I've had an interesting re-entry into daily work life. One of my clients whom I have worked with for nearly three decades called to see if I had "the files" for a project I'd done for them in 2000. They were preparing 50 year anniversary campaign and were looking for images taken in each of the five decades during which their company had flourished. I went over to the CD and DVD archives, stuck on a Metro shelf in the corner, and looked through the material. Nothing. No sign of the work. Perplexed, I looked at my notebooks from the time to see if they held any clues. Of course they did. Making notes is the secret to long term understanding...
2000 was a transitional year in my business. It's the year that 35mm film started to jump the shark and morph into digital. Somewhere in that year I abandoned 35mm slides and color negative film almost entirely and started depending on digital cameras as a replacement. There were still a few years left in which I worked with medium format film for the more intricate and very high image quality assignments but, as digital cameras continued to improve, these too fell by the wayside and were replaced with ever advancing digital images.
I found an entry in the notebook about the job in question. We'd done the pre-production marketing images (the highest value stuff) with medium format film and a little assortment of Hasselblad cameras and lenses and then had done the higher volume, less exacting work with a Kodak DCS 660 camera and Nikon zoom lenses. By mutual agreement the client had held onto the film as it was proprietary and they had bought exclusive usage rights, paying in 1990s prices.
I talked through this turn of history with the client and they went through the process of contacting a procession of previous marketing directors until one of them led the current custodians of corporate branding (over the phone) to a small closet in the basement of headquarters, where the images languished in black notebooks, in banker's boxes, on a series of shelves. The original requestor had scanned the images he needed at the time and filed the "take" very professionally and with every intention of revisiting the work. But that was two careers ago.
I wondered how the old work would stand up in today's market. Would the old 35mm slides and plastic pages of big square transparencies seem hopelessly outclassed by today's spectacular technologies? The clients found the files, made new edits (edits = means they selected the images they wanted to use, not that they manipulated them. Manipulating would be called "post processing") and then sent the edits out to have high resolution drum scans made of each slide in the new collection. As a courtesy they sent me a copy of the selected (edited) scanned images. I was dumbstruck by the amazing technical quality of the work. The highlight tonalities were gorgeous because of the natural roll off of the film's H&D curves. This more than amply matches any increase in dynamic range that might result from the latest sensor tech. They lacked the brute force resolution of the latest digital cameras, like the D850 and the A7Riii, but that quality was always secondary to the look and feel of an image.
The eye opener was the files scanned from the medium format transparency film. They evinced a physical presence that was ethereal. Like opening a grimy window and looking at a cold clear winter day through suddenly clear glass.
"Ah well." I thought, "We made our choices and now we have to live with them."
But even though I have an appreciation for film based results I have to think that, overall, the choices we made to move to digital were both necessary (from a business point of view) and also provided a handful of benefits.
When someone from Zach Theatre called recently, to see if I had archived my images from their production of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" done in 2006, I walked to the shelving, grabbed the protective, clamshell case labelled, "2006, first half" and paged through. There were two identical (duplicate) DVDs labelled, "Zach, Rocky, 2006, Jpegs, Final to deliver." I popped one of them into a DVD drive and took a look around.
Nearly all of the 1100 files were shot with the latest camera of the day, a Nikon D2X, along with a 24-85mm zoom lens. While the camera was limited in its ability to shoot high ISO, and my handling of noise reduction might have been just a bit heavy handed, there was much on the disk that seemed to me to be good looking work.
I uploaded all the files and shared the online gallery with the theatre. Then I started going through and editing (selecting, not manipulating!!!) twenty or so files that caught my eyes. I present them here without changing anything. This is how they went out to the client mid-year in 2006, processed with the software we had available twelve years ago.
Even though we lost a lot to blur (due to having to use lower shutter speeds to offset the lower ISO available (shot almost exclusively at 640 and 800) the images stand up well in my estimation. There is a lot more I could do with them today given the speed of our processing computers and the ability to pull monstrous amounts of noise free shadow detail from today's files, when shot conservatively. I had to consciously wait for peaks of action back then to get a useful hit rate...
I'm curious to hear what you think of my twelve year old files, done with ancient digital technology. How do you think they stand up to our current tools? Certainly, the APS-C files are no match for today's almost noise free, full frame cameras but, there is also a lower pixel density sharpness to them, on a macro level, that is pleasing--- at least to me.
It's a time machine. That's the nature of photography. It's good to look backward to see what the tools bought us in their day.
An interesting aside. The marketing director for the corporate client is just 28 years old and has never worked with film before. Never. We are walking her through the scanning process, step by step. It is a revelation for her to see how slow and meticulous the film workflow was. In a way, I think it gives her come empathy or insight into how our thinking can be predicated on old habits that are hard to shake.
On the other hand, she seems to be developing an appreciation for the positive attributes of film. But no. We won't be going back.