As with everything else, there’s a right a tool for every job. For a photographer, the decision between film and digital is sometimes simple, sometimes less so.
To start, there are those photographers which only shoot digital and then there are those who only shoot film. Personally, I prefer to utilize both approaches depending on the day, weather, occasion, need, or any combination of those. Don’t get me wrong, I still consider myself a film photographer first and foremost, but as you may know from some of my previous writings, film is moving in a direction that is less and less conducive to getting into film and/or staying in it for those that are already here. As such, moving more and more back into the sphere of digital photography is an inevitability, at least for me. With that said, however, I still find that there are times when digital is better and times where film is better. Here are some things to consider for yourself to help you decide which to use. Further, I would like to say that there is not a clear-cut time for one medium over the other. Even for me, when the choice of a digital camera is fixed and the choice of a film camera is limited, I struggle sometimes to decide which is best.
When It 'Matters'
Generally speaking, I am of the belief that when it comes to photographs that will matter for years to come, I reach for film. Why, you ask? Because there is something tactile about the experience of shooting film and holding the negatives (or slides/positives) in your hand after they've been processed. That is, you can hold something in your hands that really feel like you’ve created a fixed moment in time that can be held onto for years and years to come. It’s honestly one of the most beautiful things about film, and it’s something that digital simply cannot replicate. As such, those photos of your loved ones and moments in time that you never want to forget will be truly cemented in time. So, when it properly matters, why would you reach for anything else?
Then there’s the other side of coin for what “matters” in a moment and thus, in a photograph. That is, sentimental value exists, but there is more concern for the guaranteed outcome than you get with film. For those that shoot film, there is always the known chance that something will mess up and either you won’t end up with your photograph at all or your photograph will be damaged. I suppose the same risk exists with digital photography should the memory card fail (it’s only happened to me once, but it has happened to me) but that is definitely far less likely than a film photograph not working out as intended. Why, you ask? There can be seemingly random light leaks, and mechanical failures can result in overlapping frames or over-/under-exposed frames that can’t be compensated for, and there is also the chance that the film gets messed up in getting processed. Though the shop in Columbus where I live is pretty consistent, they have definitely messed up their share of photographs, so much so that I pretty much count on 1-2 frames getting ruined in processing. It’s unfortunate, but it comes with the territory with film. So, if you’ve ever had something like this happen to you before and it sat with you in a bad way or if you’re risk-averse, you would probably go out of our way to minimize the risk of a photograph not turning out and you’d shoot digital.
As an extension to the second point, if you’re a professional photographer who has a contract and needs to deliver a set number of shots, I suspect that shooting film would immediately be off-limits. Indeed, your income and your professional reputation matter as much as anything else in this world, so if you need to be able to deliver, digital is more or less the only option, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re Brian Smith on the other hand, you’d potentially dive into going all film, and that may give you some edge. Even he admits, however, that it takes certain types of clients to be okay with it or even more so a client that wants it.
When It 'Doesn’t Matter'
How often does anyone go out and photograph things that “don’t matter”? I would think it would happen rarely, but I cannot help but feel like it happens far more often than not. Even for myself, when I’m scanning my film, I’ll ask myself if the photographs I took were actually important enough to be worth the film itself or the price it cost to process them, and I wish I could say more often that the frames were worth it. Instead, as with every other photographer I’ve ever met, sometimes, we take photographs for the sake of taking photographs, at which point, if that’s what you’re doing, one might think that you should do this on your digital camera when you’re not having to pay for film or processing. Instead, I would suggest asking yourself if at any point you're going to evaluate your own work on the basis of technical ability. If so, whether you shoot film or digital would really make a difference. If there’s a technical skill that you’re trying to improve, most likely, there’s a right tool for that job. As such, I would assess what camera I would take based on what I was looking to get from the experience. Beyond that, if you’re seriously just going out to take photographs with no intention whatsoever, then by all means, shoot digital.
Multiple Cameras Means Confusion
What happens when you have multiple film or multiple digital cameras and can’t decide which to take out? This issue definitely comes up for film photographers, particularly film photographers who own cameras in multiple formats. So, how do you decide between 35mm or 645 or 67 or 4x5? I think it definitely comes down to intention. If it’s just for practice, whichever camera you need the most practice with is the camera you should use. If you’ve decided to shoot film because it’s what is speaking to you for that occasion and can’t decide which format to go with, that would definitely complicate things. Personally, I would use whatever is the largest format that doesn’t feel like overkill.
What are your thoughts? Do you shoot both digital and film? If so, do you have an approach to deciding which to take out on a given shoot?