Digital vs Film Photography – For Me

The film vs. digital photography debate isn’t even a debate anymore. We can talk all day about megapixels, pixel peep at 300% magnification, discuss the difficulties of finding (and affording) good lab work, and read all the reviews about VSCO film emulations, but at the end of the day there is a clear winner in the debate, and it is, of course, to use both. That’s right, both formats win – at least for me.

You see, there are times that call for the strengths of both formats. I also realize that I do not have the same goals within or approach to photography that anyone else does. My photographic needs may be unique to me (or to a small group of people of like mind, scattered about the earth) so my needs won’t apply to all, however I’ll discuss the things I enjoy about both formats and why they make sense to me.

To be clear, I’m not going to even entertain things like medium format digital backs, which are ridiculously expensive compared to my needs. They make sense for others, but not for me. Even a Nikon D800 isn’t something I’m willing to buy. A body alone is $3,300 and I own a grand total of zero Nikon lenses. To make a decent kit, I’d need some expensive glass so I’d be exceeding $6,000 just to get in, and then I’d be stuck to using a heavy computer with a lens attached. No thanks. Besides, who wants to use the tunnel that is a DSLR viewfinder to determine focus, which is critical at those resolutions, when one could use a 4×5 or medium format ground glass? That’s some sweet stuff, right there. No, I’m not a big spender on gear. I’d much rather spend money on photographic expeditions and trips. So, with that in mind, below are the characteristics of each medium that I enjoy:

###Benefits of Digital

####HIGH ISO There really is no comparison between the two formats when it comes to high ISO. I may push film to ISO 800 but I would have to be willing to accept noticeable grain, however I can easily shoot at ISO 6400 on my X-Pro 1 with virtually no consequence. There is a slight loss of contrast and saturation, as well as a bit of noise (I like the look of the noise generated by the X-Trans sensor in the Fuji camera, while I really dislike noise from most others), but high ISO on the X-Pro1 is completely usable.

####DIGITAL POST PROCESSING The flexibility and creative expression afforded photographers by the digital darkroom are truly amazing and would have been the envy of past generations. While there are plenty of examples of photographers who push the boundaries too far (there are many examples among the popular images at 500px, for example) and “overcook” their photographs, one cannot overstate the benefits of no longer being beholden to the lab for the final look of our images or the suffocating smells and dangerous chemicals of a real darkroom.

####COMPACT QUALITY With film, 35mm isn’t what I would consider great quality from an image quality standpoint. In the film world, to get truly great quality, one needs to step up to at least a medium format body. Unfortunately, nearly all of those bodies are heavier than I would prefer to lug around. Remember, I’m someone who doesn’t even want to lug around a modern DSLR kit, so a MF camera is largely out of the question. However, with digital I can carry something light like Fuji’s X cameras and capture images that blow away anything that 35mm film offers and rivals 120 film. It’s amazing.

####FAMILY PHOTOS WITHOUT GOING BROKE My favorite aspect of photography, and the photographic subject I care most about, is my family. With digital, I can shoot to my heart’s content, capturing my children’s lives without having to mortgage my home. I capture more moments, in better images, than any previous film-bound generation could have dreamed of. Best of all, when my children grow up and move out, I can give each of them copies of all of the images of their childhood while still keeping a copy myself. That benefit simply cannot be overstated.

####ACCURATE WHITE BALANCE No more tungsten film. Must I say anymore? Digital affords complete white balance control, whether in post-processing of RAW files, or by setting the white balance in the camera. Of course, the Fuji X cameras have amazing auto white balance so I rarely have to tweak my digital images. Film on the other hand, is sensitive to daylight temperatures so, unless you’re willing to use filters or gels, you’re stuck with garish colors when used with indoor lighting.

####COLOR ACCURACY There are certainly pretty color-accurate film emulsions but digital wins hands down here. When I need or want accurate color (“accurate”, of course, being subjective, so I’m referring to how my eyes see color), I turn to digital where, with post-processing, I have full control over colors, including luminance, hue, and saturation. Pretty nice.

###Benefits of Film

####SLIDE FILM Large transparencies on a light box are amazing. They must be seen in order to understand what I’m talking about so, if you have never seen one, find someone with an excellent image on Fuji Velvia film and check it out. There is something special about the color and depth of a transparency as the light passes through it that creates an almost 3D look that no other medium replicates. I love it and will shoot slide film until I can no longer get it. It’s incredible. My children ask me weekly to get the light box out and look at slides from the Mamiya C220. They do not make similar requests of the images on the iMac, 27″ screen notwithstanding.

