Film diaries: thoughts on the psychology of shooting film vs digital

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Would I do anything different in digital? Probably not, other than be frustrated at my inability to obtain this tonality.

Here’s an interesting question: why is one’s yield (or keeper) rate so much higher with film than digital? Let’s take the stats from my excursion to Europe, and keeping in mind I apply the same quality thresholds to both film and digital:

Ricoh GR, single shot: 137/1795, for a 7.6% yield.
Olympus OM-D, mostly single shot, some burst: 54/2370, for a 2.4% yield.
Hasselblad with B&W film (Fuji Acros 100): 76/168 (14 rolls), for a 45% yield.
Hasselblad with slide film (Fuji Provia 100F): 28/60 (5 rolls), for a 47% yield.

Digital overall: 191/4165, for a 4.6% yield.
Film overall: 104/228, for a 46% yield.

That’s ten times higher. What gives?

The first thing that comes to most people’s minds is that we shoot more carefully with film because there is a real, tangible cost to each frame; consequently we also lower our standards in order increase the keeper rate – once again, because of the cost associated with junking a frame. I know it’s highly subjective, but I swear I apply the same standards to every capture, regardless of the medium used. Some media lend themselves to higher yield rates – for instance, if I break out the D800E and lights, I’m almost certainly going to have more keepers from a careful setup than loose run-and-gun with an iPhone. But these differences are thrown out the window when we shoot all cameras under the same conditions, which was the case here – I carried everything with me all the time during that trip, and shot negligibly at night (which, if done handheld, would see more shots but an even lower yield from the digitals). There was enough light during the times I was out for me to use slow film comfortably, handheld.

Maybe our brains see different subjects: possible, but I’d say overall unlikely. I had overlap between the Hasselblad and the zoom on the Olympus, and arguably the single prime I chose – 80mm, for 45mm equivalent on FF – is a lot easier to use than the 21mm converter I had permanently attached to the Ricoh GR. I shot my usual mix of urban reportage and still life involving moving subjects and static architectural detail with both.

There’s another possibility: one of scarcity. You only carry a fixed number of rolls with you every day – for me, five, or 60 shots – and you want to make those count, but beyond that, you’re afraid you’ll finish the last frame then come across something you wish you’d had another roll for. Or not, since you’re also carrying two digital cameras, too. In fact, the opposite was true. I had trouble finding things to shoot at times; there would be one last frame left and I’d want to change over to color or black and white; it often took hours to find that frame. I remember sending my students out on a shot discipline exercise in Prague – they could press the button just five times in one hour – and during that time, and the next exercise, I shot only one frame. Does the camera condition us to see a certain way? Maybe.

One commenter said “use a shotgun and you’re bound to hit something”, which implies I spray-and-pray; again, those who’ve seen me shoot will disagree with that. Those who’ve seen me edit will disagree even more strongly: I’ll spend a surprising amount of time picking between five to ten nearly identical files; any one would be ‘okay’, but I’m looking for the ‘outstanding’ one. I shoot when something changes, or when I want to try something; usually, the only differences are subtle shifts in composition or expressions of the subjects. This is not stochastic photography, it’s chasing the nth degree. And all of these subtleties do make a difference: perhaps I chase perfection with digital, because I can. Is it because we accept the imperfection and lack of control of film, and write off minor errors? I certainly don’t.

I suspect it may be a lot simpler: it’s because we have instant feedback. If you see something is wrong, and you have the chance for another try, any person who has any pride in their output whatsoever is going to take that chance. We don’t have this with film; we just have to hope for the best. But that doesn’t explain why you wouldn’t take another second shot as insurance, especially if you’re in a place you’re not going to visit again, or if you’re shooting an assignment, or if you’re working under constantly changing light conditions. But perhaps there’s a grain of something here: my negatives show zero repeat frames.

A pause, to do some math: if I’m trying 5-10 variants of each frame with digital, but only a single one for film, then we’d expect a hit rate 10x lower with digital; lo and behold, it is! So there’s the difference: it’s in chasing the last bit of perfection. But how can we be content with the imperfection and risk of shooting film? Or is it that very imperfection and uncertainty we’re chasing, which in itself becomes organic perfection? Put it this way: do we mourn the images we don’t shoot? I certainly do. There’s always an underlying anxiety that I’m missing something, or that I could get a substantially better frame if I waited a bit longer, but life goes on; there are no do overs. I admire the long-time film shooters who brought that inbuilt discipline over to digital, and don’t feel the need to shoot again; I went the other way and brought my bad habits with me.

Interestingly, if we look at the contact sheets of the film-era greats, we find that they weren’t single-shot people either: they took up to two rolls to ‘nail’ the image; after which they stopped. Partially because I think they were shooting insurance, in case the frame they wanted never materialized, and partially because they too were thinking and refining the idea as they went along.

There is no right or wrong approach to photography; I’m just wondering why I can’t seem to bring my film-shooting discipline to digital; ironic given that I started off digital and then brought those habits to film in the first place. There are definite workflow advantages for not having to cull so many images, however; more so if your ultimate photographic aim is one of continuous improvement. Unquestionably, digital offers more immediate feedback.

Curiously, I don’t feel as though my progress with silver halides has been slow, either; in less than 100 rolls – 1200 frames – I’ve familiarized myself with the not-so-intuitive Hasselblad; trained my eye to meter accurately enough for slide film; gotten my development process to the point which I’m happy with the output and have the level of control I want; the final output looks the way I envision at the time of shooting. And I know three films (Delta 100, Delta 400 and Acros 100) well enough to know when to use each, and for what kind of light. It takes me easily the same number of frames alone to familiarize myself with the behaviour of new digital camera – even with my experience in the system – the E-M1 review, for instance, required close to 3,000 frames.

