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Analog, analogue, Argentic? ... or we could call it film photography



Change is continuous and language evolves as a consequence. Fresh words are formulated, or old words are re-purposed to name new things. In the field of photography, the new word is analogue, and it's applied to something old.

This term has crept into common usage as a means of differentiating between film and digital photography, and thus analogue photography has come to mean not digital: in other words, film photography. But, it's an ill-conceived name, and not entirely fit for purpose.

So what does analogue actually mean?

The adjective analogous is from the Greek word analogos, meaning - comparable in certain respects. Return love for hatred is analogous to love thy enemy, but the former is Taoist and the latter Christian, and they are similar but not the same.

The noun analogue is used to name a thing that is comparable to another thing. Applying the noun analogue to differentiate film photography therefore seems paradoxical, since the term is more correctly used to recognise similarities.

Analogue has the further specialised meaning in the field of electronics. It refers to a signal where the output is proportional to the input, normally in relation to the combination of a device and a media that can together measure, record, or reproduce continuous information. For example, older analogue telephones converted the vibration of sounds to electric current, which travelled a wire, and upon reaching its destination was converted back into amplified vibrations.

In a digital camera, each of the many millions of pixels recorded by the sensor relies upon a light-sensitive photocell, which generates a tiny electrical current in response to light: the brighter the light, the stronger the current. It becomes a digital system when the brightness levels are coded into the binary (digital) record of that image. Those digits are then converted back into electronically displayed images, or reproduced as printed pixels. Digital cameras utilise an analogue system - how ironic!

Conversely, film photography is not a true analogue process: it's a chemical process whereby exposing light sensitive photographic film requires chemical solutions to develop and permanently stabilize the image. Film processed to produce a negative or transparency (slide) results in a physical entity. A whole new process is required to make that negative into a print (etc.), and convert it into a facsimile of the scene captured by the camera.

So, there's another irony to our new terminology. Digital photography is an analogue system, and film photography is not a true analogue process.

To add further confusion, there are two different spellings of the word. Analogue is the traditional English spelling, while the phonetically simplified analog is American. However, in the USA both words are used. Analog generally refers to electronics devices, while analogue is often reserved for use in the sense something that bears a resemblance to something else (or so I understand).

Both Fuji Film and Canon's websites use the word analogue to identify film photography. It's nice that they have adopted the English spelling, but this description legitimises the disagreeable term, and fully embeds it in today's language.

To avoid the potential confusion between film and digital, and avoid the inappropriateness of analogue, the French have adopted the word - argentic - to describe non-digital photography. Argentic means silver and is a suitable name because it acknowledges the silver halide crystals that make up the film emulsion.

The choice exists: we can go with the flow and use a term that differentiates film photography by saying it's similar to digital. We could adopt the French term "argentic", which appropriately describes film photography. Of course, we could also call film cameras/photography film cameras/photography ... as we have done for the past 150 years. That would be nice!


Other pages in this series at Camera Portraits

Apertures and f-stops

Exposure Values (EVs) and Light Values (LVs)

Film versus mega-pixels