TALKING IMAGES 61 – THOUGHTS FOR THOSE NEW TO PHOTOGRAPHY 7: WHICH IS BEST, FILM OR DIGITAL?

 

 

(Click onto any of these images to open a larger version in a separate window)

Some years ago, I put out some posts specifically aimed at those just getting interested in photography, just starting out.  I tried to think of things that might be useful to them – and not just in terms of technique, but also in ways of thinking about photography, attitudes, questions that might arise, etc.  I most certainly do not know all there is to know about photography, but I’d like to try something similar again and – as always – I’m happy to take questions >>> with the caveat that, as already mentioned, my knowledge is not exhaustive.

But always remember, these are only my views and opinions: others may well think differently, and equally validly..

EARLIER POSTS IN THIS SERIES

POST 1: The Main Mantra: there are no rights or wrongs in photography, only individual photographers’ differing opinions.

POST 2: Raw capture versus jpeg capture – it depends upon what you have planned for the photos you are taking.

POST 3: Learning to explain why you like/dislike an image: putting your thoughts into words can help you to understand your own, personal, visual preferences >>> and so help you create images that you like.

POST 4: Don’t clutter up your pictures >>> use the camera’s viewfinder/screen (and cropping too) to remove unwanted/irrelevant material from images to make them simpler, more effective and more direct >>> less can be more, simple can be beautiful!

POST 5: All that really matters is the final photographic image that you produce: details of the equipment used, the types and amounts of cropping and post-capture processing are irrelevant – if your final image looks good, it is good!

POST 6: Most photographers copyright their images and jealously guard them but, for me, Life is simply too short for all of this bother; and it is rare for digital images to be irretrievably stolen, as for example a film negative might be.
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WHICH IS BEST, FILM OR DIGITAL???

Hahaha!!! >>> well, this post has a deliberately provocative title and, if you know me at all, you’ll know that I don’t think either film or digital is better in absolute terms >>> they’re simply two different entities, each with their own positives and negatives.  That said, personally I’m very much a digital photographer, because digital does exactly what I want – which the bottom line really –  but I will still try to give a balanced comparison of these two processes.

What are my qualifications for commenting here?  Well, I shot film from the 1950s up to around 2009 or so, and processed black and white in wet darkrooms at school and university – although with hindsight I was never really much good at this processing.  The later years of my film days mostly involved shooting colour slides, a lot of Agfa CT18, some (really quite exciting) Agfa Scala black and white slides, and finally a lot of Fujichrome.  One thing about shooting slide film is that everything has to be right at the point of capture – composition, framing, exposure, the lot – and this is really good practice/discipline for photography generally.

And then I’ve been shooting digital since early 2009 >>> using DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, compacts >>>and plastered many of the resulting pics onto this blog – alongside quite a few of my film images that I’ve scanned.

So, the big question, digital or film??????????

And of course one answer is that there’s absolutely no reason to restrict yourself to either >>> why not shoot both???   But let’s look at each in turn.

FILM – ADVANTAGES

  • Many say that images on film have a better ‘look’ to digital images, the latter often being considered to look rather too sterile and precise.  This may well be true.  Lots of digital image processing packages have attempted to remedy this but I really don’t know enough about these to comment.  Does anyone have any input on the effectiveness (or not) of these software packages in making digital images appear more film-like?
  • There is also talk of a renaissance of film, of its recently increasing use, and lots of young photographers apparently see it as very cool and fashionable.  Again I can’t really comment, although I have to admit to some scepticism.  Again though, any comments?
  • One thing is for sure: if you’re after a very hands on and tangible approach to photography, film is the thing.  Just think:  buying uncut lengths of film in bulk; loading your own film cassettes; developing and printing your own films in a real, wet darkroom.  Or doing as I did in later years, shooting colour or black and white slides, which I then posted off to specialist processors – all of the pictures on this blog’s front page were shot on film.
  • Its said that using film slows down our photography and makes us think more about each shot, not least because there are only a relatively small number of shots per film.   These points are very likely true, but personally I value being able to take shots – as, when and how rapidly I like – without having to think about changing the film.

