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Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author

 

“Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selects”  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  

 

Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 

 

Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."

 

I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!

 


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Film
Old 12-31-2017   #1
Bill Pierce
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Film

There was an interesting discussion on the Camera Store TV website, a discussion by two photographers who shoot analog/film, one a professional who has just published a book of his work, the other, younger and just starting. What was interesting was that their reasons for shooting film weren’t technical; they shot film because it was more fun. I think that’s the reason for many folks to shoot film. But I’ve always wondered about the more specific reasons.

For me, taking pictures on film was fun. You couldn’t take as many pictures as quickly as you can with digital (and film cost money); so you were probably a little more studied and selective in your work. Developing and printing was fun. It was certainly a lot more fun than taking the film to the drugstore to be developed (and a lot less expensive). And with the simple phrase, “Sorry, I’m dark.” you gained some privacy not only to work but just to spend time alone relaxing and sometimes even thinking. And, most important, somewhere along that path you found out there are a lot of ways a photograph can be printed and the photographer is the one who should decide how it should be printed.

All of this is possible with digital images. You can be more studied and selective before you press the button. While darkroom printing is a much slower process with far fewer distractions than ink jet printing in the office, you can slow down and slowly fine tune a print over several copies. And yet, MOST OF US DON'T. WHY???

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, especially if you are one of the film shooters. The Camera Store TV episode is

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8av9NqQbjU&t=27s
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Old 12-31-2017   #2
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Simple, for me. Time and money. When I was single, I had money and time to burn. But not with a family. And I have to say that I don't miss the technical headaches of darkroom work. I liked the solitary time, but I was rarely able to get a print that looked the way I wanted it to (I used mostly color film). Working with a digital color image is much easier for me and I'm always able to get an image I like from a digital file.
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Old 12-31-2017   #3
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Old 12-31-2017   #4
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Then I print analog, I could put on Elvis and keep on dancing. With digital I sit on my butt and have blood bareilly circulating in my DVT affected culf.

But both are fun if I'm into photography, not DR, resolution and else gearheads on forums crap.

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Old 12-31-2017   #5
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Darkroom printing is expensive. Not many people can afford to throw away 10s of prints to achieve the right one. Maybe occasionally, if printing for exhibition. But certainly not on a regular basis.

Darkroom printing also takes up lots of time. Setup, cleaning the negs, getting exposure correct. printing, drying, etc.

It is more fun but I can't afford to do this too much now. But I will have the time when I retire.
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Old 12-31-2017   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by waileong View Post
Darkroom printing is expensive. Not many people can afford to throw away 10s of prints to achieve the right one. Maybe occasionally, if printing for exhibition. But certainly not on a regular basis.

Darkroom printing also takes up lots of time. Setup, cleaning the negs, getting exposure correct. printing, drying, etc.

It is more fun but I can't afford to do this too much now. But I will have the time when I retire.
If youre throwing away 10's of prints to get one you need to start cutting your paper down to 4x5 and learning to print better before you tackle larger prints. Printing skills aren't something you're born with and they take years to refine.

My reason for wet printing, I've been printing 60 years and have it down pretty well. I love the depth of tones in silver gelatin prints although I can get extremely close now with digital prints. There's a satisfaction in producing a beautiful print and knowing relatively few people can do this now. I love the slower pace of working in the darkroom (now that I'm not trying to meet deadlines) and love the look of the safelight, smell of the chemicals and the sound of water running. I still after 60 years live watching the image thecome up in the developer.

I and a few of my clients feel there's more value in a hand crafted silver print. Most of all though, I love the tonality and look.
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Old 12-31-2017   #7
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+1 on the fun aspect. Much happier since I went back to film. Not just the medium, but the cameras are more fun too - I like all-mechanical cameras and lenses. The older the better. I like the compromises (fixed ISO, imperfections), the inconsistencies, and the look.

I still shoot digital from time to time, when I need flexible or high ISO or instant results, and occasional family pictures for friends when they want digital. It's always a relief to pick up a film camera again.
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Old 12-31-2017   #8
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Like I said in another post, I shoot film because they keep making it. I understand it better than having to mess with multiple settings on my DSLR every other shot. You loaded the film you thought would work for the scene, and lived with that decision unless you were lucky enough to own two camera bodies so you could switch to something else when conditions changed. But then it is rather cool to be able to instantly change ISO in the middle of a shoot.

Before, when there was only film, you were considered a pro if you could handle an SLR with some degree of confidence, even if you weren't making money at it. Now days, everybody and their sister, brother, aunt, and uncle have the ability to get good photos from what would be considered a consumer camera because it can do so much for them without having to think about all the parameters one had to consider back in the film era. And fixing errors in post is a breeze, what with all the choices in software available.

