Progress, Progress and more Regress? Analogue Photography and the Digital World.

By Tony Warren

In the beginning were the Knoll brothers.

It is a built in aspect of the human condition that we never seem to stand still. Whatever innovation man’s ingenuity devises there is always someone who will improve and eventually replace it. Generally this is to the overall benefit and some things will also filter back to the earlier technology.

The seduction

When digital imaging began its burgeoning takeover in the 1990s, there was resistance from some quarters and immediate acceptance by others, much like when digital watches and calculators came on the scene some decades earlier. Just like back then, I fell into the second category, reveling in the ability to do the equivalent of producing ‘shelloil’ on the LED display by calculating a specific number and turning it upside down. I tried various degrees of image manipulation in the early days, from adding a light beam to a lighthouse, to producing a larger than 5×4, 300dpi print from my 2mp Olympus with a multi-image stitch, to a many layered composition on the classical theme of ‘Ophelia’ a little later.

Kodachrome original processed on Photoshop and Affinity Photo to add light beam.
Kodachrome original processed on Photoshop and Affinity Photo to add light beam.
Five shot stitch with Olympus C2000 2mp camera
Five shot stitch with Olympus C2000 2mp camera
Multi-layer composition of colour neg images and digital constructs processed in Photoshop CS
Multi-layer composition of colour neg images and digital constructs processed in Photoshop CS

To judge by the number of articles still being written about digital post processing in magazines and online using the ubiquitous Adobe software and its many, subsequent imitators/competitors, this aspect remains a powerful attraction of the technology.

The benefits

For myself, I think this is a good thing. The more people are attracted to using a camera, the more R & D funding will be generated and the more the technology will advance. This is not always perfect of course, all advances in knowledge bring good and bad in their wake. On balance, the net result is usually to the good and benefits everyone who uses the technology responsibly.

We have seen this in action all through photography’s history with cameras evolving from something that required considerable effort, study and dedication in order to produce a good photograph into a tool that is easy to use and produces amazingly good images almost automatically. We see some simply staggeringly good images that would never have seen the light of day previously, either because the equipment available was simply not up to the job or the photographer would not have gained the necessary, difficult, technical skills to fulfil their vision but which are now built in to cameras and software to help them. This is not in any way disparaging. I know we analogue types still put ourselves through it but, let’s face it, we enjoy the ritual, don’t we? In practical terms it isn’t the least bit necessary. It is the image that matters, not how it is made.

Maturity?

The initial novelty wears off of course. The advances available, particularly where computers are concerned, encourages a selective approach and only the things personally useful are employed. In my case, as I reverted to the hybrid workflow I had used in the early days of scanning and processing film and making prints digitally, I once again appreciated the benefits to image quality that had first persuaded me to change. It had been a definite a step up from what I had ever achieved in the darkroom and much more convenient into the bargain. Now it was also a means of extracting the same pleasure from my photography that I began to realise had been pushed aside with the advent of digital cameras.

Stage shot on HP5+ with Mamiya 645 Super and 150 lens.
Stage shot on HP5+ with Mamiya 645 Super and 150 lens.

Practicality

A significant benefit to analogue workflow for me is improving the quality of the output, improving image quality. My opening comparison image of a Manchester night scene in the early 1960s is subtle but fine detail is improved and the information available greatly enhanced. A harder grade of paper in the darkroom would have brought out more detail in the mid-tones but at the expense of highlights. Using the Curves adjustment in software allows mid-tones to be given more contrast without affecting the rest of the image. In this case an application of Clarity has had much the same effect.

The funicular tramway at Töllerturm, Wuppertal, Germany now built over.
The funicular tramway at Töllerturm, Wuppertal, Germany now built over.
Tramway station again from original negative.
Tramway station again from original negative.

In this further example, I scanned a contemporary contact print of a photo taken on a school exchange visit to Wuppertal, Germany in the 1950s and processed a copy in Affinity Photo. The original scan with minimal processing to match the print is shown alongside the processed version. An image from the original negative with a processed version is also shown treated in the same way. Again, fine detail is enhanced.

Scan of print of sculpture at Macmichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario processed in Affinity Photo
Scan of print of sculpture at Macmichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario processed in Affinity Photo
Totem pole, Horseshoe Bay near Vancouver, Canada. Original print left, processed right.
Totem pole, Horseshoe Bay near Vancouver, Canada. Original print left, processed right.
Olympus C200 in action , San Juan, Puerto Rico. Original left, processed right.
Olympus C200 in action , San Juan, Puerto Rico. Original left, processed right.

In these other examples, much later machine C41 prints were given the same treatment. Even though the quality of the original is much better, a definite improvement is still possible.

