Digital photography is ruining our skin tones?

February 27, 2008

in digital, photography

I read in the last number of (my favorite general news) magazine, Monocle, about the struggle of film photography, the people that are trying to save it for their art and hobbies (by even stocking it in the freezer) and the advantages that it still holds against the stampeding digital alternative.

While I resurrected my passion for photography some years ago thanks to the progress of digital single-lens-reflex (D-SLR) cameras (my beloved Nikon D70 has been recently replaced by a gorgeous D300), I have recently learned to appreciate the pleasure of analog photography. I never was patient enough to learn dark room techniques, but film photography has some characteristics that might be the seeds to its survival:

– the extra dedication on composition and “thinking” of the shot. It’s just too costly (plus you don’t have immediate feedback) to shoot as if your camera were and Uzi machine gun, so you have to carefully compose and snap when you think you’ve got it
– polaroids (It has recently been announced that Polaroid will be discontinuing instant film): these pics are not only unique but also instantaneously touchable, and digital can’t just match that.
– grain: in digital it can be imitated, but it lacks the randomness of the real one.
– from the snobbish point of view, now everyone does digital, so going back to analog is a way of differentiating and has a particular “charm”.
– hardware reliability: my Nikon F3 can work with almost no energy consumption (and Nikon’s fully mechanical cameras of the F2 series can be used in the desert or in the freezing pole with no battery at all). Besides, after several decades the camera is just as valid as it was when it was first launched. Can you imagine using your present digicam in 5 years time?
– the expectancy to see the results obtained: this is not necessarily an advantage, but when I go to the lab to retrieve my developed negatives/prints, there’s that mix of anxiety and curiosity to see how did they come.

The first article that confronts digital/analog photography is “Save our skintones” by Tyler Brûlé – Monocle’s founder and editor in chief. Mr. Brûlé complains mainly about the difference there is in color quality between the two technologies, specially if compared printed stuff.

“In the pages of Vogue and InStyle leading boys and breakthrough girls appear as if they might have liver conditions judging by their skin tones” writes Mr. Brûlé

In my amateur photographic experience and professional printing experience (of high quality brochures, mags, etc) I found that the gap can be easily closed if several measures are taken:

  • Printing quality: first of all, to compare the two outputs, you cannot use standard/pro printed film and a digital photo printed using a home printer. You require a professional print from digital, which impacts heavily on the quality of paper and most importantly on the quality of inks/pigments and the color gamut they allow to reproduce.
  • Color correction: it is done in analog too. If you see well reproduced skin tones in a film photo print, it means that the photographer has worked on it. You must use the right film to balance the available light (tungsten, daylight) in order to reproduce the color temperature correctly. If you make use of flash/strobes you sometimes need to apply gels for the same reason. This is necessary only in color photography of course, as black&white does not suffer of this. Equivalently, in digital photography you have to select the right white balance to meet the present light. The advantage of digital is that if you shoot in raw format, you can do this after the pic has been taken, but you must remember to do it!
  • Screen color calibration: the screens of our computers don’t reproduce colors correctly unless you calibrate them using dedicated hardware & software. Calibration is connected to the output source too (type of printer, technology, etc).
  • When you consider the printing process of a magazine, some other technical factors must be considered. From the printing machines used (roto-offsett or flat) to the color adjustments, the constancy of them and the types/amounts of inks used (from the 4 CYMK to even 10 or more dedicated pantone inks).
  • Apart from these technical aspects, I think that some fashion models look sick anyway and this is more of a trend than a printing problem!

Due to the acceleration brought by digital photography, it’s easy that you might forget to carefully work on these aspects during the workflow that will produce the printed version of your capture. But only once all these aspects have been taken care of you can try to compare a digital and an analog print… and at this point you’ll see that differences -if any- are almost not present. There’s one aspect that digital cannot reproduce, or at least not with the same philosophy, and it is grain. In film, grain is produced by the chemical interaction of different substances that produce a unique result with a random disposition of its particles. Digital grain instead is the product of a software algorithm which produces only “artificial” randomness.

So the conclusion is that to get those superb skin tones that you find in [well treated] analog photography, you must be just as careful when producing prints from digital. Conceptually the points to take care of are the same, in practice they require some different abilities that are not always present even in professional outputs.

Brandeburg Tor
Polaroid instant photo taken during my last visit to Berlin

I’ll discuss about how could analog photography be saved from oblivion in a future post. I think that an important change must be applied on the business model and supply chain (shift to cooperation and partnership of film producers).

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