Do you shoot digital?” is a question I am asked so many times. The reason is I shot my first film photographs in 1950. My first digital photographs were published in a 24/7 America, 2003. Took me a while to adjust.
Yes I shoot digital. And I also shoot film. I have a number of different cameras for films—A Leica M6; an old Plaubel with a fixed 47mm lens that shoots 2 ¼ x 3 inch format on 120 film; a 6×7 Pentax that makes a 2 ¼ x 2 ¾ inch negatives; a 6×17 (2 ¼ x 7 inch neg) Fuji Panoramic; a 4×5 Linhof, and a Nikon D90.
For digital I use a Nikon 700 system, which is 12 megapixels and I eventually will upgrade to the 800 system. I did have a Leica M9. I loved the lenses but not the camera. The battery was not powerful enough and the switch was too easy to go from off to on when putting it in the case. The higher ISO’s had too much noise but worst of all, it was not moisture proof. When I used the M9 in a snowstorm, water leaked into the viewfinder and fogged it. Focusing the 50mm 1.4 wide open for head shots, which I wanted to do for bokeh—out of focus background— was a hit and miss job. I didn’t consider the camera professional, so I sold it. Also, I felt uncomfortable with such an expensive camera hanging around my neck.
Each camera has a job. The Nikon is used for journalism and any subject that is to be used for the web. It is also very, very good with noise and low light shooting with auto focus makes it a potent tool. I have two zoom lenses, expensive, but the rest are prime lenses, and some are manual.
When I convert digital to black and white I use Alien Skin, which is software for adding film grain to digital images. I prefer the grain of Tri X for most of my work. I like the feeling of gritty grain and the increased contrast. I did not use Alien Skin for the images used in my latest book, A Lifetime of Vermont People. The photos were scanned once by me, then put through a proprietary process for making duotones by the printer and then printed. I wanted maximum sharpness, brilliance and dmax and figured the image was going through enough without Alien Skin.
All digital and film images go through Photoshop. I use the software to clean the pix, enhance color for stock photos, and convert to black and white. I do in Photoshop what I did in the darkroom. I do not manipulate the images or background although have added the moon but it is always positioned in the photograph where it comes up. Basically, I want a simple photograph where nothing detracts from the reason why you took the photograph.
More of my work is becoming documentary—an honest record of the culture of our time. The Leica M6 is for personal work and for quick shots when I am using larger format cameras. The Nikon D90 is a back up for whatever emergency or requirement comes up that needs film.
I am, in many cases, switching to color negative and I scan edited negatives into the computer. I like the softer palate and the ability to use Photoshop to leave it as color or convert to black and white. I use two Nikon 9000 scanners with Silverfast software and this is a very good scanning set up. I also have an Epson 700 flat bed, also with Silverfast. Almost all of my film work is now shot with 6×7 and larger format cameras.
And yes, I have a darkroom where I can make prints up to 20×24 if I have to, but prefer not to go over 16×20 size. Some fine art people collect only the old silver gelatin prints. I like the toning and the possibility to use older processing methods of making prints. I also make very limited editions with my darkroom prints. All this is personal and fine art type of photography. So why do I go to this trouble? I like to loupe a negative on a light table, you know, looking at the sharpness, the detail, the grain. Through a loupe I gain an intimacy with the negative. I like the sense of grain in a photograph and having a negative in my hand rather than a digital residing someplace in the clouds and who knows what is going to happen to digital images, the disks, and the machines they are not kept on? For instance, say a giant sunspot knocks out the electricity in North America and we’ll be lucky to have it back in a year? Be good to have a film camera, a cache of film and developer and a darkroom. Back to the dark ages, so to speak?
Yes, I must admit, prints made from a scan on a good machine have more dynamic range that a print made in the darkroom (usually). And I’m old fashioned. But let’s face it, digital has opened up a new realm to photography that is a blend of techniques, words, motion, film, color, black and white combined with the possibility of adding a dimension to the work. I’ll be dead when they finally figure it out and very few, usually artists, will be making wet prints—those made in the darkroom.