In Grain I Trust

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

Imagine the end-of-the-millennium boardroom glee. Photographic conglomerate executives salivating at the thought of the irresistible photographic hook for their impending product release: Grainless-ness.

These corporate executives knew that photographers had always struggled with the inherent grain limitations of 35mm film, and now they were about to aggressively market a knight in Polycarbonite armor: A professional quality digital camera. Medium format sharpness in a 35mm size package. A panacea for all that ailed film. Gluttony without indigestion.

Or at least it seemed that way.

With significant fanfare and the promise of new millennium modernity, the surf magazines bit hard on the digital capture hook and subsequently prepared to release the first grainless surf images to the world. Parlor excitement grew exponentially as this new format promised amazing and convenient results: You were no longer limited to relatively small enlargements. You could shoot hundreds of images without changing rolls. You could look at your results right away. You could send a file to almost any point in the world instantaneously.

Only one problem: Digitally-captured images printed like dog shit.

In my opinion, the large camera conglomerates released a Trojan Horse, and although many problems with digitally-captured images have been fixed in the decade or so since the revolution began, at least one harsh truth still remains: Pixels do not communicate depth (or mood, grit, texture or subtlety, by extension) as well as grain. For the most part, digital images look flatter, more artificial, and less compelling than film.

As testament, just a few years after the initial digital capture release, image software companies started to sell products that introduce simulated grain into digital images….something that existed with film in the first place. A synthetic tail wagging an able-bodied dog.

At this point in time, I thought the world had officially gone mad. For the life of me, I couldn’t see why you would want to switch to an inferior photographic format. I tried to keep an open mind, but the printed results were so blatantly horrific that I couldn’t believe photographers were continuing to switch to digital. Jaundiced, out-of-register, radioactively-saturated, flat looking images became the norm.

My honest belief was that if you thought that digitally-captured images looked better than film, you didn’t deserve eyeballs.

In my view, this was an affront to all that surf photography stood for. How images looked on the printed page was the whole point. If nothing else, the ocean deserved high-fidelity and artistic treatment, and since no one else seemed to want to accept the role, I volunteered myself as the poster boy for the anti-digital capture movement. I even made t-shirts with a tongue-in-cheek tagline, “Death Before Digital.”

Although I had visions of support and solidarity from my fellow surf photographers, it never really came. A couple of shooters took me off to the side and whispered their hatred for digital in hushed tones, but for the most part my anti-digital stance was met by the sound of crickets. I think Mike Moir and Patrick Trefz were the only two photographers who took the time to call me and voice their support.

Time went by and digital capture began to slowly print better. Photographers cycled through one expensive camera body after another, and I continued using the same EOS 1V for the next eight years. Even after a near-decade, I still thought that film looked better on the printed page, and was especially offended at how bad black-and-white digital images looked.

Right about the time that I had lost complete faith in my fellow photographers, there came distant voices from the wilderness. First, Joe Curren, a promising shooter and purist, refused to shoot digital and even railed against it. Then a young photography student named Todd Glaser relayed a message to me, saying that he understood and agreed with what I was talking about.

But probably the most validating thing came at the 2007 Surfer Poll. Jon Frank won the Photo of the Year award for his beautiful afternoon inside-out water shot of Mick Fanning at Teahupoo, but wasn’t able to attend the Poll, so he instructed Mick to give his acceptance speech for him.

In front of the most important gathering of surf industry players, Mick Fanning took the stage, accepted the award, and said that Jon had given him two words to say to the world, “Shoot film.”

Although these words were mostly met by a collective “huh?” from the crowd, a few of us understood the message. Arguably the best surf photographer in the world was voicing his opinion about the superior look of film.

Although digital capture and its associated post production process continues to improve, it still lacks the je ne sais quoi that film possesses, especially for black-and-white. For proof, all you have to do is go to the supermarket and check out one of those magazine tributes to an older celebrity that has recently passed on. Grab one of those Paul Newman or Elizabeth Taylor visual anthologies and you will find rich, gorgeous, three dimensional-looking images that are still unmatched by 12 years of digital technology.

Ironically, it’s only now that some photographers are starting to wake up and re-discover film, just as it is dying a final and quick death. Kodak just killed Kodachrome. Agfa killed Scala a while back. Most color processing labs are long gone, and just this month, one of the best color labs in the world, Chrome in San Diego, just closed its doors.

This final dying gasp for film elicits nostalgia. The days of not knowing what you shot until you went to the camera store and opened your box of film. The days of using different films to faithfully interpret the situation at hand, like a painter with a palette. The days of carefully visualizing, composing, and exposing an image, so you didn’t waste money or precious frames.

So, as a tribute to the memory of film, I put together a small collection of images below. A visual thank you to the format that I loved so much.

Kodak TMAX 3200: Not a very contrasty print film, but a very pleasing-to-the-eye grain structure, and almost fast enough to shoot “bats in a cave at night.”

Just mentioning the name Kodachrome 200 will bring a tear to some photographers’ eyes. A neutral, accurate skin-tone palette with incredible warm light performance, and just enough grain to take the edge off. My all time favorite film. Munga Barry.

Murphy’s Law: It was only at the end of my film shooting days that I discovered the look I had been searching for my entire career. It’s called DR5: A process that turns print film into transparencies, and in this case, an Ilford 400 motion blur of Mick Fanning into a sepia grain explosion.

Coupling slightly visible grain from push-processing and low light reciprocity failure gave this Kodak 100 VS image a textured foreground and a rich look that puts the viewer right there with Brian Szymanski.

The first generation of Fujichrome Provia was slightly grainier than Velvia, had more accurate skin-tone rendering, and performed well under lower light/cloudy conditions. But of course they had to go and ruin it.

A very popular film choice among professionals, Agfa Scala black and white transparency film had incredible mid-tone performance and just got contrastier the more you push processed it. Check the illusion of depth in this image—you’re not likely to get this with digital.