FILM – DISADVANTAGES

  • But then there are the (not inconsiderable) costs of buying film and paying for its processing, or buying processing chemicals and equipment for yourself.
  • Along with the fact that very few if any new film cameras are being made any more, except in the largest formats.
  • There are still many second hand film cameras around at the moment but, as time passes, they may need repair by specialists.

 

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DIGITAL – ADVANTAGES

I was initially very sceptical of digital photography, in fact I was a die hard film user.  Until I saw a friend’s digital images on his computer – and until Nikon produced the D700 DSLR, which I could afford and which seemed capable of producing images comparable to my wonderful Nikon F6 film camera.  I seem to remember a brief transition period when I was shooting both formats, but then digital very decisively took over and I’ve never looked back.  Much as I enjoyed using film cameras – the Olympus OM-1 comes very much to mind here – it is for me unthinkable to even contemplate a return to film.  My reasons?

  • I’m attracted by the very powerful and accessible creative potential of digital photography, even when used with fairly simple processing software like Adobe Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro 2.
  • I’ve already mentioned not having to think about changing films and having to carry spare films with me.
  • Another very important point is the ability to shoot each frame at a different ISO, though I’ve yet to use auto ISO.
  • And then there are ISO values that digital allows me to shoot at – I can well remember the stir when the D700 (and its predecessor) allowed over 25,000 ISO, and now the Z 6 reaches up to 204,800!!!  I know, I know, there will be gasps of revulsion, and “the quality will be terrible! … you’ll be able to see the noise!! … the pictures won’t look real!! …! >>> to which I have two, very definite answers: (1) if its a case of 200,000+ ISO or I don’t get the picture, I’m getting the picture;  and (2) its certainly worth trying out 200,000+ (although I’ve yet to), because the effects may in fact prove to be creative >>> and, as in POST 5  >>> if it looks good, it is good!
  • And then of course the ability to shoot on colour and/or mono, though I always shoot top quality, full colour, Raw files and do my mono conversions post-capture, either in-camera (sometimes) or on a computer.
  • I don’t have to scan my images into digital to present them on this blog.
  • Digital cameras do many things for me, which enables me to think more about my surroundings and what I can see through the viewfinder or screen, and to think about composition.
  • Instant appraisal of images (though I did enjoy the anticipation of waiting for my developed/printed films to come back from the processor).
  • And I am totally unable here to stop myself putting in a plug for mirrorless cameras which, to me, are simply magic – once again, freeing up my mind to concentrate more on what I’m photographing and on composition.  I mean, for example, accurate auto focus (a blessing for my tired old eyes!); and live histograms, horizons and exposure adjustments visible in the viewfinder.  What do I use?  Well, the mirrorless Nikon Z 6 and Fujifilm X-T2;  and, in these days of Coronavirus, the far more portable and compact Olympus TOUGH TG-5.

DIGITAL – DISADVANTAGES

  1. Having to buy some sort of computer or smartphone; memory cards; batteries, processing software (although free software is available, and many modern cameras and phones have some processing software inbuilt).  Many film cameras were totally mechanical (or a small battery was needed only for the light meter), whereas all digital cameras need batteries (and often spare batteries too if large numbers of pictures are to be taken).
  2. Ending up with vast numbers of unprinted images on phones or hard drives, which can be all too prone to failure;  and hence leading to the need for regular backing up routines.
  3. Using a more remote process than film, by which I mean not having the tangible, touchy feely relationship with the photographic process but, rather, using a camera, a keyboard and software.
  4. Feeling less easy about changing lenses on digital cameras, especially in windy / dusty / seaside etc environments, due to the danger of getting dirt onto the sensor.  As some kind of solution, many digital cameras now have internal, sensor-cleaning routines, and it is possible to have sensors professionally cleaned.  But the fact remains, that the sensors in film cameras – i.e. the films – were changed after every 24 or 36 shots, and a new sensor loaded;  and that it was easier to clean the insides of the film cameras themselves than it is digital cameras.
  5. Have I missed anything???

A FINAL POINT: TECHNOLOGY RACES EVER ONWARDS

I lived in Kenya 1977-89 and, if I wanted colour slide film that could be developed locally (i.e. in Kenya), then Agfa CT 18 was the sole (and excellent) choice for at least most of that time.  But when I got back into “serious” (LOL!) photography in the UK, in around 2002 or so, I was absolutely taken aback by the quality of the new colour slide films that were available, especially those made by Fujifilm – the likes of Fujichrome Velvia 50 and Velvia 100, and the totally wonderful Fujichrome Provia 400X.

