There’s a Time for Shooting Film and There’s a Time for Shooting Digital: Here's How You Decide

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?

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16 Comments

Reginald Walton's picture

I've moved on from film...

Jason Berge's picture

I whole heartedly agree. I love to shoot film, but would never even consider it for a "Job" unless asked to, and I am old enough that I used to shoot film commercially back in the 90's. I have been asked to shoot film for a client once in the last five years, so not really an issue I guess.

But for personal work I just enjoy the "process" of film.

Timothy Roper's picture

Are there really photographers who only shoot film? I mean, I shoot film a LOT, but not for product photos for Ebay listings, snapshots when I'm out with friends or family (that's what a phone's for), reference photos to bring with me to the hardware store in order to get help fixing a problem, making my own passport photos, etc. Even people who "only shoot film" surely shoot digital, too.

Brandon Hopkins's picture

I'd assume they mean they only shoot film for their "serious photos". I really doubt anyone anywhere is shooting film for eBay and quick shares with friends.

Jim Hofman's picture

After shooting digital for the last 10 years - I’ve spent all of 2020 only shooting film. And it has been amazing. No more spray-and-pray. I’ve dug deep into a project in China and film was perfect for the application. Is it expensive to buy film / process / scan? Yes. I’ve started processing my own film and it has been very rewarding to pull the wet film out of the tank and see the negatives. Much more satisfying than popping an SD card into a laptop. I wouldn’t be the first to say film isn’t for everyone, but I’ve joined a community of film shooters here in China that are dedicated to returning to the roots of photography - and really enjoying it.

Dave Melges's picture

Another goofy insinuation that digital CAUSES spray and pray. I totally understand enjoying something just cuz you enjoy it, right up to the point where you suggest there is any PRACTICAL or strategic advantage to film, which is utter nonsense.

I get it when someone just subjectively enjoys playing an out of tune, bar piano. I get it when someone just subjectively enjoys riding a vintage bike. I get it pretty much any time anyone SUBJECTIVELY enjoys anything.

Right up until you suggest there is a practical advantage to it. Then it's nonsense. "Perfect for the application" is nonsense. It maybe was perfect for making you HAPPY doing it, I'd never argue that. But perfect for ACCOMPLISHING something, that's silliness.

Jamal Matteson's picture

Dave, by nature, people are WAY more prone to "spray and pray" with digital. Nobody said digital was the catalyst for it, but you know you're being dishonest if you are making the claim that digital doesn't make it more likely by it's very nature.

Dave Melges's picture

C'mon. This was weird 15 years ago. You always know when the person comparing two things, where one is VASTLY superior and that person is a fanboy of the vastly inferior option.

You're struggling to even FABRICATE reasons that film might be better in some situations.

What you really say, and it's goofy....is because you ENJOY one process, sometimes it's better. Well, heck, there are myriad WEIRD things that people enjoy, but they don't try to convince people they're a better choice for getting something done.

This article could be three sentences......

When is film better than digital? Any time you don't NEED a result and you happen to enjoy the process of shooting film. The rest of the time digital is better.

"To start, there are those photographers which only shoot digital and then there are those who only shoot film."

You say that like it's true. No. That creates the impression the two groups are similar. 99.99996% of all photographers shoot digital. It's so pervasive it's actually fair to just say "photographers shoot digital."

And just like there's a few people in the world that collect pink wallpaper or vintage safety deposit box keys or save all their empty paper towel rolls in a closet......there are a handful of people who genuinely enjoy the film process.

Good for them. But that microscopically small group of people generally ALSO know that film can't compete for anything but a subjective, artsy good time.

++++

"So, when it properly matters, why would you reach for anything else?" Ummm, well, because when it matters you want the best image you can get...with the most variety, with the most frames per second to ensure you capture the moment, with the most flexibility. When it really matters film is a straight up STUPID choice.

When it properly matters nearly every human on Earth uses DIGITAL.

It's almost like no one has told you you can PRINT from a digital file now.

I'm sorry, but this article is just goofy.

Ken Geter's picture

Seriously dude, take your medication. Yeah right, all people who shoot film are like people "that collect pink wallpaper or vintage safety deposit box keys or save all their empty paper towel rolls in a closet." What?

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

While i have to agree with Ken and Tim, and you really SHOULD take you medication, i also have to agree with one sentence of you rant:

This article could be three sentences

Timothy Roper's picture

Plenty of pros are still shooting film--it's by no means some tiny fringe (unless you consider actual pro photographers a tiny group, which I guess they kind of are).

Ed Sanford's picture

I came to digital late (2013) because of my love of film. Equally, I enjoyed working black and white in my darkroom for 30+ years. While it has a nostalgic value, I've moved on. The only thing that I do occasionally is to scan negatives especially medium format transparencies from my Hasselblad. Doing that does a couple of things. It enables me to reclaim some of my earlier work that I just couldn't seem to "get right". Also, it makes me cringe at some of the poor quality of my early attempts. ugggg!

Richard King's picture

I shoot mainly digital. I shoot film occasionally on old cameras if I really want "that look", and that look is usually more about the lens than the film.

I think it's a shame younger photographers have missed out on the first principles discipline / understanding you get when you shoot film... Shooting film helped me learn camera craft in a way that's easy to skip past with digital.

When I teach, I often pop a post-it note under the screen protector, and limit people to a small amount of shots. That's an exercise from the film days that really makes you stop and think about why you are shooting, what are the settings, what am I expecting?

What's even stranger is the "current understanding" of what film photography looks like (Certainly isn't the light and airy washed out green look)

What I do like about film is the instant "sameness" you get from an emustion, the grain, the colour palette. With digital everything is instantly adjustable, and often sets of images look further apart, unless you are super strict with yourself

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

I started with photography during the late 80ies/early 90ies and I came to digital in 2008 when i bought a D700.

I wanted to shoot digital earlier but it took Nikon some time to go fullframe.

After shooting no film for years, Leica came out with the M8, and i wanted one so desperately that i started to make a plan how to get the money for it and before i pulled the trigger on an M8.2 i saw how cheap medium format cameras got over the years.

Next step i calculated how many rolls of film i could shoot unless i would spent the amount of money a leica M with two or three lenses would cost me and bought a hasselblad.

Which would be something around 2000 rolls.

That would be a roll per day for 5 and a half years or a roll per week for 38 years.

I own a Fuji XT30 for fun, but i shoot film 80% of all time

Jamal Matteson's picture

I shoot film significantly more than digital. Why? Simple. I prefer the process. Digital is boring to me, and with all the millennial software out there, ANYONE can do it. Seriously. There's no fun in things that aren't a challenge. You don't even have to know what you're doing. Nearly ANYTHING can be recovered in post.

No thanks. I prefer to enjoy the experience knowing that my skill and talent are what makes the image.