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.
He was also on ‘In your bag’
I fully agree.
With digital being so accessible it was my first tutor and allowed me to mess around. After grasping the basics (and thanks to working at a lab at the time) I was able to shoot film for a full year exclusively. Now, I shoot both and enjoy both.
Photography is photography, it doesn’t matter what you use.
Great article, cannot agree more with Dan.
It is also for the next generation- think, design before shooting to create a masterpiece
Great piece, Dan!
Nicely done Dan.
Great article! I’ve been shooting film again for a few years and now embarking on developing.
It’s a wonderful experience to slow down, think from the minute you plan your shoot and of course no need to fake a look, if you want Portra, simply buy some..
Well written, thank you for taking the time and sharing it with us.
Loved reading this article, agree whole hartedly with shooting with both formats. I am only young and was brought up shooting digital and have only recently started shooting film when I was given my grandfathers 35mm Asahi Pentax SV. I think shooting on film gives a very different perspective of photography which has given me a new found appreciation for photography.
Mañuel over Otto any day of the week!
A great article for haters like Scott Bourne to learn from.
I read Scott’s article “stop Romanticizing about the good old days of film – they weren’t that great” and also Chris Gampat’s “How film photography sometimes breaks my heart” and while we all reach different conclusions, we all agree that it’s the image that counts, not the process. How we get there is very much a matter of personal preference.
its not important what you use to shoot only that you shoot, if you have no eye then no camera in the world will help
Great article, thank you very much.
I rediscovered film a year ago and I really love to work with it for the different look, the challenges and the way it teaches me basics of photography. Not to mention the fun of developing your own film :)
For me honestly, one could be more honest and makes particular thinking before every single shutter pressing in shooting film. Though myself just got into film recently but really started to fall for it deeper. It’s the passion and being patience in waiting your rolls being developed (either you does it on your own or a lab) that makes you more appreciative.
I shoot both film and digital. Definitely we could say and see pros and cons in either way of shootings. Better leave it that way. But sometimes we really need to take a peek on how people before us could take great photos which still being ‘saluted’ by those modernized go-ers. And my opinion is, just give it a try before one can decide or simply say ‘bad’ reputation to our beloved ‘FILM’.
Buy FILM not MEGAPIXELS
A nice article. But I have two comments. Do people really find film photos more trustworthy? The recent upsurge in insta-style filters and software specifically made to simulate film effects of digital files has made it difficult to sometimes know what is film and what is digital. The line between has become blurred. Well actually it’s not a line it’s a soft dreamy til-shift style blur all around the edge. Horrible. True it’s amazing to see a photo taken on film with stunning effects and clarity that has been captured OOC. You see things that digital sensors aren’t capable of. The forgiving nature of film emulsions is part of this. But ultimately it’s not always possible to know if the picture you see is honest or not. It could be film, it could be digital. Ultimately if the subject resonates with you then largely it really doesn’t matter.
The other comment about 32GB of drivel and being snap happy in the streets. I’m sometimes staggered by the hundreds of snapshots uploaded to Flickr etc. little or no effort to think about composition. It really is just point, shoot, upload. There’s nothing wrong with this. Do what you like and what makes you feel good. But personally having started with film, grown with digital, had a renaissance with film recently then going back soley to digital I’ve found that I’m even more particular with my digital shooting than I was with film. I treat my M9 like a film camera. I think hard about the shot before I even raise it to my eye. Some times I’ll not take the photo. I might only take 10-15 photos in a whole day. With film I was snapping away merrily as I know film had greater tolerances to over/under exposure. With the M9 I have to work harder to not blow highlights or destroy shadows. I’m more careful with digital than with film. This flies in the face of most opinion these days. I like flying in the face of opinion ;-)
That’s the way to go about shooting digital – deliberately. I find that shooting film often brings back good old habits, such as shooting less with more planning. It does my digital images a lot of good. This is another example of film and digital synergy.
