All Hail … Analog?

My brother kindly pointed me an article in the Wall Street Journal by Francis Fukuyama, entitled ‘All Hail Analog?’. Fukuyama is best known as a kind of historical analyst, generally of a conservative bent. In the late 80s and early 90s he was famous for his thesis on the theme of ‘The End of History’, in which he suggested that with the end of the Soviet bloc, human history is likely to settle down into a broadly liberal democratic arrangement, with little of the major ideological competition that had marked the decades leading to that time.

If you’re going to read something of his, I recommend his 1995 book ‘Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity’.

But his view on analogue vs digital, which his article is about? Not so good. Here are a few of the surprisingly silly parts of the essay.

Ansel Adams’s iconic images of the Sierras were taken with an 8-inch-by-10-inch view camera, a wooden contraption with bellows in which the photographer saw his subject upside-down and reversed under a black cloth. Joel Meyerowitz’s stunning photographs of Cape Cod were taken with a similar mahogany Deardorff view camera manufactured in the 1930s. These cameras produce negatives that contain up to 100 times the amount of information produced by a contemporary top-of-the-line digital SLR like a Canon EOS 5D or a Nikon D3. View cameras allow photographers to shift and tilt the lens relative to the film plane, which is why they continue to be used by architectural photographers who want to avoid photos of buildings with the converging vertical lines caused by the upward tilt of the lens on a normal camera. And their lenses can be stopped down to f/64 or even f/96, which allows everything to be in crystalline focus from 3 inches away to infinity.

And what has any of this to do with digital vs analogue? Why, nothing! Why would you compare Adams’ camera to a standard SLR? There is no reason in principle why a large format digital camera could not be produced, one capable of a similar total amount of information capture. Such a camera naturally lends itself to tiny apertures. The f-stop rating is the ratio of the focal length to the diameter of the aperture. Large format cameras tend to have a longer focal length. Yes, you could have an f/64 digital, if there were a market for it.

Likewise digital cameras could be (and have been, as far as I know) built into flexible lens arrangements allowing lens tilt and other features.

Analogue vs digital in this context only has to do with the device that captures the light which has been presented by a camera body. Fukuyama is extolling the virtues of the old camera body, not the back end.

Perhaps there isn’t much of a demand these days for f/64 photography, given than exposures of a minute or two were often necessary.

In contrast to contemporary digital photographers who snap a zillion photos of the same subject and hope that one will turn out well composed, view camera photography is a more painterly activity that forces the photographer to slow down and think ahead carefully about subject, light, framing, time of day, and the like. These skills are in short supply among digital photographers.

He says this like it’s a virtue. A person with a digital camera can indeed slow down and think ahead. No doubt many of today’s great photographers do just that.

But a person with a view camera can’t photograph fleeting events. A digital camera provides options in how photography is conducted. A view camera limits them. Nothing wrong with that given the limitations of the time. But today? Does he want digital cameras to be carefully designed to be hard to use, to ensure that you have to obtain mastery in order to produce even a half-decent shot?

How many digital cameras will still be functioning five years from now, much less 50? Where are you going to buy new batteries and the media to store your photos in 2061?

This, in an article which opens by noting that the last Kodachrome processing facility in the US has just closed down. Need I say more?

Then he turns to music:

The only problem was that early CDs simply didn’t sound good: They were thin, harsh and unpleasant to listen to. It turns out that old-fashioned vinyl records, like photographic film, are actually a pretty good way of storing information. Sound is inherently analog; converting sound waves to grooves on a record does not involve the same loss of information as their conversion to digital data.

That last bit is absolutely wrong. Of course information is lost in converting to grooves on vinyl. As it is on the recording tape, and in the microphone.

Furthermore, more information is lost every time you play the LP! The pickup, no matter how fine, scrapes away some of the detail. Other information is masked by increasing levels of distortion and noise.

Digital isn’t perfect by any means, but its imperfections are known and fixed and are generally beyond the limits of human detection. And those early CDs? Nothing wrong with the CD as the carrier. The signal that was put on them was the problem. It was likely as not to have been EQed to sound good on vinyl, and then just poured into an analogue-to-digital converter. Play one of those CDs back on a great modern system and it will still sound like crap.

Let’s finish with a particularly silly straw man argument:

Don’t believe the marketing hype of the techie types who tell you that newer is always better. Sometimes in technology, as in politics, we regress. This point will be brought home to lots of people when their hard disks crash and they find they’ve lost all of their photos of baby Tiffany forever. Photos of my children, by contrast, are safely stored in the closet in boxes of Kodachrome slides.

