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Analog Versus Digital: Another Perspective

 Take a look at these two pictures:

Given the small difference in the angle from which they were taken and the larger one in the time of day they were taken at (the first was shot late on a spring afternoon, the second a few hours earlier on the following afternoon), these are photos of the same subject—two rooftops with a tag (graffito) spray-painted on the side of one of the roofs, against a deep blue April sky. And yet if you look closely, they are quite different in many ways.

Let’s begin with the sky. In the first photo it is almost a pure cerulean blue; in the second it is almost exactly cobalt blue. Moreover, it isn’t just the sky’s pigmentation that is different. In the first picture there is a brightness, a glow to the cerulean blue, as if it, like the side of the building with the tag on it, were infused by sunlight or as if the pigment itself were radiant—lit from within. It gives the sky a depth, volume, and transparency that you see in life. In the second picture, that glow is considerably reduced. The sky is “flatter”—not quite painted-looking but not as deep, transparent, and aglow as the first sky.

Now let’s look at the building on the right—the red one with the tag “IOK” on the wall. In the first photo, the red is deep vermillion—almost blood red. In the second the building is very close to the pigment called Madder lake—an earthy brick-red. Once again, this difference in hue and saturation could be attributed to the position of the sun. But, once again, there is also a difference in luminance and dimensionality. In the first photo the red reflects the sun the way concrete reflects the sun—in a specular fashion, like a mirror. In the second photo, in spite of the much deeper shadow, the vermillion glows (aided by the windows full of sky blue) in the shade, almost as if it were fluorescent.

Now let’s consider the amount of detail in each photo. In the first photo the entire front of the building is in late-afternoon shadow, heaviest at the top of the cornice, where the lattice-like detail in the inserts is hard to make out. The brackets beneath the cornice, however, are very clear in spite of being shaded, but the embossment in the inserts between the top windows and the bottom ones is not. In the second photo, the building is lit more from overhead and the shadows beneath the cornice are almost too deep to easily make out fine detail in the brackets. On the other hand, the latticework in the top of the cornice is very clear, as is the embossment in the inserts below the top row of windows. Whether it’s the difference in lighting or something else, I think we’d have to give a slight edge in crispness of detail to photo number two.

Now let’s consider which of these two pix has better dynamic range—brighter highlights (without blooming), deeper blacks (without obscuring details), more transparent midtones? Observationally, this may be a matter of taste, but to my eye there is a continousness to the light and shade in the first photo, as if the tones run up a smooth ramp from the deepest black of the gutter at the top of the malachite green building to the glow of the white tag “IOK” on the side of vermillion building. In the second, light and shade seem starker, more discrete, and midtones less beautiful and transparent, as if light and shade were running not up a smooth ramp but a stairway, with discrete steps in between tones. Although the second photo is definitely higher in contrast, I would (cautiously) give the edge in dynamic range to the first photo.

Of course, it would be easy and, to a large extent, true enough to attribute many of the differences in color, luminance, detail, and dynamics of these two photos to differences in the way their subject was lit by the sun—to time of day, angle of incidence, etc.  However, if you look at the photos in the following links (http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p931420946,http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p936699636http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p373210602) and then compare them to the photos in this link (http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p445316703) you will see that these differences are consistent across a wide variety of lighting conditions and subjects. You see the first photo and the photos in the first three links above were taken with a film camera on color transparency films, and the second and those in the fourth link above with a high-resolution digital camera. (The same lens was used for all photos, analog and digital.) I had to digitize the film images to display them on the Web (via a 7200dpi dedicated film scanner and sophisticated scanning software), but the digitized film images and the digital originals were treated identically in post-processing (via LightRoom 2.3 and Photoshop).

You may prefer one set of photos to the other; I know I do. But the whole experiment amplifies—and was designed to amplify—an interesting question that I touched on in my last blog about tube and solid-state electronics: Which image—analog  or digital—is more “realistic,” which is closer to the way these subjects actually look in life? In TAS lingo, which is closer to the “absolute”? And just as with electronics in a stereo system, I think the answer hinges on a second question, which is, “Closer to which ‘absolute’?

Both sets of images have their plusses and minuses. Digital is somewhat less saturated in color, less three-dimensional in aspect, less bloomy (radiant) in luminance; analog is slightly less crisply detailed, more rounded and painterly (as opposed to documentary) in presentation. If I were being scrupulously fair, I would have to admit that the digital images are closer in some (but not all) ways to the way things actually looked. However, I would also (and quickly) say that the analog images have their own subtle set of realistic qualities (that radiance in the blue sky or glow in the red building, for instance) and are—to me, at least—unquestionably more beautiful and appealing as “pictures,” as visual art. As with solid-state and tube gear in audio, a reasonable case can be made for either presentation.

So which do you prefer? Document or art? The way it actually was or the way ideally we’d like to remember it being? The eye or the mind’s eye? This is the bridge you’re going to have to cross, sooner or later, in photography (and in audio). I can’t tell you which way to travel. All I can say is that both directions have their advantages and disadvantages. It’s a cinch that digital is more convenient—by a huge margin—and, in many respects, more “transparent to sources.” But for some users—me included—analog has certain qualities that outweigh convenience and, even, transparency. For me, it is simply the more pleasing presentation.

Rooftops, Main St. Shot on Fujichrome Velvia 50 with a Nikon F4p camera and Nikor 85mm f1.4 lens.</h5>

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