As for film’s superior highlight and shadow capture ability, film still held the edge when the 5D Mk II came out. I often bemoan the loss of highlights with digital. I’ve become better at balancing high contrast situations with flash, shooting for highlights and manipulating RAW files. As for film, it can be hard to get the most out of single-pass scans. I am moving to a multi-pass scanning software, but I think scanners don’t touch skillful darkroom work. However, what I love about film is the grain can give the impression of detail where actual detail is absent. This is one reason why it’s worth reprocessing certain digital shots with a film filter. Opinions will surely vary on this observation.
Thanks for a great article, I agree, one of the most insightful articles on the film vs. digital topic. Photography is an art, cameras, lights and all the other components are tools to create our vision. Saying one medium is better over the next or that one is dying means an art form is dying. Put your energy in creating imagery and not negativity and let everyone express their vision through whatever medium is best suited to accomplish it!
Great post. But is shooting film really that much a process changer? If I shoot film or digital I tend to run through rolls and cards just as fast. SF alone I shot 14 rolls of 120mm with the mamiya 7(my favorite camera of all time) and still shot roughly 300-photos with the x100 within the same 2 days. I agree when I started shooting film again I was a little more cautious with wasting frames but now because I have gotten to know my film camera(s) I end up shooting just as much. What drives me film wise is B&W films. Color film I just have no want to shoot as much, i’d rather pull out my Dslr or digi compact instead of shooting color film, processing it and scanning it to a dvd(correctly) and spending 10-15 per roll. B&W digitally I feel will never although compare to B&W film. Maybe its just me.
As someone who loves shooting in film, I can relate to this article quite a bit. I am trying to transition into making photography a full-time job, and know that realistically, unless for an artistic/stylized shoot, my jobs will be in digital. This is challenging in that I will have to merge my styles – while I believe composition and subject matter is mostly what makes a photographer’s signature style, the medium is important too. Thanks for writing this!
I shot digital for three years before my digital body died while on vacation. With no film experience, I scoured Craigslist and decided to replace it with a Nikon FM2 and a nifty-fifty prime lens. For the past two years, I have used this combination almost exclusively. It has been the most amazing thing to happen to my photography. Instead of haphazardly creating snapshots, I look through the bright viewfinder and think about every aspect of the shot before I take it. I even began developing and scanning myself. Maybe it’s the dynamic range or the grain, but there is something intangible about my film images that I fall in love with. I just want to look at them over and over. With digital, I don’t get that feeling. I really, really want to go back to shooting digitally because film is expensive and a pain in the ass, but I haven’t found anything that equates to the process of shooting with a manual film camera and there may never be.
Has anyone else had a problem with going back to digital? Or perhaps you feel the same and have found a way to shoot both mediums side by side?
Very thought-provoking and well -considered discussion. After receiving my last set of prints from 35mm film, hiwever, I have become a little disillusioned with film. I see some great images captured by others on film (and much of what I like seems to be on medium format). But my shots are barely indistinguishable from what I capture on my DSLR or mirror-less cameras. I have been using a modern Nikon SLR, the F80, and an Olympus Trip, both with good reputations. What am I doing wrong?
Dan makes some very good points about the strengths of digital for experimenting with light and composition and I often find my rather haphazard shooting style gives me a lot of boring or unworkable film prints.
Having said that I still have an irrational desire to try medium format film, before completely abandoning film. I like those dreamy portraits, with smooth transitions between dark and light. But this is missing from my 35mm shots, which are perhaps too sharp. Perhaps that is a consequence of the scanning process, I am not sure.
Despite having no place to really develop film here, I just ordered a whole lot and am beyond excited! I learnt how to develop b&w film a few weeks ago-I am still high on the thrill of it! Totally agree that ‘It’s not marriage-play the field!’.
I shoot both digital and film. And this is form a photographer who cut his teeth on film back in the 1980s.
For commercial work such as events and property photography-work that has to be done “yesterday”-digital’s the medium for me. It’s quick turnaround lets my clients get their work ASAP. Also, digital is for family get-togethers where I can share on social media or e-mail. This is probably 10-20% of my work.
