Film vs Digital

October 7th, 2015 | Peter Stewart

Ok, so this whole film vs digital argument is getting very old. Both from a stills and filmmaking point of view. The arguments are always the same and seem rooted in the bias towards the technical limitations of film over the modern advancements of Digital.

We know that a Nikon D810 produces a sharper image than medium format film. We know that arguing the awesome dynamic range of Kodak Portra 400 is no real match for a few mouse clicks with the shadows/highlights sliders in Lightroom. We know film is expensive and digital is essentially free. 

Shooting Film in the Digital Age

So why still shoot film? I'll make it very clear. It isn't about resolution, sharpness, or flexibility. You can argue all you want that Digital is more than capable of emulating the look of film but to my eyes, it will always be a poor imitator because it simply isn't film!

When I was initially getting into photography, I was still very much a part of the "analog" generation. Growing up, I can recall using those crappy instant cameras that you would take with you on vacation or to a music festival (secretly I love those cameras now). As a teenager, I took a brief interest in filmmaking, which resulted in some now thankfully long gone shitty home movies created on VHS and DV tape.

When I developed an interest in photography, there were no nostalgia goggles holding me down. Digital was already the norm and I learned to use it to the best of my abilities. It was only a couple of years later when I inherited an old Pentax film SLR that my curiosity first peaked. My first few rolls were absolute duds, but still, I was hooked. I loved the process of not knowing if I "nailed" the shot until later when I had to pick up the prints from the lab. The look was just so different from digital that I felt somewhat proud when a shot I had anticipated seeing come out, actually came out better than expected.

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A scanned frame of Fuji Veliva 100 Color-Reversal (Slide) film

For many years now I've been saddened by the abandonment of 35mm in general filmmaking. Increasingly, studios are turning to an all-digital workflow. The Red series of cameras starting with the Red One in 2007 are great examples of the advancements in digital filmmaking, but to a well-trained eye you can see it's still a harsher, digital looking image. To my mind, David Fincher is the only director who has been able to properly utilize these cameras.

That brings us along to the Arri Alexa, probably my favorite digital cinema camera at the moment, and one more than capable of emulating the warmth and softness of a celluloid image. In the hands of Roger Deakins it's a powerful testament to just how good digital is now. Drive and Skyfall are two examples of movies that never made me question that what I was watching onscreen came from anything other than a 35mm camera.

Thankfully, 35mm is still very much alive, despite the fact that distribution to theatres is 99% likely to be projected digitally.

We are fortunate to have filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino who refuse to shoot on anything other than film. Even the universally hated Michael Bay, still uses 35mm for each of his films, all shot with his own set of aged Panavision lenses. Even the new Star Wars film is ditching the digital workflow that George Lucas arguably pioneered, with JJ Abrams instead opting to shoot Episode VII "The Force Awakens" on 35mm anamorphic.

So what does any of this have to do with stills photography? If we look to cinema as the example, it's clear that this isn't just a case of hanging onto something for the case of nostalgia. Film has a tangible aesthetic quality and look that simply cannot be replicated.

I'll admit, in 2015 shooting film is no easy task. Despite film cameras being had on the cheap, it's still a fairly costly investment. Even more so if you wish to shoot medium format film. Buying and developing film is costly and may be difficult depending on your location. That being said, the cost and cumbersome nature of shooting film in today's world should not be an absolute turnoff.

If you asked me why I shoot film, my answer would be because I enjoy the process, and I adore the outcome. Film has taught me to slow down and think more about what I want to shoot, rather than just rattling off the shutter at anything of interest like I usually do with digital. I tend to put more thought into what kinds of images I want to capture when shooting film and pay closer attention to my metering and framing. With digital, I'll admit I am much more careless.

The results I get with film however always seem to be somewhat of a mixed bag. Although I have my list now of goto films (Kodak Portra 400 for color and Kodak T-Max 400 for B&W), I'm still consistently experimenting with different emulsions, which can result in occasional disappointment. Although, when I pull off a great shot on film, I can't imagine wanting it taken on any other medium. That's the draw for me!

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Silky smooth Kodak T-Max 400 35mm

I would also like to share my thoughts on one of films greatest strengths. Physical prints.

I've been to enough galleries and seen many of my own images printed larger than life to know that digital doesn't hold a candle to film prints. Now, I'm not talking about resolution, as digital images can be printed so large now that you will never see pixelation, yet you might see some other things that can be off-putting.

I'm talking about digital noise, moir√©, color bleeding and oh did I mention noise?

Noise is not quite the same as grain. A digital image can contain both color noise and uniform noise. With a film print, you get the physical grain from the negative, which when printed looks simply beautiful. To me, it's almost as if the image feels alive. If you've ever seen a medium or large format film print, you can see straight away why they are so special. There is a depth and life to the image that immediately stands out.

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The classic Kodak Tri-X 400. Grainy and proud!

This is why I always appreciate the look of an optical film print, especially those creamy looking B&W silver gelatin prints. I would take that any day over digital.

Ok ok, enough waxing lyrical over film. The reason I am so passionate about it is that film's days are numbered. Technology always wins out, and that's a great thing. Think about how crappy digital cameras were 10 years ago back in 2005? Fast forward to today and digital is getting smaller and stupidly advanced. Sony A7-S anyone?

So whats a photographer to do?

My advice to anyone who has never even touched film is to buy a cheap 35mm SLR and give it a try with a few rolls. Shooting 35mm can be great for portraits or street photography. Medium format isn't too much of a leap from 35mm, but you gain enhanced resolution and the look you can achieve with portraits is quite unique due to the shallower depth of field.

So forget about all the naysayers. If you don't see the point in shooting film then fair enough. There is little point in writing a list of bullet points for and against (although obviously many people have). It's just one of those things you either appreciate or you don't. Perhaps it's no different to the argument about vinyl. Audiophiles will tell you that a record has a warm, realistic tone that just sounds more "real". CD's and MP3's in comparison sound stale, lacking depth.

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Embrace your film "fuck ups"

I only hope that film photography continues to prosper in the future, side by side with digital. Both mediums have their strengths, and obviously, the strengths of digital are only bound to continue improving. Love both formats, and give film a go if you haven't yet. Before it's too late!

  • Richard Keeling

    on August 27, 2016

    Nicely written and argued article. I, too, have taken up film shooting after a decade or so of shooting purely digital and I get precisely the same senses of satisfaction that you describe. I usually carry both a digital and film camera with me when I'm out photographing and I enjoy seeing the comparative results. These can favor one or the other or both equally but they always provide an alternative way of looking at things and that's worth a lot. I feel lucky that we have both techniques available. Let's hope it stays that way.

  • Christian Maurer

    on February 28, 2016

    Thanks for the article. My love for photography started when I took my Nikon F and 85mm 1.8 and 28mm 2.8 to Italy and spent all my saved money on film and developing. It was like Christmas every morning when I would head over to the lab right next to the Duomo in Firenza and see what I caught the previous day. Years later I went pro, shooting advertising in my hometown, eventually I went digital for the convenience speed and instant feedback. Little did I know that was when my love for photography began to die. The mystery, the commitment and the value of a single frame was gone. I didn't make prints anymore. Everything lived on hard drive and I ultimately stopped giving a !+$% so I quit. Now I'm at point in my life where I want to start part-time shooting again but this time I'll be keeping at least a little film in the mix.

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