The ‘vinyl revival’ – as in LP records – is in full swing, so much so that some new albums are being released on vinyl first, Amazon now lists its music offerings under the heading ‘CDs & Vinyl’, and the choice of new turntables (ranging from cheapies to models that are eye-wateringly expensive) is wider than ever. You’d still probably describe vinyl records as a niche market, but it’s a fairly healthy niche. What’s the attraction? The experts will tell you that digital reproduction (as in CDs) never really cut it with audiophiles and the compressed formats popular for downloading music, such as MP3, are considered deficient by an even wider group of audio enthusiasts. It’s been suggested that audio is probably the only area where subsequent developments in technology have resulted in a diminishing of overall quality. Instead the emphasis has been largely on greater conveniences in terms of accessibility, file sharing and storing.
The convenience aspect has certainly also popularised digital imaging and, of course, in the early days the quality was quite obviously inferior to that of film, even the smaller formats. But what about now when we’re seeing 35mm-sized sensors with 50 megapixels which, in comparison terms, isn’t far off what would be the pixel count of an E6 or C41 film frame? It’s been estimated a 35mm Kodachrome 64 frame represented 70 megapixels, but this process always delivered a much higher resolution than the dye-coupler type colour emulsions. Kodachrome had a dynamic range of 12 stops and this is now matched, or even exceeded, by the ‘645’ format sensors used in the latest digital medium format systems. So, in purely terms of technical quality, digital imaging is on a par with film and, as with music, there are plenty of people prepared to accept less… for example, when shooting with a smartphone.
However, audiophiles also cite the ‘clinical’ sound of digitally-reproduced music versus analogue recordings which can be variously described as ‘warm’, ‘lively’ or ‘involving’. Essentially, though, these are characteristics preserved from the actual performance itself… the human element, if you like, which can never be absolutely perfect. In other words, in the unemotional binary world of ‘0’ and ‘1’, these are ‘deficiencies’ which can’t be recorded. This is a harder element to quantify in digital imaging except to note that the structure of an imaging sensor is strictly ordered (i.e. precisely spaced columns and rows of uniformly-sized pixels) while the distribution of silver halide crystals in a film’s emulsion is completely random… and their size varies too. This precision certainly creates a different look, albeit subtly, but does this have any influence on the content of an image and how it’s perceived by the viewer? It could be argued that the continuous tone aspect of film’s structure results in smoother gradations, among a number of other subtleties, which are more satisfying visually, if only subconsciously, and so could be considered in emotional terms. Yet there are so many more aspects to a photograph as an interpretation of a subject, that it’s harder to isolate the medium from the message. Yes, performers interpret a piece of music in terms of the way it’s played, but these subtleties actually represent a more significant aspect of a recording so it’s more noticeable if they’re not there. If film is to enjoy a vinyl-type revival it’s more likely to be based on the differences in the experience including, of course, the tangibility of a transparency or negative versus the virtual nature of digital file. As we’ve noted here before, a key aspect of film photography was the delay between visualisation and realisation. For many this was an anxious time – and they’re no doubt now happy converts to digital’s instant confirmation of success or failure – but for others it was a time of anticipation and contemplation, the latter as settings, techniques and composition were mulled over, and possibly also revised or refined even before the results had been seen. Many argue – with some justification – that this is how photography was learned and honed, providing an ingrained understanding of the processes and procedures which served as a solid foundation for both creative growth and technical experimentation. If digital imaging does have a key deficiency, it’s that great results can be too easily achieved without the person behind the camera really understanding how they happened. There’s no scope for learning, unless you’re particularly motivated to work out what’s going on. Film was much less forgiving once you ventured beyond point-and-shoot and so, perhaps albeit largely by trial-and-error, experience was gained and skills were acquired.
Playing a vinyl record has its rituals, and so does shooting with film. Both make the experience a more important component of the whole process and, I suspect, this is always going to be the major attraction over the much harder to define comparisons of reproduction quality.
Paul Burrows, Editor