Shooting Film AND Digital
Anyone who understands and loves photography knows that the subject isn’t a matter of the calling the moment of ultimate triumph of digital over analogue. Both approaches have their merits and this blog post describes how to get the most out of using both.
Shooting Film AND Digital
Let’s start with an obligatory comparison of the pros and cons of film and digital. The moment that digital cameras reached and surpassed the pixel count of good 35mm film scans, people started declaring that “Film is dead; long live digital!” At the time, film enthusiasts countered with the then superior dynamic range and colour rendition of film, particularly slide film. They also argued that having gazillion pixels made no difference because most lenses struggled to resolve an image sharp enough to make use of the full theoretical resolution of the highest resolution digital sensors. However, as technology has advanced. Both lenses and sensors have come a long way and I find digital images to be as well balanced and rich as I would expect to see from film. Lenses have also improved and many cameras sport larger sensors that can get the most out of those lenses. Many digital cameras really can out-capture 35mm film these days, particularly film scanned inexpensively.
These days, almost all commercial photographers have dumped film for digital. The reason is not so much about image quality as being able to turn around a reliable work product, cheaply and on time. With film, there is a wonderful feeling of pride and sometimes surprise on seeing one’s negatives, scans or prints for the first time, like greeting a new baby. No matter one’s skill, or careful preparation, sometimes film doesn’t come out exactly as expected and this anticipation is part of the magic of film photography. At least it is for enthusiasts; for commercial photographers, it represents the possibility of an expensive re-shoot, or a missed deadline. To a commercial photographer, digital represents certainty, as long as there is no mishap with the storage media. Furthermore, the cost of digital shooting and its post processing is much cheaper in terms of materials, processing space and labour. Commercial photographers typically shoot many times as many photos as the keenest enthusiasts and they are in it for the money, so film just doesn’t make sense.
However, for enthusiasts, there is more to photography than image quality and the bottom line. After a few years of shooting digital, I became thoroughly disillusioned. For one thing, it was too easy. This made me lazy and sloppy. I needed to slow down and get back to fundamentals and I did that with a 1950’s meter-less rangefinder that my wife bought me. I rediscovered my passion. I went looking for interesting light and I relearned my basic skills.
When I first started using film, I was a kid and on a tight budget. This time around, I could afford better gear and I discovered the difference that quality equipment could make. I began collecting and took great pride and joy from acquiring cameras that were once the tools of top pros, or the pampered playthings of rich men. Many users had chosen to dump their film cameras for digital and prices had come tumbling down, especially professional cameras and mass-market consumer cameras. Only aficionado cameras like the Leica M-mount rangefinders held most of their value. My story is not unique. Many others went, or are going through, the same process of becoming reacquainted with film and prices of the best regarded cameras and lenses are now appreciating. I expect that they will continue to appreciate, and if they do, owning them may represent an investment in the long-run.
By collecting and using my collection, I came to discover that some of the less expensive camera equipment also has its merits. For example, 1950s and 1960s cameras have a nostalgic charm, in appearance, operation, but offer instinctive operation and can produce images of outstanding quality and presence. 1970’s fixed-lens rangefinders are far cheaper than a Leica M and its lens, but give much of the same experience and can be extremely effective cameras for street photography. 1970s and early 1980s manual focus SLRs produce creative, deliberate and quick photographs with medium-wide and short teles. One can still buy a bag full extraordinarily fast and sharp glass for the price of one pro-level modern AF lens. Late 1980s and early 1990s luxury prime-lens compacts packed outstandingly sharp lenses into convenient, pocketable and gorgeously made cameras. These were the equivalent of the large-sensor super-compacts of today; fast wide lenses on a 36mmx24mm sensor with automation or manual control.
As a gear-head and keen collector, I’ve managed to grab examples of the best known and most capable film cameras over the years. I love the simplicity, the innovation and the pureness of purpose of these cameras and lenses. They give me more enduring joy than the latest digital gadgets. Now that there are many more film photographers and film camera collectors than there were just a couple of years ago, the very best of each genre have become highly sought after. However, there are always bargains to be had for the lucky and the smart shoppers amongst us. Second tier gear, plus successful cameras made in the millions for the mass market, are so cheap that often shipping would cost more than the camera. Some of these basic or older cameras can make similar quality pictures to the more modern and the legends, because cheaper lenses may be just a stop slower and of course they all use the same film emulsions. The same cannot be said for old digital cameras, some of which don’t even depreciate as fast as their capability relative to the latest models. The Epson RD-1 is a case in point. It was the first digital body in Leica M-mount, but is severely lacking by today’s standards. Yet it still commands a stellar price in the second hand market. Generally though, while digital bodies depreciate quickly compared to their lenses, I find recent models offer better value for money than older ones.
