For serious photographers – the kind that buy cameras to take pictures with, not for bragging rights or spec sheet counts – creative choice is good. And perhaps the largest and most divisionary of all of the creative choices available to a photographer has been whether to go film, digital, or a combination of both. Don’t expect to get a concrete answer one way or the other after this article; rather, I’m going to explore the less obvious rationale and strengths for both options.
Let’s make one thing clear upfront: neither one is perfect, and I’m not an evangelist for film or digital. I just use whatever I think will make the strongest image, within reason – carrying the kitchen sink everywhere is obviously not practical unless you happen to be a Sherpa village headman, nor is using film for work where you need precise color reproduction and instant approval by a client a good idea either. I’ve got experience with both media, though if I had to pick a side, it’d be digital. (I’m one of those young upstarts who got their first chomp at the bit when DSLRs crashed below the $1000 price point, only revisiting film later out of curiosity, a desire to learn more about this whole ‘natural looking’ concept, and to improve my discipline.)
I now shoot film when:
- The mood strikes me, and I don’t feel like culling raw files
- I want to photograph in a slower and more contemplative way – knowing each click costs a decent amount of money is a great way of achieving this
- The subjects I’m likely to encounter will benefit from the pictorial qualities of film – specifically, things with huge dynamic range and/or will look better in black and white – no digital camera can match the latitude of a good B&W negative yet
- I’m probably going to be shooting in black and white most of the time
- Logistically, I can carry and use the Hasselblad gear (smaller film formats are nice, but bigger really is better – unlike digital, there aren’t huge generation gaps between different format sizes since they all use the same emulsion stock anyway)
- I’m being masochistic and want to see how difficult things used to be, and if my skills are good enough (this set is a great example)
- The client really, really wants me to
I shoot digital when:
- I’m in a hurry
- I need perfect control, predictability and repeatability
- I can’t take the risk that I don’t get the shot
- Color, and color accuracy matter
- I’m travelling and need to go small and light
- There are flashes or external lights involved
I think it’s pretty clear that a divide is emerging: digital is for now, for work, and for output; film is for things that aren’t time critical, things that are for me, and most importantly, images where both the final output image and the experience of making the image matter. Film is suited to creative experimentation, where that slight degree of unpredictability might result in something better than full control. Shooting film is my me-time. I can compromise on certain things like color and speed, but I compensate for that by going full out on the creative portion.
The irony is that I find film to be a very binary medium – a digital concept, I know, but bear with me – the best film images are either fast and loose, like Moriyama or Araki’s street photography, or slow, contemplative and require a huge amount of effort – like Salgado’s early work, or Ansel Adams’ landscapes. The stuff in the middle is in no-man’s land. I tend to drift towards the Salgado/ Adams quantity of work, but I think that suits my typical film subjects well: slow, contemplative, carefully (or patiently) lit, and then matched with commensurately painstaking development.
Amsterdam Arch, mono – Hasselblad 501C, 2.8/80 on Fuji Acros. The two images were shot minutes apart. Which do you prefer? Why? I can’t say either are right or wrong, or that – personally – I even prefer one over the other.
If you’re suggesting that I think film is for the large format plus tripod people, or the hipsters – then you’re not quite right. I simply don’t think it makes sense for the casual amateur photographer because it really requires quite a bit of dedication and effort in order to get the results and same level of control that is easily available with a raw file and some judicious Photoshop work. Simply put: if you don’t use those skills regularly, you’re probably going to forget – especially things like developing recipes. Digital is not really any better, but if you forget what a button does, you can find out and change it immediately instead of when you’ve shot all of your rolls, have traveled halfway around the world to get home, and then take the first roll out of the tank. I admit, it has happened to me before. And that crushing sense of despair was accompanied by the thought ‘why didn’t I use the DSLR…’
Digital has one enormous advantage for the less experienced photographer: the learning curve and feedback time is cut dramatically down, so that it’s much easier to progress. I experienced that myself. But I suspect that a lot of people get technically very competent and reasonably able, but then hit a brick wall when it comes to creativity, composition and taking the next step up. It’s because the sheer number of parameters with digital encourages you to concentrate on the process rather than the end result; you lose sight of the trees, so to speak.
Perhaps one of the reasons I’m seeing a lot of photographers increasingly revisiting and reconsidering film – at least for personal work – is both because there’s such a wide variety of interesting gear available at very good prices these days, and because the workflow process can be made as loose and simple as you want (or, as complex as you want) without seriously compromising pictorial value of the output. Film photos are still fun, even if they’re a bit messed up – part of this is down to the nonlinear/ macro-irregular recording medium, and I suspect part of it is because no matter how good you are, you’re never quite a hundred percent sure that you nailed it until you’ve seen the developed negatives.
Beyond that, there’s also the consideration that we’ve yet to see a digital camera – other than perhaps the M8 and M9s – that do not have a whole bunch of unnecessary gadgetry on them; sadly those cameras were both limited system-wise and not the most reliable. If I pick up my videographer’s E-M1 and try to take a still, I can’t. The reverse is true, too. But I can pick up anybody’s Hasselblad V, and providing I know what film it’s loaded with, shoot it like it’s my own with no compromises. If you’re going to shoot infrequently, it means that you’re not going to forget what you set each button to do.
I’m fairly certain that a hybrid approach to photography gives the best of both worlds: the learning curve, shot discipline and technical control/ attention to detail of digital, and the forced creative process and slight uncertainty of film: the ultimate upshot is that you want to think before you hit the shutter, and then when you do, have the technical chops to ensure that all of your ducks are in a row and aligned precisely the way you intend them to be. The nice thing is that if you have access to a decent lab, there’s not much of a tradeoff these days in shooting both – you could just add a film body to your DSLR system, or find a complete used Hasselblad for the price of a midrange DSLR or less (and it won’t depreciate). And even if you don’t, black and white developing in tanks is simple and inexpensive, as we’ve seen.
I find the only real challenge is deciding when to use what: I like the way film looks enough to want to use it on jobs, but unfortunately, I need the predictability and instant-approval-by-client of digital. And then when I’m shooting for myself, I want it all, just in case. Perhaps that’s why I like the old Hasselblad V series cameras so much: they’re simple, robust, rugged, have great finders, and bringing along an additional back lets me have the best of both worlds…
2014 Making Outstanding Images Workshops: Melbourne, Sydney and London – click here for more information and to book!
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved