Oz Magazine
Cover Story

Digital Vs. Film

by Kendra Bentle

Left: Chuck Pittman Photography Right: Imagination Brewery

Whether shooting digital or film, image is everything!
But, assuring quality at each step, and especially in the final output,
demands an intricate grasp of the process and production details.

Alright, here's the scenario: You're a Photographer on assignment. The client, an agency, wants some shots of the bright eyed fashion pixie of the hour. You've got a choice. Do you shoot digital or film? To the uninitiated it might seem like an arbitrary decision, or at best, one made for convenience or financial reasons. You simply whip out that shiny new camera, snap the picture, preview what you've captured straight away, and then run off to the computer and pull down the images. Voila, there's your subject even before you've forgotten if you liked her "turn around and I'll be on your back like a crazed monkey" look better than the one that says, "oh honey, it's ok you forgot my birthday...now what can I make you for breakfast?" It's just that simple. Immediate gratification, quick turnaround, and no developing costs. Well, not necessarily. As you might already know, the film versus digital debate, as it applies to commercial photography and the media industry, is really quite complex. There are quality issues with digital, sentimental value invested in film, and color conversions to deal with all around. And on top of that, you've got a standard to uphold, and clients to keep happy. It's a bit of a mess. And though the debate might not be right on the tip of everyone's tongue, it's probably at least lunch conversation for a Photographer, Creative Director or print house employee somewhere in town, every day. What they're probably talking about is something like this: The fledgling digital world has spawned a faster, and in some respects, cheaper way to shoot, deliver and print ... if you do it right. And doing it right it seems, is a huge matter of subjection.


At every stop on the image train from creation to delivery, each person involved sees the emerging technology differently; as a means to an end, as a time or budget saver, or as a problem that needs to be addressed. It's really a "three sides to every story" type of thing, and the big question is, who's right, who's wrong, and who's responsible for the quality of the outcome? To even begin to find out, one must follow the issue, and the image, from beginning to end. It all starts with the click of a shutter. At creation. At the Photographer. "Photography has always been an uncertain media," says Atlanta Photographer Chuck Pittman. "You never really know. Sometimes the film can give you some little gifts when it comes back, and sometimes it can make your day really bad." Until reliable, professional digital photography hit the mainstream several years ago, that wait for pleasure or for pain was a Photographer's only option. And as well, there was just something about that gut twisting interval that formed the essence of the craft, something to alternately relish, or cause you to kick your assistant.

Then, as the digital forces stormed the shore and camera quality increased, there came a choice and an opportunity to beat the waiting game. Take the Photographers at Atlanta's Imagination Brewery for example. Studio Director Mike Bailey, Director of Photography Rick Newby and Photographer Heath Patterson, aim to shoot everything they possibly can in digital. "It's an amazing production tool, " says Patterson, the Brewery's product Photographer. "The immediacy of it is great. You see it right away and you know what you've got. And if you're doing any kind of image creation, dropping one image into another to see how the two marry, then it's invaluable. I don't know how you'd do that with film."

To some, like Patterson, the technology often takes the guesswork out of a stressful, detail intensive situation that could make or break a project. It can also mean better client relations. "I think it (digital photography) adds a real comfort level to working with art directors," Patterson adds. "When they can see their image dropped into their layout immediately, it builds a lot of confidence, as far as them being able to say ‘Wow, that looks great.'" That wow factor is certainly a great draw. With digital, you can cut out both the guesswork and the middleman out of the picture, giving you faster turnaround and potentially seamless delivery. You shoot, you assess what you have, and then know immediately if you need to rinse and repeat, no running to the lab and no waiting on the film. It's so easy that you'd think there would be no arguing, except that there is.

Some Photographers claim that they'll never use digital on a regular basis, unless someone forces them. Why the contempt? Well, nothing's perfect. Despite the apparent ease of use, digital photography has some shortcomings in terms of file size, resolution, and simple aesthetics. First, while your general, professional grade digital camera can snap off a beautiful image for a trade publication or a magazine ad, blowing that same image up to the size of a bus would cause problems. "This is why a lot of people still love film," says Pittman. "The nice thing about film is that if we shoot at 2 1/4, or even 35, they can scan it up to a higher resolution than the cameras can shoot, so if there's a possibility for the image to be used in a tradeshow or on an outdoor board, we're safe." To Pittman, among many others, film equals versatility, as well as the always enticing opportunity to see your work on the side of a commuter train, if the client so desires.

