I've been posting for a while and thought it was about time I introduced myself. I am an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool in li'l old England and for the last few years I have been Director of a long term research project looking at the Roman incursions into northern Scotland.
Photography is fundamental to archaeology. We take perhaps 4,000 pictures a year, but the prime aim is simply to record information so, as a photographer, I am very much technician not artist. About half my pictures are of excavated features. Another third or so are air photographs (our chief means of finding new sites) and the remainder are a mix of surface monuments, excavated artefacts, lecture slides from drawn work such as site plans, and copy negs/slides from vintage photographs, stretching back to the dawn of photography.
For the last 20 years I can't claim to have been much interested in photography. It was just one of those things I did during my daily work. But the accelerating disappearance of materials I had relied on (Dia Direct, Royal 25, Kodachrome 25, Tech-Pan, Panalure paper, Ilford's 220 format range, and now the troubles of the company itself) have forced me to put my head above water to see what on Earth is going on.
After a lot of thought, we (the project) have decided that we both want and need to stick with silver halide photography. There are a number of reasons:
I am happy to admit that the main negative point is inertia. I know how to work silver photography and have a lot of equipment that I have no desire to write off. The chances of our raising funding to re-equip from scratch are near nil and if we could raise the money we have a lot better things to spend it on. We also find that most digital cameras have such a small sensor size that they are less than friendly to those like us that use mostly very wide angle lenses.
On a more positive front. I like what traditional photography does. The only digital cameras I have seen that can match even 35mm resolution are terrifyingly expensive and I don't want to pay a small fortune for something I already have. I also find that film, like most analogue systems, overloads more gracefully than digital and so can be made to look as though it has a greater dynamic range than it really does (compare the look of burnt out highlights on film and digital images).
By far the most important reason, however, is storage. Archaeological excavation is a process of destructive, if very careful, dissection. When we have finished a site, our records are all that remain, so they have to be both exhaustive and truly archivally permanent. We know that film (especially B&W) can do this. I regularly use 19th century negatives and have just been printing a set of 1933 negs. In principle there is no reason why digital shouldn't be able to match this, but storage and file formats change so fast that they would need much more active management, for which the funding would be, at best, unreliable. We just don't know yet how things will turn out, so I feel duty bound to stick with technology I know works.
Am I anti digital? No. We have both flat bed and dedicated film scanners and I use digital imaging every day. Publishers and TV companies increasingly want digital images and for the last ten years virtually all of the pictures in my books and academic papers have gone off on disc. The images on our web site (www.morgue.demon.co.uk/Pages/Gask/index.html) are by definition digital, but I still like there to be a slide or neg at the back of them.
Do I have a digital camera? Yes. I won't consider investing in an SLR system until the market starts to mature a bit, but I have an 8mp Olympus C-8080 which I use essentially as we used to use a Polaroid. We take a lot of pictures with the camera (on self timer) held up on a long telescopic pole to take pictures vertically downwards into excavation trenches, from 5-6m up. These often show details we hadn't noticed on the ground and, although we make film versions as well, it is nice to be able to see the pictures straight away. To my surprise, I also find that the camera takes very nice infra red shots, but with the subject still visible in the viewfinder, even with an opaque filter, and without the huge grain and the fuss of changing film in a dark bag. It's horses for courses, with a role for both.
For those who are interested in kit, I use mostly 35mm with a range of 1970s and 80s Olympus OM SLRs. I have never wanted anything more recent since autofocus is pretty much just a nuisance for the sort of work I do, whilst a proper depth of field scale and viewfinder aids for critical manual focus are vital. I also have a Leica IIIa which, although 25 years older than me, still does good service as a platform for a Voightlander 15mm lens, and I shoot medium format on a Mamyia RB67. Most of our film is commercially processed, because we need imprint sized file copies of everything we shoot, but we have a darkroom for any special processing and for making larger exhibition prints.
Sorry for going on so much.