My point here is that technology races ever onwards and that there have been very significant improvements in both digital sensors and electronic viewfinders (EVFs) in the past few years, so much so that many earlier digital cameras now appear crude and over large – as well as very highly expensive when they were first produced.  I realise that many reading this post will already have made their minds up about the road that they will take – film or digital or both – and it is not for me to try to change those decisions.  But I do urge those with any interest at all in digital to get an idea of what modern sensors and EVFs are capable of.

And the final, final(!) point here is that, as I’ve been reading, digital cameras (full frame and smaller) have probably become as good as they need to be, such that future “upgrades” may be driven more by marketing campaigns for “must have” features rather than by actual, hands on usefulness to photographers.

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About Adrian Lewis
Photographer - using mono, colour and combinations of the two - many types of subject, including Minimalism, landscapes, abstracts, soft colour, people, movement, nature - I like to be adventurous, trying new ideas, working in multiple genres. And I've a weakness for Full English Breakfasts and Duvel golden ale, though not necessarily together.

9 Responses to TALKING IMAGES 61 – THOUGHTS FOR THOSE NEW TO PHOTOGRAPHY 7: WHICH IS BEST, FILM OR DIGITAL?

  1. bluebrightly says:

    Before digital came out I used photography differently than I do now. I never developed my own film, never had a high-quality film camera, etc. so I can’t really compare them, experientially. I do enjoy the extra warmth film images seem to have. I think the clinically perfect renderings that digital technology creates results in the same issues of warmth vs. cold perfection in music recordings. Digital recordings can sound sterile compared to pre-digital. But there are so many advantages to digital!
    Someone who collects old, inexpensive film cameras and makes interesting photos with them sent me one a few years ago to play with. It was fun to try it, but it was hard to adjust to the different requirements.
    I am used to shooting in expectation of what a digital camera can and will do. Shooting with the knowledge of what a film camera can and will do requires a whole different frame of mind. Shots that would work digitally don’t work in film and vice versa – in my very limited experience.
    I got my roll of film back as scans that I was able to process in LR. A few were quite special – I felt that I could not have gotten those results with digital equipment.
    Deserted
    But the entire process (especially since film processing isn’t common these days) was too convoluted to be worth the effort for the few special shots I’m likely to get. I’m spoiled.

    The hybrid experience of shooting film, processing it however you see fit, and then showing the results online is interesting. There are people I follow on Flickr who do that, with really nice results. For example, https://www.flickr.com/photos/21826284@N06
    As my friend Adrian might say, “To each his or her own!” 😉

    Like

    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Thanks for this, Lynn, very interesting to read. I’ve had thoughts about shooting film and then scanning the results into digital but, really, I love the convenience and ease of use that digital brings, and having to do all the scanning just seems an unnecessary complication; and of course I’d have to have the film developed first.

      As it is, after one of my early morning trudges, I can be back in the house and have the images on the screen ready for processing in 5 or 10 minutes or so. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. oneowner says:

    An interesting topic. Having had experience with film (for many years) and digital (for 8 years) I have formed my own opinion. I was involved with the manufacturing of film and photographic papers, as well as the chemistries involved in processing these materials and I know that there is a huge environmental risk involved with them. Folks who buy film at the store and send it out to be processed will never know what is involved in getting that final print or slide in their hands. I can only speak for myself in saying that the digital format is by far superior to film in almost every category. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!

    Like

  3. Stella says:

    It took me a very long time to move from film to digital. I only made the switch in 2006, when I was able to buy a reasonably priced DSLR when out in Macau. I seem to recall the saving at the time was around £70 which more than covered an extra lens.

    Like

    • Adrian Lewis says:

      The move from film to digital can be really quite a jump, and the more so back in the days when you and I did it. But I always remember getting the D700 body home, putting a lens in it, taking a picture >>> and seeing that picture appear on its rear screen >> and thinking “Hello, I’m going to have fun with you!”. 🙂

      Like

  4. Nice post; agree! 🙂

    Like

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