Maybe it’s a complexity thing; there are actually more variables to deal with for digital, especially when it comes to individual camera behaviour. But surely that cannot outweigh the complexity and huge number of variables and possible outcomes when it comes to developing film? For instance, the grain of Delta 100 is very sensitive to agitation frequency and speed; edge-effects and halation are also affected, and different films respond differently to the time-temperature-developer concentration equation; Acros extends 3/4 tone detail by a good stop or more if you double development time and halve the concentration. And of course you have to shoot and develop a whole roll before you know this…and preferably more than one to rule out odd one-time effects.

I can only conclude by saying that for once, I’m really at a loss. But I’d like to hear what the readership thinks: do you shoot differently with film and digital? Do you have significantly different keeper rates, or acceptability thresholds? Why else do you think we might shoot differently across the different media? MT

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Comments

  1. Its funny, my experience is just the opposite – for full disclosure, I’m an obsessive amateur who shot film for ten years, then switched to digital very early – from shooting 35mm with a Leica, Nikon F4 and medium format with Rolleiflex and Mamiya TLRs to a tiny-sensor Canon G1, back in 2001. God awful lens and sensor output, you had to nurse it like mad to get anything even half decent, yet the sheer excitement of working with a new medium, plus the relief of being liberated from the faff of processing, cataloging and printing film carried me through. Never had so much fun with a camera, for all its faults.
    I still have my old film gear, gathering dust accusingly, so every few years I take it out for a spin… and get nothing. Nada. Using film is, for me, utterly inhibiting. It’s desperately difficult for me to shoot anything at all, and the keeper rate is through the floor – none out of the hundred or so frames I’ve managed to force out over the last decade. Different strokes for different folks!

  2. William H. Widen says:

    I shoot film primarily with a Leica M6 and a Leica M4-P. I also shoot digital recently, primarily with the Nikon D3300 (and a back up D3100 on which I got a great bargain) using fixed lenses for the most part. Lately I have been conducting the following experiment for fun. I take out one of the film Leica cameras and one of the Nikon cameras with the same fixed lens equivalent (50mm summicron and 35mm f/1.8 Nikon DX). I use the Nikon in full manual mode and never use an ISO setting over 1600 (the max that I push Tri-X) and generally not over ISO 1250 (the max I would use for Delta 3200). Then I shoot the same subjects generally and see what happens. I sometimes even manually focus the Nikon using the “rangefinder” function dot. Using this method, I find that I still generally shoot 2 to 4 times as many shots with the Nikon as with the film. Lately I have found that the order matters as I have been shooting the Nikon first and getting a read on the best ISO, etc. Indeed, this has increased the number of digital shots taken. If I am generally happy with my read from the digital, then I shoot the film. I think this may even reduce the number of film shots that I take of non-moving subjects. With moving subjects, I still tend to shoot multiple shots with film. I have a personal preference still for the way that film looks to me–but I have been very happy with the results from the relatively low cost Nikon products. And, I have found that using the digital camera in a similar fashion to how I use film is both a fun challenge and imparts a certain mindfulness to the use of the digital cameras that some folks seem to think is best achieved by shooting film.

  3. An odd thing happens with film, especially rangefinders, that may encourage me to see an image as a keeper. What I visualized before depressing the shutter release is never as good as the resulting image. When I look at my scans or negs I am frequently bowled over by how much better the result is compared to what I envisioned. Perhaps this happy surprise is the push needed to make for more film keepers. I don’t think this is the whole answer to the problem but it could be a factor.

    I like the slow, deliberate pace of shooting film and find the process wholly more satisfying. I find that I will work a day time scene looking for that perfect image, metering this and that, but my long exposure night photography is almost never bracketed or worked-over despite guessing all of my exposures.

    • Interesting – if there’s any difference, it’s the reverse for me – I find that my negatives require work to get to my final vision, but that’s pretty much as intended anyway: I know that there are some things you can do in camera, and others that simply have to be done in post (whether that’s darkroom or PS post-scan is a whole other discussion).

      • Clearly you have higher standards than I do. I work on my images in post, though the work itself is modest the effect is is substantial. For me, the delta between what I see in the viewfinder and the resulting image is huge. It is also a marvelous thing. Every developed roll feels like Christmas morning.

        The flow for my night photography is very deliberate seeing as I don’t want to waste minutes waiting for a poorly prepped shot to expose. I easily spend 20 minutes per exposure from evaluating light, walking the scene, setting-up, and exposing the frame. What I meant to say before is that I have more keepers from my night sets than when I am shooting during the day, even though it is trickier to shoot long exposures at night (especially on color reversal). I chock this up to being more deliberate with these long exposure shots.

  4. Interesting discussion. I’ve been shooting film my entire life and can’t seem to get away from it, in spite of all the digital cameras around here. My RZ67 Pro II and Hasseys are always with me on projects that actually mean something to me. I tend to spend more time thinking about composition, lighting, subject with film than I do with digital. My only problem with the article is the intense focus on perfection. There are no perfect images; there is no perfect life. There is only a journey, which all of us experience differently. Cameras are tools. It’s our relationship with them that brings life to the imagery.

    • Perfection in translation of your idea is not the same is absolute perfection. Settling for mediocrity will not improve your images – but hey, the increasingly poor diminishing returns and amount of work required in chasing perfection aren’t really for most people anyway.

      • There is no such thing as a perfect image my friend. The beauty is in the one’s ability to communicate an idea in a compelling way. You’re getting too wrapped up in minutia. I was a professional for 27 years. I know what I’m talking about. In 3 major museum collections, celebrity collectors galore, books and silver prints sold worldwide, over 300 national magazine covers, I could go on. Lighten up on yourself and enjoy the process. xo, J

        • A.Livelsberger says:

          I think the point Ming is trying to get at is that you are only as good as your last best picture. Thinking that you’ve gotten a prefect image leads to stagnation and lack of innovation. I agree that there is no such thing as any image being perfect, however, if you stop pursuing the perfect image, then you’ll never get any better, never push boundaries. Is the impossible dream that is always driving you forward, but is never attainable that keeps you motivated.

  5. I do tend to treat the DP# Merrill digital cameras more like film in that I am more selective – but still end up with inadvertent duplicates. There is a PITA factor in the DP#M workflow that just makes one dread having to run through a bunch of duds. And I am about to increase the PITA exponentially, in that I am learning how to use a view camera and hand develop sheet film – incidentally confronting the technical changes in FILM since I last shot film.

    • Actually, the technical changes have made sheet film easier to deal with – especially if you use a modern emulsion like Acros. PITA factor is higher, but so is the keeper rate…and your workflow doesn’t change dramatically from say MF film.

  6. I agree with Giovanni, it’s the disciplinary action we have when taking with film. My experience with film when using a camera without internal light meter has higher keeper rate than the one with internal light meter (M2 vs M7). To me, it’s the thought process and the mind of making a better shot with all manual photography.

    • I ins the presence of a meter makes you just accept the exposure as given – it doesn’t register as not making sense. Automated meters can be easily foiled…

  7. I wonder what would happen if someone, maybe Leica, went really retro, and took the lcd off the Monochrome or ME or M, simplified the design back to something more like the M7, but with a sensor instead of film behind the lens.

    When I shoot film, especially with a range finder, I find I need to totally internalize the pictures I am trying to capture. I don’t even get to see the SLR style preview. Just some inaccurate framelines to point me in the general direction and a meter that puts me in the ballpark.

    The rest is up to me and whatever development choices I subsequently make. It’s an interesting exercise, and does occaisionally lead to decent shots. However, the feedback, whether positive or negative, is far removed from the action.

    I take way more risks with digital, and can be more creative with every aspect of the capture, since I have at least some instant feedback. With film, I tend to only stray in small steps from well trodden territory. There may be a higher proportion of keepers, but they tend to look more similar in style. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely a difference.

    • If Leica did it, they’d charge twice the price of the M240 and people would be lining up for months.

      If another brand did it, people would scream :)

      But yes, I get your point. We can always turn off instant review, though…

      • actualy, sebastiao salgado moved to digital in the middle of a 8 years project (genesis book ). he was usually shooting with leica and tri-x, it was before the leica monochrome so it must be a dslr but he never look at the screen and look up the pictures from contact sheets. so yes you can keep the same workflow from film to digital. now i’m dreaming of a black x100s with monochrome sensor

        • He’s using a Canon. The digital images in Genesis are clearly different from the film ones though; they’re almost too vivid – as though somebody applied a ‘Salgado filter’ in PS and turned it up to 11. Compositionally I think the work remains as strong, but the look is definitely different.

  8. Ming,

    Could this short article help towards a plausible explanation:

    http://www.imx.nl/photo/blog-2/tonal-range.html

  9. When I was shooting film back in the eighties/nineties I new I had just one or two rolls to go. So each time I framed a scene I had to decide if it is worth to take. With the digital camera I virtually don’t have to care about how many shots I can take – it only depends on the cards I have with me. So when I shot 36 frames on film the keeper rate was a lot higher than on digital where I’ shooting like 3 or 4 times more frames. For me it’s like framing an interesting frame keeping film in mind and adding more variations with the digital comfort of more memory space.

  10. Ming, have you done a study of your non-keepers? I think an interesting comparison would be the rate of technical failure (i.e. – focus or exposure discipline), composition failure, and scene failure (unwanted elements, expressions …). You might be able to draw some additional conclusions based on the results. So that it doesn’t take forever, you could randomly sample the throwaways from your study.

  11. It’s even simpler. Film just looks better

  12. Probably because I shot film for most part of my life when I shoot digital (which has its benefit of course) I do it in a “film way”. Not gun machine shooting, not continuos chimping. Shooting film helps me to keep this way to work when I shoot digital.
    Recently I restarted to use my (father’s) Rolleiflex and I bought a splendid Zeiss Super Ikonta: shooting 120 film is even more interesting because having only 12 frames available force you to think and plan carefully.
    robert
    PS: this is my way to be a quiet photographer :-)

  13. Since I moved to Japan in 2010 I’ve progressively gone back to film after a 10 years interlude, mainly thanks to availability and cost of film itself and developing material in this country compared to Europe. After an initial feeling of uneasiness that lasted for the first 5-6 rolls, it was like coming back home after a long trip. My keeper rate too is higher with film, and after thinking about it thoroughly I’ve come to realize that the reason was perhaps that when shooting digital I was sometimes taking pictures that inside my mind I already knew were not keepers. Plus, checking at the LCD after each shot detached me from the scene and interrupted my shooting flow too much, it made me go out of “the zone”. Nowadays I use my digital camera as if it has no LCD at all, after a shooting session I just make sure everything is fine with highlights and then I go on to the next subject. I just look at the pictures later on the train back home, and I’ve found that this shooting discipline has improved my digital keepers’ rate.

  14. Ming, you can’t completely apply the same discipline to digital even when you consciously attempt it. Deep down and subconsciously you still know it is digital. This affects your approach even when you swear it’s the same.

