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|| News Item: Posted 2004-05-30

Leaving Film Behind
By Trent Nelson, Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson

Photo by Trent Nelson

Trent's kids putting an end to his zip disks.
I was visiting an old friend, a successful commercial photographer who went digital about a year about when the 11- megapixel Canon 1Ds came out. Like anyone who could, he had waited until the quality in digital met his needs before he made the jump from film. Everything about his studio was high-end in 2004 digital studio terms- the computer, the inkjet, the DVD burner.

It wasn't until I peeked in his equipment locker that I was surprised. Stacked row after row, twenty high: 1 Gigbabyte compact flash cards. There were four hundred and thirty-three, numbered in sequence with red sharpie.

"This is crazy!" I said. "What are you doing with all of these cards?"

"Yeah, it's the stupidest thing about digital," he said. "I can't figure out what to do with these cards, and they're so damned expensive. I think I'll hold onto them for a year and then throw them out."

"You're going to throw out four hundred compact flash cards?"

"Well, they take up too much space," he said. "It's too bad that you can't use them more than once."

Okay, enough kidding around. On to the real story.

I had lunch with the talented David Krantz recently. He's a student at UC Berkeley who takes photography seriously. We spent a long time expounding from either side of the digital divide, him sticking up for film and me for digital. Through the conversation we forced each other to look at things from the opposite perspective. And we both left a little more enlightened.

Krantz played a wonderful devil's advocate to my plan to stop using film altogether. He brought up a number of legitimate concerns about digital photography and forced me to make sure I've thought this through. It was a great lunch, and it was very odd to find myself- the guy with 35mm film
tattooed around his ankle- actually stating that my days shooting film for any reason were rapidly coming to a close. I'd like to present his concerns (as I remember them) and the ways I've come up with to cope with them.

CONCERN: With digital, you've got no negative, no physical original to go back to. With film, you can always go back to the master copy- the negative. Prints and negatives properly processed and stored will last at least a century, which is a safer bet than the uncertain future of digital storage.

RESPONSE: True. Even the best printer won't make a print that would keep me happy if I lost the original digital file. But with digital I can make multiple copies that are identical in quality to the original, which I can store in multiple locations to increase their security. And unlike film, where the processed negative is locked into its final form, my digital images will actually get better in the future, as new versions of RAW converters provide better and better quality, and interpolation programs allow me to enlarge my images beyond their original size.

Then there are new technologies like DxO Optics Pro ( that take it a step further, enabling digital technology to fix analog shortcomings. DxO takes into account the design flaws and physical shortcomings of each lens and perfects the image digitally, eliminating
things like distortion, chromatic aberration, and vignetting. In the future, this kind of digital correction of the imperfections of lens physics could be built right into the camera, which will switch its algorithms each time you change lenses. Unbelievable.

CONCERN: Computer hardware and software is quickly outdated. And file formats disappear, making the files unreadable. How can you guarantee that you'll even be able to open your files ten, twenty, fifty years from now?

RESPONSE: No worries here. Barring a society-ending nuclear holocaust, I am confident that my files will be usable in the future. Thanks to an army of videogame fanatics and nostalgia-obsessed programmers, software that will "emulate" a variety of older computers and video game consoles from the 1970's onward is widely available (in most cases for free). In fact, every piece of software written for my first computer (an Apple 2) fits on just one CD-R disc and I can run all of them on a PC or Mac. While I don't have my data files from back in the 1980's, if I had simply copied them to the next system, they would still be usable on any modern computer. Twenty years from now I will be able to emulate the PowerBook I'm using right now on devices far beyond today's technology. As for file formats, I am slightly concerned about certain formats like Photoshop and Nikon and Canon's RAW formats. With emulation I'll be able to open the files, but I want it to be easier than that. To make my Photoshop and RAW files survival easier, I keep a copy of the originals in Tiff format.

