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How I Became a Professional Photographer and What I Saw Along the Way: Digital Can’t Do That

August 10, 2011

Digital technology has changed photography for the better. The instant feedback, freedom to shoot thousands of photos, image quality in low-light situations, and easy sharing have unleashed the creative juices of photographers around the world. In 2004 I sold my film cameras and bought my first digital SLR, a Canon 1D Mark II, and haven’t shot a single frame of film since. Why would I shoot film when there’s almost nothing digital can’t do?

Ah, but despite incredible advances in digital SLR sensors over the past 10+ years, there is one thing that is still the Achilles’ heel of digital: Dynamic range. Go ahead, click on the link to learn a little about it and I’ll wait here until you get back.

[finger tap] [whistle] [thumb twiddle]

To summarize: Digital sensors can’t capture as great a range of highlights and shadows in a single image as film can. Our eyes are even better than film at seeing detail in both highlights and shadows in a single scene, and this difference in dynamic range is probably the reason why that picture of a sunset you took (especially if it was digital) doesn’t look as spectacular as it did in person. There are all sorts of neat Photoshop tricks for improving on digital’s weakness in this area, like blending together multiple images (called HDR photography), but to me that’s just a band-aid and that only works in certain situations. If you want to capture a wide dynamic range in a single image, film beats digital.

From 2000-2004, I took many photos of natural landscapes in Israel, mostly with a Mamiya 7 medium format camera and some with a Nikon N70 35mm SLR. Here are a few examples of scenes with dynamic range too large for today’s digital sensors, but that film was able to capture flawlessly:

The sun sets over the Mediterranean Sea in Netanya, Israel:

The sun sets over the Mediterranean Sea in Netanya, Israel

A Chanukah menorah sits outside a home in Tzfat, Israel:

A Chanukah menorah sits outside a home in Tzfat, Israel

The sun streaks through the clouds over the Eilat Mountains by the Red Sea:

The sun streaks through the clouds over the Eilat Mountains by the Red Sea

A pair of stray cats keep warm on a cool winter day in the Old City of Jerusalem:

A pair of stray cats keep warm on a cool winter day in the Old City of Jerusalem

Does this mean I’m ready to jump back into film photography? Heck no. I think I’d be lost without being able to see the image I just took on the back of the camera. But it is fun to look back through my old film photos and wonder when digital technology will catch up.

Do you have any film photos that do what digital can’t? Please share links to them in the comments section below!

Other posts in the series, How I Became a Professional Photographer and What I Saw Along the Way:

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2011 10:39 am

    if i were a professional i would absolutely be shooting digital, but im a hobbyist and have been exclusively shooting film for the past two years now. i dont shoot film because of any perceived advantages, but for the process. the whole process from choosing film to buy to scanning is a different process. its a process ive come to love. the waiting, the precious 36 shots, etc are what i love about photography, and i would have none of that with a digital.

  2. August 10, 2011 6:36 pm

    Those are just awesome. But it appears that the people, even most of the photographers have moved on. This level of great photography is gone forever?

    • August 10, 2011 6:50 pm

      Now that the megapixel war is over, I think we’ll see huge advances in digital sensors over the next few years that will allow us to capture the same dynamic range we enjoyed with film. And a few years after that, who knows, maybe it’ll even exceed film’s dynamic range?

      • August 11, 2011 8:12 am

        Maybe. But right now my concern is how I can afford to get a DSLR :( I just simultaneously miss a DSLR whenever I’m out with my point-and-shoot. :( :( Don’t know why this stuff is so costly :cry:

  3. catalog printing permalink
    August 10, 2011 8:59 pm

    I have always been fascinated in trying film photography. I think that’s the very essence of photography. Those photos are so cool and lovely. The Red Sea and Jerusalem photos are so great. Keep on shooting!

  4. August 23, 2011 9:53 am

    Avi, you’re absolutely right about everything, for me slide film was all about, Fuji Velvia and Kodakrome, that’s about it and a bunch of filters. There was a moment that I was very enthusiastic about landscape photography and the results on slide film were outstanding. Here is an example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nestmac/6072764275/in/set-72157605713315944 But I think that my taste changed and I feel more now into people.

    Good luck!

    • August 23, 2011 10:30 am

      That’s a cool sunset shot and a perfect example of a scene not easily captured digitally. Funny that you mention Velvia because the first photo in this post was on 35mm Velvia. The rest are 6x7cm Fuji NPC negative film. I mainly shoot people professionally, but I still love shooting landscapes for fun.

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