The battle between film and digital is over. Digital won. (Part 2)

Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART
Apr 22, 2014 4:27PM

In my last post I posited that creating photographs digitally allows me to deliver a higher quality final image. Without going too far down the path of technical minutia (where photographers can easily go...) I would now like to expand on that statement. Two notes: 1) In the end a camera is just a tool. While some tools may make life easier or allow you to accomplish a difficult or impossible, it is still the skill, experience and vision of the photographer that is the ultimate determining factor in creating a quality final image. 2) Everything I am about to say is framed in the context of being a photographer who works exclusively with the art community shooting galleries, installations and individual 2-D and 3-D works. Thus, while what follows might also apply to other photography/photographers, I am approaching this from my personal experience shooting in the studio or on location.

Since in my previous life this type of work was done with a large format camera, one huge change for me is that I no longer need to set up and compose my shots with a dark cloth over my head looking at an upside down and backwards image on a ground glass.  Now, I almost always shoot with the camera tethered to a computer streaming a live video feed which allows me to compose the image on a monitor. This type of software lets me magnify any part of the image to check focus more accurately than I ever could with a loupe on the ground glass. Refocusing, adjustments to exposure and even firing the camera are all done from the computer. A grid tool in the software lets me check that the image is square (avoiding dreaded Homage to the Trapezoid Albers' images...). No longer needing to compose the scene on the ground glass (or through a viewfinder) has allowed me to capture successful shots that would have been nearly impossible with analogue technology. Now I can shoot while squeezed into a corner, cantilevered over a stairwell, elevated high above a space or, as during a recent shoot, inside a sculptural piece.

In my film days I could light a scene and check the lighting and exposure with a meter that was accurate to within 1/10 of an f:stop (to the non-photographers out there that is at the edge of what is a perceivable difference). Now, I can measure and maintain accuracy to an even greater degree.  While in most situations such hair splitting is unnecessary, I have found that for some work - Ad Reinhardt's Black Paintings for example - it is essential; even the slightest unevenness in the lighting results in an unsatisfactory image. Through the use of this technology, I can evaluate my lighting, measure the exposure and get a readout of the color of any point within the image: an invaluable tool when striving for color accuracy. Aside from simply seeing this information, it is just as invaluable that I have the ability to adjust it. What a luxury it is to be able to fine tune the color of a digital file of a de Kooning painting while the artwork is still in front of me.

All of this information is available almost instantaneously. So if there is a reason the image needs to be re-shot --perhaps an unnoticed errant object, an unwanted shadow or someone stepping into the frame – I can take care of it right there in the gallery as opposed to that sinking feeling of finding an error a day later when the film comes back from the lab. Once I finish a shoot at the end of the day, I can be confident that I have captured the image and that image can be made into countless exact copies that can be sent across the country or around the world in a few minutes (depending on the size of the file) via digital transfer.

This is not a comprehensive listing of every advantage digital may have over film, nor does it address some of the down-sides to shooting digitally (yes, there are some—we will save that discussion for next time).  But I do believe that I have enumerated enough reasons for digital’s advantage over film to rest my case for now: creating photographs digitally allows me to deliver a better final image.

Image caption (bottom):  Tim on location at The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA

Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART