Defining "Film-Like" For A Digital Generation
If you've been in the photography business for a long time, you have probably used the term film-like when describing digital cameras, dozens if not hundreds of times. In the early days of digital photography, the term was used as an innate sense of quality that one looked for when examining the image quality of digital cameras. However, I recently had a discussion with someone who pointed out the fact that many of today's photographers have never worked with film and have no concept of what this, perhaps out-dated term means. So just what does “film-like” mean and is it really an outdated term?
In the early days of digital cameras, the images captured by the sensors of the day exhibited a distinct "digital" quality. This was usually epitomised by un-natural colours, poor dynamic range, a linear colour response, digital noise, and clipped highlights. Over-sharpening artefacts were also a dead giveaway. Over time, digital camera manufacturers strove to make their camera sensors behave more film like, in that the colours, rendition and so on would look like those that could be produced by shooting on traditional film. For a long time discussions raged (and in some quarters still do) as to which was better, but the ultimate goal of the digital camera manufacturers was to loose the digital look and become more analogue. The truth is, this threshold was crossed a long time ago.
If you show most non-photographers an image taken with film and an image taken with a good modern DSLR and ask them which looks like the better image, many will pick the digital image. I'm sure there are lots of film fans out there who are offended by this opinion, but the fact is that most consumers are used to the relatively grain free, sharp look of todays digital images.
For me, it's hard to pinpoint which camera was the most influential for this perception switch , but I'm guessing it was probably the arrival of the Canon 5D. This was the camera that I first found was, at least in my mind, indistinguishable, on an aesthetic level from film. You can argue that negative film still had more dynamic range, but there wasn't a hint of "digital-ness" from the first 5D and I think that was the point in the development of the industry that it no longer became necessary to shoot on film to maintain the aesthetic quality you were used to.
Which brings me back to the main point. I think many of today's consumers view the term "film-like" through the prism of Instagram filters. I wonder if the faux film craze the iPhone brought, coupled with the popularity of Holga cameras and has re-defined the perception of what the term "film-like" means -from a definition of quality, to one of nostalgia and retro cool (or un-cool depending on your point of view). Yet in a way, it's still solving the same problem. The faux filters of Instagram and the hundreds of other camera-apps are all doing the same thing - making the "digital-ness" of cell-phone cameras look more analogue. In other words, more film-like.
At the end of the day, the ultimate achievement of the pioneers of digital imaging is that you no longer really need the term digital. In the mainstream photography world, this is effectively the case. Many camera stores stopped listing DSLR's as digital SLRs and now simply call them SLRs. Canon stopped calling its Eos and Rebel lines "digital" a long time ago. While there are still people advertising their services or skills as "digital photographers" the term is basically dead. You're just a photographer now, regardless. (Incidentally, if someone calls themselves a digital photographer they're probably full of it)
Yet, despite all this, the allure of analogue lives on. Much like Vinyl there are still those who long for the aesthetic quality of film. There are still dozens of companies selling filters and plug-ins designed to make your digital images look like film. There is still something intangible about the look of film, even if it is simulated that has a romantic quality that just seems to attract people. Even if young photographers have grown up never having shot film, the term "film-like" lives on as a poetic and nostalgic aspirational if somewhat abstract quality. Even if you don't exactly know what it is that makes it this way, you can still appreciate it when you see it.