How to Perfect Digital Techniques by Understanding Film

By David H. Wells Back to

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As of this year, I have been a photographer for 40 years. In that time, a lot has changed and yet in some ways, certain things are still the same. I was reminded of this when my friend Michael Colby told me I was “…the most analog digital photographer in the business.” He went on “…you are an analog photographer in a digital world. A film photographer who uses digital technology but only adopts as much of digital as necessary. Goodbye slides and goodbye prints, hello digital workflow! But, it is essentially a digital workflow that is not too dissimilar to an analog workflow.”

My exchange with him, and this article, are responses to some recent blog entries advocating a return to film. I believe that simply returning to film would not benefit most photographers, unless they learned some important differences and similarities between digital and analog photography.

What my friend was responding to was my repeatedly telling him how I work for my pursuit of the highest quality image and the least time spent in post- production. I have adapted to the digital imaging paradigm, but I maintain a photographic style and methodology that I developed during a long career shooting on film, resulting in a digital shooting strategy built on a film based approach.

For starters, I shoot almost exclusively at the lowest ISO my cameras has, the native ISO, the sensitivity setting that does not introduce noise. Noise is the inevitable result of signal amplification, which is the way digital cameras “increase” light sensitivity.

Looking at some images in Lightroom recently, I was poking around the EXIF information. When looking at images where I did use a higher ISO than the native sensitivity, the EXIF noted that I raised the “gain.” Upping the gain in audio is how you raise the recording sensitivity, but it also introduces distortion and that same kind of amplification becomes image- degrading noise.

As a partial adaptation to digital I have changed how I calculate exposure. Digital capture is non-linear as compared to film, because a ‘normal’ exposure with film is consistent/linear in its response to light. In digital, each successively darker zone is captured by successively fewer pixels and has less detail and more noise. If you think of the old zone scale from the film days with the 10 zones (steps) from black to white,

in each step there was the same number of tones, though they were darker or lighter. It is digital’s non- linear behavior that is the root of the truism that one “exposes to the right” as close as possible to overexposure without blowing out the highlights.

Ironically, when I was shooting black and white negative film, I was largely following that same rule, but it was a function of the maxim of “expose black and white or color negative film for the shadows and develop for the highlights.” In digital, I use a variation on that, exposing for the best RAW file I can get and then making few corrections in post-production. In the best situations, I don’t have to do much, if anything, in post since I have done it all in camera.

Later on in my film phase, when I progressed to using color slides, I was equally consistent, but the opposite was true when it came to exposure. Slides require much more precise understanding of exposure, because you expose to get the highlights perfect and let the shadows fall where they will. That meant that I had two strategies for most of my slides. In one, an image would be high in contrast, with perfect exposure for the highlight but the shadow was often black, as in a silhouette. The other required me to reposition myself or use electronic flash in order to make the dark areas open and visible.

In all media, slides or negatives, digital or analog, I still follow one rule that has not changed for me. I learned to meter the light, not the subject. What makes a given bit of light so dramatic is the way that it falls on that subject. If the subject is darker or lighter than middle gray, metering off that subject is a recipe for disaster.

I start noting that all in-camera or handheld light meters are standardized to set an exposure for middle gray. When photographing, I find something that is middle gray that is in the same light as my subject, I read my exposure off of that and use that setting when I turn my camera back to the subject. My meter may tell me my exposure is off, but I ignore that. When I am doing street photography and I see a scene unfolding in front of me with beautiful light, I zoom in or walk closer filling the spot meter with nothing but middle gray asphalt. Even if that asphalt is not in the scene I am photographing, I make sure it is in the same light as the scene and get my exposure. Well-worn asphalt is usually around middle gray, something of a gift to photographers. New asphalt is too dark and cement highways/sidewalks are lighter than middle gray.

Before finalizing my exposure setting, I consistently take one more step, based on decades of experience. All camera meters, sensors, apertures, shutters, etc., deviate from the established norms. The trick is to find out how much your given technology deviates. You can’t get that deviation repaired but you should know what it is.

My Olympus OM-D E-M5 cameras give me the best possible RAW files if I meter as described above and then I set my exposure to let in one more f-stop (or shutter speed’s) worth of light. With negative film, I used to meter the same way but then added 2/3 of an f-stop for over-exposure. In contrast, my last film cameras, Contax G-2 rangefinders, gave me the best slides if I metered as described above then underexposed by half a stop.

My experience making color slides are a big part of why I am an analog photographer in a digital world. If I had my way I would still be making color slides for my publication work. Back in the day, when I made a ‘perfect’ slide it was ‘done.’ Someone else had processed it, unlike now where I am the photographer and the lab. Part of my process that comes out of my analog background is that I almost never crop my images. As a self-employed pro, cropping takes time—and degrades the image quality since I am throwing out data—so I try to crop as little as possible. Yes, I cropped my images early on, especially when I was working in the newspaper world. When I moved to magazine work and color slides, I tried to do all my cropping in camera.

When I started using color slides I would also use the auto bracket on my camera, taking the same image with three different exposures, the “correct” exposure with frames half a stop under and over. After doing that for a while I learned that the best gesture, moment or composition ended up in the image from each bracket set that was not the best exposure. Now, when I work, I use the metering as described above to get my exposure right and do not bracket.

What I did learn from editing all those bracketed images was to make many small variations in camera, moving slightly left or right, up or down, zoomed in or zoomed out, to get the composition right (or as close to right as possible) in the camera. All I have to do is edit the whole take to find that one perfect or near perfect image.

I liked the discipline of color slides, arguably the ultimate discipline when it comes to exposure. Would I require student photographers to shoot color slides to learn that same discipline? Absolutely! Is that likely to happen? Absolutely not! Life shows us that just because something is right, it does not mean it will happen. Similarly, just because you can fix it in post doesn’t mean you should!

With 40 years under my belt and thousands of rolls of film exposed and edited, I now work to get it right in the camera to minimize my post-production time, maximize my time in the field photographing and to use my time most efficiently, so I can make more money to support myself. If that makes me the most analog photographer in a digital world, then I wear that title with pride. What I love about photography is being in the field photographing. The rest is what I do to get more time doing what I love. Other photographers love doing post-production work and so they put their energies there. I have come to appreciate how the best photographers are the ones who figure out what they do best and love the most.



About the Author

David H. Wells
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David H. Wells is a freelance documentary photographer affiliated with Aurora Photos. See his work at: davidhwells.com. He specializes in intercultural communications and the use of light and shadow to enhance visual narratives. Twice awarded Fulbright fellowships for work in India, his photography regularly appears in leading international magazines. A frequent teacher of photography workshops, his blog, The Wells Point, appears at http://thewellspoint.com. As an Olympus Visionary, Wells has been contracted by the camera company to produce images and provide feedback on new product lines.