Tactile feel is a big thing when it comes to handling a film camera. The sense of the fine gearing as you wind the film to the next frame. Knowing just where to place your fingers so that you grab the right control ring on the lens. All the little add-ons one could get to make the camera more functional. Things like that are more personal than the way most digital cameras operate today.

I'll keep shooting film because it took me a long time to accumulate the cameras I have wanted, and I don't intend to let them just sit around on the shelf.

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Old 12-31-2017   #9
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The unpredictability is part of the fun. If something fails, you learn from it, and the next time things get better. Also, there is a time lag between taking the picture and seeing the result. I can visualize what I was hoping to get. When I see the actual result weeks later, it confirms whether or not I am previsualizing correctly.

For example, in the fall I saw a big full moon outside, around midnight. I hoped to get a picture of the moon, but with a large pine tree filling the left half of the frame. I put the camera on a tripod, with a 90mm lens. I used a big (I think it was a #11B) flash bulb to light up the tree, aiming towards the top of it. What I failed to take into account was a bit of atmospheric haze. The picture, when it came back showed a brilliantly lit up tree that was correctly exposed. However, the relatively long exposure of the moon made the haze turn into a big "cloud" that effectively obscured the moon.

If I try this again, I'm going to pick a crystal clear night.

The times I've used a digital camera, I shoot, delete, shoot delete, and repeat until I have something that looks good. I don't learn anything significant with that process. I should be able to absorb it in, but I don't. There is no time for reflection - that makes the difference.
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Old 12-31-2017   #10
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for me it has always been rooted in my own scattered brain. i primarily shoot film these days and i prefer it because i am terrible at managing digital archives. i cut the negs, put them in sleeves and in a labelled binder. shazam! done. this is quite possibly the laziest I have ever admitted to being.
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Old 12-31-2017   #11
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+5 on "more fun". Yes, I print digitally... I don't have a darkroom... "Death to me!" some say. But it's the process I know. Starting with a film negative... just makes the process tangible, gives me a permanent record and pushes me to print. With digital... hey, I get a great shot, but nothing happens with it more often than not. So the fun is diminished. My fault of course. But when I start with film, it forces a thinking process for me. And can I say, all they say about MF negatives... wow. It's true. It's a "drug". I have a "developing" habit.
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Old 12-31-2017   #12
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I used to do the entire developing and printing in a darkroom routine. But with a full time job, and family commitments, I don't find the time to do this any more. I'm happy when the envelope from North Coast Photo or Dwayne's arrives in the mail. If I really, really love a shot, I put the slide or negative in the Nikon Coolscan and give it the full hybrid analog / digital treatment.
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Old 12-31-2017   #13
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I just love the smell when you uncork, I mean open, a new film container. Heaven..
Tear up the cardboard and paper anti-theft housing to eventually get to the new SD card and what is that smell? Ah yes, SaDness...
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Old 12-31-2017   #14
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I shoot film for the tactile feel and experience of using gear that is older than myself. Not that I'm young either! Getting good results from a non-metered mechanical camera from the 1950s cultivates useful skills that can be applied to ALL of my photography: film, digital, whatever. And I think the same could be said for most of the new, younger up-and-coming film shooters: using vintage gear is a big part of the film experience. Young film shooters aren't interested in new tech - they want retro.
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Old 12-31-2017   #15
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Love the retro cameras! Even the newer retro cameras such as the Leica M7, and Fuji 667 folder.

Every dial, lever, knob, ring, and button has a well defined function.
No "multifunction" control with multiple modes and submenus.

Use is intuitive, and after a short while: effortless.
(The only exception is loading a Kodak Medalist. I've never found that to be intuitive. You need to refer to the manual as you do it).
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Old 12-31-2017   #16
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The results I get out of film are better (to me). I shoot medium format, and i couldnt afford to do that in digital. My workflow requires not much after I scan, maybe some dust removal.