Looking to the future
With digital rapidly pushing film aside, many camera manufacturers have stopped making new film cameras and will no longer service those that remain. Thankfully, there is no shortage of used hand film cameras to buy and specialist repair shops will repair the simpler and better loved cameras for years to come, particularly those with without sophisticated but failure-prone circuit boards or selenium meters, most of which have failed by now and are pain to replace.
Probably the biggest concern for me is that so many of the greatest films have been discontinued or are under threat of being cut. The economical manufacture of film requires great scale and there isn’t currently the demand to justify diverse product lines. Slide film, with its beautiful colours, has been the worst affected. I don’t expect negative film to entirely die out. There are enough of the faithful still left to keep the film aloft. As film’s enthusiast-led renaissance takes off, we may yet see new films launched and old classics restored, even if film sales never reach the soaring heights of the 1980s and 1990s.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the selection large format film emulsions grows. Large format is far from redundant. It will be a long time before digital cameras can produce images that surpasses large format film. Landscape imagery and fine art portraiture are applications that truly showcase film’s strengths.
What this means for me
Owing to my preference for the look of film, its honesty and its process, film is my default choice in all situations where I can use it to best effect. However, when the sun goes down, when I do commercial work, or when I need to tinker with the look in camera, I reach for a digital camera to capture my images.
When I use film, I prefer to print, rather than view my images on a monitor. It doesn’t require monitor and printer calibration. The blacks are black, the colours (from a good lab) are more consistent and I can mount and display my work. If possible, I’ll opt for a full-optical process, enlarging from my negatives directly onto paper. I’ll print as large as the paper and equipment will allow. Often this means 12″x18″, which is well suited to most 35mm films up to 400 ASA. Medium and large format film is capable of so much more. Even half frame and the much maligned APS film can print well, but you need to shoot for large body contrast as opposed to micro-contrast, pick less busy backgrounds and be prepared for grain to be much more of a feature. You can make an artistic statement with sub-miniature formats in this way.
Just as knowing the strengths and weaknesses and look of different emulsions and film formats is important, we cannot rule out either film or digital. Neither one is the best choice in all circumstances. It’s like an artist comparing watercolour and oils. You get the feel for the medium, what it can do and how to make best use of it. Some artists have a strong affinity for one or the other and specialise. I have even seen a reproduction of the Mona Lisa done in a mosaic of toasted sliced bread. Anything can be done with vision and skill. The medium is less important than the statement. At the same time, the medium isn’t to be ignored. Film’s grain lends a subtle texture and plays tricks on the viewer. Detail is imagined where there is none. Sharpness may be perceived beyond the actual acuity of the captured image. Combined with each emulsion’s peculiar colour rendering, films have a look that is deeply ingrained in our culture. This look speaks to us. It may say “photojournalist”, “street shooter, “fine art”, “Vietnam-era war photographer”, “National Geographic”, or something else, depending on what film and apparatus was associated with that look.
For many, film also has an honesty to it that digital does not convey. Photo-manipulation was rarer before Photoshop and grainy film remains a little more difficult to do large scale modification on than digital. As a result I feel people trust it more, at least on a subconscious level.
Recently, I have been playing around with film presets in Lightroom and Photoshop. The idea is to unify the look of my digital and film images. Essentially, this is comprised of a camera profile to standardise the way each digital camera renders its image, then a set of adjustments create the look of a particular film. Software like VSCO and Silver EFEX has gotten pretty good, but for some reason it doesn’t quite ring my bell. I bet you could show me two photos on my monitor and I couldn’t be 100% certain which film and is which is digital, but as the author, something doesn’t sit right with me. It doesn’t bring the same kind of joy and sense of achievement. Maybe what it lacks is not the result, but the process. Everything about film, from loading the camera, through the composition, execution, the anticipation, to the development and print, is a joy to me. It feels as if it has all lead up to this result. It feels like a craft. With digital, all I do is point, click, and ‘hey presto!” there is an instant 2 second camera preview. Even Polaroids gracefully tease as they reveal themselves like a slow striptease. Slides are a special joy, especially large slides and black and white slides. They elicit a gasp of marvel when you first see them on the light table.