The whole image size thing also hits upon another of digital's downfalls, file size. A digital shot made large enough to cover a billboard, for example, would easily break the limits of any currently available capture media. Film, however, leaves your options open to scanning for use at practically any size. When going big, the consensus is that you sacrifice instant gratification for film's proven track record. Then there are, of course, the purists. Call them sprocket heads, or whatever you like, there are those who believe that in any application, digital just feels different. Perhaps it's backlash against the sterility of technology, or some perceived soulnessness in digital capture, but there is a faction of professionals who would just rather do it the old fashioned way. Truly, even though today's digital cameras are much better than they used to be, it's generally understood that some subject matter is simply too complex for the medium's available color range. Sunsets, text on packaging, and times where the shot includes a wide range of contrast (like in wedding photography, where a person dressed in black stands next to a person dressed in white) just don't seem to produce the same tonal range in digital as they do on film.

So, who's right? Whatever the answer, most Photographers can agree on at least one thing: That the key too successful shots lies in knowing when to partake of the fruits of technology, and when to retreat to the old standard. Even among the most gung-ho digital advocates, it seems none will admit to forgetting the shortcomings of either medium to run screaming toward one or the other. Most feel that it would be limiting in terms of work or clientele to go all out digital, or all out film, even if one of the choices is something that they don't always feel comfortable using. To that end, there is the perception that while the choice to either go digital or use film should, by rights, be made by the Photographer, it might not always happen that way. Some believe that the real reason for the rise of digital photography has very little to do with many of the medium's virtues, and everything to do with the faster, better, cheaper mentality of the marketplace.

"(With digital) I can get everything on CD from the Photographer," says Jim Loser, Creative Director at SourceLink, Atlanta. "We don't have to send out to the lab, and wait an hour or two, and then come back. I can get all 250 shots on a CD, have it in hand, and in an hour I can be back on my Mac looking at them. And whatever we shoot, I don't have to scan. The cost of having a transparency scanned is sometimes a consideration on jobs...and if we shoot it digitally, we don't have the film expense either."

In our tanking economy, this cost consideration hits hard on all fronts. Clients want more for less, Art Directors are charged with delivering, and Photographers are pressed with ADs who want digital photography, simply because it's faster and cheaper. Problems arise when the quality of the work suffers because the project wasn't well suited to the media. Unfortunately, while knowing is half the battle in the digital versus film debate, Chuck Pittman explains that standing up for that knowledge is even more vital to getting good product. "Recently, probably in the last year, they (Art Directors) will ask you 'Are you going to shoot that digitally?' like it's magic or something," Pittman says. "Then, you have to ask them, 'Well, what are you going to do with it?' And once you find out, you might go, 'Well, I don't think so.' " Saying "I don't think so," might be a scary proposition for a Photographer during difficult times like these, where clients can be few and far between. So, it's likely that the call isn't always made in favor of the work, or with consideration to what using digital photography can and cannot do successfully. Though it may not be been out in the open, it seems that the idea that some people are being, in effect, "bullied" into using digital photography is out there. It's an interesting thought. If it's really happening, you have a situation in which the shooter is not allowed to be what he or she has always been: a trusted, if not artistic, purveyor of service. It constitutes quite a breakdown in the system, and potentially, a breakdown in the concept of quality as well.

Fortunately, through all the speculation, it's hard to find a Photographer who feels particularly coerced into choosing to do his work digitally, and even more difficult to find a Creative Director who will admit to even making the choice their responsibility. Most claim that leaving the choice up to the Photographer is standard, but admit that budget can constitute one of the main reasons to choose the faster, cheaper, digital medium over film, regardless of the shooter's real preference. Some seemingly more enlightened CDs even feel that the question itself is irrelevant. Bart Cleveland, Creative Director for Atlanta branding agency Sawyer Riley Compton offers: "The issue of using digital versus using conventional photography is irrelevant, if the quality is the same. What I find it comes down to is the artist behind the camera, versus the technology itself. The people we use, we use based on their artistry." The concept of the Photographer as artist, (especially the commercial Photographer as artist), is one that seems to have been lost a little in the new, digital world. Suddenly, it's all about pixels and resolution and big or small files rather than about light and shadow and style. Imagination Brewery's Rick Newby explains, "We prefer to look at its (digital photography's) main value as a production tool. It's still about light. It's still about photography. It's still about composition. It's just a different way of getting to that point. A more expedient way." CD Bart Cleveland agrees, adding that artistry is paramount to getting the job done right. "We hire the artist. We look at Photographers whose style is the most appropriate for the job, and if their tools are digital photography, then that's their choice, not ours. We're hiring them to give us a product, not tell them how to shoot photography."


