rob gilley

In Grain I Trust

| posted on July 10, 2011

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

Imagine the end-of-the-millennium boardroom glee. Photographic conglomerate executives salivating at the thought of the irresistible photographic hook for their impending product release: Grainless-ness.

These corporate executives knew that photographers had always struggled with the inherent grain limitations of 35mm film, and now they were about to aggressively market a knight in Polycarbonite armor: A professional quality digital camera. Medium format sharpness in a 35mm size package. A panacea for all that ailed film. Gluttony without indigestion.

Or at least it seemed that way.

With significant fanfare and the promise of new millennium modernity, the surf magazines bit hard on the digital capture hook and subsequently prepared to release the first grainless surf images to the world. Parlor excitement grew exponentially as this new format promised amazing and convenient results: You were no longer limited to relatively small enlargements. You could shoot hundreds of images without changing rolls. You could look at your results right away. You could send a file to almost any point in the world instantaneously.

Only one problem: Digitally-captured images printed like dog shit.

In my opinion, the large camera conglomerates released a Trojan Horse, and although many problems with digitally-captured images have been fixed in the decade or so since the revolution began, at least one harsh truth still remains: Pixels do not communicate depth (or mood, grit, texture or subtlety, by extension) as well as grain. For the most part, digital images look flatter, more artificial, and less compelling than film.

As testament, just a few years after the initial digital capture release, image software companies started to sell products that introduce simulated grain into digital images….something that existed with film in the first place. A synthetic tail wagging an able-bodied dog.

At this point in time, I thought the world had officially gone mad. For the life of me, I couldn’t see why you would want to switch to an inferior photographic format. I tried to keep an open mind, but the printed results were so blatantly horrific that I couldn’t believe photographers were continuing to switch to digital. Jaundiced, out-of-register, radioactively-saturated, flat looking images became the norm.

My honest belief was that if you thought that digitally-captured images looked better than film, you didn’t deserve eyeballs.

In my view, this was an affront to all that surf photography stood for. How images looked on the printed page was the whole point. If nothing else, the ocean deserved high-fidelity and artistic treatment, and since no one else seemed to want to accept the role, I volunteered myself as the poster boy for the anti-digital capture movement. I even made t-shirts with a tongue-in-cheek tagline, “Death Before Digital.”

Although I had visions of support and solidarity from my fellow surf photographers, it never really came. A couple of shooters took me off to the side and whispered their hatred for digital in hushed tones, but for the most part my anti-digital stance was met by the sound of crickets. I think Mike Moir and Patrick Trefz were the only two photographers who took the time to call me and voice their support.

Time went by and digital capture began to slowly print better. Photographers cycled through one expensive camera body after another, and I continued using the same EOS 1V for the next eight years. Even after a near-decade, I still thought that film looked better on the printed page, and was especially offended at how bad black-and-white digital images looked.

Right about the time that I had lost complete faith in my fellow photographers, there came distant voices from the wilderness. First, Joe Curren, a promising shooter and purist, refused to shoot digital and even railed against it. Then a young photography student named Todd Glaser relayed a message to me, saying that he understood and agreed with what I was talking about.

But probably the most validating thing came at the 2007 Surfer Poll. Jon Frank won the Photo of the Year award for his beautiful afternoon inside-out water shot of Mick Fanning at Teahupoo, but wasn’t able to attend the Poll, so he instructed Mick to give his acceptance speech for him.

In front of the most important gathering of surf industry players, Mick Fanning took the stage, accepted the award, and said that Jon had given him two words to say to the world, “Shoot film.”

Although these words were mostly met by a collective “huh?” from the crowd, a few of us understood the message. Arguably the best surf photographer in the world was voicing his opinion about the superior look of film.

Although digital capture and its associated post production process continues to improve, it still lacks the je ne sais quoi that film possesses, especially for black-and-white. For proof, all you have to do is go to the supermarket and check out one of those magazine tributes to an older celebrity that has recently passed on. Grab one of those Paul Newman or Elizabeth Taylor visual anthologies and you will find rich, gorgeous, three dimensional-looking images that are still unmatched by 12 years of digital technology.

Ironically, it’s only now that some photographers are starting to wake up and re-discover film, just as it is dying a final and quick death. Kodak just killed Kodachrome. Agfa killed Scala a while back. Most color processing labs are long gone, and just this month, one of the best color labs in the world, Chrome in San Diego, just closed its doors.

