Why Film Vs. Digital Is a Non-Issue

Why Film Vs. Digital Is a Non-Issue

As one of our site's regular film shooters, I naturally tend to post a lot of articles on the subject. Without fail, I'll get a few comments to the effect of digital being so much better than film or vice-versa. I've always laughed off such remarks, but since they keep on coming I figured I'd address them. Maybe the mediums have more in common than some would like to admit.

First of All, the Big Question: Why?

When the subject of shooting film comes up, usually the first thing people want to know is, "why?" Why on earth would I take the time to shoot film when digital is so much more convenient? The answer: because I like it. That's a thoroughly unsatisfying answer, but hear me out. 

I got into photography many moons ago because it was fun. I walked around with a 35mm Nikon, pointed my lens at something, pressed the button, and a few days later I got an envelope full of 4x6 photographs. It was like Christmas morning opening those envelopes. Most of the shots were pure drivel, but occasionally I was surprised. I actually made something worth looking at. That sense of anticipation is a big part of what drew me to photography, and it's a big part of the draw for me today. When I scan my negatives and I can see the image materializing on the screen, it's like opening up those envelopes back in the day. When I'm shooting digitally and the images are right there in front of me, it's super convenient, but that part of the "magic" is gone. But, to be honest, when I'm shooting headshots I'm not there to feel "magic." I'm there to do a job and do it well. Film doesn't make sense in that situation, but if I'm shooting for myself, why not go for something that I find fun?

The process of shooting film, now developing it myself, and scanning the images makes me feel good. Period.

Film - Jackie, shot on Mamiya RZ67, Kodak Portra 400

Okay Then, but Isn't It Digital If You're Scanning It?

Yes! And this is the dirty secret that most film photographers won't admit to: If you're shooting film and scanning your negatives or slides, part of your process is digital. If you're working purely in analog, more power to you. But for most of us who shoot film, at least some part of our process juts into the digital world. Does that make it less pure? My answer to that is also easy: I don't care.

Film - Jackie, shot on Mamiya RZ67, Fuji Acros 100

I don't shoot to make "purists" happy. I don't shoot because I see the need to wave a flag in the air and declare my allegiance to Camp Digital or Camp Film. I shoot to make myself and my clients happy. What do I use to make my images? Tools. Cameras, film, lighting, memory cards, scanners...they're all tools. The only thing that I'm changing in my process is how the image is acquired. I use an analog process (when I'm shooting film) to create my base image. The rest is done digitally. I'm not going put on a beret and claim that film is so pure and then send my film off to a lab where someone else makes my image look good. Hell, if anything I'd say the image is more pure coming from the guy who shoots digitally and works on the photo from start to finish on his own computer. Outsourcing your film to a lab that does the digital work for you doesn't make you an artist. That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with sending your film to a lab. Far from it! But film photographers shouldn't claim superiority when they're really not getting their hands dirty.

Digital - Matison, shot on Nikon D750

But Shouldn't You Use the Best Tool Available? Film Is Obsolete!

Is film archaic? Yes. Obsolete? Absolutely not. I think a lot of people assume that photography is a zero sum game. Because digital is the 800 pound gorilla, there's no room for film anymore. It's as if there are only X amount of pictures to be taken and film can't possibly compete in a digital realm. We've set up a competition that doesn't exist. There is no Film vs Digital. There are only photographers who take photographs. When digital painting arrived, did painting on canvas go away? No. When motorized boats came along, did rowboats cease to be used? Nope. Did everyone go out and shoot their horses when cars came along? Maybe? Well, you get the idea. People still paint because they love painting. People go for a leisurely row on the pond because it makes them feel good. People ride horses because... well I don't know. Ask Alex Cooke

Digital - Alexa and Chris, Team USA Pairs Figure Skaters, shot on Fuji X-T1

I know it makes trolls feel good to knock others for their choice, be it either film or digital. But I just don't think it's a productive argument. There are things that either medium does better than the other. When I'm shooting commercially and I have an art director over my shoulder, you're damn right I'm shooting digitally. The day goes smoother, more efficiently, and communication between the higher ups and myself is cleaner when I'm tethered to a computer. If I'm shooting for myself, I'm usually shooting film, mostly for the reasons I mentioned above, but also because I like larger formats and I can't afford a true medium format digital back. And large format? Forget about it. Nothing digital comes close to that feel. But the beauty of not feeling tied to either medium is that I don't feel obligated to a "team." Why not just have tools in the tool bag that are appropriate for a given situation? Just do what makes you happy and forget about the labels. The more open you are the art form and all if its facets, the more well rounded you will become.

