Rant: The Great Debate – Film vs Digital
[Image scanned by ScanCafe from old, cheap 3M film shot on Minolta Maxxum 7000 ]
I really don’t know what triggered this, but it seems the great film vs digital debate has risen from the depths of Flickr groups and message boards and surfaced in the photo blogging community. In the past few weeks I have read pieces from all over focusing on film, and casting it in either a positive of negative light in comparison to digital. Frequently the comments below these posts have exploded into heated discussions from both sides of the aisle.
Film vs Digital seems to be the great argument in the photo community, and has been for a while. Much like the Windows vs Mac debate in the computer world and the right-wing vs left-wing squabbles in politics, film vs digital seems to never die out and occasionally rises to prominence. It seems to be a prominent discussion at the moment.
As a self-described hybrid photographer, using both digital and film in my work and even blending the two together, I fail to understand the need for this discussion. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and a reasonable person can see this. There are cost, creative and stylistic issues for both.
As you can plainly see from my work on LifeInDigitalFilm, from my film emulation presets, to discussion film and scanning, I love film. From my articles on X-Equals, it is plain to see I am just as devoted to digital. I feel as such, I can give a fairly balanced overview of the argument and show, in the basest terms, there really is not debate at all.
I could discuss this on a point by point basis, but that is asinine and could make this article drag on forever. So I am going to make this quick and do a quick pros and cons list for both digital and film photography. This is by no means a thorough listing, but the points that come to mind most frequently when I find myself in this discussion.
- Lower cost per shot. You pay for the camera up front and take virtually unlimited shots with no encumbrance of development and scanning costs.
- Highly flexible. Digital allows you liberties with your images that film simply cannot offer. Shoot in Raw and the world is your oyster, you can do most anything your heart desires with Raw processing programs and graphics editors (Lightroom and Photoshop in particular).
- Consistency. Once you understand your camera’s operation, you can consistently get great results, controlling almost all variables. Be it ISO, noise or even color … digital gives you consistent results from frame to frame and shot to shot. You normally know what you will get before you even push the shutter.
- Virtually unlimited shots. With just a few memory cards, you can go out and shoot all day. Each card allows literally hundreds of shots with little to no down time while shooting. Aside from full buffers and the occasional change of card, you can shoot all day without interruption. No need to change film. Plus you get multiple renditions of any particular scene, allowing you the freedom to choose exactly the one you want.
- Shoot now, process later. Digital does not force you to commit to a style beforehand. You can shoot away, in Raw format, and worry about stylistic decisions later. Make a black and white image, boost saturation, re frame shots via cropping. You are not locked in at all, the Raw format free you to make those decisions later.
- Overabundant options. Nothing can stifle creativity more than unlimited processing options. Upon reviewing each photo, you have to consider your processing options. This process can be more time consuming than actually carrying out the process. This creates the photographer’s version of writer’s block, you don’t know what you want to create because there is little to constrain you. Constraints are challenges, and challenges encourage creativity to overcome them.
- Virtually unlimited shots. Many of use frequently fall back to a “run and gun” mentality when shooting digital. When take countless photos of the same subject, at differing angles or exposures. A simple afternoon outing can translate into thousands of photos quickly. From this glut of images, you have to take time to find the images you really want. If you do not have self control, you can quickly overwhelm yourself when it comes to processing time.
- No surprises. Consistency is a pro, but also a con. Frame after frame, upon import the images tend to have a similar feel, even from shoot to shoot. Your Raw files will have their own feel, unchanging until you start your processing workflow. Before, different films would give you different feels, and that would impact your shooting and change things up. Again, it is easy to fall into a rut without even realizing it.
- Upfront costs. Now this is a bigger issue for some than others. Digital systems can get expensive, as good DSLRs get quickly up into the multi-thousand dollar range. Obviously you don’t have to stay on the cutting edge, but to maximize returns on digital photography, you still want to stay close to the blade. New models drop frequently, each with new desirable features, better noise handling, higher ISO and larger resolutions. And lets not forget the cost of the top-end lenses required to get the most out of these bodies, check the price on good Canon L glass lately? If the prices on those lenses don’t make your checkbook cringe, then this is not remotely an issue. However, for the average photographer it is an issue. And don’t forget flash units and other must-have accessories. I won’t even touch on Digital Medium Format
- Development cycles. Tying into the cost scenario, the rapid development of DSLR technologies keeps bringing out better tech each year. Obviously no one is holding a gun to your head trying to make you let go of your D40, but you have to admit it is getting rather long in the tooth by today’s entry level technology. In the film era, the only real upgrade you had to worry about was new. better film. You rarely had to upgrade bodies, instead you simply changed film. To stay up on image quality in the digital era, you have to be ready to sacrifice some cash to the camera gods, as a DSLR is essentially one huge roll of film that only runs out when you replace your gear or it dies. You can just push your DSLR film speed further and easier than you could with film.
- Incredible variety. In direct opposition to digital, where your sensor defines how the image you are shooting is rendered and cannot be changed, film photography allows you to change your film at your whim. This leads you to entirely different interpretations of the scene, each unique to the particular film emulsion and format you choose to shoot. Even today, in what many consider the waning days of film, there is still a wide variety of film stocks each providing their own unique rendition of the world on the other side of the lens.
- Wider variety of equipment. As it appears we are in the waning days of film, it is surprising the bargains that can be had on great gear. From 35mm to Large Format, great deals can be found on great cameras and excellent lenses due to the rapid migration of many to strictly digital. I, for example, shoot Canon for digital and Minolta manual focus for film. I have a small selection of lenses for my Canon gear, primarily due to the cost of the equipment … I have just the lenses I need for weddings and portraits, and they ain’t “L” glass either. Now, for less than the price of a Canon Rebel, I have an extensive Minolta collection, anchored by an SRT and an X-700 with a wide variety of Rokkor lenses. These old lenses are every bit as good as most lenses on the market today, and some can put “L” lenses to shame with the right film behind them.
- Simple limitations. As mentioned earlier, limitations can enhance creativity. Shooting film automatically limits you to the film you chose, and the film’s speed. If you are shooting black and white, you will never have a color image from those shots. If you shoot color negative, you will never get the same vivid colors slide film can provide. High-speed film produces some wicked grain, and virtually grain-free film are painfully slow (try shooting at ISO 6 – EI 6 for film purists). You know these limitations going into your shoot and create your images accordingly, sometimes having to get creative to express what you desire to be conveyed to the eventual viewer.
- Forced deliberation. Film had no preview and rarely allows a second chance. To nail a shot you have to expose carefully and still you bracket your shots. The known limit of shots forces you to slow down and work more deliberately. Sure you can do this with digital, but temptation to chimp and delete bad images is overwhelming. Shooting film, you won’t know if you got it right until you develop your film or develop a large degree of faith in your photographic skills.
- Freedom from post. If you sent your film out for development, scanning and prints; your post processing ends at dropping the film off at the lab. What you get is what you get. Now this benefit does not apply to me, as I develop, scan and print my own images from film. This is why I shoot digital for weddings, I would hate to have to develop and scan 25 rolls myself. If you are not going to do any of the developing or scanning yourself you are done. This can be liberating and the excitement of seeing your images for the first time is beyond description.
- Backside costs. You can easily put yourself in the poor house buying film and paying for development, scans and prints. This cost can be mitigated by going develop only and scanning for yourself or even go all out and start souping your own negatives. However the money saved is offset by time lost. If you shoot a lot and are not restrained in your snapping, you will quickly abandon the thought of film photography and seek sensible refuge in the low cost per shot world of digital.
- Film lock in. Unless you want to get into the rather advanced techniques (although quite simple really) allowing you to change out film mid-roll, you are locked into one ISO and one color rendition for anywhere between 12 and 36 shots. You lose a lot of flexibility by going the film route.
- Technique. Film photography really requires a lot more technical skill to get consistent quality results. Quite a few older cameras have no light meter, so you have to use a handheld meter, use the “Sunny 16″ rule or get good as guessing exposure. Then you have to account for your film’s reciprocity and it’s inherent reciprocity failure, exposure based color shifting and compensating for light temperature by using filters and flash gels. None of this is remotely a concern in the digital world, and these rules and techniques can slow a shooting pace to a crawl until you warp you brain around them. Although understanding these quirks can improve your digital skills, not knowing them will not hamper your abilities as a spectacular digital photographer. And I didn’t even mention the cocepts of pushing and pulling film.
- Filters, filters everywhere. And keep in mind, you will need a lot of different filters for film photography that are simply not needed for digital. In digital photography, all you really need are a few Neutral Density filters and a good Circular Polarizer. For film, you will want split ND’s, color correcting filters, ND’s, Polarizers, Circle Polarizers just to get started. Delve into black and white and you will want a variety of color filters, ranging from reds to blues. I guess you really don’t need these, as you can just shoot straight on, but for advanced techniques you will be wanting them. That said, once scanned you can simulate many of these effects in Photoshop, much like you would with digital, but the desired effect is rarely as good as if you shot with the filter or faked it with a digital image.
- Freedom from Post. Lets not kid ourselves, Photoshop and Lightroom are great tools and can really make an image sing. If you take the hands off approach to photography, you are precluding yourself from utilizing these tools to their fullest ability. Albeit it is freeing to drop off a roll and wait for the final results, you loose a lot of control over you images. Again, you can go the scanning or self-development routes. But again, those methods require an investment of time. While rewarding and giving a great feeling of accomplishment, the do it yourself methods are painfully slow compared to the all-digital methods.
So there, a fairly balanced list of pros and cons for each. There is no right answer for the question of film or digital, so I compromised and use both. For work shots I shoot about 80% digital and 20% film. For personal work its about 80% film and 20% digital, so more or less I am 50/50. When shooting film, I develop myself and then scan in myself, digitizing my film early in the process and working up the images as I would any shot from a DSLR. I still step in the darkroom once and a while and make some optical prints, but I have also been known to make a transparency print from an inverted digital shot and make contact prints on photo paper from my digital work. I blend both photography techniques together on a regular basis, working towards what I envision my final product to be, not limiting myself to a chemical or digital workflow at any time. I do what works best. There is no film vs digital debate in my book.
One other benefit of film I forgot to mention is resolution vs cost. I can much more affordably shoot medium format or large format film and scan in for a high resolution image than invest in a digital medium format system. a $300 dollar camera and a $6 roll of medium format film can easily be scanned into a 40+ megapixel image at home on a consumer grade photo scanner. To get comparable results in the digital world would require an prohibitively expensive setup. Sure, comparing 35mm film to digital is one thing, digital has won that war years ago. But comparing Medium Format and larger film to digital is another situation entirely. When I know I need to go large, I still shoot larger format film.
From my point of view, film and digital where equivalent in resolution around the 10 megapixel mark in DSLRs. Now this is a generalization, as maximum resolution in film really depends on the film used. I would still put 35mm Velvia up against any Pro level DSLR today. Velvia’s resolving power and resolution is still insane to this day, but the DSLR will still win out in the end, especially if you include color accuracy in your rating matrix. I shoot a lot of 35mm film still, but the argument really leans in digital’s favor in this film format. I still love the unique look of each film available, and I love using the inexpensive, high quality gear at my disposal, so I still shoot 35mm film. But as I just alluded to, digital will not be displacing my Mamiya gear any time soon.
So, those are my arguments both ways, take them for what they are. I love both methods and use each every day. I see no need to debate film vs digital, as in my consideration photography is both film and digital. With proper technique, even 35mm can compete with digital any day of the week, and like it or not there is a certain feel to film that digital does not have. Same as records vs CD’s, there is a certain warmth to film.
Now let me know your thoughts on the matter. Fire off your thoughts in the comments below. I would also love to run a series on why you use film still today, so if you would be interested in writing up a piece telling why you still love film, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know, I’ll get your opinion up for the world to see, along with some of your work if you would like.
That’s it for now.