Sunday, 22 October 2017

The vices (and redeeming virtues) of digital photography

That's a photo I took in August 1990 in a Sussex churchyard, at Itchingfield, in the countryside south-west of Horsham. I was starting to experiment with black-and-white photography. It was taken with a 50mm f/1.8 lens on an Olympus OM-1 SLR camera. I was of course using film. This was no digital shot.

The camera doesn't matter. But the use of film does. It's a pretty ordinary shot really. I'm thinking that nowadays, twenty-seven years on, most people would think this rather a poor picture. No colour; it's not pin-sharp; and the 50mm focal length - once standard on cameras - doesn't lead to a dynamic composition with the kind of steep perspective we have all become accustomed to. Admittedly a churchyard shot ought to look serene, but the scene is decidedly lacking in excitement and pizzazz. Some might say it's boring.

And yet, look closer. (Tap or click on the shot to enlarge it) There is movement in the trees. There's blur there. It's not a painting, but the leaves on those trees have been rendered by film, lens and camera to look rather painterly. And although the brickwork detail of the traditional Sussex house isn't distinct, the house (and indeed everything in the shot) has been shown with a full range of subtle tones, beautifully so. It is in fact one of my nicest black-and-white pictures from that era. And remember, I was just experimenting with a roll or two of bog-standard Ilford film (FP4, I think), and in no way was then an expert with the medium. In fact I was new to SLR cameras, having previously used only fixed-lens compacts. It was a shot that made me believe that I should do more with my cameras, try out new things, and see what I might achieve.

For many, many years, possibly not once in the next twenty-seven years, I didn't go back to Itchingfield, even though it isn't very far away. But the other day I did. It wasn't the best of days - rather dull, with rain threatening much of the time. But I wanted to get out of doors. And besides, I'd found this churchyard shot in my archive, and had resolved to replicate it with the camera on Tigerlily, my Samsung Galaxy S8+ phone. Tigerlily's camera was one of the best of the 2017 phone cameras - meaning that, short of investing mega-money in an SLR with a top lens, or perhaps one of the more capable 'enthusiast' compact cameras, this was the best photo equipment you could have. That's quite a claim, but in terms of a carry-anywhere, always-with-you, flat and lightweight picture-taking device, a phone with a camera like this was unequalled. I took it for granted that even on a dull day Tigerlily would deliver a good picture of anything I chose to photograph, at least at short or medium distances. She ought to take a better picture of a churchyard scene - that churchyard scene - than had been possible in 1990.

I was very keen to see how digital stacked up against film!

I had the 1990 shot on my phone, and could refer to it, to get precisely into position. I wouldn't be able to use the same focal length, 50mm (or rather its digital equivalent). Meaning that I could digitally zoom in from Tigerlily's fixed 26mm-equivalent focal length to get to a '50mm' setting, but wasn't going to do that because it was only a magnification, with double-sized pixels spoiling the result and making a proper shot-comparison impossible. It had to be the 'film best-shot' versus the 'digital best-shot'. So I just used my legs to walk forwards and backwards to achieve the best match with the original shot. This is the result. I cropped away most of the sky afterwards, as the tall tree nearest the camera in the 1990 shot had gone, and there was no point showing blank sky.

And this, for comparison, is the 1990 shot.

I still think the 1990 film shot is - at least to my own eyes - the more attractive. It has captured 'atmosphere' in a way that the 2017 digital shot hasn't. Yes, the 1990 trees are blurry, but they are alive. The digitally-captured tree of 2017 is frozen.

If I were deciding which shot ought to be entered for a photo exhibition, I'd choose the 1990 shot.

This is not to deny the virtues of the 2017 shot. The digital rendition is very sharp. You can see so much detail, and so very clearly. Unnaturally so! The digital shot shows the scene 'how it is'. It's reliable evidence of what was there, leaving nothing to be imagined. Very often that's exactly what I want: not an impressionistic depiction, but a record to refer to later, again and again, of what was really and clearly there when I came.

The detail - and the truth - that a digital camera can capture nowadays is its prime attribute. It's of immense value. I have to admit that the fuzziness in most film shots is, to me, highly irritating. They don't bear magnification. You can't explore detail in a film shot very much, and because of that the world recorded in old photos is, by and large, an indistinct world with much that is out of sharp focus, or lost in the chemically-produced grain of the film, and therefore unknowable. Digital photos provide fine detail, and reveal so much more.

But something else has been lost, something to do with pictorial appeal. Digital photos can be stunning. But are they so beautiful?

Strangely, the same 2017 scene in colour seems to work better, at least for a dull, late-afternoon shot in October.

And colour works pretty well on any picture taken with a capable digital camera, if you just want to get shots of whatever is interesting about a place. That's why phones are such excellent devices for casual photography. Itchingfield churchyard, for instance, possesses a rare feature, a medieval Priest House, like a miniature cottage, almost like an overgrown doll's house.

I'd rather have colour shots of that. And sharp ones at that, showing all the detail! Digital is therefore best.

The church itself has a timber bell-tower.

Again, you'd want the distinct detail that digital rendition provides for architectural features like this. And for sundry other details, such as this stone head.

The church was open. Inside, it was gloomy, almost the dimness of twilight. A real challenge for taking pictures. In film days this lack of light might mean no pictures. Without a fast lens (say f/1.4), and a fast film (say 400ASA) one was lost. It would probably be a waste of expensive film stock to attempt any photography in dim available light. And flash was tricky, giving over-exposure to nearby subjects, stark shadows, and leaving more distant corners in stygian blackness. Elaborate and carefully-planned set-ups with an array of studio lights might work, but that wasn't a practical option for a spur-of-the-moment visit.

