Opinion: The film vs digital debate, settled, once and for all
|Photographers have always been prone to debate.|
Ever since I got back into photography as a hobby, I’ve been genuinely surprised at the frequency and ferocity of film-versus-digital debates. I’m not sure why they get so heated, or why they even happen at all. I’d like to blame the polarization that afflicts our society – us-vs-them, all-or-nothing (and if that’s the case, maybe Perry Farrell is right and it’s time to bring in the Martians) – but I’ve been around enough to know that photographers have always been prone to debate, be it T-Max vs. Tri-X, color vs. monochrome, or Nikkor vs. Rokkor.
So, as someone who shoots both mediums, with a slight preference for film, I’d like to settle this debate once and for all. Digital is better.
I mean, of course digital is better. Digital is the logical progression of everything the photography industry has been working towards since Nicéphore Niépce discovered light-sensitive asphalt. From wet plates to roll film to Kodachrome to Instamatics to Ektar to the megapixel sensor, the goal of the industry has always been to narrow the gap between a photographer’s skill level and the quality and speed of the results they can achieve. To that end, digital is one of the industry’s greatest triumphs, even if it did prove fatal (or at least injurious) to industry giants like Kodak and Polaroid.
The goal of the industry has always been to narrow the gap between a photographer’s skill level and the quality and speed of the results achieved
Today, a snapshooter can whip out their phone and get an image that pops like slide film, without manipulating controls, and share it in an instant. Likewise, long gone are the days when professional photographers had to worry about a photo lab screw-up costing them a job. And we hobbyists and artists can produce images that, from a technical standpoint, rival those from master film photographers of decades past. And we can process those images in minutes, not days. And with the lights on.
So yes, I’d say that digital is better.
But I’d also say that just because something is better, that doesn’t mean it’s more enjoyable. Air conditioning is better, but I still like to open the windows. Automatic transmissions are better, but I still prefer a clutch pedal. Air travel is better, but I still like to drive or take the train.
Digital may be better, but I still like to shoot with film. A lot of people – an ever-increasing number, I am pleased to say – do as well.
I have several film cameras. Each has its own personality, and the differences between them are what makes them so enjoyable
Some people like the look of film. I can dig that, although it strikes me a bit funny, because back in the 1990s the look of film is exactly what I was trying to avoid. I shot T-Max, Ektar and Velvia in hot pursuit of invisible grain and true-to-life colors, not knowing that in a few years’ time digital would give me that – and with the benefits of instant photography as a bonus. Now that I’m back to film, I find that I prefer traditional-grain, black-and-white films and the muted colors of old C-41 emulsions.
Personally, I really enjoy the feel of film photography. I love the sensations of my old film cameras, the process of focusing a scene on ground glass, the sound of the mirror and shutter, the little vibrations I can feel (or, in the case of my Nikons, can’t feel) through the film-advance lever. I have several film cameras, some fully manual, some fully automated, and many in between. Each has its own personality, and the differences between them are what makes them so enjoyable.
I love the process of developing film – the smooth shhhhk-shhhhk-shhhhhk as I wind the film onto the reel, fussing with development charts, smelling the fixer (which can’t possibly be good for me). I love imagining the processes I have set in motion, molecules of silver salt reducing to metallic silver until I command them them stop. I always feel that same little anticipation when I pop the cover off the tank, unroll a bit of film and see if the process worked. It always does, but it’s still a thrill, and has been since the very first roll I developed.
I love the uncertainty of film, knowing that the picture I set out to get might not be the picture I got, but it might be even better. And nothing can top the raw thrill of realizing that quick 'grab' shot turned out to be the best of the roll.
Air conditioning is better, but I still like to open the windows. Automatic transmissions are better, but I still prefer a clutch pedal. Air travel is better, but I still like to drive or take the train
But I also enjoy digital photography, and for entirely different reasons. Digital gives me a completely different connection to the process – the ability to see something, compose an image in my head, capture it and get instant feedback. My mirrorless camera provides a welcome short-circuit between what I see and what I want to be seen. I have a Sony α6000, not the newest or most impressive rig, but the first digital camera with which I’ve really bonded just as I bonded with my 35mm Pentax so many years ago. I’ve taken some of my favorite images with that wonderful little camera.
I’ve never been much for photo editing, just as I was never much for fine-tuning my prints in the darkroom, but I imagine that many digital photographers find the same thrill in processing their images that I find in processing my film. I am amazed at the way a skilled editor can literally reach into their images and manipulate the very stuff they are made of. Just like images appearing on film, digital processing is, to me, its own kind of magic.
My point, if I have one, is that I’d love to see bickering replaced with understanding, appreciation and – dare I ask it? – respect. At the end of the day, we are all photographers. What matters is not how we do it, but that we do it.
Digital gives me a completely different connection to the process – the ability to see something, compose an image in my head, capture it and get instant feedback
And let’s not forget that digital, like film, is only a step on the path. Years from now, I bet today’s digital devotees will find themselves arguing with photographers who can’t understand why anyone would bother when hyponeural stereo-proton imaging is so obviously superior. ('Seriously, what kind of dinosaur hauls around a camera?')
What amazes me about the differences in technology and method is not how they divide us, but how they unite us. We are all image makers, and the basics of focusing light on a sensitive surface have not changed since the days of the camera obscura. So I say we stop fretting about which is better, or whether better even matters. Our time would be better spent enjoying and appreciating and supporting each other. Doing so has the potential to make us all better photographers. And who knows – it might even be the balm that heals.
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