  15. I think jonno hit the nail on the head with his comments above. Perhaps we also study our non-keepers more on film and learn more from our mistakes. I suspect that they only get a fleeting glimpse on digital before they are deleted. Have you not tried taking one digital camera only to your chosen location and restricting yourself to just 36 images? You could even decide not to view any of them once they are taken until you get home. A lot of people’s photographic skills would be sharpened up by such a strategy. Nowadays I mostly use film.

    • Inadvertently tried it with the Sigma DP3 – 50 shots is all one battery will last! No difference in keeper rate.

      • Hi Ming. You like good shot discipline. You like slow and deliberate manual cameras. You’re not a trigger happy type of guy. You adore film. Mono is your thing.
        Given all of this……why the distain for the Sigmas? You of all ppl should understand and appreciate their appeal

  16. I’m 22 and had never shot film before the start of this year. I dug out and restored (really just dusted off and fixed a problem with a sticky shutter button) my Dad’s Nikon FM2 and have been shooting almost exclusively film since (maybe 1,500 shots since January?)

    I’ve found that the biggest effect it’s had is to make me less self-conscious. With digital, I’m emotionally tied to the immediate results – if I can’t get something to work, or I’m struggling, I see it immediately and it affects me. Then I relentlessly scrutinize in PS and often feel worse, or obsess about the little details (that ultimately matter, but I care disproportionately).

    With film, I can’t do any of that – I shoot my rolls, box them up, ship them off and get everything back four or five days later. While I’m shooting, I’m much more focused on simply making good photos – the composition, the lighting. When I’m editing/culling, I’m a lot more objective (as I’m a few days removed from the act).

    I’ve really enjoyed working this way, and it’s made me a better photographer. I get roughly twice as many keepers from my FM2 as I do my D7000. I’m also starting to learn to develop my own film and having a blast with that as well.

    What ultimately comes of this practice, I don’t know. But it’s really made my photography enjoyable, and I’m learning quite a bit.

    Thanks as always for the great article, Ming.

    • My math was way off, I apologize. 700-750 shots since January.

    • Interesting observation: why would it make you less self-conscious?

      As for objectivity, I agree entirely. Detachment is necessary, especially with digital. I will seldom edit/ process on the same day, and that’s coming from somebody who’s very conscious about what to look for and how to be objective…

  17. I absolutely shoot differently with film than I do with digital. I have also noticed the higher keeper rate with film, and for myself (I can’t speak for others) I think this has to do with where my attention is focused.

    If I am shooting an M6 or my medium format body, I am concentrating on several very specific things: The subject, exposure/light, composition and either slowly focusing my medium format body or, generally speaking, calculating the best zone focus with the M6. When I am shooting digital no matter how hard I try I am not only focused on these things but about a dozen other electronic variables. What kind of AF point array am I using? Is this metering mode the best for these conditions? Should I use servo focusing? Do I want orientation-linked AF points? How’s my histogram looking? Do I want the highlight blinkies turned on or off? And on and on.

    I know my 5D pretty much inside out, and while that’s great sometimes it’s also awful at other times because I simply cannot resist thinking about all the ways I can tweak it to make it perform “perfectly” under any given conditions. Quite frankly this has driven me nuts, and has driven me to film! Do I need this added complexity in my life?

    At first I thought it was insane…. spending about 30 minutes to develop my b&w negatives, and then spending a good hour to scan in a roll, plus the time it’s taking to learn the ins and outs of scanning and manipulating scans of the negatives. But sitting at a table and inverting the canister while watching the clock is about the only 10 minutes I get in a week where I stop and unplug, and it’s starting to become meaningful to me.

    School starts next week and I’ll have to shoot digital. I’m not particularly looking forward to it… at least for now.

    • I feel if anything, film is less complex. I was shooting landscape with the 4×5 and D800E last weekend; the D800E shots took longer to set up than the 4×5, and I had to cull through and process a lot more. That 10min inversion and scanning is straightforward and not that taxing…unplugging is always a good thing.

  18. Hi Ming,
    If it were possible (and not too time consuming), I’d suggest that it would be interesting to rig up two cameras and somehow obscure which one is digital and which one analog (film). Take a series of photos and then, after the fact, see which one has more keepers. I’m not sure how this would be accomplished from a technical standpoint, but it would be interesting.

    That being said, in my opinion, humans have an overwhelming preference for the analog over the digital. People still continue to love records and film photographs, over the digital counterparts, even though the analog technology has been long outdated. I’m sure part of this is nostalgia; however, a greater part is the very fact that analog seems to “clip” more gradually and naturally. Variation in tonality seems infinite in comparison to digital. Is analog more accurate? No. But it is more pleasing, and that may be a key reason behind higher keeper rates for film.

    To be more scientific, it would be best for you to show x number of shots to outside judges and have them judge the percentage of keepers (without naming the camera or type). Hasselblad should have an inherent advantage, as it is a larger format though, correct? Better to compare (as an example) full frame digital to full frame analog…?
    Eric

    • That wouldn’t work, either: you’ve only got one moment. The film camera will probably be 100% manual, and the digital one automated. How are you going to use each one correctly?

      Tonality is the number one reason I still shoot film; I’ve said it many times in the past.

  19. As implicitly reflected in some of the conjectures (and, indeed, in Keith’s comment), perhaps the difference is engendered purely by psychology. Nostalgia and reverence for the grand masters of the artform lead us to view work created in those time tested, historically significant ways as more precious than that created in the currently commonplace “digital” environment. It may be that when we pick up a film camera, especially one whose brand harkens back to those hallowed times, we instinctively bring to bear our best efforts in focus, composition, attention to light, etc. in the hopes that the output, the results will be worthy of film photography’s heritage. I’m not suggesting that we don’t try to do our best when we lift a digital camera to our eye, merely that our psyche’s “kick it up a notch” subconsciously and we become more careful, more critical . . . leading perhaps to result where both the image and the process become in our minds more precious.