However, I expected Tigerlily's camera to cope. And on the whole I wasn't disappointed. The dimmest parts of the interior came out a bit too dark to make a good picture, but nearer the windows the results were very acceptable.

I was astonished with this shot of pumpkins on a window-ledge. Given the fixed f/1.7 aperture of Tigerlily's camera lens, and the bad light, how can it be that all the pumpkins are in good focus?

Remarkable. It was taken (hand-held of course) at 1/25th of a second, a pretty slow shutter speed, and in film days this would mean camera shake and a ruined shot. But modern cameras have image stabilisation that works amazingly well, and completely counteracts the shaky hand. (Although it must help that my hand isn't at all shaky! At least not yet...)

And another point. With digital, or at least with the latest digital cameras, tones and shadows are faithfully replicated, and the colours are true, at all ordinary ISOs. They certainly were at ISO 200, in the pumpkin shot above. That simply wasn't the case with film. Colour faithfulness went south very easily.

Things do degrade a bit if the ISO - the light-sensitivity of the camera's sensor - has to be stepped up for shooting in darker corners, away from the light of the windows. This is a shot of me, standing well away from that light. It's still at 1/25th of a second, but this time at ISO 1000. You can see how I have become indistinct.

And yet it's a triumph of applied technology over poor light. The light level really was very low, and yet much of the detail is still there, and so are the right colours. It's down to very clever and powerful processing inside Tigerlily. Film wouldn't be able to do this.

The shot reminds me of those self-portraits of Rembrandt, who painted himself quite a lot as he grew older. Typically you'd see a resigned, world-worn Rembrandt (in costume) looking out from deep shadows, with rich colours and only selected highlights. As here.

In experimental mood after my last shot - for unlike film, instant digital replay allows study of the shot just taken, and that study informs the next shot - I moved across the nave into slightly better light, in an attempt to 'do another Rembrandt', but an improved version. Same 1/25th second shutter speed, same ISO 1000.

Hmm. The detail is better, though still compromised. Not, however, fatally. In fact the overall effect is pleasing. A successful Rembrandt, then. An elderly face looking out of the shadows, with highlights! I really like the rendition of my woollen coat, and my hair, and the way the metal rim of my specs has caught the light.

I tried another shot.

Oops! Not so good! I've shifted my position just a little. I've raised my chin, and there's more of a smile. The result is a portrait of a haughty (and rather smug) old witch. Oh dear! You've got to be so careful. 

Even so, it shows that the deliberate minor degradation of digital photos - in this case, by using a high ISO - can add something good. A certain controlled technical imperfection, that bestows mood and atmosphere, and a suggestion that this could be a painting. 

I think I'll be experimenting a bit more with high-ISO shots, to see what other effects that might produce. What are the extreme limits of Tigerlily's corrective processing? Will I see odd and interesting things in the results?   

Back home that evening, I had to revert to ordinary shots of what I do. This is the kind of thing one would never, ever waste expensive film on. But in the digital world, it's easy to record all the details of one's daily life, at absolutely no cost. I routinely shot the preparation of my evening meal.

That's exactly what my gammon steak, potatoes, mushrooms, green beans, tomatoes, soy sauce and English mustard looked like on the plate, under the LED-fluorescent lighting of my kitchen. There's no point to a picture like that unless the camera objectively records the precise view before it, without art, artifice or contrived photo effects. And that's what digital does so well. The even more remarkable thing is that it's a tiny stack of moulded plastic lens elements - all you can fit inside a slim phone - that captures these scenes so perfectly, helped out by a super-sensitive sensor and the latest generation of processors. And upcoming phones, with more nimble processors yet, will have even better cameras. 

I do wonder if I'll ever buy another 'proper' camera again, even for a special holiday.  


  1. I remember the distain I felt for digital when it first came out. A family member showed "instant" digital prints one christmas from about a one mega pixel camera and they were terrible. As time went on the quality remained poor for the horrendous camera costs and getting a wide angle shot required using an ultra expensive ultra wide lens from a 35mm film camera to get what would be cheap on film... I estimated 16 mega pixels on a 35 mm sized sensor would be about ideal and waited, it was a long time coming, three decades!

    Having watched you at work in some very tricky conditions with your Tigerlily I can vouch for the amazing internal computing power which aids these modern cameras in Phones. You effortlessly got superb exposures with controlled shadows and highlights which take time on a computer to emulate if at all from a conventional camera. The huge screen size really shows you what you should get and moments later shows you exactly what you did get. The screens on "cameras" are nowhere near as useful for colour or exposure checking and where I never made any extra exposures with film I now find myself using a range of exposures to cover myself and still get disappointed! on a good day with the right light and time to work cameras can be superb but people do look on with suspicion if you are using a camera and you are usually hanging about waiting for the thing to wake from a deep sleep! OH sunset has gone, flight of birds heading your way has passed overhead and is now flying away...

    At social occasions everyone whips out their phones and subjects are happy but at first sight of the camera they freeze, if they are still there !

    What the phone can do is beyond the dreams of science fiction from just a few years ago, see the reporter on the space station in" 2001 a Space Odyssey" or the instant camera in "The Man Who Fell to Earth". I may even get one myself one day.

    Great post Lucy, Tigerlily is doing much better than fine.

  2. Thanks, Coline. I am still a teeny bit wistful for an 'ultimate camera' - possibly a Leica - but realise it can't ever be all that ultimate, and I'd be wasting my cash.


  3. Lucy, I must be happy with what I have now because I no longer even know what is on offer...


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