Digital or Film?

I’ve been keen on photography for many years – you may have picked up some hints at that throughout the 238 posts I’ve published since I started blogging. When I first started taking photos, there was no digital photography. In fact. I remember seeing one of the first digital sensors during my last year of college, when we were shown one as part of the ‘what’s coming next’ part of the course. As I recall, it was being developed for satellites to use instead of film.

Over the years, digital has replaced analogue everywhere. Cine film gave way to video, digital tuners replaced analogue and even switches and volume controls have gone digital. Now digital cameras have replaced film cameras and movies for the cinema are being made using digital equipment. Every time that’s happened, there has been a outcry from the analogue users and it tends to follow a pattern:

  • Digital will never replace analogue.

It has. The driver for this is the camera buying public, who want a cheap and easy means of recording their memories. It seems that nothing has actually happened and no one has actually been anywhere unless there is a photograph to prove it. More photographs were taken this year than in all the other years since photography was invented added together! This huge group of people finance and therefore influence the market. If you doubt that, look at how many new models of compact digital cameras are available, how often a new model is brought out and how prominent the advertising for the camera part of a mobile phone is. Film delivered more quality than the average compact camera user ever wanted, with none of the flexibility and immediacy of digital. As soon as they saw what they really wanted, the camera buying public abandoned film.

  • Analogue is much better than digital.

The key thing here is ‘what do you mean by better?’ In terms of image quality, there may be some circumstances in which this is true today. I can’t think of any, but I’m not all knowing. In any case I’d argue whether it was ‘much’ better. And there is also an argument to say that users of film have, in the main, been users of film for many years and so they are bringing a wealth of skill and experience to bear, which often makes a difference to the final product – prompting the question ‘where does the ‘better’ come from?’ But look at the names in photography – in my sphere of interest Colin Prior and Andy Rouse for example- – who have moved from film to digital. In Colin Prior’s case, he was using 6x17cm panoramic film cameras for stunning landscapes (check out his work here).

In terms of usability, there is no doubt that digital cameras in whatever form are much easier to use if you consider the picture taking to picture viewing process. And they provide instant results that you can share with ease, print from a box in your local supermarket or view on your computer. There is a huge range of cameras from the simplest point and shoot (does it get simpler than the mobile phone camera?) to complex medium format sized digital SLRs. This is what the majority of users want. It’s good enough for them, which may make you splutter your tea all over the screen, but it’s reality.

As a film user for more than 20 years (longer than I’ve been using digital), I finally accepted that digital gave me the quality, control and convenience I was looking for and I haven’t looked back. There is a nostalgia for film (being a bit of a kit head, I do like cameras in general, and I have a Nikon FM2 35mm SLR) but that’s not the same as regretting it’s demise. I hated the darkroom (apart from that magical moment when the image started to appear on the paper). I hated the smell of chemicals (and more importantly, my asthmatic chest hated them too) and I was often frustrated at having the ‘wrong’ film loaded in the camera.

  • Digital doesn’t require the same high skill level as analogue.

This last argument can usually be heard from die-hard film users who, unable to conclusively deny the previous two points, resort to the classic ‘it was better in my day’ approach. This says that because digital photographers can review images instantly, re-take pictures that haven’t worked and shoot hundreds of frames to guarantee a usable result, they aren’t as good as film users. It also misleads by claiming that film users never manipulated their images in any way. By implication, no film using wedding photographer or press cameraman ever had an anxious moment wondering if that never-to-be-repeated moment had been captured. And remember, we only ever see the moments that were successfully captured from history, giving film an artificial 100% success rate – think D-Day or the assassination of JFK and ask whether there would have been more and better quality images had digital cameras been available. Motor drives for 35mm cameras were essential items of equipment for press and sports photographers, so they could shoot as many frames as possible to guarantee one or two usable images. Fashion and portrait photographers machine-gunned through hundreds of frames too. Why wouldn’t they? In their budgets, film was one of the cheaper elements and as their job was to get the image, they would have been irresponsible not to.

The argument that it is easy to edit a photo on a computer falls flat too. It is no easier or quicker to work on a computer than it is to work in a darkroom. The practical skills are different (although the pre-visioning and planning remain the same). But to do a decent job, you need to spend a decent amount of time regardless of medium. Where the computer adds a benefit is in initially setting up (remember ‘dilution 1:17 – divide the amount of developer you want up into 18ths?’) and being able to reproduce the effect consistently. Nothing wrong with that and, of course, the option is there for the die hard post production fan to manually go through the steps each time anyway.

Digital or film?

In my mind, this depends on why you take photographs. My experience is overwhelmingly as an amateur who enjoys the whole process from finding a subject, taking the photo, processing it on the computer and sharing it. In that respect, I love digital as I find I can learn as I go by trying something, checking it instantly and making changes there and then. I use the camera display as a means of learning and improving. My experience of professional assignments has been that I would not have been happy using film as the jobs were too important and unrepeatable to risk mistakes; out of respect and responsibility, I would choose the medium that was best suited tot he job. This attitude arises as a result of having digital equipment available; in my film days I did some band portraits and as there was no alternative, I used film.

But as photography is a hobby for many, it’s about what you enjoy doing. I still fondly recall using medium format kit to take landscapes in Scotland. I’d drag what seemed like a ton of kit up some windswept hill, set everything up, spend ages getting the (manual) exposure and (manual) focussing right, wait for the light and snap. 8 or 10 exposures later (I’d always bracket with slide film, so 2 or 3 ‘scenes’) I’d have to reload. I enjoyed that too.

Which is best? Two answers. Does it really matter and which ever one you prefer. But don’t preach to anyone that your preference is definitive.

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4 responses to “Digital or Film?

  1. Totally agree…it’s all about why you take photos. I too am an amateur, but unlike you, still use film. I have yet to take a photo or be in a situation that is ‘that’ important, so have the joy of getting a roll of film back from the developers and going through the prints without the worry. There are moments when I regret using film though…like when you’ve used your last roll up and the view just keeps improving. Can’t say I like how expensive it’s got to be either, which has led to a huge backlog of films waiting to be developed at the moment!

    • I have to admit that waiting for that box of slides to pop through the letter box (or latterly, picking up the packet of unmounted transparencies) was sort of enjoyable. And there’s a part of me that misses the process to get to the point of pressing the shutter of the Mamiya 645 I was using. But I can take the same time with digital – just because I can shoot hundreds of frames doesn’t mean I have to. I don’t miss the cost – I don’t even know how much it costs to process transparencies now (I have a fridge full of 35mm and 120 film but it’s mostly black and white).

      Compare that with the 5 frames I took this morning of the rose in the garden. Already on the PC and checked within 5 minutes.

  2. Pingback: Analogue | franticsmurf

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