These images have only benefited from straightening, tonal and sharpness improvements and only scratch the surface of what can be done if you chose to. They also show that working from the original negative gives better results than scanning a print. I hope they make my point.

So what?

These thoughts are as much a homage to the skills of the inventors, scientists and engineers who have brought us to where we are now as it is to photography itself which has preserved my sanity through the trials and tribulations of 60 or more years of adult life. It still intrigues and delights me after all this time. A quality still image has considerable impact, whether printed on paper or viewed on a screen and I doubt it will ever pale.

So thank you Niécephore, William Henry, Louis, and brothers Thomas and John, along with all those who have gone in between. We are forever in your debt, something I will perhaps never say about the more worrying developments in computer technology.

The increased use of AI is, like all new things, good and bad in parts, the good things being very good of course, but the less desirable uses it can be put to less so. As a film photographer, I feel it is another step along the way to relinquishing all control over the process of photographic image making, or indeed any image making. This contrasts completely with the original processes where almost every stage was under the individual’s control, almost hand-made like a painting.

Along with all the other technological advances that have turned photography on its head, AI may have its place and benefits. I doubt it will ever appeal to the particular gene we seem to possess or to anyone who seeks to create something personal to themselves. The knee-jerk reaction to photography at its own birth was “art is dead” of course. But it wasn’t and in fact it developed into a much better medium as a result. So perhaps the human trait of adapting will eventually bring out the best in AI just as it has with computers themselves. Certainly, if the image is what is important rather than how it is made, it can be for the good.

Keeping an alert and open mind, we will perhaps find a way of using it alongside film and discover a hybrid of a hybrid use for it in due course.

(Photos were scanned on a multi-function printer/scanner and digitised copies of negatives produced with a Sony A3000 with 55mm Ai’d Micro Nikkor and adapters, all processed in Affinity Photo.)

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About The Author

By Tony Warren
In my 60 or so years of serious involvement in photography I have seen the demise of the viewfinder, the rise of the SLR and the eclipse of them all with the meteoric development of the digital camera. Through it all, however, and above all else, the image is what it is all about so I now use film alongside digital. Whatever is the most appropriate or practical. My contributions will hopefully be useful for anyone interested in using film and also how a died-in-the-wool antique like me is continuing his life-long addiction in the digital age, using both platforms. The major benefit of an extended retirement is that I can spend most of my time nowadays with photography and writing about it.
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Comments

Brian Nicholls on Progress, Progress and more Regress? Analogue Photography and the Digital World.

Comment posted: 08/08/2023

Interesting posting Tony. In all matters, the only consistent ingredient is .....CHANGE.
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Tony Warren replied:

Comment posted: 08/08/2023

Oh, so very true Brian.

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Sacha Cloutier on Progress, Progress and more Regress? Analogue Photography and the Digital World.

Comment posted: 02/08/2023

What a very fun article! Thank you. There is so much to extrapolate from here. On a personal note, I learned on 35mm, switched to digital, and in the pandemic, found my way back to film, in 35mm and 120. Last month I started returning to digital again but the last 3 years of film photography have taught me so much. I think that that is an important example of the benefits that the various formats provide. They don’t need to be opposing. Loving film does not forcibly mean that you need to hate digital and vice versa. Using both to create what you see in your mind’s eye is a strength. As for your last bit about AI, I agree that it can have its positives on our medium. If we look at photographic history, I’m sure that those using wet plates balked at the idea of celluloid. To this day, some black and white photographers shun the idea of color. Our community is not without its skepticisms and judgements. The manual FM2 was often kept in case the F3’s electronics failed. Autofocus was not for purists. It goes on. I myself see the potential for AI as a planning or outline tool. Tell it what you want and build your project from there. It’s like a rough sketch of what you want to produce. You want a model to be interested in your idea, you don’t need to know how to sketch to show them. AI won’t replace our passion, just like photography did not kill painting, radio did not kill written mediums, video did not, in fact, kill the radio star. Betamax is dead though, that’s not coming back.
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Tony Warren replied:

Comment posted: 02/08/2023

Thank you Sacha, we seem to be on the same page where image making is concerned. Your example of using AI to get an idea to a model is good one. I think the word to describe this approach is pragmatism. Shame about Betamax but then my iMac is so much better than the Spectrum I started with.

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Paul Quellin on Progress, Progress and more Regress? Analogue Photography and the Digital World.

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Very enjoyable article to read. Reassuring that I am not alone with my conflicting feelings about film, digital, the two combined and the possibly menacing presence of AI. I wasn't sure how guilty I should feel about mixing digital and film. In some cases I have further edited images and sometimes I have felt I must not do it. Reading Tony's post puts me more at ease. Thank you.
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Tony Warren replied:

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Thanks Paul. As I said to Sacha, pragmatism is the best approach to it all. Horses for courses.

