Infocus Blog

Moving from Film to Digital

This question was asked above in the Readers Questions area, but I suspect there are a lot more of you out there who are curious about this question and it deserves a more complete answer.  I’ll relate my own experiences and perhaps you can relate them to your own.

For over two decades I shot an Olympus 35mm film system.  I had the expensive OM-3ti and OM-4ti bodies which were truly ahead of their time, and I had most every type of Olympus SLR made.  Because I’d often be ‘roughing it’ in the field with the military I always hesitated to bring my expensive bodies with me, especially on a servicemen’s salary.  So, I’d visit the pawn shops and stock up on OM-1n bodies.  The OM-1n was a very capable and tough fully manual SLR with a manual shutter and only required batteries for the built in light meter and those would last several years.  I’d try to keep 4-5 of these bodies at hand, taking two in the field with me everywhere I went.  I rarely paid more than $35 for these bodies in pawn shops.  I also had/have a very nice selection of Olympus Zuiko lenses, motor drives, winders, large capacity film backs, bounce grips, and the rest of everything in the system.  Wonderful gear!

Olympus OM-4ti SLR.  Zuiko 24mm F2 lens, slide film

The above shot was taken with Fuji Velvia 50 ASA Slide Film.  Olympus OM-4ti SLR.  Zuiko 24mm F2 lens.

Almost ten years ago my surgically corrected eyes started to fade and at the time there was no fix save for glasses, so instead of glasses I opted to move to a more modern SLR system that included state of the art autofocus capabilities.  After months and months of research I decided to go with Nikon and I purchased a beautiful F5 film 35mm and that month they’d just come out with the consumer grade D100 Digital SLR (DSLR) so I ordered one of those two and decided to play around with it.

King Tut, Olympus OM-3ti SLR.  Zuiko 50mm F1.2 lens

The above shot was taken in a relatively dark chamber using a F1.2 lens wide open with ISO 1600 Kodak Ektachome Slide Film.  Olympus OM-3ti SLR.  Zuiko 50mm F1.2 lens.

 Olympus OM-1n SLR  Zuiko 50mm F1.2 lens.

The above shot was taken inside Hoover Dam using a F1.2 lens at F4 with ISO 1600 Kodak Ektachrome Slide Film pushed one stop to ASA 3200.  Olympus OM-1n SLR  Zuiko 50mm F1.2 lens.

Nikon F5 with a crappy Sigma 28-300mm lens

The above shot was taken while test driving a Nikon F5 with a crappy Sigma 28-300mm lens using Fuji Sensia 100 ASA slide film.

Nikon F5 with a crappy Sigma 28-300mm lens

The above shot was taken while test driving a Nikon F5 with a crappy Sigma 28-300mm lens using Fuji Sensia 100 ASA slide film.

Nikon F5, Nikkor 70-200/2.8 VR lens.

The above shot was taken when I owned my own Nikon F5 with an excellent Nikkor 70-200/2.8 VR lens.  Fuji Sensia 100 ASA slide film.  Captured while bouncing over the water at over 50 knots.  I was immediately sold on Nikon’s vibration reduction, their brand of image stabilization.

Before I purchased the Nikon F5 I borrowed one from the local pro shop and test drove it for a week.  I almost didn’t buy it after seeing how terrible the pictures were, but knowing it was probably a lens I went ahead with my purchase which included some professional lenses.  Along with the D100 everything arrived in a big box and it felt like Christmas time.

As you can see from the above photos I had really mastered my Olympus gear and after two decades I was very comfortable with it.  I knew which lenses produced the best sharpness, color, and contrast and the results were very positive even in some very difficult locations as I demonstrated above.  It took a few months to become barely competent with the F5 and learn to effectively use its excellent autofocus.  Just because a camera has autofocus, it doesn’t mean it focuses all by itself as you wish it would every time.  You must learn how the autofocus system works in its various modes, when and how to use the modes, and when to forget autofocus and revert back to manual focus.  Many people get very frustrated when moving from a point and shoot compact to a DSLR because the autofocus can be very hard to get used to, it took me months and I was shooting professionally at the time.

