Chatting with an outspoken advocate of film photography: Robert Caldarone
Robert Caldarone has been a professional photographer for over 20 years, shooting celebrities, musicians, dancers, and models for countless editorial and advertising clients. Based in New York, his work has been featured on the pages of Cosmopolitan, New York, FHM, Maxim, British OK, Australian OK, Trump, Next, The Daily, and People magazines, among others. His advertising work includes campaigns for Dolce Mare and Cinch Jeans. He also has enjoyed shooting for music clients including EMI, Curb, and Sony BMG. His website is www.robertcaldarone.com and it contains many examples of his published and unpublished work.
Jim Wilson has been a freelance art director/designer/writer for several decades, and has worked and won awards in almost every possible medium, including magazines, books, advertising, television and film. He has written and art directed editorial humor packages for numerous magazines, including National Lampoon and Penthouse. He has been Art Director for all the “Mr. Bill Show” film, video and publishing projects from early Saturday Night Live days. Although he prefers to work with professional photographers in his commercial activities, he has always been an enthusiastic amateur shooter and imaging experimenter.
JW: Robert, I know you aren’t a rabid luddite on this subject, because I’ve seen you holding a high-end digital camera on at least a couple of occasions. But on the other hand, I’ve also heard you expressing your preference for film as an imaging medium any number of times. You seem like a pretty modern guy to me, so I presume you have good reasons for that preference. What’s your primary rationale?
RC: On the professional level, I use film over electronic capture 95% of the time. With all the advances in digital cameras and backs over the years, I’m still amazed at how huge the visual information gap is when digital is compared to modern-day film. Today’s professional films from both Kodak and Fuji deliver more visual information than any other capture medium. And what really blows my clients’ eyes away is the finished product. I enjoy the fact that today’s professional films continue to keep offering a level of depth, color, texture, sharpness, and resolution that a digital back or camera (due to the flat-chip design of the medium itself) can never achieve. When you think about all the three-dimensionality which lies in the chemistry of film, and the way it can capture slightly different records of the same image within the ever-changing mosaic of its silver halide crystals there’s not a man-made chip now or in the future that could ever come close to what film offers today, yesterday, or in the future! Film is not going away, no matter how hard a digital camera sales person tries to make their weekly quota.
JW: I’ve been messing around with digital imaging since the mid-‘80s-Commodore Amiga days- starting with the NewTek Digi-View imaging system, which consisted of a monochrome video camera with a software-controlled stepping motor rotating a color filter wheel in front of the lens for several discrete color exposures. If I’d been doing portraiture with the NewTek system, it would have required the use of those cast-iron head clamps the degaurreotypists needed to keep their subjects immobile. I remember thinking at the time that it wasn’t exactly a great leap forward in imaging technology. When dealing with the resultant, fairly low-rez images, and storing them on a 40-megabyte SCSI hard drive in a stand-alone case larger than the computer itself, I marveled at the vast amount of quality information storage possible in a little roll of 35mm film.
_I realize that you aren’t an engineering wonk out of Rochester Institute of Technology or anything, but can you give us a ballpark comparison of the data capacity of a single frame of current professional 35 MM color film compared to that of a single exposure from a current professional-level digital camera’s image sensor? _
RC: The level of data capacity of even point-and-shoot consumer digital cameras has grown over the years from 2 or 3 megapixels (MP) to some as high as 10MP now. The latest and highest pro-level Nikon D-SLR touts 12.4 MP and Canon’s flagship pro-level EOS 1 Mark II has now reached 16.7 MP; even Sony has now joined in this end of the game. It sounds impressive, until one finds out that a roll of Kodak’s new Portra 160 has an average frame-scan capability of 25 to 30MB, as well as Fuji’s new 100F, which is now almost completely without grain at even poster size, and captures well over twice as much information as the $8,000-$10,000 digital bodies and lenses. These amazing new films, even at 35mm scale, provide over 36 frames of it, all for under $5! Load some of these fantastic films into any film SLR body, like a nice used F4 or F5 body- that can now be had for under $500, and you open up a world of imaging that even the latest $30,000 Hasselblad, at 39MP, would be hard pressed to match!