This final dying gasp for film elicits nostalgia. The days of not knowing what you shot until you went to the camera store and opened your box of film. The days of using different films to faithfully interpret the situation at hand, like a painter with a palette. The days of carefully visualizing, composing, and exposing an image, so you didn’t waste money or precious frames.

So, as a tribute to the memory of film, I put together a small collection of images below. A visual thank you to the format that I loved so much.

Kodak TMAX 3200: Not a very contrasty print film, but a very pleasing-to-the-eye grain structure, and almost fast enough to shoot “bats in a cave at night.”

Just mentioning the name Kodachrome 200 will bring a tear to some photographers’ eyes. A neutral, accurate skin-tone palette with incredible warm light performance, and just enough grain to take the edge off. My all time favorite film. Munga Barry.

Murphy’s Law: It was only at the end of my film shooting days that I discovered the look I had been searching for my entire career. It’s called DR5: A process that turns print film into transparencies, and in this case, an Ilford 400 motion blur of Mick Fanning into a sepia grain explosion.

Coupling slightly visible grain from push-processing and low light reciprocity failure gave this Kodak 100 VS image a textured foreground and a rich look that puts the viewer right there with Brian Szymanski.

The first generation of Fujichrome Provia was slightly grainier than Velvia, had more accurate skin-tone rendering, and performed well under lower light/cloudy conditions. But of course they had to go and ruin it.

A very popular film choice among professionals, Agfa Scala black and white transparency film had incredible mid-tone performance and just got contrastier the more you push processed it. Check the illusion of depth in this image—you’re not likely to get this with digital.

  • Jeff

    That’s the best article that has been on this website in years. Gilley for EDITOR….

  • HoChiBonger

    As surfing continues it’s evolution into a sport, as does the art of surf photography, It’s good to know that there are intelligent, caring individuals that have seen the light and are encouraging the rest of us to “look” for it too. As in education these days, there is a great emphasis on reproducing what has already been done by weighing heavy on test results. If all that is good is to survive, we must open our eyes and learn to be creative.
    Thank you, again, Rob.

  • Ed

    Since I started to shoot photographs a few years back I decided against digital simply because it was expensive. In the process I’ve gained a wealth of experience shooting with film, and it’s been disciplinary. I’ll post a link to my work (non-professional) in case anyone would appreciate. Thanks Giley for the words of encouragement.

  • ranga

    Giley for editor, then maybe someone would hit me back on all the film shots I send in.

  • Alexander

    I’m jealous that you had the privilege of shooting Kodachrome, I shot a few rolls last year in mexico but alas when I returned to the states the last processing center had closed down, they are eternally latent… which is an interesting thing in of itself. An acquaintance of shoots film underwater which is just great, and we’re still shooting film on the lake surf scene here in the midwest.

    I think your shot of the turtle looks flat as hell tho, damn digital translation! hah


  • Kathy

    I’m a total novice at photography, but I do love film.
    I love your pictures you posted.
    It’s amazing to me because it seems like the world stepped backwards in quality of pictures when it went digital. They are great on a computer, but printed they lack.

  • Christo Strom

    I remember in high school taking a photography class for black and white film.
    Going into the dark room to develop film was the best experience of my life.
    Well, actually it was the second or third best. Surfing and Sex would be 2 and 1

    Respectfully in TRUTH,

    Christo Strom
    Sole Owner of Orange Race Card Angels
    Head of Angel Promotions

  • Mackel

    I miss film

  • Crystal Homcy

    My husband, Dave Homcy, mainly shoots motion picture film, but also stills. He claims when Film is gone, he will retire and open a little restaurant.
    Keep the art form alive..shoot film!

  • Jersey Greg


    Weird to hear Chrome closed it’s doors on this blog!
    I had great memories retrieving your film from the lab after personally viewing them on the light table as they were being cut up into slides, knowing you got some great shots, even feeling a little guilty knowing I got to see them a monment before you! The best was recognizing them when they made it to print!

    Sorry about that, but thanks forall those memories and talking story with you over the years!

    Guilty Pleasures!

    Jersey Greg

  • Robert

    I still shoot film, 100% film. I’ve played with digital, I have a DSLR, just never liked using it, or processing the resuts from it.