The new Nikon D100 DSLR sat idle for a few months because I didn’t have time to fully devote myself to learning how to use it.  Yes, I put a few hundred shots through it and they all looked terrible.  Looking on forums I was seeing great results from the D100 so I knew the problem was with my knowledge of digital cameras and not the gear.

Finally I took a months vacation, locked my F5 film SLR in a drawer, and committed myself to learning to use the D100.  Initially I shot straight jpegs and used the in-camera adjustments such as sharpening, color, and contrast.  I soon discovered that the included Nikon software was less than adequate and it was no surprise my outdated computer was so slow processing pictures that it was pure torture.  I hadn’t upgraded my computer in years, so this started weeks of more research catching up on all the latest computer hardware and what worked best for digital imaging.

UPS dropped off my new computer and I was up all night assembling, installing software, and finally seeing what my images looked like on it’s display.  The images looked terrible!  Frustrated I read book after book and forum after forum, gleaning whatever pearls of wisdom and experience from those who came before me.  It took me months to discover I needed to color profile my monitor, that RAW files offered great advantages, and just a few tricks in Photoshop.  Heck, for the first 3-4 months I didn’t even sharpen my images because I didn’t know DSLRs had a anti-aliasing filter and needed sharpening.  So, I learned how to sharpen images and for the next few months I over sharpened all my images.  Every time I learned a new way to adjust my image I abused the heck out of it before finally getting some sense and learning how to balance things.

Almost six months went by and I was still shooting film professionally because I knew film and could do it well, and my digital results, even using the exact same lenses on both cameras, were terrible.  There was a lot more to digital photography than I first thought and this was becoming painfully obvious.

By the end of the first year I was finally ready to start using my D100 on ‘some’ professional jobs, I’d finally learned enough about the differences between shooting the two types of cameras, and how to use the software, and prepare files for the printer, to output truly professional results.  It was very slow going.

Looking back at things it would have saved me much time and money if I’d just paid someone offering 1-1 workshops for a 4-5 day course.  I would have learned MORE in those 4-5 days by someone who knew what they were doing, than by all my experimenting and the mountain of books I’d digested over the course of the last year.  A quality workshop probably would have saved me the entire second year of learning as well.  I’m not exaggerating even a little bit.

Really, the transition from film to digital depends on the person.  The more computer experience you have with imaging software the smoother the transition.  But do be warned, it can be very frustrating and time consuming.  It can make you feel like you’ve wasted a great deal of money and time.  It might even make you cry at times.. ;o)

My recommendation?  Complete a quality workshop.  See if you can find a instructor who can take you on individually and supply a quality DSLR and accompanying lenses BEFORE you buy.  Make sure the instructor has a quality computer workstation set up for you to use.  Without spending a dime on the gear or computer, you will not only be able to directly start using a professionally setup system, and professionally selected camera gear, but the instructor will know how to teach you to get the most out of everything and almost immediately start producing quality images on your own.

A good instructor will answer all of your questions, be patient if you want to take notes, and make recommendations about which computer, software, and gear to use.  He should be able to demonstrate why he’s recommending one piece of gear/software/equipment over another.  If you already have a decent laptop bring it, and let the instructor help you set it up so you can start turning out quality images immediately.

If the workshop is truly professional and well set up, don’t be surprised if the instructor tells you you’ll be spending as much or more time on the computer, as you will with the camera.  With digital photography the computer becomes your darkroom and it takes just as much time and effort to learn to be competent on the computer, as it does to become competent in the dark room.

It took me over two years to become barely competent with digital photography.  Since, I’ve built on these skills every single day for an additional eight years.  If I was starting over I’d go the workshop route without question and save years of time, not to mention being able to test drive cameras and lenses so I’d be prepared to make the right purchases the first time, and not end up having to buy and resell a ton of gear as I learned.

I found this old shot I captured with the D100 at about the two year mark.  I was finally there.

D100