However, when I want to create my fine-art work, or my street photography, then film’s my choice. The dynamic range of film along with its versatility make it an ideal choice. I also shoot a lot with instant-Impossible and Fuji-when I work with film. Film’s good for me since I still have places that develop film nearby (I’m also 30 minutes from the primo labs in Manhattan). I can have my CDs with hi-res scans and my negatives for (hopefully) self printing. This is 80-90% of my work.
Each medium has its place in my work; although film is the majority of my work.
Great article. I’m wondering if Dan or anybody else has a recommendation for a good lab in Hong Kong that does 35mm and 120 color negative and B&W processing?
My favourite lab is Dot-Well. Sunrise pro Photofinishing is a good alternate.
Digital better dynamic range? Do you home work technographers. Let me see. Simple rollei 35b camera with rollei 80 retro, shot against the sun, then try to mimic result with digital with no filter and no post-processing. Wish you luck. Let me see :Digital medium , what a joke. Max resolution 80mpx, with real negative simple scan gives me 100mpx. But what bothers me a lot is the fact that nobody thinks what makes your digital illusions so real, two things software and hype. Software wise until we have quantum calculations inside digital cameras there are always be loss of data, at the moment when you shot manually remember there are truncation and rounding in demosaicing between you and the light that your crappy cmos sensor gets. Shooting film is the only option, it makes you better photographer, it gives you dynamic range of reality, it makes interpretation by grain that you can use to represent emotions, and option to share in real medium. In 2040 i will scan my negatives for digital sharing at 10000 mpx at home. Your digital files will be obsolete because of fixed size of your sensor. Quit your digital illusions, sell your digital gear and buy film cameras. Film is back, just look at prices for quality film gear. They are up by the minute.
Great thought provoking article, it never occurred to me that a digital camera could be as suitable as a manual film camera for student photographers, I guess the ideal solution would be a digital camera with screen, equipped with manual control dials and manual lens. Now that would make learning easier. For those that have not had great success with film, may I suggest you investigate measures like altering your camera’s ISO reading for your specific film. I set my camera to 100 when I use my favourite 400 speed film but I know there are other films that also benefit at settings different to their rated speed.
This is a wonderful article. I tend to go through phases of using film or digital. Don’t usually use them both during the same phase. One problem with film for me is that I like shooting in color, and the price for film and processing makes everything much more expensive than digital. Also, I have no way to print color other than using the scanner and computer.
Congrats on the article. One of the best I have read on the subject
I grew up shooting film and I still find pleasure shooting with it. I prefer the slow and complicated process. I must admit, I have a deep connection with its unpredictability. I’m grateful that there are still people supporting film photography.
Enjoyed reading. Thank you.
I really enjoyed this article.
I am 16 years old and therefore I don’t have an income of my own that would be able to fund the film process sustainably. I do however love the look of film and when I do get an income, I will make the transition.
Now however, I treat my (entry-level) dslr like a film camera as much as possible; I shoot in manual, I have turned off the post-shot preview, I choose before I head out to shoot whether I will be doing BW or colour, I think before I shoot, limit the number of shots to 2-3 rolls worth per week-end of shooting ( I have school on weekdays), I zone focus and I avoid looking at the results of the shoot until a week later.
I then import into Lightroom after a few days and add a the TRI-X or Kodak Gold preset from VSCO Film 00 on all the images in the batch (depending on what I have chosen before heading out to shoot – almost like choosing a roll). I also make sure that I choose which one to apply on import before actually importing to simulate getting scans back. i.e. all images from a shoot get the same preset.
Then there isn’t much to it after that. Just like I would with film, there isn’t much manipulation I will do to the image.
I also regularly go to the local camera store and I print my favourite photographs out in various sizes.
As I said, really good article.
Excellent article, Dan. I could not find anything in it to nitpick. Believe me, I tried.