Your Argument About How Film is Better Than Digital is Old. Like, Really Old.

Your Argument About How Film is Better Than Digital is Old.  Like, Really Old.

“These new ways might be found by men who could abandon their allegiance to traditional pictorial standards—or by the artistically ignorant, who had no old allegiances to break. There have been many of the latter sort. Since its earliest days, photography has been practiced by thousands who shared no common tradition or training, who were disciplined and united by no academy or guild, who considered their medium variously as a science, an art, a trade, or an entertainment, and who were often unaware of each other's work…Some of these pictures were the product of knowledge and skill and sensibility and invention; many were the product of accident, improvisation, misunderstanding, and empirical experiment. But whether produced by art or by luck, each picture was part of a massive assault on our traditional habits of seeing.” -John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye, 1966.

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John Szarkowksi passed away in 2007 at the age of 81. From 1962 until 1991, he was the Director of Photography at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Photographer’s Eye was originally written for an exhibition at MOMA in 1964 and published in book form in 1966. Reading it, one can’t help but acknowledge the glaring similarities in the ‘digital versus film’ conversation when compared to the the early days of photography when it was lambasted by that generation's painters.

“In 1893 an English writer complained that the new situation had 'created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? … There is no pause, why should there be?'”

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‘Film is a more authentic process,’ they say, ‘it’s more deliberate. It takes more forethought and technique. With digital, anyone can be a photographer.’

The critics are right…from their own perspective. Painters initially accused photography of ruining a visual art medium, when it fact, all it really did was expand the gamut of ‘visual art’ far beyond what had previously been imagined. Were there issues in its infant stages? Absolutely. But any awkward kid or teenager eventually has the capacity to grow into a unique and compelling adult – and their awkwardness can contribute to the conversation in new and exciting ways.

Photographers shot "…objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes… without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic?" Painting was difficult, expensive, and precious, and it recorded what was known to be important. Photography was easy, cheap and ubiquitous”

Film photography is difficult. It’s expensive. It’s precious – and not just in the really cute way. Digital photography is easy. It’s (sort of cheap), and it’s definitely ubiquitous. It’s also not going anywhere. And the things you hate (if there are things you hate) are only going to become more numerous.

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It can be daunting. And scary. You may not be as good with digital as you were with film. There are some truly great photographers whose work is honestly not as good since moving to digital. Working in a darkroom – though fundamentally similar – is not Photoshop. Each has its own quirks and skillsets. There will always be a place for film in fine art and hobbyists. There will also be the occasional photographer - like Norman Jean Roy - that is able to shoot film for larger jobs. However, that is no longer the industry standard, and it will only get further away. This is also not to say it is not important to understand the history of the camera all they way back to the camera obscura. Context and history will only make someone a better photographer in the same way that many great photographers are pupils of the Dutch master painters.

In a previous article with Joey Lawrence, we talked about how the digital medium has brought more ‘crap’ to sift through because it has simply allowed far more people to 'take a crack at it.’ But at the higher end, it has elevated the expectations, quality of work and sheer technical ability in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago.

Photography, and more specifically digital photography, is a medium that is still relatively new – as are the things that have been learned from it. Artists have been painting horses for at least thousands of years. It wasn’t until 1878 that – because of photography – we found out that for certain that a horse ran with four feet extended and off the ground. They had been painted differently all this time. And so, photography, although a troublesome and somewhat annoying child, eventually paid back to the medium that (sort of) birthed it.

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“The influence of photography on modern painters (and on modern writers) has been great and inestimable. It is, strangely, easier to forget that photography has also influenced photographers. Not only great pictures by great photographers, but photography—the great undifferentiated, homogeneous whole of it—has been teacher, library, and laboratory for those who have consciously used the camera as artists.”

Photography has the ability to complement painting if the painter chooses to embrace the idea. “The trained artist could draw a head or a hand from a dozen perspectives. The photographer discovered that the gestures of a hand were infinitely various, and that the wall of a building in the sun was never twice the same.”

The same can be said for digital photography compared with film. Using techniques that have been developed in the last couple decades, one can apply much of that thought to film to get the best of both worlds. I love shooting with film, but I also will take along my digital camera when I do. Do I need it? No. Does it allow me to create better film images? Unquestionably - but only because it is my decision is converge the two.

This does, of course, completely depend on the type of photographer you are. Do you like a raw, untouched image? By all means, enjoy the hell out of your film camera. Do you like certain elements of polish that digital gives you, but you love the chemical process of film? Swing both ways. You never know what can happen.

