Digital looks “plastic”?

Summer Mosaic 2008 (by StarbuckGuy)

Over on RFF ( one of the perennial threads on film vs. digital has started up again. This one is titled “Why film?”. RFF is one of the bastions of film photography, which I like because I like film, but it also tends to have an anti-digital edge at times. Of course with the advent of two digital rangefinder cameras, the Epson R-D1 and the Leica M8, it’s a little more difficult for the film faithful there to take the high ground. And to be fair, an increasing number of RFF members admit to using both film and digital not to mention a few who have gone completely to digital. Nonetheless, anti-digital feeling still runs high among many of its members, though perhaps not as high as on the amazingly Luddite, and inaccurately named, APUG forum.

One comment in the “Why film” thread caught my eye: “Why I prefer film is because ‘digital’ looks plastic to me. Not perfect or precise just ‘all spruced up'”. Plastic? I’ve seen this objection to digital imaging made over and over by film evangelists and I’ve yet to figure out what it’s supposed to mean. It’s also obvious to me that it was a deprecating comment made at some time by one person somewhere and that it has been picked up an parroted by film’s true believers in the way that erroneous objections to evolution are parroted by right-wing fundamentalist Christians.

What is meant by “plastic”? “All spruced up”? What in the world does this mean and how is a digital image any more “spruced up” than a Kodachrome slide? Does it mean that the colours are vibrant? Say like Kodachrome or Velvia? Does it mean that the rendering of the subject is very smooth, in the way of medium format film or 4×5? If by “plastic” it’s meant that digital images don’t look like grainy 35mm images, then I can perhaps see the connection, but I’m not certain that “plastic” is an accurate description.

As I’ve said many times, I use film and digital and enjoy both formats. I agree that they look a little different and that they’re in some ways distinct artistic media, but I cannot agree that digital images are, as often described by film fanatics, “plastic” or “soulless” — another description often parroted by the faithful. I’ve seen too many superb, soulful digital images to think soul can only be defined by a spool of plastic base coated with a suspension of light sensitive emulsion.

It’s time to get past this immature and irrational digital bashing. Film is good, even though its market share is dropping out of sight. Digital is good, and will get even better. Practical photographers will use whichever medium helps them achieve the results they want and whatever makes them excited about the wonders of photography. Film. Digital. Take your pick. Or pick both.

In the end, what matters most are the images, not which mechanical, chemical, or electronic process was used to take them. So pick up your favourite camera, favourite lens(es), favourite recording medium and get out there and take some soulful photos!

10 thoughts on “Digital looks “plastic”?

  1. Gene – I agree, beats me – “plastic” I have seen used in discussion of art but have never understood what it means. Perhaps the user you refer to is harking back to that use (which, as I said, I do not understand but some search of books on art might explain). We all know how discussion of art sends your head into a spin. “What is art?” etc. I agree with your conclusion – get out there and make pictures!

  2. I just wish my pictures were good enough that the difference between film and “plastic” was noticable.

  3. Adam, thanks for dropping by! I’m not much for extended philosophical discussions on aesthetics. I’d rather try to make art or photos and concentrate on that instead.
    John, we should go out shooting together. Of course that implies a stop at Starbucks 🙂

  4. The reality, of course, is that you’ll be doing the shooting and I’ll be snapping a few off at the same time.

    Marion has V’s phone number … I’ve been known to answer it occasionally, too!

    (btw … I didn’t realize that Starbucks was serving beer now )

  5. I completely agree with you statement: “In the end, what matters most are the images”

    Just take a look at the Explore page in Flickr for examples of outstanding digital photography.

    I love film too. There’s something special about developing photos myself using chemical and mechanical processes.

    But I would never be able to evolve as fast as I have using digial if I had to stick only with film. It’s too expensive and too slow of a process. With digital, I can take 100 photos in an afternoon and find 5 or 10 good ones within a a few minutes of downloading to my computer.

    We can have both film and digital, so why argue over which one is best. They’re both great in their own way.

  6. Well, it’s because it IS plastic! 😉 Well, it can be plastic-looking. In general, the colloquial term “plastic” means, I believe, “false, contrived, not ‘real’, or cheap imitation”. It is this latter which I think is being referenced.

    Here is my reality …

    We live in a world of analog sensation. Yes, I know that in terms of physics light is considered both a wave and of pulsate nature. But our perception of light, our vision, is analog. Hearing is analog. The whole range of human senses are essentially analog.

    Most people who differentiate between digital and film-generated images do so ON DIGITAL MONITORS. The better comparison, IMO, are entirely digitally-generated prints and entirely-analog prints. At that point, I can usually tell the difference, though current digital techniques and tools allow for digital to closely mimic film. (Even if I can tell the difference between the the two capture/processing methods, it does not necessarily mean I don’t appreciate the images, intent and meaning of either medium.)

    So ANY image captured in digital must eventually be translated to a medium that is observed by our analog eyes. That is a challenge for digital. Any technology in its infancy (and digital IS in its infancy) must go through evolution and growth. We are just now getting to a point where sensors can “equal” film in certain regards. But the aesthetic of the practitioners is well behind the capability of the tools. This is normal … think of how early photographers tried to imitate painting. Then Ansel and the f64 group came along to say “that’s crap … photography is ITS OWN aesthetic.” The beauty of the “straight image” was revealed and developed. With that technical expertise developed and disseminated, photographers began to break out into more dramatic non-representational imaging.

    The other issue is that the human interface for 99.999% of digital cameras SUCK. I freely admit that I, along with many others, transfer our disgust with current digital camera designers to “digital” in general.

    Yes, I realize (and have been told in no uncertain terms by a digi-zealot) that you can set up a digital camera to very closely mimic a classic manual camera. BUT IT ISN’T THE SAME AND DOESN’T FEEL THE SAME. Why is it that as an OM user I can pick up any camera 25 or so years or older and within 30 seconds KNOW how to make a good exposure? Where is the Maitani today at Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fuji (OK, that’s exactly not fair) or even modern Olympus?

    Read the history of Maitani …he fought against the marketing machine at Olympus and WON. Hell, they even used photographs of him in major advertising campaigns. When was the last time you saw the name, much less the photo, of a camera designer in a campaign from Canon or Nikon. I rest my case.

  7. Earl, thank you for your passionate and spirited apology for film. You know I respect your opinions about photography. I think the bottom line for each of us is ‘perception is reality.’

  8. Gene, interesting entry. If any medium is “plastic” it’s film. That said (I’m predominantly a film user) I mean that a film’s emulsion is spread over a support of plastic film.

    I’ve had a lot of discussions with people about this and I think some are beginning to get the important part of the discussion. Film records practically everything that a lens delivers to it. The magic with a sensor is that it is a preprogrammed machine. Who ever programs it decides what character an image should have. This is where the two delivery systems part ways.

    As long as photographers realize this then they are using their chosen medium to suit the situation. Photography is like art, continually changing and re defining itself. Digital images are just another facet of the discipline.

  9. Jan, not to quibble, but film too is preprogrammed to have a certain look. Kodachrome is quite different from Ektachrome is quite different from Velvia, etc. etc. You really can’t change the look, although you can change the film. And I would say that a digital sensor, too, records everything a lens delivers to it at least as well (and I think better) than any transparency film. And of course if you shoot in RAW, rather than JPG, you’re not getting a preprogrammed look. You extract the look you want. But these are quibbles, and as you know I shoot film too and enjoy both film and digital, even though my ratio of digital shooting has increased substantially.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *