Striking a Balance Between Film and Digital

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I came of age as a photographer when film was still the only dance in town. When digital began infiltrating the marketplace, in the mid-1990s, I resisted until the cost of DSLRs capable of producing commercially acceptable image files began to fit my needs and budget. The year was 2002, and the camera was a Fujifilm S2 Pro, which cost about $3,500, accepted Nikon F-mount lenses (it was based on a Nikon F80), and featured a 6.17MP, APS-C Super CCD sensor, which produced image files deemed “acceptable” among the fussiest photo editors.

It would be nine years before I would shoot another roll of film, though since that time, I’ve come to enjoy loading up a camera with a roll of Tri-X every now and then and heading out for the day.

Acts of picture-taking have been going on ever since 1827, when Joseph Niépce used a camera obscura to capture the image of a French street scene onto a photo-sensitized pewter plate. The photograph required an 8-hour exposure.

SanDisk Extreme Pro 128GB CompactFlash card and Fujifilm Provia 100F sheet film

Since that time, cameras, lenses, and photographic processes have continuously evolved. Today, digital rules the roost and for ninety-plus years prior to the arrival of digital cameras, film cameras dominated the marketplace. Prior to film, photographers recorded photographic images onto sensitized sheets of tin, copper, glass, and paper. With time, the tools and processes have changed, but the act and mindset of taking pictures has remained the same since Niépce tripped his shutter in 1827.

What’s interesting is that, despite the dominance of digital imaging in the consumer and professional market place, film sales, which had been on the slide for years, have been on the uptick as of late. Kodak Ektachrome 100 slide film, which had been discontinued due to lack of demand, is back in production. Ditto Kodak’s high-speed T-Max P 3200 black-and-white film. In Europe, long-shuttered film manufacturing plants are being renovated to meet renewed demands for 35mm, 120, and cut sheet films.

Why? People have been discovering, or in the case of photographers past a certain age, rediscovering, the art and craft of film photography. Cameras long exiled to the darkest reaches of closets, attics, and garages are once again seeing—and photographing, the light of day.

As a life-long photographer who’s transitioned from film to digital with few physical or psychological scars to speak of, I’ve finally come to a place where I embrace both disciplines and know when to turn to one over the other.

Ilford HP5 Plus and Sony SDXC 64GB memory card

Why digital?

The positives of shooting digital are easy to rattle off. Shooting digital is quicker. You can view and edit your image files in real time while tagging the best of the bunch for further editing down the line.

High-resolution electronic viewfinders (EVFs) and LCDs enable instant feedback of what your camera and lens are seeing—there are no surprises. And you can make precise, real-time WYSIWYG focus, exposure, and color balance adjustments to the image before pressing the shutter button. Confidence builders don’t come better than this.

Digital imaging is cleaner than film photography. Pouring film-processing chemistry down the drain doesn’t mix well with the environment, but then again, there are equal ecological downsides connected to the manufacturing processes of silicon wafers, the mining of rare earth metals, not to mention the countless number of single-use inkjet cartridges we feed our printers.

Digital image processing times are shorter compared to film processing and editing times. Even if you process your film in-house, processing and editing digital image files is less time-consuming than processing and editing slide and negative film.

When shooting digital, you also have the immediacy factor, which is something you don’t have with film. Try as you might, unless your film camera accepts Polaroid or Fujifilm Instax film packs, you can’t chimp with a film camera.

On the topic of chimping, it’s worth noting that Leica has introduced two digital M-series cameras over the past few years that lack rear LCDs. If you want to see what you’ve shot, you have to wait until you get home and open the files on your computer, or if that’s too much pressure to bear, you can view them on your smartphone via Wi-Fi, though doing so invalidates the reason for buying this specific camera in the first place.

Why film?

Did we mention shooting digital is free? Once you buy the camera, lens, batteries, and memory cards, it costs nothing to go click. Not so film. Processing a roll of film and having “work-size” scans made from the negatives or slides will cost you, and unless you do your own processing, you must deal with turnaround time.

There are those who argue that having to wait hours, days, or even weeks before seeing the negatives, slides, or prints makes one a better photographer. For many, this was reason enough to never again touch a film camera. Yet for others—myself included, this is just one of the reasons I’m attracted to the parameters and disciplines of analog photography.

Analog photography requires you to slow down, which by itself adds to the creative aspect of the photographic experience. As with many things, less is often more.