The bottom line is that I just prefer it, every aspect of it.
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Old 01-01-2018   #17
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Apart from preferring the results, I like using a simple mechanical camera not a computer. I spend all day at work with a computer, I don't want to use one when I take pictures.
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Old 01-01-2018   #18
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Like quite a few others above, it is not about the medium but about the cameras. With film cameras you're using a camera. Not another computer with a 300 page manual that you cannot grab without changing some function you probably never heard of and just as likely never need.
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Old 01-01-2018   #19
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https://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/a19180

Transpose vinyl for film and you have the answer.
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Old 01-01-2018   #20
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It is interesting. Most of the reasons cited so far are about process. I shoot film because I like the hands-on craft aspect of it. It also has a certain aesthetic appeal. But I have been shooting more digital this year than before, simply because I have more control over the final image. A significant portion of my work is in platinum/palladium.
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Old 01-01-2018   #21
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I’ve been spending 4 days a week in the darkroom again for about two months now. Being up on my feet and moving around is the main difference. I have a desk I can stand at for the computer, but I am glued to a screen and tethered to the mouse even if standing when working digitally. Like x-ray I have printed a lot, so there isn’t much waste. I started out in the early 80s printing eight to ten hours a day. One job, in a medium sized lab, really taught me how to get a print right with a minimum of paper. We were each handed a stack of negatives and a box of paper every morning. The unused paper was counted at the end of the day, if we went over our allowance we were docked. Talk about an incentive for getting it right the first time. I still work in this mode when doing my initial proofs. A test strip to start the morning, then compare the next negative to the one just completed to make an adjustment to time and contrast. When switching rolls to a very different film or I come to a very different kind of light I will make a new test strip. Of course I will take a lot more time with final prints, but I’ve been catching up on five years worth of backlog, and printing like this for these two months. Practice hasn’t made perfect, but I rarely use a second sheet of paper on a proof print. And it is great fun.

The lack of distractions is a big piece of it, but also the pace, the simplicity and familiarity of it all. I’ve surely handled way more sheets of photo paper than cups of coffee or probably anything else.

As to shooting, I do shoot a lot, even with film. Comes from learning on slides, where even a third of a stop was sometimes enough to make the difference. With an RF now it is to cover framing errors, mostly tilt in my case. I apparently am very crooked. With the view camera I am slow as molasses, and rarely shoot more than one sheet, unless there is the potential for too much breeze mucking things up. I more often just pack it in when the wind starts.
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Old 01-01-2018   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by emraphoto View Post
for me it has always been rooted in my own scattered brain. i primarily shoot film these days and i prefer it because i am terrible at managing digital archives. i cut the negs, put them in sleeves and in a labelled binder. shazam! done. this is quite possibly the laziest I have ever admitted to being.
this, plus I love silver gelatine b&w.
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Old 01-01-2018   #23
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When I used film, it was because it was the mainstream choice of the times (in the 90s). I loved it when I had great film cameras, a great darkroom (both B&W and color), and a lot of time. However, once I got out of college...I was broke, had less time, and didn't have a color darkroom. I soon started getting more into making music and the passion for photography died. Then around 2007-2008, I started wanting to make photos again...I had a good job and digital was mature enough to do everything I wanted in my little apartment. AND I could make books easily online. The cameras weren't the same, but luckily Leica and Fuji were starting to make digital cameras with at least a little bit of a film camera spirit. I'm happy I got to do both film and digital. I respect both. Use whatever it is that allows you to do what you want in photography. We are lucky in 2018.
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Old 01-01-2018   #24
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I shot film long, long past the point where it was fun. In fact, carrying heavy medium format equipment and standing for day long darkroom sessions were damned painful activities to my arthritic joints. No, it wasn't the fun factor that kept me shooting film for as long as I did. I shot film because I always had shot film.

Most of the photographers whose work I admire shoot (or shot while still alive) film. They're older guys who have the process finely tuned and the routine down pat. If you asked them why they shoot film, I'll betcha it's because they always have. The process works perfectly for them so why would they want to change.

As for me? When my cervical spine gave out, requiring surgery, I determined I should figure out this digital crap. While recovering from the surgery, I bought my first digital camera. Using it wasn't fun for the first year or so and I missed shooting film like I always had done. Eventually, the process became routine and the routine became fun. As much fun as shooting film? I dunno, maybe not as much as those days in the early 1970s when I started the whole picture-taking thing but fun nevertheless. Besides, it's all good. It's photography. It's fun.
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Old 01-01-2018   #25
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"And yet, MOST OF US DON'T. WHY???"

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Old 01-01-2018   #26
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Some people have one Philips head #2 screwdriver that they are comfortable using for everything, including as a pry bar. Others have multiples of #1 through #4, plus sets of JIS drivers as well, and would not be satisfied working any other way.
I have what any reasonable person, myself included, would describe as "too many cameras", highly competent systems both digital and film. Digital seems a worthy complement to film, but not a replacement. When it comes time to leave the house with one camera, 85% of the time it is a film body. Why? I honestly don't exactly know. I have considered every reason already mentioned here, and none of them quite explains it. I find the film/film camera process absolutely more enjoyable, obviously, or I would not gravitate to the film bodies all the time. There are a (very) limited number of lighting situations I can accommodate with a digital body that I can't easily manage with a film body, and the converse is not true, yet that fact has not been nearly persuasive enough to move me away from my not totally explainable preference for film work.