The idea that done well, digital photography can offer all of the virtues of film makes sense, especially if the Photographer has made the choice himself and is comfortable with the medium. It is, however, a thought not shared by everyone in the industry. Further down the image train lie color correction and print houses, and the view from behind the presses is much different. "Digital photography is a lot less about digital capture than people think it is, because it has to be viewed as a fully integrated part of the process," says John King, President of Digital Pictures, a scanning, photo imaging and proofing services firm in Atlanta. "You can't just shoot it, say 'we had a great shot, it looks great, went right into my layout,' and then find that it's not ending up on press right. That's not doing anyone any good."

This follow through has always been a part of commercial photography. You shoot, scan your film, color correct, and then print. But with the advent of digital technology, the process changed dramatically. To put it simply, there is one major issue in the digital process that plagues those on the finishing end more than any other: CMYK color conversion. The crash course explanation is this: Digital cameras shoot in RGB. Print is CMYK. And according to those in the printing and color conversion sector, there's a lot that can go wrong between the two. "Agencies and corporations are used to getting terrific CMYK files, because they were produced on film and negative by houses who understood color," says King. "The Art Directors never thought much about it, and now they're going to Photographers and saying, 'We're going to shoot digital, and you're going to give me CMYK files. And sometimes, the Photographers are saying 'No, I'm not. I'm going to give you RGB."

Art Directors then take the files to imaging companies to find a fix. King says that this puts the burden of quality on the print houses, which aren't about to be held accountable. "Why am I going to take on the responsibility for the quality of the image, when I didn't control it?" he asks. When pressed to explain how they deal with color correction when shooting digital, it seems that many Creative Directors consider the matter a relatively small piece of the puzzle. "I don't see it as an issue," says Bart Cleveland. "Because you just convert it." To his credit, Cleveland is referring to delivering his RGB files to a color correction facility, rather than taking on the task himself. Imaging and print houses, King's included, would be pleased with this response, but also worry that a fair amount of Photographers and CDs claim that they usually do the job themselves.

"There is some software you can buy that presses all the buttons, and everybody's got color profiles, and it all seems to work beautifully. But from my perspective, that's simply not true," adds King. "They're doing [color conversions] themselves, in Photoshop. I've said for a long time Photoshop shouldn't even have that feature ... you just have to know that your conversion system has good fidelity." Understandably, those in the color correction business would like to see everyone bring their files to them. Home jobs don't bode well for business for several reasons. Having CDs and Photographers color correcting in Photoshop doesn't pay the office bills. And more importantly, if the files delivered for printing look bad, the responsibility to make them work rests firmly on the print house's shoulders. For them, the impetus to "get it right the first time" is vital.

So, now the ultimate question: Whose job is it to make sure everything comes out right? It seems that everyone is asking. "In this 'New World', who's going to take responsibility for the final product?" asks King. "Sure, digital is great. Sure, digital is where we're going for the future. But how can we put all the pieces together responsibly, with consideration to quality?" The answer might be easier than it seems: It's everyone's responsibility. And if everybody just focuses on the work, the rest will fall into place. "A lot of people make the digital thing really, really complicated," says Chuck Pittman. "We don't do that. We go in there, white balance the cameras, shoot a bracket, and if it's not exactly what it should be, we'll adjust it, or go back to the camera and run the levels." What's he's saying, is that success, whatever your role in the image process and whatever your medium, is all about being educated. The key is to know your tools, know their limitations, and then just do your business, as best as you can, and to the satisfaction of the client. Quality will come from a focus on the details, and on the end result, not from the tangle of conjecture along the way.

Sawyer Riley Compton's Bart Cleveland sums the whole thing up nicely with this one, direct statement, a thought that seems to put all of the difficult issues and conflict into perspective: "It's all about the image," he says. "How you get there is irrelevant."

© 2003, Kendra Bentle - All Rights Reserved.

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