That being said, I’ve been enjoying all the advances of film at the medium-format scale, which offers over three times the amount of image data of 35mm film. I load fresh 120mm film daily into my Mamiya RZ Pro II at 6×7 and enjoy a post-scan image resolution at levels from 40mb to as high as 300mb! I’ve been shooting 120 roll film professionally for over ten years; and my excitement for the craft of photography has never been higher! My mid-range clients love it, and my upper-end clients demand it! With me, it’s all about creating the highest-quality finished image, starting with the highest-quality capture; and without film it just isn’t possible.
_JW: I must say, Robert, that I was expecting you to rattle off some fairly impressive specs; but those numbers exceed my expectations by a considerable margin! Of course, impressive numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Although the projects you and I have worked on together don’t always reflect it, I normally associate your finest work with “people” photography. How do those numbers affect your own work? Can the arguably superior information density of film make that much difference when imaging a “soft subject” such as human skin? _
RC: Yes, without a doubt. Film sees the world in much the same way our eyes do. There’s a resolution film has that you’ll never get in digital, its ability to capture subtlety: all the beauty and color tones found in the human skin, and reproduce them three-dimensionally, with a naturally-shallow depth of field. The ability to control depth
of field in my beauty, portrait, or fashion work lets me smoothly focus the viewer’s attention where I want it, and can be easily manipulated at even the highest resolution. Nothing offers more depth than film. Unlike digital capture, it will never leave you flat.
_JW: I worked as my father’s darkroom assistant from when I was about twelve years old. Photographic chemistry seemed like magic then, and it’s never lost that original thrill for me. For years, I had my own darkroom wherever I lived, and would spend hours at a time just experimenting with various processes and manipulating images. I was even set up to make my own color prints. _
_When I moved here, to Manhattan’s “Photo District”, it seemed crazy to devote scarce space to a personal photo lab when there was a commercial one on every corner; so I left my lab equipment in the moving boxes. I recall that your studio originally had a well-equipped darkroom in it, but that space is now a kitchen. Do you miss having that darkroom capability, or have commercial labs and Photoshop done away with the need for it? And, in general, does film image product seem to need more Photoshop post-development work than digital-captured imagery, or less? _
RC: I find the magic of today’s new films is built right into the films themselves. It’s left the struggle and cost of the days in the darkroom far behind, and passed off that struggle to the digital shooter, who now spends more time in front of a computer screen than behind the camera. The new generation of films have up to four layers of capture already color-corrected, grain technology that’s almost invisible, even at wall size, exposure latitudes of -1 to +3, and an unsurpassed gray balance range that explores shadows just as the eye perceives them. Wow, and that’s all before it’s even loaded into the camera!
Film not only says more about your subject, it also offers many in-camera techniques that could never be done in the darkroom or mimicked in post. Film’s great creative flexibility not only has a way of making one a better photographer, it skips post time all together; or because of its large and unmatched file size you can do more with it quicker in post if desired. It also is the only recognized archival medium and can be enjoyed for 100 years or more, for generations to come. No other medium today can promise that. Most of today’s digital shooters are taught to overshoot- “spraying and praying” as they call it. This process leaves the digital shooter with hundreds of images to pore through after a shoot; and after that, spending even more hours and time in post, trying to make each one look more film like in color and quality.
After the huge investment of time and money in digital equipment- in the end the poor buggers are still fighting a flatness of capture that produces a finished product that struggles for identity in a market already flooded with subjects with non-realistic
tones and plastic-like skin. Film not only offers the highest quality of capture, it is cost effective, allowing a higher profit margin; and it’s future-proof to boot! This allows me more quality time in my new kitchen.