  20. I think many of the propositions are logical enough.
    Yet, they are not objective statistically.
    To be more objective, you would hang the cost and shoot the same number of film pictures in the same amount of time.
    I seriously doubt your statistic ratio would remain the same.
    It wouldnt work the same if you reduce the digital captures to match thd film numbers, as the so called “newcomer
    ” must always play to the conditions set by the incumbent.
    Just something to consider where the world of statistical data is concerned.

    • It’s impossible to be objective because you cannot shoot the same thing twice, nor can you have the same ‘first time’ experience of viewing the same subject under the same conditions – if you’ve seen something, your vision is already biased. The second time around, you won’t be responding in the same way to the scene. And the statistics won’t be the same either.

      • I dont mean shoot the same subjects once with film, then with digital immediately, since your original premise do not imply this either.
        Just saying that if you shot film like you shoot digital, your keeper rate is bound to fall. Familiarity breeds contempt, or something like that. :-)

        • That’s not quite right either. I shoot the Hasselblad’s digital back like I shoot film; it’s strictly a slow single shot device only. The hit rate is lower, but only because focus is much more critical and you don’t have the thickness of the emulsion to cover any small misses.

          • I dont get it Ming. You love slow and deliberate manual cameras and obviously love film. You’re an expert with all things digital. You’re a target user for the Sigma Foveons….. Yet you treat them with distain. Why?

            Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________

            • Workflow. File handling is a disaster, and the colour is wildly inaccurate – too far off for commercial work. It makes no sense to have another workflow and yet another set of cameras that give me nothing over what I can already achieve. I don’t buy gear for the sake of buying gear!

              • Suppose the difference is that I am just an enthusiast. I only shoot for myself and only have myself to answer to. Looking at it from your angle, if I were a pro, for work, i wouldn’t use the Sigmas either for the type of work you do.
                But you’re also an enthusiast hence the Ricoh and Olympus, and also take landscapes ……for enjoyment.
                I really am not a Sigma fanboy but find it curious that you trump up some very run of mill gear such as the Oly – good but still same old bayer as end results go. And dismissive of something that deserves more praise and which so many of your readers, many who are very astute when it comes to photography and gear are obviously quite taken with.
                Any how, enough of my “curiosity” about your gear choices. You’ll obviously never see light (regarding Foveon. LOL). Each to their own. As your very successful last two posts show, it about application rather gear 😊

                • Except the Ricoh produces some of the best files I’ve ever seen, the Olympus works under very harsh environmental conditions, and both cameras let me do things I can’t with other equipment under certain conditions.

                  Some time ago, I spent a week extensively testing the DP3 and reviewing it. Maybe you should check the archives before accusing me of being dismissive.

                • It’s interesting how equipment fanboys always boil the reasons for their preferred equipment down to one factor, and ignore everything else, while at the same time, ignoring all of the good things about cameras they don’t like, and emphasizing all of the bad things.

                  About the only good things that the Sigma have going for it are its sensor and lens. Everything else about that camera isn’t even “very run of mill” (what does very average even mean anyway?) — it’s far below average. Battery life, handling, responsiveness, and workflow are so far below average, if the camera didn’t have that sensor, it would be a joke. For some people, it’s worth putting up with all of that just to use that sensor and lens, and I respect their choice and the way they work.

                  On the other hand, the Olympus has an adequate sensor (actually pretty good, but we’ll be conservative), and the widest operational range of any camera I’ve ever used. That means low light (IBIS that is almost magical in its abilities). That means foul weather (two weeks ago, I was scooping snow out of my lens hood and camera controls and taking pictures with the E-M1 in a gusty 60 MPH snowstorm for the better part of a day). That also means a seamless control interface and responsiveness that lets you take pictures when you need to. There are many situations where you need something like an E-M1 (or a D4 or 1Dx or F6) just to take a picture, and the Sigma will be totally inadequate.

                  But really the only credible way of criticizing someone’s choice of camera (and I so don’t understand the mentality of doing that) is to go out and take the same kind of picture with your favorite camera and show that you can do it better with your camera. Everything else is just words and about as substantial as hot air.

                  • I don’t think it’s that clear cut, Andre. There are no truly disastrous cameras now; all generally have one or two good things going for then. None are perfect. It’s how the compromises shake out for an individual’s particular needs that makes the decision in the end.

                    • I don’t disagree. The striking thing to me about the Sigma is the range of its disparity. One could argue that with most cameras, there are usually many more good things than bad things, and the bad things are actually fairly innocuous in the grand scheme of things. With the DP series, it’s almost like Sigma was trying to figure out how much people were willing to put up with to use their sensor. It’s a testament to their sensor and optics that many people will use that camera for serious work. Hopefully the Quattro addresses a lot of these issues.