####ANALOG WORKFLOW I work in the information technology field so am in front of a computer screen most every day. The benefit of the digital darkroom to digital is also why I appreciate the lack of a computer with regards to film. I shoot with a decades old Mamiya C220, which is a completely manual camera – no electronics at all. I expose film, an analog medium, and then mail the completed rolls of film to Richard Photo Lab for processing. They do all the development, scanning, and color correction for me (and, I must say, do an amazing job) so I spend almost no time in front of a computer throughout that process. I enjoy this process and it is part of the allure of film for me.

####TONAL AND DYNAMIC RANGE I don’t care about scientific studies or comparing pictures of eclectic piles of useless junk interspersed with resolution charts, to my eyes film has better tonal and dynamic range than the output of any digital camera I have seen. Of course, I’m speaking of color negative and black and white film. I routinely overexpose my non-slide film and pretty much abuse its tonal curve, but do so purposefully. I have been testing Kodak’s Ektar 100 and Portra 160 color negative films for use as a Velvia replacement when I have a range beyond the 5 stop capability of slide film and am finding that I no longer need to use graduated filters to control highlights. The film has the range I need and, best of all, the tonal range is smooth, stomping what I get from digital, all without that horrible HDR look I see so often now.

####BLACK AND WHITE FILM Fujifilm Acros 100 and Ilford HP5+. Enough said.

####THE “LOOK” OF MEDIUM FORMAT FILM To me, medium and large format film has a certain “look” that is difficult to describe. Part of it is likely due to the shallower depth of field possible on these larger format “sensors”, but I also think there is a “creaminess” to the images that defies description. The images just look more real to me without looking over sharpened or clean as digital often does. It is difficult to describe, and perhaps not everybody sees the same thing, but there is a look to film that 35mm digital, with f/1.4 glass, still doesn’t replicate. It’s not just the depth of field, or the creamy bokeh, or the color tones – it’s all of it – or something else entirely. Either way, there is something about film’s look that I really like.

####SOMETHING TANGIBLE In this day of bits and bytes there is something to be said for a tangible product and film has it. There’s no need for electricity to view your prints, negatives, or slides; as long as the sun is shining you can enjoy your pictures. There’s something to be said for that, especially if we ever have to hunker in bomb shelters during a nuclear winter some day. In all seriousness, the ability to retrieve our images without the need for electronics creates a permanence that attracts me. I’m also a sucker for tangible things.

####MECHANICAL EQUIPMENT Related to the tangible quality of film is my enjoyment of the mechanical feel of the film cameras. Compare the size of an Olympus OM-1 to a modern day DSLR like the 5D Mark III. Why are DSLRs so large and clunky? I don’t get it. In this day, when electronics allow us to make things smaller, why do we make DSLRs so large? They’re ridiculous. The older cameras have mechanical levers with tactile feedback while modern cameras are largely menu-driven computers. I guess that’s it really: older cameras were mechanical pieces while new cameras are essentially computers. I prefer the mechanical ones.

####COMPOSING ON GROUND GLASS Composing with the ground glass on my Mamiya TLR is an absolute joy compared to the “tunnel vision” feel of a 35mm viewfinder. It goes beyond the large size, though that is certainly a factor in the joy of using it, and is probably due to the 3D look of the image on the ground glass, caused by the fact that I can look at it with two eyes like I do the rest of the world. Sure, it takes time to get used to having the image reversed on the ground glass, but it didn’t take me too long. I am able to focus accurately and swiftly using the ground glass, which is nice when I only have 12 exposures per roll of film. In short, the ground glass is probably my favorite aspect of using my film camera.

####FOCUSED ON MAKING PHOTOGRAPHS Related to the joy of using the ground glass is the fact that I am more engaged in making photographs when I use my film camera. It’s likely due to how composing on the ground glass allows me to experience the image, but it’s also due to the fact that I cannot review my images on an LCD (chimping) and have to commit to certain exposure settings prior to ever tripping the shutter. On my digital cameras, I fiddle around with different settings while the camera is up to my eye before I finally settle on an exposure. With my film camera, I have already envisioned the exposure and dialed the appropriate settings in before I ever lift the camera up to frame a shot. And once I’m done with a shot, I don’t chimp; I’m committed to the image at that point so there is no reviewing of histograms, ensuring I got the horizon level, or any other nonsense; instead, I’m “in the moment” and am searching for the next image to expose. In short, my photography is my focus rather than my camera.

In the end, it is making compelling images that excites me and I enjoy doing so in both film and digital formats. Both formats have their strengths and weaknesses; the important thing is to pick what excites you and get shooting.