JPEG will be replaced soon with a better compression format (just as mp3 is being phased out for the better audio formats like AAC and OGG), but JPEG it is so widespread that it won't go away completely for decades, if even then. There are just too many JPEG images out there (trillions) for it to disappear.

CONCERN: Computer media is unreliable and untested when it comes to shelf life. If all your work is on CD, how do you know the CD's will last for long periods of time. And how do you know CD's will be readable in the future. Isn't it entirely possible that they become as obsolete as 8-track tapes, if the data on them even lasts that long?

RESPONSE: You're right. This is a serious concern. You can't count on CD's lasting more than ten years, or even being widely used in ten years. They will go the way of the floppy, Syquest, Zip Disk, etc. You need to be ready to keep your archive mobile. And you need to be secure. Burn at least two copies of everything. I don't count on my DVD's lasting more than ten years, so I'll have to continue to move things onto new storage mediums- the most convenient today being firewire hard drives.

CONCERN: The common theory of avoiding the previous two problems is that you have to migrate your digital files from one medium to another, i.e. copy zip disks to CD-R, CD-R to DVD-R, DVD-R to the next thing. That is a huge time and labor commitment just to keep your work safe and current.

RESPONSE: I used to think the same way, but migration hasn't been too bad. The worst part is moving from removable storage like a CD or DVD onto a hard drive. Once you're on a hard drive, migration is a drag and drop piece of cake. And with hard drives always getting bigger, cheaper, and faster, I almost look forward to future migrations, which will be very quick- just copy from one drive to another. Don't forget, $299 bought a 96MB compact flash card in 1999. In 2001, $299 bought a 256MB card, and right now 1GB cards are easily found for $249. Some day I'll have my entire 500 gigabyte photo archive stored on some kind of card that fits in my pocket and accessible on a palmtop. It's already possible with my music collection.

CONCERN: Another problem with the migration solution. If even one bit of information in a file is copied incorrectly- and you'll be copying billions of bits of information- the image will be corrupted. You will lose images.

RESPONSE: This is a possibility, but I think the odds of it happening are small enough that I'll take the risk. Computers are very efficient machines. Most software verifies your copy as you go, especially backup programs, to ensure there are no mistakes. It could happen, but then again if someone turns on the lights while developing film I'm screwed, too.

CONCERN: How do you decide what to keep? It's very easy to store your negatives, going back to any event quickly eyeing each negative through the loupe. It's very difficult to wade into hundreds of files on raw take CD's. If you're keeping everything, the CD's and DVD's are going to pile up fast and in ten years they might be corrupted or useless.

RESPONSE: This is the one concern that I have no easy answer for at the moment. My DVD's of raw takes are building faster than breeding rabbits. I don't really know what to do with them, other than keep stacking them up. The cost of keeping them doesn't bother me, as DVD's are a bargain. I think back to the film days when we'd file each 36 exposure roll of film into an 18 cent plastic negative filing page. All I can tell you is that I burn two copies of my raw takes. But since DVD's won't last forever I'll have to make some tough decisions in the future.

Looking back on this conversation with David Krantz, I see that I have always straddled the two worlds of film and digital. I miss the mastery that came with years of developing and printing my own black and white. Working with film was magical, and darkroom printing was true craft. But I also get excited as digital cameras get faster and better with each release, forcing me to improve my shooting skills just to keep up with the camera.

Film purists, you're right: I still can't come close to that beautiful Tri-X look with a digital camera. And not having negatives anymore is a bit like walking into an unknown future. But then I think of things like the Canon 1D Mark 2, Noise Ninja, and Nikon Capture 4. Photography has never been so good, with amazing products coming out all the time. And once I get a digital camera with a full-frame sensor and a tone setting called "Salgado" I'll at last be content.

(Trent Nelson is the chief photographer of the Salt Lake Tribune and a regular contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter. He will be conducting a breakout class at the Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau titled: "Photography 9-1-1: Giving Your Photography the Heimlich Maneuver".)

Related Links:
Trent Nelson's member page

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