It’s even better when your friends and respected peers are with you at the time of the grand reveal. Here in Hong Kong there is a regular crowd that gathers in the best artisan labs near closing time. It draws the most talented and enthusiastic photographers together and we all playfully critique each other’s prints and slides. I just don’t see this at digital labs. Nothing short of a successful exhibition opening matches the feeling of a good reception from respected peers.
A good digital photo shown on a professional monitor is good, but printing big is better. When it comes to prints, it doesn’t get any better than a large format contact print, or optical enlargement of 35mm and medium format film. A high resolution scanned digital print, or a digital photo doesn’t come close. Not everyone has a darkroom or an optical lab in town and not everyone can afford big print output, but I would rather save money on equipment, or eat a cheap lunch and have the well rendered fruits of my labour in my hand. We spend so much on a lens or camera body, so why penny pinch on film, development and printing? I am often told by non-film people that film is a waste of money, but give me a limited budget and I’ll buy a film camera, a several rolls of film and have epic prints to show off all for less than the price of a lens hood for a camera like the RX1. Sometimes I go out, shoot just two shots on a roll of film and have two great prints to show for it. That sure beats 32 gigabytes of drivel from wandering snap happy through the streets with a digital camera.
If I plan to make a long afternoon of it, I will go out with a film camera and high-end digital compact, or a matching digital back if I am using an SLR. Towards the end of the sunset, when I’d otherwise be debating how high I can push my film, out comes the digital. I feel modern sensors outperform most films above about 400 ISO/ASA, although pushed film has its place if that’s the look you want. High resolution digital also crops better without revealing extra grain, something I make use of if all I have is one prime lens.
I also prefer digital capture if I am dealing with tricky lighting. Today’s best sensors compare with the best films in terms of dynamic range, especially if you shoot in RAW, which I recommend. Not only can I adjust my settings and re-shoot to get the primary subject, highlights or shadows right in camera with the help of an instant preview and histogram, but I can tweak white balance and exposure at my leisure at home.
Likewise, I use digital when shooting with off-camera flash or studio lighting. I have the training and experience to use a light meter and dial in the perfect light balance, but it’s so much easier to cheat with digital. I iterate between successive shots reviewed in camera or on a monitor, until it’s spot on.
With all this in mind, why would anyone want to devote themselves exclusively to film or digital? It’s not marriage; play the field.
What this means for newcomers
I believe digital is a great teacher. When I learned photography as a lad there were no commercial digital cameras, but my parents had the wisdom to purchase a Polaroid as my first camera. The quick feedback that the instant photos gave was invaluable in teaching me the fundamentals. I later learned on a manual 35mm film SLR and processed in my school’s darkroom. Through that experience I mastered exposure, perspective, depth of field and other skills.
It’s a different game these days; the playing field has changed. Fully automated digital cameras and post-processing allow people to shoot with abandon, their cameras soaking up thousands of images that are then discarded or refined and distilled with little skill required to achieve weak, but instant gratification like some automated vending machine dispensing cheap beer. It doesn’t have to be this way. Even entry level digital cameras still retain manual controls should they be required and the instant feedback and low cost of experimentation associated with digital photography makes them ideal learning tools. I would recommend a digital camera used with manual control to anyone seeking to progress to intermediate grade photography, even over a film camera.
I see film as an advanced level of photography, an artistic medium and a passion. When newcomers take this step up, they can add a film body to a DSLR system. Few film bodies will cost more than three or four hundred dollars. If they previously had only a digital compact, they can add a film compact. Alternatively, they might build an entirely new system; It needn’t cost the earth.
Whatever one does, it is best to buy wisely with fore-planning to avoid wasting money. Buy the best you can find and afford and as it’s likely to be a vintage or used camera, check it out properly. An inspection by an experienced friend or professional camera buyer like Bellamy can make all the difference.
Thanks to Dan for sharing his thoughts on this matter. There is a lot of debate about which is better, but that is no longer the issue, it is merely a matter of personal choice. I really appreciate hearing Dan’s thoughts on this.
As always, your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated.
You can follow Dan on his social networks. He always has something interesting to say about photography and cameras.