The May 2008 issue of the magazine is a special, one-topic issue covering China. An interesting—although not necessarily planned—fact is that most of the photographs were shot on film. This could turn out to be the last issue of NGM in which the majority of the photographs were not shot digitally.
Of the five main contributors: Fritz Hoffman, Lynn Johnson and Greg Girard shoot film; while Randy Olson and George Steinmetz use digital.
I had a chance to sit down with Fritz recently to talk about his thoughts on film vs. digital.
Fritz was quick to point out that it is not so much about the method of capture, but for him, more about the camera. Fritz shoots primarily with a 35mm film Leica rangefinder. “If you have ever held one...it’s a love affair” he explained. “A camera is something you become one with...I see in a way that matches the camera and its lens.”
Fritz was an early adopter of digital technology, working with a Nikon SLR six years ago (which indeed were the most primitive days of digital). But he found the cameras simply too bulky for the kind of intimate and personal photography he has mastered. He still feels today's professional SLRs are still too cumbersome.
One digital camera that Fritz does actually carry with him now is a Canon G7 point & shoot (the newest model is the G9). He tends to use it to check lighting, color balance and also as a way to make visual notes—he may shoot a Chinese sign and then later have it translated.
For a shot of Shanghai’s skyline at night, Fritz was using his G7 point & shoot to check the lighting, and then shot the scene using his Leica and film. Later, when editing the story, the digital snapshot proved to have captured detail that was beyond the range of the same scene shot on film. The photo that ran across two pages of the magazine was the only digital photo that Fritz made, and it was shot with his little G7.
When it comes to digital vs. analog cameras, Fritz cites a sentiment that I have heard from other pros: digital cameras tempt you to look at the preview, or constantly check settings. Fritz explains succinctly: “Film keeps me in the moment.”
But Fritz is thinking about moving to digital, but he wants to do it when he feels that he has found an appropriate aesthetic reason for doing so. Fritz notes that “digital images are like sugar-coated Rice Crispies, they’re too glossy. Not that there is anything wrong with that, it’s just not right for what I’m doing right now. When I go to digital, I want to do something new with it.”
“In Shanghai," he explains "there are all these glass buildings that are reflecting light back and forth. I think digital, which has this inherent brightness to it, would be ideally suited to capturing that wild light.”
And finally, Fritz observes that digital requires time to handle the images after they are shot. “With film, the image is pretty much set when you shoot it. But with digital you have to deal with all this post-processing to get the images to look like you saw them.”
Fritz adds: “I have to be out there making pictures, not sitting behind a computer.”
At National Geographic we do not require photographers to shoot one way or another—we support both approaches. Ultimately, we care more about what is being photographed, and less about how.
See more of Fritz Hoffman’s China images here.