                  • Dear Andre. The crux of my comment is that if Ming likes manual cameras so much, which are slow to use and film – then the Sigma DPMs offers such an experience – digitally. I just wasnt sure why he doesnt like it.
                    Regarding workflow – if Ming didnt have his custom scanning set-up – like 99.9% of us dont – then there is no way that a manual camera using film has a faster work flow than a Sigma DPM with the Sigma SPP.
                    I am not saying that the Sigma is a such a great camera – it is “different” (not flawed) compared with modern bayer cameras. But compare it with a manual camera – which we are doing here – then that’s another story.
                    I find the Sigma DPMs to be a quaint throw-back to the film era but at the same time being digital. It provides a film-like photography experience – in a positive way. It’s a souped up film camera in a way. Detractors can only point to the negatives – with knowledge of the camera gleened from the internet without ever having picked one up. So – I was surprised that Ming didnt like it.
                    To a certain mind, the DPMs are a little fuddy duddy, and…….well different. There are those who just dont like to be different. I can understand that.
                    As for Fanboy. That’s both of us then, Andre. It does seems that you have great affections for the Oly EM1……..call the kettle black why dont you? :)

                    • I don’t think film cameras are that slow to use. The film development and scanning is sometimes slow, but the act of taking a photo with a good film camera is pretty easy and very fast compared to a DP, and the operational range of many film cameras is much larger than the DP’s. A couple of button batteries in my F3 or Hasselblad PME finder will last for months or years. My Fuji GW690 doesn’t even need or take batteries.

                      Yes, I do like the E-M1 a lot, but I also recognize that not everyone will or should like it.

                    • I agree: the act of taking a photo with a film camera is actually much faster usually than digital, at least for me. You already know your exposure, all you have to do is frame and focus. And with decent MF, you’re not second guessing your AF system and taking insurance shots. I wonder if this is also a contributing factor…

  21. I started with 35mm slide film in 2001 then switched to digital in 2008 with a Nikon D300. With film, my goal for every frame was to make a keeper. In addition to the cost of film and development, the thought of too many non-keepers taking up space in binders was an issue. Two years before switching to DSLR, I bought a digital point-and-shoot and used it like a cameraphone. I brought it along on trips and used it to shoot things that were trite or silly documentations of the trip or anything that didn’t seem film-worthy. There’s something about mounted slide film that feels precious, like little gems, and it seemed wrong to waste it on anything that wasn’t designed to be a keeper. However, there were times when I returned from a trip, noticed a few of the pictures from the p&s, and thought, damn I should’ve shot that with film.

    I haven’t shot film since switching to digital. The way I shoot hasn’t changed much. The main purpose for my camera is to make keepers but now I also use it for things that I might not have considered “film-worthy” years ago. I think it’s difficult to get a true ratio of digital vs film keeper count if you are carrying both formats.

  22. I started out in film before the digital age so I brought my film shooting habits from film to digital with me – i.e. slow and deliberate (maybe sometimes to a fault). I haven’t really shaken that habit – even when shooting with my D700. I almost feel like it’s wrong to chimp and go down that slippery slope of, well, let me just tweak some camera setting, take another, compare, repeat, etc etc….. pretty soon i’m just comparing multiple images as opposed to thinking uninterrupted about my subject, my composition, my idea, and I hate that. It makes my head hurt.

    I do take more shots with digital, but because of my previous film mindset, not that much more. I just find it more fun (and more satisfying) to keep things as simple as possible and concentrate on the idea of the shot and not all the freaking bells and whistles on my digital high tech marvel. So compared to a lot of people I take very few digital shots even though I could take a lot more. If I don’t like what I see or am uninspired I don’t take any shot at all! Ever take your camera out for some shots and end up taking absolutely nothing? I’m sure you and most of your readers experience this occasionally.

    So I would say the added complexity of digital controls and displays plus the temptation to excessively chimp leads one to have less keepers with digital. It’s just more distracting. That’s why we cherish digital bodies that have a well thought layout and stay out of way.

    Also, I would add that for me the price of film doesn’t really make me take less shots. It’s not really a factor. I actually have to push myself sometimes to finish out the roll. Again if I’m not happy with the scene I tend to not press the shutter.

    Film or digital, it is a contemplative, meditative activity, is it not? For that reason I am grateful for your philosophical musings on this blog.

    Cheers.

    • Definitely – there are times when I carry the camera with good intentions but produce nothing at all. That’s normal, I think.

      Photography says as much about the photographer as the subject – we just need to listen.

  23. Interesting ! I’ve jumped to almost the same percentages but did view the answers differently. I use(d) a Bronica SQ with waist level viewfinder (maybe your Hassys are in this configurations ?), often with 120 film (220 tends to get in problems with the film pressure plate). On the other hand and before digital I used some FM2n or FA or other 135 film cameras with the now usual prism viewfinder (yeah, I’m that old :-) ). before even comparing with digital, there was a great difference in keepers (about the same percentages you give)!
    Before looking down in the waist finder and because of the scarcity of the frames on the film and the more difficult printing (pooping negatives in the tray), ones usually look with his two eyes to the scene, and usually “sees” a square mental frame before getting down to frame it in the camera. While with the classical SLR, one tends to move the camera frame around the scene and press the shutter when it seems correct, discovering an instant later that , maybe, another framing, or light situation, could be interesting too ! Added with a bigger number of frames per film (36) and the portability of a bunch of those rolls, quickly changed “on the spot” (remember those marriage quick loaders /-) ) !
    Getting now to digital, same situation as the SLR, i.e. moving a frame over the scene, but with almost unlimited frames and ISO, no problems between shifting between slides, color negatives, B&W…

    It’s not so about slowness (view cameras had quick models too), then, in my opinion, the fact of seeing a picture in a scene , then looking down (semi inversed) to frame and shoot, versus the same scene revealed through a “scope” moving around the scene, forgetting what was before and what is after (I’m not using fish eyes!) !
    One of the assets of the rangefinder was that other eye opened looking at the reality while the other squinted through several frames !