It is the process, but not only the process, it is the end result as well. Some people sincerely believe that a digital image can be made to look like a film image. I respect that, but don't believe it, as nothing in my experience supports that. I don't even know why you would want to do that. As far as actual results are concerned, beautiful, arresting photos are possible either way, but are not interchangeable. Vaguely interchangeable, but only to the same extent that a #2 Philips head screwdriver is interchangeable with a #3. If someone likes the look of film, there is only one way to get it, and that is to shoot film. If someone can't tell the difference between film and digital (and there are obviously many who profess that they can't) or can see the difference and just prefers digital (sharper or whatever) that is a lucky person, digital being easier and cheaper. Nothing wrong with that. Go forth and prosper.

For reasons I can't totally explain, and have given up, as a fool's errand, wasting my time trying to explain to myself, I just gravitate towards film even though I have digital at my disposal which is as good as anyone could ask for. I prefer the film process, and generally, though not always, prefer the results.
The one thing I know with complete confidence about this particular fetish is that it has absolutely nothing to do with nostalgia. It is the process today and the results today; I could not care less about nostalgia.
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Old 01-01-2018   #27
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Quote:
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Working with a digital color image is much easier for me and I'm always able to get an image I like from a digital file.
The difference I've seen, now that I've shot both film and {d-word} for several years now, is that when I go on a shoot with only a digital, I tend to take more shots and have fewer keepers.

With film, I tend to look more closely and envision the shot.

(Wow, my first post in 2018 on any forum!)
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Old 01-01-2018   #28
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...MOST OF US DON'T. WHY???
I don't because I am unwilling to commit to an 100% analog workflow. When you scan film you end up with all the inherent technical problems with digital imaging. These are unavoidable mathematical deficiencies in modeling continuous imnformation using discrete data. Technically, a hybrid workfow is the worst of both worlds.

When I was doing commercial gigs, immediate image review was valuable. Otherwise, instant feedback could enhance learning and understanding composition and lighting. Or instant feedback could inhibit intuitive creativity. It's up to us.

I stayed with film for personal projects until about 2012 because I didn't enjoy using digital cameras. For a variety of reasons I judged RF digital platforms to be flawed. Then the X100 and X-Pro 1 changed everything for me. It turned out I enjoyed using these cameras and lenses because I could use them as I used mr RF cameras. First I sold all my film cameras and lenses. Then I sold my DSLR system.

The issues of operational complexity (user interface) and unthoughtful, unselective technique are not inherent problems. You can use the camera with a minimum, or no, automation. Although it does take some effort to learn how. When and how often press the shutter has nothing to with the imaging media.

My memories of spending time in a wet-chemistry darkroom aren't that different than rendering raw files in post-production. Both take time and effort. It is possible to eliminate distractions with both as well. I think B&W digital printing is much less convenient than printing B&W film negatives. It's possible color negative printing is a tie. Transparencies printed using internegatives or RA4 reversal could be much worse. I really detest the hassles with digital printing. I send everything to commercial labs.
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Old 01-01-2018   #29
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...When it comes time to leave the house with one camera, 85% of the time it is a film body. Why? I honestly don't exactly know. I have considered every reason already mentioned here, and none of them quite explains it. I find the film/film camera process absolutely more enjoyable...
Me too, tho I'm more at like 98%. I'll bring the GR-D when heading into the city with my wife, as it is so fast I can grab shots without it intruding on our going about our business, but if I'm alone I'll have film.

Color is one area where I do find a distinct advantage with digital - mainly as the step of digitizing film is, for me, a huge pita. I know it doesn't need to be difficult, but I am just not at all good at it, so it takes vastly more time than I can justify throwing at it for the results I get. So I've gravitated towards not doing much color, though lately I've been out with the 810 and some Portra 160, and find that quite satisfying.
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Old 01-01-2018   #30
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For me shooting film is more fun.
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Old 01-01-2018   #31
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In my experience shooting film and digital, it comes down to fun and enjoyment in the process.

I cannot explain why I currently prefer shooting film to digital other than I enjoy shooting with vintage film cameras, developing film, and anticipating the resulting images, and the ongoing learning process.

I enjoy both film and digital, but I get a different feeling of craftsmanship and exploration when making film images.
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Old 01-01-2018   #32
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I drive a fairly new car, reliable, fast enough, low maintenance, all that.

