I hear the nouveaux filmistas talking of ‘the look of film’, but what is it? Is there a magic or secret sauce that film has and digital can’t do?
From looking at old Photography Year Books or magazines I could say that the traditional film look is low dynamic range, odd colours, grain and blur. But equally, I’ve got digital pictures that look like I doodled them in crayon while blindfolded.
I know in the early days of digital it was easy to tell them apart. Digital had a visual smoothness – a lack of fine detail or grain. Not so much the grain though – it was perfectly possible to make smooth and grainless film images (if only I’d learned how). I think it was the lack of fine detail. And then digital got more pixels and a wider dynamic range and it could be as fine or as gnarly as film. So what now is the film look?
I can add grain to a digital picture if I want to. I can emulate the colours of Kodak or Fuji or almost any brand or age of film. Crush the shadows to black? Put a halo around the highlights? All easy enough. Double exposures? I used to think this was only possible on film, but then I learned how to do it with digital. So what is the magic that only film has?
I wonder if the look of film is actually the rendering of the older lenses we used? If I put an old film-era lens onto a digital sensor, would I get the magical look of film without the inconvenience? Maybe what people call the look of film is the look of older lenses? And what happens if I use a modern digital-era highly corrected lens on a film camera? Do I get the look of digital?
I think film has a couple of unique things, but you won’t see them in the final image. One is longevity: film is a physical medium and if you hold it up to the light you will understand that it contains pictures. This is less obvious with a memory card. So even if we can no longer read an old storage medium, we can scan or project film. The other is that you can revisit film with newer technology and get more out of it. I upgraded my scanner some years back and got better scans. Then I learned to use my scanner and got even better scans. My digital files will never reveal more detail than they already have. Actually, there’s a third thing – I can tell my analogue images apart from my digital by the scratches, dust and hairs.
But am I missing something? Is there a film look that only film has?