    Otherwise I do agree with most of hat you say in that article… :-)

  24. an analogy to my previous comment could be like ordering ala carte at a restaurant as aopposed to having the buffet

  25. Use a 2gb card for the 800E :)

    Seriously though – fixed limits always heighten creativity. Give and true artist one brush, some glue and a tree branch, and I bet the end product will be pretty spectacular. A haiku. Whatever. Many artists, whether they admit it or not, produce their most amazing work with limits – materials, time, etc. I, for one, strive in that.

    Some of most talented painters of all time with work hanging in the Louvre made their own colors b/c they could not afford anything but to pick flowers and mix them with dirt and oil. Not to mention canvas’ being ripped from shreds of others.

    So, what stops me from writing an 80 page poem I could have summed up in one stanza? I wish I had that discipline.

    Case in point, I got a roll of film back that I had forgot about, as I had been shooting only digital for about a year. 36 roll count – 4 keepers. And man the tonality and fine grain, contrast, etc. was startling. Inspired me to shoot film for the entire next day – in fact, my impulsivity said I was done with digital, and was mapping my way out to the dream film set-up.

    Next, day wanted to go do it again – but – brought my digital machine – just in case the film camera jammed up or whatever (a lie to myself) – and well, what do you think I reached for first when I got to my destination? Did not shoot any film.

    I wanted the gratification – and I shot a bunch of images (I think 86 – which is a ton for me) – and there were maybe 4 or 5 keepers, and I am okay with that. What I am not good with is my inclination to then go to post-processing and think I can make this better and better – hours go by, I start to question, compare, and the fun is over.

    When I used to working in the darkroom, there were LIMITS to what we could do compared to even basic software – it was the creative process, rubbing paper in solution, imperfect dodging and burning, cropping at the outset once, and not 700 times in LR – and the end result was a baby you would love forever – or in the trash.

    Perhaps there is a balance – not one or the other. We go through moods, and to judge solely on keepers scoring may be incomplete to the macro sense of the journey – if that makes sense – just as I have deleted entire digital shooting days, I have tossed negatives and prints into the trash.

    I wonder if HCB had a digital M, would his work have suffered.

    No.

    • Ultimately, I don’t think the medium or gear affects the composition at all. But it might well make the process more efficient, and that’s what I’m looking for.

  26. With slide you get more keepers because the images simply looks nicer on the lightbox. I never got any keepers with neg film because the quality of the prints you got back from the printers were uniformly atrocious. You may have got a keeper but you wouldn’t know it.
    With film you need to know the fundamentals or you’ll risk wasting the film by taking poorly exposed images. With 24 or 36 shots only the tendency is to slow down and think more. You also consider more if the image is really worth wasting your precious money on.
    With digital, there is less thinking involved and the tendency of most ppl is to blast away in the knowledge that the camera has taken care of the exposure. Each shot is also “free” so less care is taken to get a return on your investment (contrary to film which you have to buy and develop). Also, I would take more “chances” on scenes where I would not were I using film. So what if it’s rubbish. Nothing lost. With digital I also experiment more with different exposures, angles of view, focus points, apertures etc. Why not? Its free. From 5 or 6 variations of the same scene, one may be a keeper. If not, I can delete them. Hopefully have learnt something in the process and move on. Can’t do this with film.
    The nature of digital allows you to take more shots so we do.

  27. Todd Johnson says:

    Hello Ming,
    I have been reading your film shooting series with great interest as I would like to get back into medium format B&W. As there are no film processors left in my area, I am considering building a film “scanning” set-up like you describe (except using my Sigma DP3 Merrill in place of your Nikon D800). However, I just can’t get my head around something. You speak of the better tonality available when shooting film (which I completely agree with), but how does this translate during the scanning process? Won’t the tonality of the “scans” be restricted to the ability of your D800 (or my DP3M)? How can your D800 “scans” show the increased tonality of film, if your D800 cannot capture the tonal range of your film camera in the first place?

  28. I shoot digital and most of the time I will take a few shots of the same subject for insurance and/or experimentation, but whats interesting is that the first shot is usually the best. I’ve noticed it over and over again.

  29. When you see an image through the viewfinder of your digital camera that feels “meh” to you, you could just not press the shutter release. How many marginal images do you shoot digitally that ultimately you delete or 1-star upon review when you get back to your computer? There is a tangible cost to film, but there’s also a cost to your time if you are not capturing images digitally that you like.

    I also understand that you may be using your digital cameras more anyway, since you don’t have the same “storage” constraints in having to carry rolls of film around, and you do have to be more prolific when shooting street photography, since so many photographic instances can happen in a short amount of time, but I know for me, once I stopped shooting unnecessary photos, my subjects (commercially) were a lot happier when sessions only need to last until I get what I want/need, and (personally) I don’t have as many images to edit/store.

    • I don’t even raise the camera to my eye if it looks ‘meh’.

      Agree on the processing/ editing time though: this is why I find that for the total time spent on the process, film actually yields a very similar end rate to digital.

      I shoot everything with all media – street with film, commercial with digital, commercial with film, street with digital etc…my observations are across all subjects/ media.

  30. Or not, since you’re also carrying two digital cameras, too. In fact, the opposite was true. I had trouble finding things to shoot at times; there would be one last frame left and I’d want to change over to color or black and white; it often took hours to find that frame. I remember sending my students out on a shot discipline exercise in Prague – they could press the button just five times in one hour – and during that time, and the next exercise, I shot only one frame

    So, one film frame, correct? I noted you were carrying two digital cameras as well. Do you remember, if any, how many digital frames you shot during the same time? When you have both available I do/did wonder if you instinctively use digital for your experimental shots and film reserved for your “keepers”.

    How do you feel about digital monochromes in high-ISO such as afforded by M Monochrom? I’m not referring to whether you like that particular camera but rather whether you feel you can get something of value from it vs. B&W film under those conditions?

