140512 Film/Digital - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

I have a new film camera, and the best thing about it is that it's digital.

It's a running joke – but not in the "funny haha" way – that the Sigma DP-Merrill series digital cameras need to be handled with the same expectations as a film camera in order to avoid crushing disappointment and constant frustration. And at the core of the joke is a painful truth; the parallels between my dp3 and shooting film aren't trivial.

Every frame has a cost. The camera is slow and follow-up shots are difficult, so timing is important – the decisive moment and all that. I'm averaging about 55 exposures per battery, which is excellent capacity for a roll of film, but nowhere near the usual digital experience. And because I can go through three or four batteries in an afternoon, carrying and managing them feels a lot like making sure I have an extra roll or two with me, as well.

One of the great advantages of digital over film is the immediacy of its feedback, but my dp3 takes fifteen seconds to write each file. That's shorter than hours, days, or weeks, but it's enough that I can't just press the little playback button to confirm focus, exposure, composition, or camera settings. I have to choose: do I stop and wait or do I keep my momentum?

The comparison to film continues when the photographing is done. I don't have to drop the memory card off at a lab, but I do have to manually move and manage the files, which seems barbaric after so many years of using Lightroom.

Lightroom doesn't read Sigma's X3F raw files.

When I shoot film I read it into the computer with Vuescan; the lazy alternative is to have the lab do low-quality little auto-scans, which the dp3 calls "jpg". But since I care about quality I shoot raw, so with the dp3 I need to use Sigma Photo Pro. "Pro," in case you were wondering, is clearly just short for "processing." Thinking about SPP as if it's scanning software makes all the difference.

The thumbnails and roughly-rendered main window is like a preview scan, and the few moments that it takes to re-render updated settings just reinforces that feel. The complex math involved in committing the image to disk equals the full quality scan. Compared to actual film the process is really quite snappy and powerful, even though, like film, every time I press the shutter I take a moment to dread the amount of work that I've just committed myself to.

As with my scanning software, the output from Sigma Photo Pro[cessor] is a 16-bit ProPhoto tiff file. The dp3 tiffs are about 90 MB each, which is a little smaller than a film scan, but there's 45+ MB per X3F file to more than make up the difference. No, it's not my D800's file sizes that have me running out of hard drive space. But like film, I use this step to do a first-pass cull, even though I really haven't been able to properly consider the images, minimizing the workload as best I can.

Lightroom, finally. At least the tiff files are fast to import and render, although correcting white balance across multiple files is problematic. You know what else is tough to colour balance? Film.

But there are reasons why some people use film despite the plethora of digital cameras, and it can't only be that they don't realize that Sigma's cameras provide the same experience without the ongoing materials costs. No, it's the images, which is what this whole 'photography' thing is about. As hard to believe as it may seem, it's all worth it.

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