_JW: Your previous reference to bargain-priced used film equipment was very relevant to me, since I pass by Alkit Pro Camera’s used-equipment display window almost every day. I really love looking at almost any photo equipment- ancient or modern. On a recent stroll, I was struck by the very low prices on tags attached to the clean, professional-level film camera bodies currently on display there. I stopped buying high-end shooting gear back when I acquired my current brace of Nikon F, but I’m still rather impressed by all the features of the later equipment in that window, and the prices they were asking for the stuff seemed insanely low to me! _
_I presume the crazy-cheap pricing means that so many photographers have been trading-in their film gear to buy digital gear that there’s a glut of used high-end film equipment in places like Alkit. Top-quality optics will never be dirt-cheap, of course, especially if they can be used on either digital or film bodies; but it seems to me that budding pro photographers and serious amateurs should be snapping those bargain bodies up. For their benefit, can you give some ballpark cost comparisons between the economics of buying clean used “analog” equipment, shooting film with it and having it scanned after processing, versus buying sort-of-comparable but more expensive digital equipment which is inherently incapable of delivering the same image quality? _
RC: It’s true there’s an amazing advantage to finding a Nikon N90S film body in a store window for $95. Drop in any $3.49 roll of professional 100-speed film and you have the power to take down Nikon or Canon’s best $8,000 digital SLRs, without even taking out a credit card! Just don’t expect the digital-camera-oriented commission-sales staff at the store to share in your excitement. Film cameras almost never break, and withstand the toughest shooting environments. It’s not unheard of to get over ten years out of a professional film body. I’ve been shooting professionally for over 20 years and have, of course, added a few new RZIIs to my collection; but have never had to retire a film body yet. Film and film equipment have been around for over 100 years; and they’ll be around tomorrow, too. In today’s pro market I find digital isn’t cheaper, it just looks cheaper!
When you take into consideration that all the A-list magazine covers at the newsstands, as well as those giant billboards around Times Square are all film-captured images, you start to wonder why film wouldn’t be promoted a little better. Those beautiful film-captured ads from Calvin Klein, Versace and Lexus surely have a way of making the digital-captured ads from less well-known companies look like stills from the six o’clock news.
Digital capture has crept its way into the professional market with all the revenue made from the “got to have the latest new item” consumer retail market. The upper-end professional photographers are the film companies’ captive and loyal segment of the market who will always use its film products; which makes advertising to this end of the market unnecessary. Both Kodak and Fuji have enjoyed sizable profits from selling their own digital cameras and ink-jet papers; so its not too hard to figure out why the consumers and lower-end pros don’t even know that both Fuji and Kodak have introduced three amazing new professional films on the pro market in the past year. If it’s all sounding a bit sticky, that’s because it is. Digital cameras are the best thing that could happen to the department stores and retail camera shops; as they don’t last, become obsolete in six months to a year, and the credit-card crowd they’re selling to is already conditioned to frequent upgrades from their past large-screen TV or Ipod purchases. How in heaven’s name did all this hit the lower and mid-end of the pro market? New, emerging photographers with dreams and credit cards, that’s how.
As an established shooter who learned his craft by painting with light instead of clicking a mouse, I am amazed when I hear how much a new photographer in my building is saving in film and processing by taking out a loan for the latest $35,000 camera back to give him some more pixels than the $31,000 digital H3 he went for a few months back. All this, he explains, gives him almost film-like quality, and his $400 per day digital tech can show each frame he takes on a large flat-screen panel, so the client can stop the shoot and talk about it and make sure he’s doing a good job shooting. After the shoot, he and the digital tech sift through the hundreds of shots and start converting, color-correcting and touching-up each one to look just like film. The next day they can start uploading all of them to a website; and usually by the third day the client upgrades their computers and software, gets the passwords right, and finally gets to view the entire shoot. And he didn’t even have to spend money on film and processing.
I, of course, have to spring for the $20 pro pack of Fuji’s professional 160S or Kodak’s Portra 160, to load into my long-paid-for RZ Pro II 6 X 7 film body, and spend another $10 at the Pro Lab around the corner, to get my instantly-color-corrected 11 X 14 contact sheet to the client in an hour. I finish the shoot early because I hand the client and art director a $1 Polaroid to show exactly what the film was capturing, while I just shoot and do my job. The next morning, the client gives me the winning frame numbers over the phone, and in an hour the $5.00 40MB Hi-Rez finished scans are on a disc and messengered right over to them.
Photography is my art, but it’s also my business. It’s not only important that my clients receive the highest-quality product on time, but it’s also important that I make a healthy profit, which digital companies prefer I not enjoy or talk about with others in my building.