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terry johnson on Progress, Progress and more Regress? Analogue Photography and the Digital World.

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Keep the faith analog is another tool like digital to record what we are sensing visually in our world. Each has its place.
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Tony Warren replied:

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Bang on Terry. Thanks.

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Huss on Progress, Progress and more Regress? Analogue Photography and the Digital World.

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Excellent article. I use LR to maximize the recorded information captured on my film. But do not necessarily use it all!
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Tony Warren replied:

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Thanks Huss.

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Gus on Progress, Progress and more Regress? Analogue Photography and the Digital World.

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Great, thoughtful post! The hybrid workflow (film negatives scanned and processed on a computer) made photography so much more accessible to me. And now I'm slowly creeping towards the darkroom and optical prints. I was recently introduced to the "Gartner hype cycle" to represent the adoption/maturity of technologies (it's a good Wikipedia article!). With respect to AI, I think we're somewhere between the descent into the "trough of disillusionment" and the climb into the "slope of enlightenment". I'm looking forward to the AI tool in Lightroom for removing dust from negative scans (the IR dust-reduction built into my scanner just doesn't cut it), and improved spellcheck in MS word. Love the photo of the Horseshoe Bay totem pole!
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Tony Warren replied:

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Read the Wikipedia article Gus. It is very true to life in fact and I can see how it didn't cut the mustard with the scientific community, dealing with a very subjective process after all. The modern-day need to have everything exactly defined with no room for individual interpretation is a very bad thing I feel. I just hope that with enlightenment will come responsibility. AI is after all just a refinement of computer applications, which already do so many tasks that require accurate repeatability so well. I hope it matures in a similar way for your spelling and dust spotting's sake. Thanks.

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Jalan on Progress, Progress and more Regress? Analogue Photography and the Digital World.

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Seems to me there has long been a divide in the photography world. On one side are the "technicians" or people who strive for images that are technically "correct" and mirror what the eye sees. On the other side are "artists" or people who produce photographs that are meant to evoke an emotional reaction. Digital tools are becoming so good that there is almost no point to being a technician - anyone can produce a technically flawless image. But flawless images are also boring images. Analog techniques (I shoot film and wet plate), once the last refuge of the technicians, are being adopted by the artists. Technicians work hard to overcome the flaws of analog while artists embrace the flaws for their artistic value. My wet plates are themselves objects of art; the "flaws" are part of the story!
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Tony Warren replied:

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Hi Jalan. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I quite agree with you that there are the two "sides" as you put it, it is much the same in any field where creativity is involved. Working with wet plate photography is a massive technical achievement in itself. To then take the work to a level that can be appreciated as art is taking it to the creative level. So it seems to me that you are mastering both sides of the divide. The creative cannot exist without the technical, a kind of symbiosis, so why see them as separate entities? My strongest influence when I became serious about photography was Ansel Adams and you can't get much more technical than him. Yet his portrait of an elderly lady through a screen door (Folio V/plate 8) evokes as much emotion for me as any other photographic image I have seen. The sadness in her eyes and her separation behind the screen implies so much loneliness. Yet the fine pattern of the fly screen material is clearly defined. Equally I am just as moved by Edward Steichen's gum and platinum prints which subdued detail to a considerable degree. Both men were undoubtedly artists, each choosing his preferred medium to convey his ideas. I applaud the fact that these ans all the other approaches that are possible can exist together and provide such a broad spectrum of expression to be appreciated by those who have the eye and the soul to do so.

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jalan replied:

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Bravo Tony, well said! We start out loving light and end up loving the tools. The tools are so seductive. But the tools are not the point - the light is. Of course, the tool makers are indispensable. Where would we be without all the people who make the cameras and invent the processes? So room in the world for all kinds of people and I celebrate that.

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Tony Warren replied:

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Here here Jalan and thanks. No craftsperson would consider less than the best tool they could afford to be able to produce their best effort.

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Geoff Chaplin on Progress, Progress and more Regress? Analogue Photography and the Digital World.

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Lies, damned lies, and digital. That is my gut reaction to digital photography. But as you show digital processing can be used to improve an analogue image in subtle ways using simple tools. Of course I occasionally distribute images on the net so scanning and digital processing is necessary - but I stick to straightening, cropping and minor curve changes only if necessary. Digital for me has a role for scientific work - unmanipulated record taking - and of course, living in Japan, recording breakfast, lunch and dinner before I eat it. Thanks for the interesting article and worthwhile comparisons.
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Tony Warren replied:

Comment posted: 01/08/2023

Thank you Geoff. I totally agree that digital is simply a useful tool within the whole world of image-making, more used by some than others.

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