From Country Elevator, Red River Valley, MN,  1957

“The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth. Its movement has not been linear and consecutive but centrifugal. Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a center; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.”

Do what you want. It is your art, after all. Me? I’ll grow with it.

Add The Photographer’s Eye to your library at Amazon.com

Images by John Szarkowski. Cover image of John Szarkowski by Lee Friedlander

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60 Comments

You're right. That's often referred to as "historicism" in the arts. The main reason that people will often reject new mediums is because they are unable to place value on contemporary work by referring to past knowledge of the arts. In other words, something new is outside of their ability to determine if it's good or not, so they're afraid of being duped. In order to protect themselves, they will often resort to going back to history to find work that has already been legitimated by time. Ultimately, it's a sign of insecurity.

The flip-side of historicism is made up of folks that think new technology is always better than the old. These types of people are generally ignorant about what came before and don't really know how to compare the past with the new. They are also afraid of being duped, so they reject the old medium altogether. Basically, they do the same thing that the historicists do but in reverse.

Chris Knight's picture

Fantastic post. Thank you.

Thanks, Chris

Super misleading or misinformed headline.
A hundred years ago, your camera couldn't figure out your exposure for you.
There was no auto button for anything and no editing software.
Seldom did you have someone pawning themselves off as a professional or even serious photographer that didn't know about making an exposure.
Today, people buy an entry level dslr, and they start charging people for their "services"... all the while on auto or program. There was no perspective correction to fix your awful architecture
Digital photography is a different sort of medium almost altogether... with advantages and disadvantages in relation to film.
If you want to get technical and ruffle some feathers, the digital medium is not photography. Photography literally means to mark with light. Digital does no such thing. Light is translated into a combination of a million ones and zeros and displayed on a screen. No "mark" has been made.

If you lose business to people like the ones you are describing, you probably deserve it.

What sensors do, either film or "digital", is receive and record light intensity. Do you imagine that with film a ray of light describes a path of a line from start to end to give it its beauty? Films are made of microscopic grains, that respond or do not respond to that light intensity. In essence, films work by the nature of 1 or 0, yes or not, turned on, turned off; in essence, films are digital in their true nature. I think that what you mean by "mark" is the characteristic of being "physic", "tangible". Information is physic as well, and you can tell by how hot your computer gets after a hard proccessing.

actually "one grain" has around 6 or 7 subunits that can either be "on" or "off". Any given point on the emulsion has a (somewhat variable) number of pieces of grain stacked on top of each other (let's say 15). Thus, the spatial arrangement of the subunits plus the layering sum up to a quite impressive number of possible combinations per "point"(pixel ??)...may I presume...quite larger than 255.
As for the "information" and "physical" part, I must agree with you that (at least for now) there isn't any proof the information can exist in a form devoid of a physical substrate.

That just makes me think of a clipped pixel. In that sense, a grain with its subunits works the same way a pixel (photosite) does, and that, inevitably, leads us to the concept of bit depth.

But in the end, either film or "digital" assess the same thing: a representation not of the world, of reality, but a representation of conceptual and technical skills through technology. Significance comes to life by the relationship of the elements (from lines and dots to recognisible figures) shown in the image through spatial distribution.

You are the reason these stupid articles get written. A photograph is a fucking photograph, whether it comes from a film or digital camera. It's a moment in time, CAPTURED.

Tara, look up the etymology of the term photograph.
I'm talking about language, not what canon and nikon use to sell to the masses.I think we're speaking different languages here. It's too bad. Photo-graph has nothing to do with the term "captured".

Film has it's allure, just as digital does. Get off your rear and take some good images with either medium.. Bury this dead dog already!

so many bitches in FS

marc osborne jr's picture

I've always wondered why people never brought up the environmental impact of the celluloid photo process. Especially in motion pictures! All the chemicals that must be disposed of, not to mention the ingredients in film and the byproducts making those!

You should check out Kodak's whitepaper on chemical disposal for labs. Most labs use a completely sealed system. Its only the amateurs that dispose of chemicals down the drain.

yes, true but production of digital cameras themselves as well as any other electronics also produce large amounts of environmental waste.

Christopher Hoffmann's picture

Excellent comparison Chris!

Chris Knight's picture

Thank you Chris!

Beta Max FTW !!!!