_JW: That would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sadly true. The really tragic thing is that all those aspiring young pro shooters who’re going into deep debt buying this year’s state-of-the-art digital-imaging equipment are also facing the looming payback on the student loans they used to finance their fresh photography diplomas. I can especially relate to that situation, since my daughter’s in her final undergrad year of art school. Thank God she didn’t take after her Mom and major in photography, since she loves “state-of-the-art” gear as much as anyone her age. But how much can someone possibly spend on even the trendiest and most over-priced pencil or paintbrush? _
_Your comments on the durability and longevity of film cameras and equipment are also resonant with me. Not that I’m a hard-usage daily shooter or anything, but my current Nikon Fs are about thirty years old now, and perform as flawlessly as ever. Until it was stolen in the mid-‘70s, I mostly used a Nikon F motordrive from the late ’50s. The weasel who swiped it or bought it hot is probably still using the thing; and I’d almost bet that it still hasn’t needed fixing. My favorite film “pocket camera” is a Leica IIIf, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year, in fine function. Compare this to my digital pocket camera, which recently stopped working for no obvious reason. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy nut, but how does a lightly-used machine with hardly any moving parts wear out in three years, without some sort of self-destruct mechanism built into it? _
_By this time, it’s obvious to me that when it comes to imaging quality and the economics of the photography business, you’re a total pragmatist. I know for a fact that you don’t own a high-end digital camera, so on the occasions I’ve seen you with one, you must have rented the gear for a specific purpose. What were the circumstances behind those digital pro camera rentals? _
RC: A few times a year, I’ll have a new commercial client contact me who has more money than time. What I mean by that is a new client who hasn’t been on a high-level film shoot lately, or maybe not at all. It’s usually a contact who has to answer to someone higher-up with the big checkbook, and doesn’t feel comfortable trying to explain to the boss that while digital, technologically, can be the best-quality choice in non-art related mediums like cell phones, cable TV, and toaster ovens, it truly falls short when applied to anything art-related requiring tone and texture, especially photography and music.
Our ears can certainly tell the difference between a live band playing inside a club, or a digital CD recording of the same song played over a sound system. After all the years digital musical instruments have advanced, our ears can still tell the difference between a baby grand piano and a digital Casio keyboard. And our eyes can tell the difference between TV sit-coms, all shot on digital, and Law and Order and all the other quality dramas shot on the newest film stock. Those beautiful Jaguar commercials: film, the local furniture store’s… you guessed it: digital.
Been to the movies lately? Almost every major studio release from “The Departed” to upper-end indies are all shot on film and projected on film, to insure the highest-quality theater experience. Yes, a few studio films are shot on digital if there’s need for a dinosaur driving a spaceship or CGI turning seven gladiators into seven hundred, but our eyes can easily notice a setup. Film is used, respected, and understood as the quality choice in Hollywood and broadcast, and remains unchallenged for the future as well.
Back to my point with the new client who doesn’t have time for a quality pitch, or finds educating the boss a waste of time… you guessed it … the billing is twice as much because of the digital equipment rental and digital tech assistance, and it takes an extra day to get all the files ready; and they still end up with half the quality. They’re happy, but 90% of the time, they ask for film capture the next time, especially once they really look at my work for other clients.
A lot of my upper-tier clients have tried digital but it wasn’t what they expected, and still isn’t, so they’ve returned to film capture. Once in a while I may have the “latest buzz” camera back or digital body in my hands, but you can bet your favorite tripod it’s for a new client who came in after seeing my film-captured images, but didn’t bother to wonder how I captured them. It surprises me that there’re still a few people who will pay the world for less quality, as long as you wheel in a flat screen and drop a few wires down in front of them. Oh well; thank God it’s only a few times a year.
