Many heated debates (megapixel races, film vs digital, lens sharpness, lens drawing) boil down to the simple question above.
The plan was simple enough. Photograph 5 locations, produce 5 short posts for fun and easy summer reading.
But it appears this lightness of being proved unbearable to me. And when grainydays released the video below, it sent me spiraling into another of my pet mental struggles.
Still, it’s summer and I will keep this vaguely short, and well illustrated.
Grainydays is one of my very favourite Youtube channels. It is the work of Jason Kummerfeldt, my photographic man crush. How could he not be, looking like the love child of a young Ansel Adams and Ryan Gosling? More to the point, Jason is a very good photographer and deeply enough immersed into serious filmmaking (The Batman, Loki, Grey’s Anatomy …) to be listened to for more than the dry humour and contagious self-loathing.
In the above video, he addresses the old film vs digital debate, making the usual arguments, including one key point: digital photography is more objective. It allows a more realistic reproduction of reality. Film is more subjective and better suited to craft subjective recollections of personal memories.
This may sound obvious once stated, but goes a long way towards settling a good number of forum and pub arguments.
The sports photographs illustrating the video drive the point home perfectly.
Some are perfectly sharp and beautifully saturated, obviously shot by super experienced pros using the latest high-resolution, high-frame rate, uberfast AF bodies and sharpest teles in the catalogue. Others, of the 2012 olympics, are made using a large format view camera, a lens barely sharp enough to cut butter and old B&W film.
The former bring insight into a specific phase of a spectacular action. The latter seem to capture momentous events in time. The difference in impact between the two sets is profound and probably mirrors the range of photographic ambitions of most amateur togs.
Of course, the medium alone is not responsible for this difference in psychological impact.
I’ve often written that photography is a layer cake of technical choices (exposure, lighting, composition, post processing, lens …) and that great photographers are those who master the layers that matter to their style and are able to align them in a consistent direction. But defining how to align is the hard part in this analogy.
Well, I believe Jason’s subjectivity – objectivity axis is a great place to start. Where do you want to be? Is your photography about revealing the intricacies of a dog catching a ball in all its realistic detail, or are you more interested in sharing the feeling of tranquility that a hotel’s beach-side terrace in Sorrento imparted on you during a magical evening?
And I wonder whether the two can mix, with a hunch that they can’t, that they are like water and oil and that even vigorous shaking will rarely produce anything tasteful.
The modern trend of pairing a brand-new lens designed to look vintage with a high resolution camera always leaves me with an uneasy feeling of artificialness. The same goes with presets destined to look like filmstock. They don’t often achieve their goal. It’s as if, once you sell your soul to Nyquist, no amount of analog seasoning can quite reunite you with it.
Now, some people do make it work. Kyle McDougall, for one, can make a Fuji GFX sing with an old film-era lens (or a more recent Mitakon) and well judged post processing. But for most mortals, this is difficult to achieve.
I love an Otus for its blend of quantity (sharpness …) and quality (looks, pop). It is representative of Zeiss’ unparalleled mastery at blending objectivity and subjectivity. And the cine world largely agrees, since Zeiss (and ARRI by Zeiss) lenses dominate the market.
My beef with the new generation of 100Mp cameras is that they bring me too far in the objective direction, their default look being more clinical, and my PP skills might not be good enough to counter this baked-in curse.
When forum brawls oppose clans about a lens, some will claim it rubbish because of its lowly MTF curves (particularly curves measured by some dude in a basements, those are the best MTFs to argue about) while others will revel in its drawing (lens drawing being an unmeasurable vacuous term to the first camp, of course). Plotting both camps along the objective – subjective axis helps us reconcile the two. Both can be “right” from their relative point of view.
So, let’s set the film vs digital divide aside for a moment. It’s fair to say some photographers are using film for the lifestyle statement, and that film imposes a processing workflow that’s not easy for everyone to live with (like some blogger dude living in a French backwater village, for instance). And I don’t think film is inherently better than digital (or vice versa), only that film manufacturers used to spend an enormous amount of time and R&D budgets honing the overall aesthetics of their filmstock, with all its technical limitations, whereas sensor manufacturers have tried to get rid of those limitations, sometimes introducing others such as highlight clipping, and letting aesthetics fall where they might without giving them a second thought. Subjective vs Objective.
A good starting point for anyone to analyse their desires and gear needs, is probably to ponder on the position they want to occupy on the objective – subjective axis (keeping in mind that, as with most positioning efforts, the middle of the road is often the weakest place to be).
Pete Guaron’s comment on my last post illustrates haw firmly he wants to be in the realistic camp. His choice of gear (sharp lenses, fast AF, good lighting) and subject (bees in flight, for instance) work well together. And Nancee Rostad’s recent posts illustrate how confidently she dives into subjective experience pool, using screen grabs of a phone video of a car wash to produce abstracts that have a strong impact on viewers.
Both options are perfectly valid. The only bad one would be to mix and match, not knowing where we stand and what we strive for.
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