Film vs Digital – Don’t Be Too Quick to Jump Ship

As a photographer, people are often surprised to see me shooting film. ‘I thought all you guys shot digital now’, is a statement I regularly hear. I have also been called a ‘rare breed’ because of the same misconception. Truth is, while digital is a great option for many applications, it’s certainly not the be all to end all and many photographers see no reason to change.For a lot of commercial work, I do shoot digital. But for most of my work, especially where longevity of the image or quality is concerned, I stay with film.I recently spent a month in Uganda, Kenya and Cambodia on a photojournalism assignment. There was no way I was going to risk shooting digitally. I packed my two trusty Nikons, 45 rolls of film (25 black and white, 20 colour) and jumped on a plane – one of many as it turned out.The reason was simple: the only cameras that have stopped working on me were digital, the only lenses that have ever seized up on me were auto focus (more on this later) and in 17 years as a photographer, I’ve never lost a roll of film or had a lab mess one up. I have, however, lost all my images when a compact flash card went bad and have also had problems transferring images from my camera to a computer. The risk, as far as I was concerned, was too great and I stuck with film.The rise and rise of digital is based primarily on one factor – convenience. Contrary to popular belief, digital images are not higher quality than those taken on film. The misconception seems to be that because it’s digital, it must be better.Not so. The information held in a negative or transparency far outweighs that of a digital image. The tonal variation is also greater on film, beautifully evident when using medium and large format. The thing is, all that information and beautiful tone and texture, often isn’t needed; on a screen or in newsprint for instance. In these cases, the convenience of digital outweighs the quality of film and that’s fair enough.This is all well and good up to a point, and that point is reproduction. Having photographed for magazines for many years, there is one thing I have definitely noticed: magazines don’t look as good any more. Why? Digital images.
The top magazines still look great but they make much greater use of medium and even large format film. It’s the run of the mill consumer style magazines that are suffering.Compared to film, digital has less workable range than film, meaning that instead of a nice smooth transition from dark to light tones and across the colour palate, the highlights burn out and the colours get ‘blocked’. This is especially evident with reds that often appear overly saturated while other colours aren’t, resulting in an unnatural looking image.Because of less tonality, the images, when reproduced, flatten out. There is a distinct lack of depth to the images that just don’t grab a reader’s attention any more. So much used to be made of the psychology of colour and the importance of well-defined images that a reader would respond to. This all seems to have fallen by the wayside.Most editors I’ve spoken to agree: they all prefer film, think their magazines don’t look as good as they used to and would much rather work with film but digital is more convenient and many photographers in that market use digital.With that in mind, I choose film for as many jobs as I can as I believe it increases my chances of a cover, a full page or the use of as many images as possible. When freelancing, you usually get paid by the word and by the picture. You also get a lot less for a picture taking up 1/8 page than you do for a 1/2 page for example. I’m looking at the bigger picture – literally.If an editor is happy to accept film then I will shoot and submit film. And not just 35mm but 6×7 medium format wherever I can. An editor or art director will be very happy to see some medium format trannies as they know they can easily go full page, even with extensive cropping, and still retain amazing detail. Even 35mm will go full page A4 without any trouble.Obviously, the shots themselves have to be great and to help with that I also prefer manual focus, fixed focal length (prime) lenses. Prime lenses are sharper than zooms, are faster (have bigger apertures), are lighter and just plain simple to use.Interestingly, the evolution of lenses is like a macro example of where photography is at now: zooms came in and were more ‘convenient’ because one lens could cover the same focal lengths of two or three prime lenses. There was a loss in quality and speed but for general applications this wasn’t a problem. Zooms became the rage and it was forgotten that prime lenses were actually sharper. The same misconception existed: it’s older technology, therefore, not as good.I should point out that the film verses digital debate isn’t usually waged between professionals. Even though many have switched over or, like me, use digital for some jobs and film for others, most professionals will tell you that film is better. It all comes down to individual workflow and what the job requirements are.Where the problem lies is R&D. Most camera manufacturers don’t make their money from the pro market; rather the professional market is subsidised by the consumer market. In other words, for every pro camera sold a few hundred consumer models are sold.The days where very little difference existed between professional and consumer camera models are gone and manufacturers aren’t going to pour R&D money into a camera series that makes up a tiny percentage of their market. Better for them to make professional digital as good as it can be and take advantage of the flow down effect.Film is still the choice of many professionals especially in the studio, for architecture (where adjustable view cameras are needed), portraiture, fashion, weddings, advertising, photojournalism and art.Don’t forget, film can always be scanned, combining the beauty of film and the convenience of digital. It’s not always a cheap option, especially when drum scanning transparencies, but more and more options are becoming available.One option is having the whole roll processed and burned straight to disk. This seems to work best with negative film and my experience with it has been fantastic, especially when a professional neg film is used and a professional lab is handling it. The price is comparable to what getting a roll of film processed costs.The good news is that by sticking with film, you can stand out from the crowd. With so many low-resolution and overly colour corrected images making their way to editors these days, a nice crisp, beautifully exposed roll of film might just give you the edge – and the cover.

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