We are here to make photographs, not wave flags.

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36 Comments

Anonymous's picture

Amen, brother!

"I know it makes trolls feel good to knock others for their choice"....this seems to be too prevalent of an activity.

Perfect. I love reading about photographers who shoot just because they love it.

How many of these film vs digital articles are you going to write? If film was so amazing then it would not have been overtaken by digital. You can take a great photo whether you are shooting with an expensive film camera, a DSLR or even an Iphone. Just look at all the great photos here on Fstoppers and you will see that most of them shot with DSLRs. Stop trying to convince people how much you love shooting with film, we don't care. It's really funny how you Film guys claim to love film so much but you still shoot with digital cameras.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Did you actually read the article?

Paul Langereis's picture

A good point Hans. To many people skim an article, or look at the title and make blither on about something that is not there. I like your balanced perspective on both formats. I have been getting back into film since buying a Mamiya RB 67 and a set of lenses. I love shooting film for the reasons you mentioned in your article. I also love shooting digital for other reasons as well as the reasons you mentioned. What I find interesting is that my film images, even after scanning them at home and getting prints made from the scanned images, look more organic than my digital images. Take care, and thanks for such a balanced perspective.

Michael Aubrey's picture

Of all the articles to write this...

José J. Soto's picture

Great article. I enjoy both film and digital. It's not a competition.

Craig Jeffries's picture

A couple of years ago I bought a Minolta Dynax 7 Limited. A limited edition of the last high end film SLR Minolta made. I paid $150 for it on eBay. When it came out it was a holy grail of film camera's for me - and a price way out of my league, and here I was 13-14 years later buying one in mint condition for a fraction of it's new price. I don't use it much, but I love how it feels, the sounds it makes, and feeling of Christmas morning when your prints are ready to pick up from the lab.

I shoot both film and digital pretty much depending on my mood and the requirements of my shot. I think today it should be conceded that there still remains a place for film. Unfortunately, there is not enough good technical support for new film photographers, there is not enough scanner technology, there are not enough film specific software applications, and, probably worse of all, there are not enough forums/galleries to present film images and encourage growth of this old, but magical technology...

Hans Rosemond's picture

I would love to see a new dedicated film scanner hit the market! Silly that we are paying thousands for decades old scanners that have no support.

Well said! I'd love that it would help shut up the trolls, but rational thinking and trolling are mutually exclusive so I'm not that hopeful. Nonetheless, this article pretty much sums up my way of thinking and does it very neatly. Nice.

Kirk Darling's picture

The real experience of film is not in the camera, it's in the darkroom. It's the magic of burning and dodging with mystical hand movements in brief seconds under the enlarger. It's the sorcery of slipping paper into developer with practiced movement to prevent air bells and uneven wetting. It's getting so into the process that you feel smell the acrid odor of stop bath and feel woozy from its intoxication. It's knowing the secrets of clean and clear washing. It's flirting with the toxic danger of toning. It's the delicate art of spotting, wetting the 0000 brush on your tongue because the lampblack transfers better with saliva as the wetting agent. It's the suspense of resin mounting, when the slightest of errors can destroy all the previous hours of labor. If all that isn't there, the experience isn't really film.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Seems a bit romantic to me. Beautifully put, but I can't agree. Your love is in the darkroom, mine is in the medium itself (for now! I need to teach myself darkroom technique), but I don't think that takes away from the experience of film itself. Many people use alternative processes that never see a darkroom. Does that make it less "film?" I don't think so. These are all pieces of the medium. All important. But I don't think one trumps the other as the ultimate in the experience.

Spy Black's picture

As someone who did professional darkroom work for over 10 years, I appreciate the entertainment value of your comments...

Kirk Darling's picture

And I practically laugh out loud when a color print rolls off my Epson printer...compared to slapping a wet piece of paper onto a spinning Kodak "high speed" processing drum in the dark.