  • hugo

    some give gilley a more attractive and content friendly watermark, just sayin, disposable camera 4 everrr

  • http://none Digital

    Another one who don´t know how to shoot digital and how to process it, and want to look back.
    Sorry but I am not agree.

  • Mark

    I’m still old school and prefer using film. Sure you can make pictures grainy with a click of a button these days but you still can’t replicate the grain from film.

  • lee

    with all these excellent films going by the wayside
    whats left?

  • dman

    Film has an incredible look both in motion and stills. These days everyone wants INSTANT results and its sad but the technology is changing so fast. I dont think the average person can tell the difference between film and video or film and digital.

    I guess it just shows how old we are getting, do what you love and enjoy!

  • Rude

    Great Article and great pictures to back it up – great to see Munga Barry again – however does reading and viewing on a pixel dominated medium ie Blog bring out the real difference? I guess the only way to really see the difference is view side by side or dig out our own film and digital shots to compare.

  • Fabio Ventura

    I have to agree with this article. I think the magic is lost.
    Another great place to see the difference between film and digital is if you read F1 Racing magazine, they feature on their first pages 2 or 3 spreads of “art” shots, they are all great, but they used to be beautiful, not just great.
    They also publish the specs for the shots, and if I recall well, they held on quite long before switching to digital.

  • Mik

    Hey Rob,

    A photo essay I did on a tortuous cross country bicycle race was published in Europe, and won a “Book of the Year” award in Austria. I shot it with film, and I only shoot film. Still. So I agree on everything.


    I do have to scan my film, so it is digitized at that point…. Please comment on this aspect???

  • Fabio Ventura

    …it is a lot easier to digitize film than to “film-tize” digital.
    I say it is best of both worlds, if well done.
    (My opinion is that if we hadn’t abandoned film the way we did, by now, cheap dedicated film scanners would just be amazing and very affordable)

  • Editor

    First off I’m a big fan of Rob’s. Top five surf shooters of all time without a doubt.

    No I regress… I’m calling BS on this. I’ve shot and printed B/W for over two decades and you can get the same B/W film “look” by burning and dodging, a little split toning filter in Photoshop + a little aid from Lightroom then add any amount of grain you want, just like the old days of going into the darkroom. This argument sounds great but is more revealing that Rob you haven’t keep up with the times. Either you evolve or get replaced (umm by say Morgan Maassen) at Surfer. He shoot film too.

    It saddens me that people actually buy into this idea. Now I must agree the fast majority of shooters today know little about processing, the subtilty of color balancing and everything tends to look nuclear. But I have to wonder Rob when was the last time you actually processed or printed any of your wonderful film or actually went into the darkroom and made a print? Oh that’s right Chrome made your images look so great and they closed. I would bet it’s been more than a decade since you done any processing or printing.

    Add to the fact how shitty developers & toners are for the environment, where does all that stuff eventually go, it’s doesn’t disappear it eventually ends up in our food chain and in our waters that lead to the ocean. Shot film be nostalgic but don’t tell us it can’t be done the same digitally.

  • Mik

    To the person who identified himself as “Editor” above: Morgan Maasen’s work is not a very good choice to hang your hat on. Almost anyone with a digital camera can produce that level of photography. He’s a friend of someone I guess, but not in the realm of surf photography greats, like Chang, Hornbaker, Devine, Gilley, Servais, Flame, and also the digital crew who really work at it. Rob is speaking generally. You need to look at large prints to get what he is talking about. Images with depth. Ansel Adams-like power. Richard Avedon. Annie Liebowitz, Helmut Newton. Photos that have a silence in them that resonates in a soulful way. Digital images don’t have that same flow, because the original image is not a continuous tone, it is made up of little pixilated squares. The images you see in magazines and on the web are all pixilated. All. And some, sourced from lesser cameras, or lesser lenses are either lame color-wise, or flat depth-wise, by comparison to what Rob is talking about. I suggest you become more educated before you diss his view. There are somethings that are not as good as “analog”, including photography and music. More convenient yes. Closing the gap, yes. But the same? Fuck no. BTW: very few old-school photographers processed their own film, or make color prints. They all had the big film houses do that, and they also worked very carefully with them to achieve what they wanted. Many made b/w prints however. And I’m one of them. And I totally understand Rob’s points. Digital Camera’s rock, so awesome to not have to shoot polaroids, so awesome to not have to buy film, so freaking convenient. But at a price. And the price is the image. Dork.

