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Film still clicks with professional photographers

They use digital out of necessity but go old school for special tasks, a Kodak survey finds.

September 20, 2007|From the Associated Press

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Photojournalist Chris Usher usually relies on digital technology. When he wants something special, though, he reaches for a film camera.

"I shoot just as much digital as the next guy out of necessity," Usher said. "I use film probably a third of the time, on personal projects 100% of the time. There's a richness and a depth of field that becomes more prevalent when you're shooting film as opposed to digital. It has a tangible feel to it."

Even as the digital revolution is transforming photography, more than two-thirds of professional photographers in a survey released Wednesday said they still preferred using film for certain tasks, praising its ability to add an almost organic quality to pictures.

Eastman Kodak Co., which surveyed 9,000 U.S. photographers who earn their livelihoods freeze-framing news, weddings, nature, fashion and other worlds, will draw some comfort from its findings.

Putting the finishing touches to a drastic, four-year digital makeover, Kodak is still betting that film, its cash cow for a century, will continue to generate enough revenue to see it through the most painful passage in its 126-year history. Kodak's workforce will fall to 34,000 at year-end, half what it was five years ago.

Even while its chemical-based businesses shrink, Kodak remains the world's top maker of silver-halide film, and the storied product -- which George Eastman launched in 1889 -- retains an ardent following.

"If a client gives me the choice, I'm going to shoot film," said Matthew Jordan Smith, a fashion and celebrity photographer in Los Angeles. "With digital, there's this whole thing of, 'Oh, it looks good enough to get by, it's fine, it'll do.' You didn't have that with film. Was it good enough? It was great!

"Digital will continue to get better and better and better," Smith said. "Maybe film will become an art thing, who knows? But there will always be those who want to shoot film."

The survey was mailed in mid-August to more than 40,000 of the nation's estimated 64,000 full-time and part-time professional photographers, and 75% of the 9,000 who responded said they would continue to use film even as they embraced digital imaging.

Sixty-eight percent said they preferred film over digital for a variety of applications. Many cited its superiority for shooting larger-format and black-and-white images, the adaptability of color film to a wider range of lighting conditions, and film archives being far easier to store than electronic ones.

Usher, a freelancer who covers the White House for Newsweek and Time magazines and is coming out with a book illustrating hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, isn't surprised that his colleagues have a lingering loyalty to some of the old methods.

"Film by its very physical nature is layers of grains of different colors," he said. "It's hard to describe, but it does actually have a micro three-dimensionality that you can see in that weird way."

By contrast, he said, "digital pictures look very flat, and even the prints. . . . Digital looks literally cut-and-pasted.

"Probably the biggest disadvantage of digital -- I think if you ask most photographers, at least the ones that are honest will admit this -- is you end up spending more time behind the computer than you do behind the camera. If you're shooting raw, you still have to go in there and adjust the images, tweak 'em, tone 'em and get everything just so. With film, there it is."

Although "digital is here to stay," Usher expects film's fortunes will someday brighten once more.

"In fact, now that the honeymoon and the infatuation is starting to run its course," he said, "I think that in the next five years you're going to see almost a retro backlash because of the things that film gives you that you can't get with digital."

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