Tony Carter's picture

Those film pics, if it is to be preserved or displayed to a wide audience, will become a digital pic, complete with metadata, such as was used in this very article...just sayin. lol

For image quality the difference in price between film and digital is huge and no film is not more expensive like most cretins believe. It is a gradual process, you can pick up a camera for £30 + (digital £350 (£1000 for one that can really contend with film). you then can buy film and process it as you go whereas with digital you have to buy the laptop/hard-drives/cables/overpriced accessories in one go. Digital is a con to make all the dumb asses buy the kit which in turn makes them believe that they are decent photographers. Film teaches you to respect photography and not take image making for granted. You can tell from peoples photography who learnt on film and who did not.

You misunderstand one thing about film photography. The target was usually a hand made print which, because of the vagaries of the darkroom and the drift in chemicals and human manipulation, made each print a unique and original artifact. It's the uniqueness that adds value for collectors and appreciators of the craft. It's digital's Xerox-able nature and same-ness that cause people to de-value it compared to any handcrafted art, from painting to ceramics. Remove the human element of chance and variation and you remove one of the prime selling points of art.

Photography is the capture of an image onto a surface. That's why film is photography and digital is not.

In digital "photography", there is no capture of an image onto a surface. Rather, a computer file is created, comprised entirely of 1s and 0s, that software later can independently "read" to produce an image on a computer screen. The file itself is not an image, however, hence it's not photography.

Film = photography
Digital = Not photography

Thanks for playing, everyone.

Rather a simplistic view Juergensen! I would also question your definition of photography - "the capture of an image onto a surface"?

Not wishing to be pedantic but the act of photography is derived from the greek, photos for 'light' and graphos for 'drawing'. Now, with respect I don't care how this is achieved, be it digital or film - just get out there, do it and let the result speak for itself.

WOW! How about photography is capturing light, and creating an IMAGE.

Film users really should stop forcing film on digital users, film is not for everybody. It is really difficult to use and understand, I cant always think about what film to use and combine iso, aperture and the other thing all the time and expect good results. I use photoshop and lightroom all the time and I can’t do that with film, not to replace skies and saturate colors like I do. My clients don’t see the difference anyways, I’m a professional photographer and artist, I don’t care how I get my end result though just as long I do. My camera is my selling point to the customers as well, I always buy the biggest and newest model so it can take the best pictures. Also how the heck am I supposed to process 1000 pictures every shoot? Those who say they only need two 39 exposure rolls are lying, it’s impossible.

Many people are forgetting that the argument 'film versus digital' has less to do with the medium, more to do with the camera body itself.

When compact cameras like the Olympus Trip became popular in the 1960's, the sacrifices then were exactly the same as they were today - you're exchanging a full bodied device with interchangeable lenses for something compact, light and easier to use. These became popular everyday cameras because the benefits outweighed the cons, and most families realised that this was all they needed, regardless of picture quality.

You can take this situation and rework it around cameras today. Smartphone cameras compact, light and easy to use; they're always in your pocket. Do they compare to a top of the range Nikon film camera? Of course not, but wants to pay for one of them and carry it around everywhere? Likewise, this is the same for full bodied DSLR cameras that are generally humungous.

The other point of contention is "what looks good", which is entirely subjective. Both film and digital have their own unique appearances, and are going to suit different situations for photography. In my own case, I would always shoot portrait photography with Ilford black and white film, but I wouldn't use anything else than a digital camera for sports.

Finally, where the image ends up after the shutter button is released makes zero difference to 'real' photography. An analogue/film image can be transferred to digital, and a digital file can be transferred to film...

The best camera is the one you have with you, and only the photographer can decide for themselves what they're willing to travel with.

Stil interesting question. Where is digital going? I would like it to go into the direction of film regarding the "power of light" in it. - Even with D800, A7 etc. there is a certain artificial shine, a "lack" of light in images from digital sensors. Its hard to describe, although my reactions are strong looking at the two media. A little bit like night and day.

I think this is a great post and thank you for taking the time and thought to write it. AS for film vs. digital, it is what it is - it's how we feel about it that makes it personal, and how we communicate with it that makes it art.

People who write articles on film who have only used it once or twice shouldn't jump to conclusions like film is RAW. It's more than RAW. It's RAW with a built in colour pallet, it's beyond what you think you know about photographs if you only know digital. Digital is wonderful, but it's base. Film is both base but also has a look defined buy the film type. So you get the best of both worlds. People using digital now are getting real RAW and the ability to control the process but they seldom understand the value of creative limitations in the form of colour pallets film gave them. Shoot both, shot one, but don't talk crap about either. It's too obvious you're hung up about missing out.

Chris Knight's picture

I agree! People who have only used film once or twice shouldn't write articles on film.

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