Last week, that guy over at Epic Edits posted an article titled “Digital is Better than Film: 5 Situations“. Though his points are valid for the most part, he failed to mention when film outranks digital.
The 5 situations for digital preference were: when you need to shoot a lot of photos, when lighting conditions change rapidly, when traveling for long periods of time, when you need a quick turnaround, and when you don’t want to spend the money.
In doing some research, I found that Ken Rockwell has a lengthy article on the film vs digital topic, and the Wired Gadget Lab has Five Reasons Film Cameras Are Still Better Than Digital. Now let’s take a look at 5 situations when a photographer might choose film over digital.
1. When You Need Higher Quality Images
If you compare the latest full-frame dSLR cameras to 35mm film, the digital output will usually be of higher quality. But the 135 film format is considered a “miniature” format and has not been widely used for professional high-quality work (there are exceptions such as street photography, photojournalism, and I’m sure a few others).
When film photographers want higher quality, they’ll usually turn to medium and large formats. These formats outperform digital counterparts in cost while producing similar quality. A medium format image on film is superior to the best full-frame dSLR. Large format is a whole different world — the amount of equivalent resolution provided by a large format image is insane.
Think about it from a numbers standpoint… a 2.25×2.25″ medium format film image scanned at 4000dpi will result in an 81MP digital image. A 4×5″ large format at 4000dpi will result in a 320MP digital image. And an 8×10″ large format at 4000dpi will result in a 1280MP digital image. Also take into account that a good optical enlargement will be better than a good scan and digital print.
2. When You Want to Learn More than the Basics
Digital can be a great way to learn photography. You have the quick feedback and low expense for experimentation… I’m not arguing that these things are great for learning the ropes.
But I would argue that upper level learning is more rapid when shooting film. You’re forced to slow down and think about what you’re doing. You plan ahead a little more because you have a limited number of frames to shoot (and no delete button). Now pick up an older camera with no automatic controls and you really start to think about what you’re doing.
Sure, you can shoot with manual controls on a digital camera, but it’s different when you don’t have the option to flip the “auto switch” back on. Focus, exposure, DOF, composition, subject matter… they all become vitally important when shooting film and you only have once chance to get the shot.
3. When You Want to Experiment with Alternative Process
Digital has the ability to process each image in an infinite number of ways. You can do black & white, super-saturation, low-saturation, fake xpro, fake bleach bypass, fake Lomo, etc. This is cool and all, but it’s still not a true alternative process.
When you shoot film, you make decisions along the way that ultimately affect the outcome of your images… the film, the exposure, the chemicals, and the process all play an important role in the outcome. Black and white film photography is highly variable depending on which film you choose, under/over exposure, push/pull processing, and the developer used. Color negative and slide films are much the same in their variability.
I can take one type of film and produce several drastically different results just by changing how the film is processed. Slide film can be cross processed with non-deterministic results and wildly variable colors. Color negative film can be bleach bypassed to produce interesting and also non-deterministic results. Presets and actions can’t mimic the outcome of alternative processing real film — they can only estimate and generalize.
4. When You Want to Technology-Proof Your Photos
I have to admit, the new digital cameras are really awesome… but that’s what we said 5 years ago too. Anybody out there still have a 5-10 year old dSLR? I do! And I have to say that those 6MP of professional-level quality just don’t stand up to today’s expectations.
Film, on the other hand, is exactly what it is — always. Scanners and optical enlarger equipment will certainly improve over time, but that doesn’t make the image on film any less valuable or of any lower quality. You can go back and re-scan a frame of film with a bigger and better scanner, but you can’t go back and improve a low quality digital image.
My point here is that existing film images can continue to improve as technology improves, but existing digital images can’t — they’re far more finite and defined.
5. When You Have G.A.S.
Photographers are notorious for having GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). If you’re a digital photographer, your choices are typically limited to a relatively small line of lenses and accessories that fit your chosen camera body. Those bits of gear also happen to be quite expensive and I know very few photographers with more than half a dozen lenses.
Film photographers are a bit of a different story. We tend to buy a multitude of old cameras and lenses for one reason or another. Most of the time, they’re extremely cheap and in decent condition. Some of us collect specific brands of cameras, others collect certain types, and others will grab up anything that looks interesting. But one thing is generally common — they’re old cameras, and they’re still fully capable of producing outstanding images.
So What’s the Deal?
Is there really a clear-cut answer to the digital-vs-film debate? No, there never will be. We could all go back and forth for years on this stuff.
The important thing to recognize here is that film and digital still have their unique advantages over one another. What you shoot will likely depend on personal preferences and needs. My only hope is that the lines become more blurred between digital and film until we’re all just photographers who use the best medium and equipment for a particular need.
Do you have reasons for shooting one format over another? Are you more digital than film, or the other way around?