A Few Thoughts on Film vs. Digital

Hello photographers! I am a Canon shooter with a lot of commercial work, so I rely on both my digital camera bodies: the 5D Mark iii & iv to get the job done. A lot of my work is colorful, crisp, and bright with a very contemporary "digital" feel. Many shooters prefer the look of film to digital prints, but most of us rely on a digital medium nowadays for commercial demands. Even Annie Liebovitz switched from film to digital 15 years ago when she realized that's where the magazine industry was headed.

When I study the greats like Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Horst P. Horst, I recognize the look of their work is vastly different from anything we see photographers producing today. The control of light and the multiple steps required for them to produce a single print was exhaustive, time-consuming, and required a complete mastery of the photography medium. While we must speak to each of their respective creative genii, I also attribute the ineffable quality of their work to the use of film rather than digital cameras.

True enthusiasts will argue that something magical is lost in the digital process. I can't attest to magic in the digital medium, but I can empirically observe that film mimics the naked eye better.

You Won't Achieve This Look With a Preset

Digital cameras offer no insurance when highlights are out of control they way film does. Digital highlights abruptly clip and become significantly compromised, unlike film that gradually meters to white. I believe this is why we often prefer the look of film to digital prints. There are a lot of presets out there that offer film quality treatments to mimic the look of real film in the post processing room. None of them, however, account for the highlight issue in camera.

The single most effective tool I've found was a tip shared from the Harvard online photography course that adjusts for the peaking problem in camera. When digital highlights "peak" they lose all the information in the highlight to white and it's almost impossible to salvage if you over expose because the camera didn't store any information in those highlights. No amount of highlight or exposure adjustment can fix this issue post processing.

Dial Down the White Balance

We want to help our camera understand that the highlights matter to us and we do this by neutralizing the warm hues so the camera understands them better. We want the highlight information to stay in the camera and this achieved simply by dialing down the color temperature down to 2500K in camera before taking the picture.

The Image Will Be Blue!

The images will appear very blue in camera, but don't be discouraged! This is just the first step in the B&W conversion... If it really bothers you, just select the "monochrome" option in camera while shooting.

Jordan shot at 2500 K

Use a Filter!

I take this idea one step further and use both a UV filter and a purple FLD filter by Gobe. Ultra violet (UV) filters are popular for two reasons. They are commonly used to protect SLR lenses, and they are perfect for daylight photography.

UV filters block out ultra violet light and reduce haziness in daylight photography. They give a perfectly balanced image without affecting your exposure. The FLD is a filter for matching daylight film to fluorescent lighting (FL for Florescent Lighting, D for Daylight). On a film camera, you'd use it to correct for the different tone of light and give your shots a more natural looking color.

Adjust the White Balance in Post

Once you've captured your incredible images, head over to your editing suite of choice and select the B&W option. After this, simply swing the the Kelvin back up to 50,000 K (all the way to the right) for the most amazing painterly effect in the highlights emulating the look of real B&W film photography. This trick punches up the contrast while retaining the complexity of the highlights.

See the original shot before and after the post processing trick:

Straight from camera shot at 2500 K

Adjust the white balance and select your BW filter of choice

(My marble bathroom has served as a backdrop for more shoots than you can image!)

The adjustment in the highlights create that gradual shift from white to whiter that is simply not achievable any other way in a digital camera. If you lose the highlights a bit too much or the blacks are too black, just dial back your exposure slightly: every image will be different.

Below are two side by side images taken at the same settings: 1/100 f 10 ISO 100. The image on the left was shot at 2500 K and adjusted in post like described above, the image on the right was shot at 5500 K with no additional white balance adjustments.

2500 K - adjusted to 50,000 K in post

5500 K

The effect is subtle, but if you look closely enough, you will see that the highlights on the left have a much denser, more substantial quality to them than the highlights in the image on the right.

2500 K to 50,000 K

5500 K

2500 K to 50,000 K

5500 K

The difference is subtle, but obvious and makes a huge impact when printing the work.

Here are some fun images I shot from my backyard in Brooklyn yesterday using this white balance approach. I can't wait to see how this editing trick works for your images! Happy shooting and I look forward to hearing back from all of you.