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From there and back again

14/04/18 15:20

This is the title of a song by the Beach Boys and the subtitle of The Hobbit. It is also a reminder of the trend to the revenge of the analog (the recent book by the journalist Sax). As soon as the dichotomy "analog(ue) - digital” is mentioned you seem to touch a sore point in contemporary photographic community. The person who does not bow to the digital superiority and efficiency is a Luddite, a dinosaur and a nostalgic old fashioned idiot who does not understand the signs of the times. There is no doubt that the digital transformation of many parts of the modern technological spectre and the current society and culture has and will have unforeseen consequences. Never say that something is not possible. Sax in his book refers to a post digital era. It seems not possible, given the rapid and successful pace of the digital transformation. And do not mention this possibility to the Leica management: they will swoon and deny it, because they have set all their cards on the digital photography. There is still a small corner (not visible for visitors) in the factory in Portugal, where the old machinery is working and producing old-fashioned M-cameras (M7,MP, M-A). This is all that is left from the proud Wetzlar days when cartridge loading cameras where the ne plus ultra, the alpha and omega of the goal and raison d’être of the company.
There is currently a feeble new spring of chemical photography (often but erroneously referred to as analogue photography). The advocates of the film photography are enthusiastic, but it should be mentioned that Kodak now produces 1% of what it did in its heyday. The prediction of the disappearance of the film is also a bit overhyped. A new technology may disrupt a previous one, but is hardly ever the cause of its extinction. One point should be made at the start: the digital technology (computer based image and signal processing) is more efficient and more productive than its film cousin and the performance of the calculated image is in most cases better than the chemically processed version. At least it is much easier to produce a good image (defined as a sharp picture with full tonality). The content of the image however has not changed since the days of the Daguerreotype.
I use both technologies and select the one that is best for my purpose. It is as with classical cars: for normal traffic and holidays you are well advised to select a modern car with an efficient engine and lost of electronic assistants that make life on the road when driving much easier and safer (presumably!). When you wish to experience the road and the enthusiasm of driving nothing is better than a classic British two-seat tourer. Motorcyclists would prefer a two-cylinder Norton or BSA.
To experience the ‘good old days’ and the immerse myself in the golden age of the precision engineered mechanical camera I am going to use a 50 year old Leica M3, a 50 year old Weston Master exposure meter, a 50 year old film (the ‘new’ Ferrania P30) and a modern Apo-Summicron-M 50 ASPH FLE and the APO-Summicron-M 90 mm ASPH. The P30 will be developed in Kodak D96 (Also an age old chemical). Remember that the Kodak D76 was announced in 1926 and the Agfa Rodinal was mixed around 1900. It is indeed astonishing that such old technology can challenge, but not surpass the current digital imagery. Speed wise there is no competition. The P30 can be exposed as EI 50 and the same quality is easily attained with an SL at EI 5000.
The picture below shows my nostalgic set: included is a Lamy fountain pen and a Moleskin notebook. There is no EXIF to be assigned to the negatives and a notebook is the inevitable choice. The advantage is that I can also note all things I thought and experienced when taking the picture. The EXIF data do not show the mental musings.


The image files in the camera are processed by unknown algorithms. It teas a long study to explore what is happening and this study extends to the computer programs to. Here we have a real black box when using Photoshop. You know the input and the output, but what exactly is happening inside the program is a guess. There are many receipts in books and on the internet in the style of "Do A and B and C and you get D.” But no-one explains to you: the layer you are applying or the slider you are moving functions as follows: it adds a value of +10 to every pixel with original value below 100, unless there is a neighbouring pixel with a value of 36. Only specialised programs show you the exact values of every pixel in the image file.
Compare this to the negative where every small area can be measured with a microdensitometer and its value determined. Chemical developers are explained in detail in the composition of the chemical elements and the working of every element is described. Analogue is in effect proportional and where the calculations are exact (it is 125 and not 126), the chemical process is proportional (the density increases by 20% when the development time is lengthened by 50%.)
This is the nice thing about the chemical process: with experience you get better and you can predict the effects with confidence. The digital photographer would counter: I am not interested: everything can be changed in a later stage.
The difference is emotional and not technical: the classic car has a manual gear box and you shift up and down while paying attention to the amount of revolutions, the vibrations and the sound. The modern car driver sees a blinking number on his dashboard and shifts because the programmer thinks this is the best way. Experiencing the real thing is no longer possible with a digital camera: the whole process is virtual, efficient but not very inspiring. That may be the reason why users of digital cameras are so focused on technical details and technical functions: this is the only way to experience some reality. The digital process is rather fluid: take a picture or a series of pictures, upload a selected few via wifi to the cloud, apply a handful of filters and distribute the file to a range of social media where it will be commented.
Compare this process with the chemical trajectory: Take a picture, wait a week to develop and study the 36 negatives. To develop you have to put the film in a developing tank, prepare the chemicals and proceed, looking at time, temperature and movement. Then do the same in the darkroom: select a negative, project it in an enlarger, determine time and gradation and so on. What a waste of time would exclaim the digital photographer and see the grain and the dust specks. Nice to experience the real thing, says the film adept. Why not do both when you have the choice. That is why I go for the 50year old procedure.