_JW: It’s like I always say, Robert, “My clients may be crazy, but at least they aren’t stupid; and they obviously have good taste, since they called on me to do their job”. _
_And speaking of crazy, all the pro photographers I know or have worked with are intensely competitive people. Most of them say that there are already way too many players on a crowded field. They would probably think that anything, such as digital imaging, which gives their potential competition less of a quality edge while requiring heavier financial investment, is a very good thing to encourage. I don’t know whether it’s at the point where they walk around in public wearing Nikon D-SLRs as costume jewelry to fool the gullible among the up-and-comers; but most of those guys would probably think you’re insane for letting this particular cat out of the bag. Fortunately, they’re all so competitive that it’s extremely unlikely that they could possibly conspire together to the extent of sending a death squad after you; but if they could, they probably would, assuming that your take on film vs. digital is the straight dope. _
_That said- are you having any second thoughts about your altruism? _
RC: The thought of a digital hit squad coming after me is too funny, especially if they’re armed with battery-powered digital pistols loaded with invisible zeros and ones, and backed up by paper shields made of rebate forms.
All I can say is that, to me, it’s never been a “Digital vs. Film” thing, and never will be. For me, it’s about sharing a little common sense and taking a few moments to realize that there’s a level of craftsmanship and quality that must not be traded off for ease of use. No media is perfect right now, especially digital capture. My love for digital is on the back end where it belongs- in post. Until the day comes when big industry and the corporate powers at the film companies decide it’s in their best interests to stop introducing new advanced films to the upper-end of the motion-picture and professional photography market, film will always be the most important part of my work flow.
For the sports or newspaper photographer who needs nothing more than a small camera and a Wi-Fi connection, the benefit of film capture may be traded off for convenience. But the rest of us, who can see the noticeable difference in the finished product, are fighting a trend within the industry and art form to accept less image quality.
My message is positive and goes out to all professionals in my craft, or those who are now entering it: If you thought film was awesome a few years back, but have been seduced away by the big marketing success of the digital capture products, I dare you to do the math and get ready to up your free time and profit margin. I also dare you to unplug yourself from all the image sensors and overpriced equipment for one day, open up a new roll of Kodak or Fuji and get ready to re-discover the one product that not only started our profession, but is today, without a doubt, “the new cutting edge” for any of us willing to give our eyes, and the eyes of our clients, what they truly deserve… the most faithful rendition of what they see in real life!
JW: I must say, Robert, that our chat on this subject has been a serious attitude-shifting experience for me… Seriously!
Follow-up from Jim
After that little P&S digital camera I was using for my web work bit the dust, I was originally planning to replace it with something similar. But, after absorbing Robert’s film-capture spiel during this chat, I decided to use the couple of hundred bucks I would have spent on a cheesy digital replacement, and invest it in upgrading our existing film camera kit instead. Our Nikon film bodies and optics will almost certainly last forever, but most of the existing non-normal lenses we had weren’t made by Nikon, so they were on their last mechanical legs after years of use.
I hit eBay, expecting to find attractive prices on used equipment, but I was shocked at the bargains I was able to get with careful bidding strategies. I picked up three used but optically and mechanically flawless Nikkor lenses in 135mm, 28mm, and 43-86mm zoom- a late replacement for an earlier version I dropped on pavement during the ’70s. I got the later AI-mount lenses, so they can be used with either our Nikon F or FE2 bodies, for around a hundred bucks, including shipping.
While I was at it, I also snapped up a pristine Nikon EM body for $20 and change, thinking it would make a sweet little compact “spare” body usable with the “new” Nikon lenses I got. I was only watching, but not bidding on a nice Nikon F4 body while all that was going on. It went for $250!
The change left over from my $200 stake will be applied to buying a pro pack or two of those new films Robert was telling us about, and having the results processed to “digital disc” output. That’s about a typical year’s worth of non-pro shooting for me, and probably a couple of decades’ worth of nice equipment as a sweetener. Seems like a pretty good deal, eh?
It seems to me that this could be a golden age for someone just starting out in pro photography, presuming that they can withstand the cultural pressure pushing them toward investing big bucks into high-priced digital gear, when they can fully equip themselves with great used virtually-indestructible film gear for chump change in the current market, with higher-quality image product as a bonus. So, on behalf of myself and any canny tyro pros who’re reading this and acting upon it, thanks very much for the eye-opener Robert.
Text ©2009 Jim Wilson.