Another limitation of film photography also happens to be one of its strong points of films. Slip a 64, 128, 256, or 512GB memory card into your camera and you can shoot machine gun-style until you drain your batteries. Depending on whether you are shooting 35mm, 6 x 6cm, 6 x 7cm, 6 x 8cm, 6 x 9cm, 6 x 12cm, or 6 x 17cm, you are limited to between 36 or 4 frames-per-roll. For some, this is a terrifying reality, for others, it’s liberating. The challenge is to be judicious before pressing the shutter button, but then again, you should always be judicious before pressing the shutter. Film cameras simply hammer that point home.

Fujifilm PRO 400H and Lexar Professional CompactFlash

The exposure parameters of film—especially transparency films, which have less than a half stop of exposure latitude, are far tighter than RAW files and, to a lesser extent, JPEGs when it comes to post-capture wiggle room. Though I in no way endorse the “fix-it-in-Photoshop” attitude many digital shooters rely on, the fact is, you can be sloppier when shooting digital. With film, you need to understand the light and work within tighter exposure parameters. In my mind, this makes you a better photographer.

To this day, I thoroughly enjoy the advantages of digital imaging, from soup to nuts, but every now and then I load up a roll of film and head out if only to slow myself down behind the shutter.

Shooting film centers me. It makes me think, which is something you cannot avoid doing when your camera lacks a light meter, and in the case of several of my cameras—requires “guesstimating” the focus.

I also get immense satisfaction knowing that I can hold my film negatives—they’re real, not fleeting electronic entities. I have negatives and slides I shot decades ago that I can easily access, scan, and enjoy in their analog and digitized forms.

The act of taking pictures is something I greatly enjoy regardless of the type of camera and photo process I’m using. Film, digital—it really doesn’t matter because it’s the act of taking pictures, the act of wandering about with open eyes, that’s what it’s all about for me and I know I’m not alone regarding these feelings.

At the end of the day, my film cameras and digital cameras are merely vehicles that take me to the same place, and it’s a place I greatly enjoy visiting regardless of the vehicles that take me there.

What about you? Are you digitally oriented, film oriented, or a blend of the two? Let us know. We’d love to hear your story.

6 Comments

To me, the big difference is film creates a thing, an actual object. It does not rely on electrical power, or computers to display. Yes you can print digital images, but the reality is more than half the digital images created are never printed, and are only seen, or viewed on electronic media like phones, pads or computers. 

And if a photographer shoots Polaroid, or wet plate they will create a true, direct one off original straight from the camera, a thing that cannot be copied a million times over. (well it can, but any copy is subsequently traced back to that original image, taken at specific time and place.)

I starting film just now in 2019 after years of casual digital shooting. Modern digital cameras trying to simulate films, but if real film cameras are cheap why not use them? 

Grew up on film, Autoreflex-T and then upgraded to original Canon F-1.  Still have 3 Canon film bodies and full complement of lenses but haven’t used them in about 5 years. Also between myself and my son we have 4 digital bodies raging from Canon 10D to Canon 5D. However, I have been carrying a 4x5 Speed Graphic to airshows and WWII re-enactment for about 7 years, always draws lots of attention and people ask to take my picture.  I have been asked if it is digital.  I shoot Ilford B&W and process my self.  Great negative quality but have yet to print because of lack of suitable location for my D2V.  Really makes me wait for a shot, while I may shot 2000+ digital images, I usually carry 24 sheet of 4x5 with me.  I find chemistry work relaxing especially since I found the daylight $x5 processing tank at B&H, much easier then lining up open tanks in a bathtub. So yes i will continue with film, and probably will break out the 35mm in the future.

I use film in my specialty Cameras. Such as my WideLux panoramic.

I'm a blend of the two. I cut my teeth on film back in the early 1980s when I exposed and processed it. It was 15 years ago when I hopped on to the digital wagon. Today I am a hybrid photographer, using both media. Film is great for day shooting where I can use lower speeds and take my time. Digital, on the other hand, is great for night where I can adjust my sensitivity according to lighting situations.

I've been blessed to create artwork with either media. One's not "better" than the other. That's my take.

Photography is about images, period. It's not about waiting for your images, sweating in a darkroom breathing in fumes or the cost of materials, etc. Or using digital or multimedia resources. As a visual person and artist, the only thing that matters to me is what I'm looking at, that very thing I am visually engaged with - and whether or not I think it is good - regardless of anything else, of how the artist got there or whether the artist is male or female. All considerations pertaining to other than purely visual and emotional responses to the work are, in my view, moot and the province of hacks and academics. 

The only question that merits an answer in my humble opinion is, once that image hangs on a wall or lays inside a book: is this truly a piece of art? Not: what F-stop or film did you use? Or ... how long was the exposure?

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