That first sentence is the straw man. What techie types make such a silly statement as that? Of course, often newer is better, so the chance to say otherwise in specific cases is often limited. But no one I know would make that claim.

As for the photos of the kids: for a modest amount you can upload your digital photos for storage on another continent. If your house burns down, your Kodachrome slides — and memories — will be gone. Unless you’ve scanned them and put the digital copies somewhere safe.

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8 Responses to All Hail … Analog?

  1. Simon Reidy says:

    Excellent deconstruction of one of the silliest articles I’ve read. Did you leave these comments on the WSJ site? Unlikely as it may be, I’d love to hear his re-buttle to any of these points!

  2. Stephen Dawson says:

    I never even thought of that Simon. I’m looking into it, but in reading the comments it again amazes me how people manage to trick themselves. In this comment for example, the chap reckons that the PCM audio on his LaserDiscs sounds ever so much better than that on his CDs. Problem is, the PCM format used on LaserDisc is the same as that used on CD!

  3. al says:

    Forget Large format, medium format best we got

    Cost about $12,000

    You can imagine what a large format digital camera like those old fashioned wooden box cameras would cost….kind of puts into perspective where in evolution digital cameras are at right now. That is reality.

    As an ardent photographer I have to speak up. My father in law is a professional photographer of nature who has travelled continents and photographed parts of this world that no one else has. He is a film photographer from way back and a digital convert for years hence. But he too was first to tell me, that in old days of film he’d take absolute care to take that one photo, now days people snap off dozens of pics in the hope one good one turns out. It is a different approach to photography…myself an amateur with not even the hint of skill he has in photography but will say I have learnt and grown enormously in my skill and knowledge of photography since moving to digital

    As far as this digital and analog debate, I have absolutely no idea why digiphiles get so uppity at the mention of the joys of analog 😀

    I have combined 2ch analog and av systems, and can enjoy music off a mix of digital or analog sources. But can tell you analog vinyl is most enjoyable music source on my system :p

  4. Stephen Dawson says:

    Absolutely no problem from me with those who enjoy analogue. I grew up on analogue. The very first hifi system I ever heard was a four channel analogue system! What I object to is those who insist that their superior enjoyment of analogue audio is because there are some imaginary shortcomings with digital. I object to the enumeration of these supposed digital problems, and the total glossing over of problems with analogue.

    Vinyl can sound glorious, but not because it is more accurate than digital. Vinyl is less accurate. THD levels at the master cutting stage are around 1%. The amount at the pressing stage is variable. Is it the first pressing from the master? Or the ten thousandth (this, presumably, is less of a problem than it was in the days when vinyl was the dominant medium). The metal pressing plates wore out.

    So you are talking significant distortion and noise in a vinyl disc, before it is even placed on a turntable!

    Happily, the distortion is usually low order and it tends to add warmth to the sound. If you get a clean pressing (clicks and pops for brand new records was the norm back in the 70s), this warmth combined with some nice phase effects imposed by the stereo modulation of the groove, along with the coils in the pickup cartridges (and possibly those in the cutting heads at the start of production) can produce an extremely pleasing result.

    But it is inevitably less accurate.

    What I’m on about on this site and most of my writing is reproduction accuracy (high fidelity = very truthful). A truly transparent system might expose things which actually detract from your enjoyment, but it reveals things as they are.

  5. Mark says:

    There is a group who purposely use poor quality film cameras for their unpredictable (sometimes artistic) results:

    They claim on the about page it was started in 1991 but I was doing that sort of thing in the 80s. I had a collection of cheap “toy” film cameras for their “lofi” effect (still got them). I even made my own lens for my 35mm SLR using the lense from a cheap toy camera.

    There is a divide between the artistic side and technological side of photography. The tech side are after pixel perfection (I understand they are called pixel peepers as they zoom into photos so much to ensure sharpness). This however does not mean the photo is any good. The fact is that the photos that are considered “classics” that you find in art galleries are usually technically poor (except for Ansel Adams work).

    I appreciate both sides so my last two DSLR lense purchases have been a high grade Zuiko lens and a Lensbaby kit:

  6. Victor says:

    Bah! Those view cameras are a soulless and mechanical abomination lacking the natural art of paint on canvas.

    In contrast to contemporary view camera photographers who can snap several photos in one day, painting is a more considered activity that forces the artist to slow down and think ahead carefully about subject, light, colour, framing, mood, composition, materials, technique and the like. A single painting can take many days, if not weeks, months or years! These skills and patience are in short supply among view camera photographers.

  7. Stephen Dawson says:

    Beautiful Victor!

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