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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42 Comments

Previous comments

Kind of like a Prius production carbon footprint, im certain digital camera production, waste runoff, and camera waste are more detrimental than most chemistry was. The EPA may be killing emulsions but it doesn't mean they were killing anyone, just that regulation increased.

Preach it Hans!

I bought my first SLR in 1980 with the purchase of a Canon A-1, which I still shoot with today. My interest in photography actually started back in the late 60's when I used my parents' Polaroid Land Camera. I enjoy photography. With that A-1, I've shot Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Ektar, Portra, Tri-X, Plus-X, Kodak and Ilford.

I do have my film preferences; I prefer Kodak B&W over Ilford (traditional silver based & C-41). At a nighttime baseball game, I sandwiched a roll of Ilford Delta 3200 between two rolls of Kodak TMAX 3200; looking at the photos, the film switch is evident. Ilford has muted contrast while Kodak has more contrast. I still have a few rolls of TMAX 3200 in my freezer for when I need the speed, gamma rays be damned! I also used TMAX 3200 to photograph a rock concert. As the lights lowered, I did test metering with my A-1. 3200 wasn't going to cut it; 6400 was still too low as the lights dimmed. +2 at 12,800 and maxing out the ISO on my A-1 was what I had to do. Pushing TMAX 3200 2 stops, the grain exploded, but that was what was needed for the photos and still there was motion blur on occasion.

In July 2013, I added a used Canon New F-1 because I can share lenses between the two. December 2013, I bought my first DSLR, a Canon 5D III. Yes, the film image has to be converted to digital for publishing on the web since there are no analog computers.

Owning two film cameras solves a quandary that I had with owning just one: whether to shoot B&W or color. With two, the problem is solved; one is loaded with B&W and the other with color. With film, there is the problem of choosing the film and ISO and that "look" is fixed.

I just enjoy photography. It doesn't matter if I'm shooting film or digital. One of these days, I want to buy a Mamiya medium format system.

Paul Langereis's picture

Hi Ralph. I bought a Mamiya RB 67 with 3 film cartridges so I can load different types of film (ASA/ colour vs B&W). I am having a ton of fun shooting with it, and love the ability to change a cartridge to suit an environmental change etc. You don't get as many exposures, but if you are on your game the larger negatives allow for substantial prints, even using a home scanner, like Hans is using. I use an Epson V600 scanner and have had great success. Good luck.

Hi Paul, the Mamiya RZ67 system is one of my bucket list cameras to get; also, the Mamiya 645 system for when I want a longer reach.

Film. Digital. Canon. Nikon. Sony. Pentax. Leica. Hasselblad. How really cares. You should be shooting because you love shooting. Gear is just what allows you to shoot. It shouldn't be why you're shooting or stop you shooting because you don't have the certain thing you want.
I shoot canon, and whenever I see someone shooting with a Nikon, I go over, shake their hand and say hello and talk photography, not gear. It's all about the enjoyment and process. Some people forget this.
Cool article but it's a little sad that these have to be written. Just go shoot!

I really like your article. I got into photography in the 90's and it was all film at that point, the digital cameras I had access to were convenient but it was universally acknowledged that at that time the advantage was time and ease of sharing an image, more a benefit for newspapers and businesses than an individual trying to take a nice shot. I shot a lot of black and white, spent a lot of time in the darkroom, loading film cassettes, etc. As digital matured and prices for quality consumer level equipment came down I sold off my Nikon FM2 and lenses for a ridiculous price since I figured no one would be shooting film ever again. I now shoot primarily digital (DSLR and Mirrorless) and while I'm happy with that I missed shooting film for the fun of shooting film. I tried to justify it at first and find faults in my digital equipment, but what I finally settled on is that I shoot film because I like to and I'm satisfied with that answer. I also like the equipment I use. I shoot with my Dad's Pentax Spotmatic that he bought as a teenager during his deployment in Vietnam, I use my Grandpas Kodak Retina IIIc, and I use an Olympus XA2 with is a fantastic little pocket snapshooter. It's fun and I like it.

In regards to scanning: As a surprise gift for my Dad I digitized thousands of slides he took in the 60's and 70's, as well as a bunch my grandfather took when he and his sister growing up. Before starting the project I considered buying a film scanner but took a brief inventory of the slides involved and determined that at a couple minutes each slide I would have to scan 24/7 for months to get the project done. I instead used a macro lens and my DSLR which gave favorable results and took a fraction of the time. I have since purchased a film scanner to satisfy my curiousity but so far I haven't seen anything that made me feel it is worth the time to sit and let the scanner hum along for a few minutes when I can set up my macro lens, shoot a picture of the slide or negative and be done. I can even shoot multiple bracketed exposures and combine them in photoshop, or just set the camera to do it automatically. It works really well.

George Rogers's picture

Spot on Hans, well put. I started photography fifty years ago and after the inevitable change to digital, I too started to hanker after film again. I also spent a long time thinking my work was well under par due to all the experts and their view of how it should be done. The break came when I decided that I'm doing it for myself and I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks and now I enjoy it again. I'm starting to process my own medium and large format film so I actually feel quite sorry for molton pros and all that he's missing out on. Great article Hans; thank you.

Great article. Sorry im late to the party! I shoot fulm and digital. My choice of medium tends to be either what I want at the time...
One thing you forgot to mention is the sound of an analogue camera. I have 2 bronicas, and the flap of the mirror os one of the best sounds ever.
And the solid, mechanical feel of a spotmatic is just a pleasure

Hans Rosemond's picture

Absolutely. Plus, there's more variety in the experience! With digital it's variations on a theme. But the difference between an RZ67 and a C330 is immense. All part of the fun. Thanks for reading!

Tom Egel's picture

Terrific article! While I certainly love the convenience of digital, I find that shooting with film makes me more deliberate which then carries over when shooting digital. I’m also fortunate to have a community college in town with a terrific photography program that includes a darkroom along with 35mm, medium and large format (4x5) cameras available for the students to use. I got my first SLR in the 80s, but never developed on my own. I took the basic B&W darkroom class a few years ago and it was a great learning experience (it certainly made me appreciate the sliders in Lightroom :-). I also took a large format class and was amazed at resolution and tilt/shift capabilities. I thought I had gotten that out of my system, but then decided to take the darkroom class again this upcoming semester. This time I’m going to use a combination of 35mm and medium format. A friend of mine loaned me his Rollieflex TLR and I’ll also have access to a variety of Hasselblad and Mamiya bodies and lenses through the college. The class starts this week. Can’t wait!

I feel the same way on shooting film. There are photographers and there are people who take pictures, a huge difference. Is like many audio studios that they still having the 2" analog tape recorder. Usually people that doesn't understand why shooting film is because they don't print, and the larger image the project is the size of the screen. Photographers we print and we do very large prints.

Shooting film to digitize it is like having sex with the intention of having an abortion.
And if you aren't printing it yourself, you're basically doing nothing.
Somehow I don't think Ansel's prints would've looked the same being averaged through a Walgreens mini-lab (when they existed).
But sure if you're just using a camera as a "tool" and not a means of expression, who cares what you do, use a holga and a chemlight. #tools