I use both. Contact prints from 12x20 negatives are very nice.

JOHN FRANZEN's picture

I liken it to driving a Sports car with a manual transmission or an automatic. The new Auto transmissions can shift faster and better than a stick can. But, I enjoy driving a manual because you feel more connected with the car and its can be more satisfying.

dhani borges's picture

Great article, would you comment in future articles about film and why you choose to shoot medium format. Just thought I would comment because you are comparing two different formats (film vs digital) but didn´t mention the 35mm vs Medium format aspect of the discussion.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Haha. I'm probably the worst person to talk about 35mm as I don't shoot much of it. The reason for that, though, is my inability to get good scans out of the format. But, in all fairness to the format, that's my fault. I need to just sit down and get my technique down.

Paul Langereis's picture

I chose to shoot medium format film because of the larger negative size, and the potential for very shallow depth of field with slower lenses.

Adam Collins's picture

Really enjoyed this article. Touches on exactly why I returned to film after so many years away from it. Can't remember if you mentioned in another article, but what scanner are you using?

Hans Rosemond's picture

I use an Epson V700. If I could afford a dedicated film scanner, though...

Dr. Dominik Muench's picture

Great article, although I think this discussion isnt really an issue anymore....and frankly never should have been.
It comes down to individual taste and economics. its like McDonalds vs. Burger King or Chevy vs. Ford. Why some people rip into others based on something that's purely an individual decision which doesn't affect anyone else is something I will never understand. Canon vs Nikon...who cares...go out and shoot and do it well. Full stop.

Some people like film, others like digital. Its up to everyone's individual needs and workflow and taste really. The professionals and the industry have made their decisions a long time ago. Just look at the numbers of Hollywood films now exclusively shot on digital. Does that mean film doesn't look good ? No, film looks great too.

A few years ago I shot a little documentary, interviewing ACS/ ASC cinematographers on their transition from film to digital, interestingly enough one of the biggest Hollywood cinematographers...Don McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, Narnia, Romeo and Juliet) was very outspoken about the advantages of digital and in particular 4K acquisition over 35mm based on his experiences. if anyone is interested: https://vimeo.com/33909332

Ben Whitmore's picture

great

Gil Aegerter's picture

Love this article. Part of the magic of film for me is my own long history with it. Another is that now I can afford the gear that I could only dream about 40 years ago. Then there's that mechanical feel of the gear. But as you note there's that not knowing, that magic of discovery and the satisfaction that comes with marrying your vision for a shot with your skill at producing it without the chance of immediate reward. Keep writing!

Spy Black's picture

People forget that it's simply another medium. It's unfortunate that it's not only extremely difficult today to maintain a purely analog print chain, but that two important mediums, Ciba/Ilfochrome and dye-transfers, are now long gone. They were the two most archival print mediums. Although it has a bit of popularity right now, I think film will remain an endangered species. I hope it survives at least as a fine art medium.

However the photochemical process was not environmentally friendly at all. I worked at a lab at the height of the analog era, and the waste from our lab alone was frightening, never mind that there were THOUSANDS more in the NYC area alone, let alone the rest of the country and the world. I've always been curious how modern digital production fares environmentally in contrast. I know it has its own pollutants, but I think overall it's far less environmentally impactful.

Hans Rosemond's picture

That's a good question. I wonder if the speed of technological progression is producing much more trash in the form of the cameras themselves. A ten year old digital camera (especially a point and shoot) is pretty likely to end up in a landfill as it's not worth any money on the used market. When film was the "sensor," a body was never truly obsolete. Now, with technology moving, interfaces changing, and with storage media evolving, digital cameras become trash much more quickly.

Spy Black's picture

Well, I was specifically addressing the manufacture of digital technology, not disposing of it, although I suppose that is another factor to take in as well. I'm curious as to how much pollution is created in the synthesis of all the related components that go into the manufacturing of a camera, and how that compares to old school mass photochemical production.

Which lab we're you at? My dad was working above ny color lab at Nippon photo clinic and man, they ran a lot of rolls every day

Spy Black's picture

I actually worked in two labs successively in NYC. One was a "cat house" (strictly catalog production) unimaginatively called Commerical Studios, and the second place was a midtown service bureau called Authenticolor Labs. Both labs didn't cater to the public.

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