolate color and light is just fundamentally different from photo reactive emulsions on acetate. Neither one is “better” than the other. You can make the same argument against film, that it cannot reproduce the “grainless” look of digital. The two mediums are just “different.”
Click on or download the images and take a closer look at the photographs.The difference is subtle yet noticeable. It is hard to quantify, so instead, I’m going to describe how they feel. Disregarding the white balance and hue, the film image on the left (unedited straight from the developers) shows very fine grain yet captures differences in tone very well. It has an ever so slight film “haze,” but that’s what gives it its organic look that digital doesn’t have. The digital image on the right feels more immediate, crisp, and modern.
The type of film matters a lot too. The Provia 100F is a professional quality slide film. The Superia X-Tra is a regular consumer-grade negative film. I think the difference is more marked here. The grain is a little bit more coarse than the pro-grade Provia. Also, the dynamic range is noticeably poorer (note the lack of shadow detail on the black sweater) since consumer negative films tend to be more punchy and contrasty. Importantly, the color reproduction feels a lot more 1990s. A blast from the past.
Thoughts on Retro Filters
It’s entirely possible to emulate a film look by adding grain in Lightroom, selecting some presets, or using filters from various apps. The final product comes very close and is sometimes indistinguishable from photos actually shot on film. The look of film dates a photo. But what is wrong with looking like right now?
My father had an Original Adidas track jacket from his younger days. It was most likely from the 70’s and it is certainly very vintage and stylish right now. But I wonder what my children will see when they see a closet full of vintage-inspired clothing if I had chosen them. It would reflect the 2000s’ take on the 1970’s. But looking back from the future, all they would see is that we would harken to our past. What is wrong with the present?
And that makes me wonder. When I look at a childhood photograph taken in the 80s, I see its signature colors taken on film. If somebody from the future looks at a photograph with heavy vintage filters, they won’t see 2014. They will see 2014’s take on an earlier time. And where does that leave us?
The clean digital look defines our time right now. In the future, with newer photography technology, looking back at these digital stills will undoubtedly invoke a sense of nostalgia, even though we can’t see it right now because we are still within it.
That’s my biggest concern with retro-fying modern images. With all of our post-processing capabilities, it is easy to lose sight of the now. The vintage look certainly has its place in the art. But I am comfortable with leaving my digital stills, digital.