For the last two weeks or so I have become a bit, uh, obsessed with this matter of “the film look.” It all began when I posted an Instagram story reflecting on some thoughts from my time shooting exclusively digital over the last few months. In the story I stated outright that there is no such thing as “the film look” and that any qualities that we might use to define it can be pretty well emulated by digital manipulation. This wasn’t a revelation. I have held this position for years, ever since shooting a combination of medium format film and digital and noticing that I was able to make my digital images and my film images look at least passably identical. Grain, tonality, even the latitude/highlight rendition of film can be pretty well copied via digital sensor technology and digital manipulation thanks to the juggernaut that is technological dynamism.
To be completely honest though there is always something that keeps me from standing too firmly in the “the film look is BS” camp. My eyes are always drawn across enemy lines, so to speak. Or maybe it’s my heart. I have been shooting film for a long time and that old film affinity and the lurking sense that there is a rendering that is just special or unique in my film results never fails to unravel any overly certain dismissal of the “magic” of the medium. Whenever I go through my backlog of images I can’t help but feel a certain fondness for some special something that I find my film work rather than my digital images.
The fondness for film that draws me toward affirming the reality of “the film look” and my sense that it may be bullshit created a kind of internal struggle in the wake of broaching this topic online. The number of stimulating conversations that I had from both sides didn’t help quell my desire for definitive answers either. So, growing tired of endless theoretical speculation and the tension of waffling back and forth between my perspectives I decided to conduct something of a test to try and get a better hold on this issue. The following describes the test, results, and offers some interpretations of my findings.
Putting things to the test: Principle and Process
The principles of my test were relatively simple:
1) Shoot a number of photos on both film and digital
2) Develop, scan, and process my film images per my usual procedures to provide a sound baseline for a film sample*
3) Try to match the digital images to the finished film images
With this test in mind I made my way out to a local haunt of mine equipped with my Canon 5D MkI and a Canon 50/1.8 STM as my digital setup and my Minolta XD5 and 50/1.4 loaded with HP5 for the film setup, oh and a tripod (ugh). Both the film and digital versions were shot from the tripod so as to keep compositions as close to identical as possible. Shutter speeds were set from the Minolta and then transferred to the 5D so as to keep exposures identical as well. Both lenses were set to a constant f/5.6. The HP5 was shot at box speed, and the 5D sensor was therefore set to 400ISO.
After shooting was complete the film was developed in Ilfotec HC at a dilution of 1+31 for 6.5 minutes, given a water stop bath, and fixed in Photographer’s Formulary TF5. Film was digitized with a Plustek 8100 and Silverfast SE Plus at a resolution of 3600DPI, saved as a TIFF and given final adjustments in Lightroom. The 5D files were also brought into Lightroom and the finalized film versions were used as the guiding rubric for processing the digital files, the primary aim of course being to duplicate the film results as closely as possible.
*By working from a final film image I am hoping to circumvent the murkier issue of defining what exactly “the film look” is. A film image presumably has it if it is real.
Below are five pairs of images: each contains one film image, and one digital copy doing its best to duplicate the original film image. Can you tell which is film and which is the digital copy?
How did you do? Maybe you know already but if you don’t the digital is always on the left side if you are viewing from a desktop, or on the top if you are viewing from a mobile device. Now that you know, how did you do?
Looking over the finished pairs I think it is safe to say that the digital copies routinely get 90-100% of the way to copying the film images. In other words the differences range from barely perceptible to imperceptible. I’m personally convinced that if one was presented with a random sampling of these images it would be difficult to impossible to tell whether an image was the real deal HP5 or a digital fake (I am especially convinced of this because I myself often got confused about which image I was looking at in the process of doing this whole test).
For the 1-10% difference that separates barely perceptible and imperceptible there is part of me that wanted to say, “Ah, there is the irreducible remainder of film magic!” Were it not for some image pairs that were essentially identical this might have been a plausible answer. But the more honest answer, I think, is that this is an expectable degree of variance given the number of variables in the test. And given the number of variables we cannot conclusively say that the variance is necessarily some irreducible film magic eking out an edge over the digital counterparts.
So what of the results, then? Stated most conservatively the results simply show that digital is able to convincingly duplicate film images. But what does all of this actually tell us about “the film look”? More than we might think at first.
At first glance the results seem to show that there is nothing special about film or any “film look.” Film doesn’t seem to be doing anything that digital can’t do with the right processing and the digital copies seem to say to film “Anything you can do I can do just as well, or better.” So, that’s it, right? The film look is bullshit. Case closed…right?
This seems like an obvious conclusion and it’s the one that is commonly invoked to dismiss the uniqueness of film, and in some respects it is correct to do so. But this quick answer also felt wrong in a way that I have been struggling to articulate for the last couple days. After much consternation what I think the test actually shows with more careful reflection is that there are some truths from both sides of the debate and that a deeper interpretation is able to show how the film look is, somewhat paradoxically, both bullshit and a very real phenomenon.
Firstly, from the bullshit camp: it is indeed bullshit in the sense that there is no mystical property of film and film alone that bestows upon images some ineffable quality that digital technologies are unable to duplicate. The results, I think, show that this view of film magic is demonstrably ridiculous. Taken as a purely objective set of quantifiable aesthetic qualities, digital is clearly capable of convincingly replicating the look of film to the point that it is difficult or impossible to spot a fake. This much is true and is a respectable salve against some of the misguided deification of the medium among purists..
But stopping at that common conclusion felt like a shortsighted dismissal of a subtler point we could glean from this test that points favorably to some of the beauty beloved by film shooters. More specifically there is an important point lurking in the third step of the process that we outlined at the beginning of this piece. That point is the subtle fact that I need to process my digital files in order to get them to conform to the results from film.
At first this sounds like a trivial point but we would do well to note that the very fact that I must massage and manipulate digital files (somewhat extensively) into matching the results that I get from film suggests by that very fact that film is, at least at some level, rendering images in way that is different than the output from digital sensors. Sure, the skillful manipulation of data has proven capable of generating passable simulacra of film but that very process also functions to highlight the unique qualities of film. The experience of this real distinction between the aesthetic tendencies of these two mediums is the seed of this phenomenon that we call “the film look.” So it seems to me that film lovers who insist on something special in the rendering are far from delusional regardless of what digital wizardry may be able to do with 1’s and 0’s.
So, is the film look bullshit? The short answer is kinda, but also not at all.