  • Mik

    Fabio: thnx for the comment. I agree. I own an Epson Perfection V750 Pro. Functional, but as you say, not what might have happened.

  • research papers

    Nice article and photos are interesting.

  • Editor

    I agree Morgan must know someone in the industry as his images are average at best. I find the timing of Gilley’s being relegated to a Blogger and Morgan being hired strange. I feel for Rob, he should be the Editor at Surfer not the Blogger.

    Back to the film versus digital. Both are captured via light on flat 2-Dimensional flat plane, the depth comes from contrast & tone. The larger prints you speak of like Ansel Adams and Avedon have been highly manipulated in the darkroom if you saw the neg’s you would understand. Ansel’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1948) print is a prefect example. The neg doesn’t even come close to resembling the final print. They’re taken with medium format(Avendon) and 4×5 view cameras (Adams). So you can’t compare those to 35mm digital. What I’m getting at is it’s the craft of what you do with the image after the capture the makes it sing. Not knowing how to create the same effect digitally just shows lack of knowledge and craftmanship in the digital world. I would place a bet that if you took the same photo both digitally and on film with the same lens you could make them both look exactly the same.

  • ranga

    Real photographers shoot film, and if you say your a photographer and you get satisfaction shooting digital photos then you’re probably not really a photographer, let alone a good one at that.

  • Phil Gibbs

    Great post Rob!

  • Mez

    @ranga- pretty bold claim that from someone who may, or may not, be a photographer himself – we only have a fake i.d. to take you at your word on that unfortunately.
    And, not that he probably would give a flyin’ feck, but I’m sure Art Brewer would find it interesting that he’s no longer considered a photographer by the standards your claiming “ranga”.
    Even Gilley has taken his extremely talented head out of the sand and at least acknowledges there is merit in having some digital technology in your kit bag and he can talk shit because he’s earned it – and learned it – the hard way.
    Just like print magazines, film isn’t dead, and it’s all about making pictures, not taking pictures, and the talents you possess wether it’s emulsion based or film-less.
    another classic Gilley, keep stirrin’ the think tank compadre …

  • Mik

    “Editor”, I am totally aware of the masking that Ansel Adams did to create the images he made, and I do the same with PhotoShop, and Silver Efex Pro. i am also aware of the difference between large format cameras, and 35 mm, but with “L”series Canon AF lenses you can match the tonal range of large format, on a smaller size print. And you can get really good images with digital, but there is, for me, a different feel from analogue film photography: generally speaking. digital is often flatter. And generally speaking, there are allot of images that are OK in the magazines, but do not have soul power as larger, framable prints. And I think that is what Rob is saying?

  • ranga

    @mez Not really hiding behind any fake id when there is a link to my work on ‘ranga’ I was never discrediting Art, but I doubt he gets any satisfaction shooting his Carve Skateboard ads. He shoots digital to pay the bills, that’s probably why his pictures for Carve Skateboards are so painfully terrible.

  • Chris

    What about the fact that digital photography has opened doors for people who cant afford film. and im not talking super expensive cameras. im talking simple, shitty cameras.

    My point is that it simply doesn’t matter what your format type is. If you can compose an image well, you can do whatever you want. my website is based solely on that premise.

  • zeno malan

    Have to agree with Gilley on this one.
    I too have used film and went to digital because of costs.
    No claim to fame here, but I do have eyes.
    Imagine the costs some of the mentioned photogs have endured?

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  • Rolf I

    Thanks for this great article. I was raised, photographically, on digital. Have been shooting, semi-professionally, various mountain sports and landscapes for about 4 years.

    I few months ago I shot and developed my first roll of film. And as soon as I saw the photos I knew that I could never go back to digital. It’s not just about the look. I also like the work flow a lot more. For me, digital is old news and film the technology of the future. True that a lot of films have been discontinued, but new ones are being released as well. I don’t hate digital, I just feel blessed to have discovered how great film is.

  • jb hall

    Your stupid if -YOU THINK YOU
    KNOW film or digital- if YOU eEVERn made a fuckin high quality print –
    or shot film you WOULD KNOW-your a goon – strap on your CORD take your GOPRO and I hope one of your tri fins goes up your ass