A car to have fun with? Vintage (ancient) slow, high maintenance, leaky, rusty in spots, stinky, beautiful, desired by everyone who sees me go by.

Same with photography.
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Old 01-01-2018   #33
Larry Cloetta
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Originally Posted by sepiareverb View Post

Color is one area where I do find a distinct advantage with digital ........
There's definitely that.

Having recognized that........ a nice 6x6 color transparency projected with a Hasselblad PCP 80 projector on a real screen compared to digital color on a monitor or hdtv............that's something which, again, is a different experience, and a different discussion, but well worth the trouble for some people. One of the world's more satisfying rabbit holes.
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Old 01-01-2018   #34
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The difference I've seen, now that I've shot both film and {d-word} for several years now, is that when I go on a shoot with only a digital, I tend to take more shots and have fewer keepers. With film, I tend to look more closely and envision the shot.
I have heard this said often, but it is not true for me. I am a deliberate shooter with both film and digital, and have about the same number of keepers, perhaps more so with digital because of what is achievable with respect to exposure in LR (exposure, contrast, white, black, shadow, highlight, clarity).
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Old 01-01-2018   #35
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For me it’s surely more fun with the film, but also the final result - both in B&W and color, I like film more. I aknowledge many advantages of digital (speed, convienience, high iso capabilities), but I still like the film result better - something special in the color, DR, the graininess. That applies to movies as well. Recently I watched a movie and could not stop thinking - I don’t like it, it must be digital, those blown out highlights... Yep, it looks so different...
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Old 01-01-2018   #36
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Originally Posted by kshapero View Post
"And yet, MOST OF US DON'T. WHY???"

Have you ever tried to eat just one potato chip or just one piece of candy in a candy store? That's why.
Film is a bag of 36 potato chips.

Digital is lying on your back at the Lays chips assembly line.
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Old 01-01-2018   #37
Jamie Pillers
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dmr View Post
The difference I've seen, now that I've shot both film and {d-word} for several years now, is that when I go on a shoot with only a digital, I tend to take more shots and have fewer keepers.

With film, I tend to look more closely and envision the shot.

(Wow, my first post in 2018 on any forum!)
I see this response quite often in discussions about film vs. digital. My take on it is that I don't take any less care creating an image with digital, but now I can create many more versions of a scene. I find digital to be a much better learning tool, as it allows me to experiment more widely than I was able to do with a few rolls of 36 exposures.
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Old 01-01-2018   #38
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Like I said in another post, I shoot film because they keep making it. I understand it better than having to mess with multiple settings on my DSLR every other shot. You loaded the film you thought would work for the scene, and lived with that decision unless you were lucky enough to own two camera bodies so you could switch to something else when conditions changed. But then it is rather cool to be able to instantly change ISO in the middle of a shoot.

Before, when there was only film, you were considered a pro if you could handle an SLR with some degree of confidence, even if you weren't making money at it. Now days, everybody and their sister, brother, aunt, and uncle have the ability to get good photos from what would be considered a consumer camera because it can do so much for them without having to think about all the parameters one had to consider back in the film era. And fixing errors in post is a breeze, what with all the choices in software available.

Tactile feel is a big thing when it comes to handling a film camera. The sense of the fine gearing as you wind the film to the next frame. Knowing just where to place your fingers so that you grab the right control ring on the lens. All the little add-ons one could get to make the camera more functional. Things like that are more personal than the way most digital cameras operate today.

I'll keep shooting film because it took me a long time to accumulate the cameras I have wanted, and I don't intend to let them just sit around on the shelf.

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Sorry. They get the same junky photos they got before, just capture was digital.

The was G color balance film. Same metering systems could have been put in film cameras, same autofocus.

All they needed to do was take the film to a decent lab. That was the weak link.
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Old 01-01-2018   #39
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With respect to a number of postings above, the best darkroom tool I have added in the past decade is the RH Designs Analyzer Pro. It has pretty much eliminated test strips, and for a reasonable negative, I can often hit it on the first print.

http://www.rhdesigns.co.uk/darkroom/...lyser_pro.html

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Old 01-01-2018   #40
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I don't do this for a living, clearly. But I like learning and developing skills for a hobby. I've chosen to learn with film (35mm to 8x10) from exposure to printing in the dark room.
If a roof and food depended on it, I'd focus just on the best deliverable for clients. But it would kill a lot of the fun (failure-improvement-learning) for me. Technology would give me better prints at the expense of a key part of why I have fun taking photographs.
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