Film photography: relic of the 1960s

Terry O'Neill picture taken at Gallery Rouge St. Albans on behalf of Legende Celebrity Art, by Wikipedia user Rguadm, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licenseOn Thursday there was an item on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight about Kodak filing for bankruptcy protection, which included an interview with Terry O’Neill, whom they introduced as, “One of the great British fashion photographers of the 1960s,” a description that proved rather apt. You can hear the interview on iPlayer.

After lamenting the fate of Kodak, O’Neill was asked his opinion of digital photography. He thinks that digital is simply not up to the job for professional photographers. He said that the difference in quality between film and digital photography is similar to that between HD and regular television. I have to disagree. In terms of resolution, digital has now caught up with 35mm film – you probably need around 15 megapixels to equal the finest-grain film. Admittedly, if O’Neill uses larger film formats, digital currently still lags behind, although it will catch up quickly. From a technical point of view, a good analogy for film is in fact old analogue television, or vinyl records rather than CDs or MP3s. I can believe that O’Neill can tell if a photo was shot on film, in the same way that some people prefer to listen to LPs. It isn’t that the quality is better, just that they like the perceived warmth of the old analogue format.

Unfortunately, O’Neill then appeared to confuse the difference between film and digital formats with the difference between professional and amateur cameras. He claimed that digital photography means that anyone can just press the button to take a photo without having to know anything about photography. However, compact, fully automatic cameras have been around a lot longer than digital cameras. I agree with him when he says that there are lots of people taking photos, but few are any good, and that this doesn’t make them photographers. What I don’t agree with is that it’s the type of camera that makes someone a photographer or not. Surely for a renowned portrait photographer like O’Neill himself, it’s the interaction between the photographer and model, the way they make them pose, the lighting arrangement, and the framing that makes him successful. That would be true whether he was using film or digital, an SLR or a mobile phone camera. While it is true that digital cameras have made photography much more accessible, and allowed people to take many more pictures, a large number of which have little artistic merit, it doesn’t follow that a digital camera is an inferior tool in the hands of a professional.

O’Neill finished by saying good photography is a three-dimensional medium, and that only a real photographer would appreciate that. I’m not entirely sure what he meant, so clearly I’m not a good enough photographer, but I can only assume he is referring to depth of field. Compact digital cameras have a very large depth of field due to their tiny sensors and focal lengths. This means the entire frame is usually in focus. One of the pleasures of using a digital SLR, though, is the ability to control the depth of film, and a full-frame digital SLR will have exactly the same depth of field characteristics as a 35mm film camera.

Ultimately, Terry O’Neill’s views sound like those of someone who has been in the business such a long time and doesn’t want to change his ways. I can’t believe no professional photographers use digital. Patrick Lichfield had already started to try it, and he died in 2005. Perhaps someone who produced such a lot of good work in the ’60s can afford can eschew advances in technology, but the rest of us will undoubtedly produce better results if we move with the times.

3 responses to “Film photography: relic of the 1960s”

  1. Jonathan

    Some interesting quotes from Mr O’Neill:

    “In those days, people were using 5 by 4 and 8 by 10 cameras. To use an 35mm was extraordinary and it was deemed quite amateurish.”

    “All the Hollywood photographer types were old-fashioned, and I was straight in with my 35mm, so I became very popular.”

    Now replace “35mm” with “digital” and you have the situation today, surely?

  2. Michael Kraft

    Re: “or vinyl records rather than CDs or MP3s. I can believe that O’Neill can tell if a photo was shot on film, in the same way that some people prefer to listen to LPs. It isn’t that the quality is better, just that they like the perceived warmth of the old analogue format.”

    In the case of recorded music, I think you’re mixing up the media with the recording process. The people I know or am aware of who prefer “vinyl” or “LP’s” (or recording tape, for that matter) to CD’s or MP3’s actually prefer the sound of ‘analog’ recordings, a preference widely held by musicians. If there was a way to put analog on CD’s or in MP3’s, I don’t think we would mind. But there isn’t, and that’s why vinyl and LP’s win. To write that warmth doesn’t make ‘quality’ better strikes me as a strange claim.

  3. Jonathan

    Michael, in fact that’s exactly the point I was trying to make. When I referred to “quality” in this context, I meant how faithfully the original is reproduced in purely technical terms, i.e. the bitrate/pixel density (or their approximate analogue equivalents). I didn’t mean quality as in whether people find the final result more pleasing. Some people prefer the “warmth” of an LP or a film print, even though the former has a smaller dynamic range than a CD and adds crackles, and the latter may look slightly more fuzzy. If you are going to extend quality to mean preference for a particular format, you may as well ask whether a watercolour landscape is higher “quality” than a photograph.

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