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|| News Item: Posted 2006-03-02

Is Film Dead?
'Having that answer come to me so quickly was heartbreaking.'

By Trent Nelson, Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Salt Lake Tribune photographer Danny Chan La develops film on deadline in a public bathroom, Utah State University, 1998.
(Editor's note: With the advancements in digital technology the days of a news photographer heading out to cover an event with a "pocketful of Tri-X and a Nikkormat with a 24mm lens" are over. Or are they? The Sports Shooter Newsletter asked four photographers to address the question on whether film is still viable in this day and age of gig-a-bytes, pixels and Photoshop.)

A good friend popped the question. No, not that question, this one:
"Take one of your all-time favorite photos. You know, a career-best portfolio image. Would you rather have it shot on film in your Leica or on a high-end digital SLR?"

The answer came so quickly that I didn't even have to think. Digital. No question. I'd rather have a RAW digital file, around 17 mega-pixels or so, than the Tri-X negative I had loved for so many years. And yet, having that answer come to me so quickly was heartbreaking. It forced me to acknowledge that the romantic era of film in my life had been replaced by cold, efficient, binary technology. And I hadn't even noticed.

The days of film were great times. Sorry if you're too young and you missed it. Everything looked so crisp and sharp right out of the camera. Dust was no issue. There were even cameras that ran (gasp!) without any batteries whatsoever. They called it "mechanical," I think. Photographers used to spend a couple hours each day processing film and making prints. And get this- while developing and printing we would actually talk to each other. Face to face.

Yes, it's true. You would actually see your colleagues and have the opportunity to swap stories and laugh when one of your co-workers came in and started washing out his Domke bag in the sink. He had gone to photograph a dog obedience class and a golden retriever pissed in it (true story).

Sadly, the day is here when young photographers will have no experience with film. For those of you, here's what it was like:

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

The "analog" desktop. Cluttered light table in the Salt Lake Tribune photo lab, 1997.
You take this light-sensitive roll of plastic and expose it in the camera. Then, in the dark, you roll it onto this reel thingy and dip it into a chemical, jiggling it around every minute or so, then another chemical, then another chemical, (okay to turn on the lights now? yes.) then a really bad, carcinogenic chemical. After that you dry off the plastic and cut it into strips so you can slide it into a protective sleeve. Next, pick the one you like, remove it from the sleeve, shine a light bulb through it onto a piece of light sensitive paper...on and on... and at the end of all that, you have ONE print.

Yes, it's blasphemy to reduce the subtleties of the darkroom like that just for a laugh. But so be it. It was a ridiculous amount of work. The advantages of digital outweigh every drawback by a huge margin.

For me, it comes down to the reality of what we do as photographers. To get your image out in the market, into a book, onto a poster, onto a print- it's all done digitally now. To gain exposure through a slide page or a box of darkroom prints in today's world is a fool's errand.

The film days will always remain a retrocrush for me. But now those two hours of developing and printing are spent putting a finer eye into editing. Digital has given us total control over color, contrast, and soon, focus and exposure. Your originals are no longer pieces of plastic. They are binary code that can be copied (we used to say "duped") with no loss in quality. Your photos can be put in a web gallery open 24/7 internationally in a matter of seconds. How could we ever go back?

(Trent Nelson is the chief photographer of the Salt Lake Tribune. He is a frequent contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

Related Links:
Trent's member page

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