    • Wish I could edit the post ….. “value from it” meant to say “value from high-ISO digital monochrome”…

    • Yes, only one film frame. Digital frames – maybe ten. Not many.

      There was no overlap in perspectives – digital was 21/28 and 100; film at 45 square. So I used whatever made sense for the perspective I wanted.

      Digital pure B&W is still limited by sensor dynamic range.

  31. ever thought it can be something completely different, As color rendition of film at the moment when you selct the images? It would be interesting to see if your keeper-reates change if you process your digital files first to have the same look as the film you use to compare. I don’t shoot film often anymore, but when I look at scanned film, I’m always apealed by the tonal richnes of film, which makes even banal photos more apealing to me.It would be interesting to see how you apreciation for your digital photos change when you post-process them first. Just a thought.

    • No, since I almost never shoot colour film. :)

      Postprocessing: I always shoot to get the raw material I need to process to the final outcome I want, so I never assess based on raw files – just like I won’t assess film based on the pre-converted negatives, either.

  32. thank you for these thoughts about film and digital and about combination.
    i come to film after a few years of using digital camera. And now i know exactly what my frame going to be.. i’m slow enough.
    the problem of the slow shooting – you can’t be fast for the street moments as you can be immediate with digi and fast lens like 50mm one. but may be it’s only about some time of experience..
    any way – interesting to read and to compare with what i think about the same things.
    btw.. when i choose to use Film, at the same moment i leave all other stuff in the bag and use only one camera and one kind of seeing in this specific time.

    • I don’t see why a film SLR and the same lens would be any slower than digital. I use the Hasselblad for street just fine; it requires a bit more anticipation, but I don’t feel like it’s ever holding me back.

  33. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Sorry for all those by, bys. Typos, you know.

  34. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    In film days of street hunting when I got one good pict out of a roll I was happy. Diffy matter with set-up takes like architecture or landscape where every shot was prepared and the percentage was high. I think that digital spoil people. Shoot a lot and count on luck. Another advantage for film shooting is a lack of chimping. You took a analog shot or few more and forgot the thing ( cleared your mind) ready for next encounter, unlike digital polluting your readiness for next situation by conditioning your mind by rechimping your previous takes.

    • I don’t actually chimp that much; in the middle of a sequence or set of images I won’t look at the LCD at all until afterwards. Too busy concentrating on what’s happening in the finder.

  35. For me it simply boils down to time, convenience, and cost. Although I much prefer the look of film, digital satisfies my instant gratification needs and takes away the cost of film and developing (if you do not do your own).

  36. As soon as I saw the image at the top of the article, I thought to myself, “that must be film”, or more specifically, black and white film.

    I don’t have any proof, but instinctively, black and white film, well used, seems superior at reproducing the solidity of objects and the visceral, physicality of hard surfaces. Remarkably, this quality is preserved even after conversion to blog quality digital.

    • I wish I could quantify exactly why this is the case; then I’d replicate with digital and save myself the time and intermediate steps. But, it continues to elude me…

      • My theory is that good black and white film is inherently better suited to record the real world’s blinding range of light and shadow. Once the real world has been “dumbed down” onto a piece of film, however, digital can make a very accurate copy.

        If this is the case, it will be impossible to adjust today’s digital images with PP that will recapture what was lost the instant the digital photo was taken.

  37. Shooting digital as well as film I made a similar experience. For example when I did my first experience with 5×4 Inch cameras I took eight pictures during a weekend with a keeper rate of around 50%. I have not found the reason for that but I think one cause is the false promises of digital photography “It is easy to take a good picture” and “everything can fixed later in photoshop etc.”. In fact I found that digital photography requires a very good flow of work and a consolidated knowledge of photography – quite similar to taking color slides. Another experience is that a basic analog camera like a Nikon FM with a 50mm lens or a larger medium format cameras teaches you to develop an idea before you take the picture. This is not the case with a digital camera. In fact I am again and again amazed how little technique you need for great pictures. If you got an idea how light “works” and how different a lens and a sensor/film “sees” the world contrary to you eyes you’ve achieved a lot.

    • Bang on. The 4×5 yields the highest keeper rate of all…but I suspect that may be down to a) the hassle of using it means you really make sure you’re confident before hitting the release, and b) the ‘viewfinder’ is much larger: easier to compose, and reversed biaxially, which means imbalances are very obvious and can be corrected pre-capture. I am now wondering if the reversed view of the Hasselblad’s finder also has something to do with this…

      • Hallo Ming,

        I think your second point on the viewfinder is essential. People tend to focus on the center when looking on something. With a prism viewfinder most people tend to overlook what’s on the edges. Here’s a nice example what that means: When I traveled with friends to Ireland some years ago one evening we took a photo of the whole group outside a house. When we saw the prints later we where surprised to see that some guy (we didn’t know) hold his naked white, hairy bottom toward the camera. We all, even the photographer didn’t notice that because this guy stood on the edge of the picture. With a waist level camera or on the ground glass of a view camera it is much more easier to see the whole picture and naturally easier to compose a picture. I don’t think that the reversed view of a Rollei or a Hasselblad makes an essential different. I also found that I have a much more three-dimensional impression with waist-level finder or a ground glass of a view camera.

        • 100% finders matter, too – otherwise there is no way to frame precisely. I find this much easier to do with an LCD finder actually. The 4×5 ground glass isn’t that accurate at the edges as they don’t really match up with the captured film area…

          Waist level finders are more 3D because you’re usually viewing them with both eyes.

  38. John Lockwood says:

    Perhaps another psychological aspect has to do with the latent image. When you shoot film, the image created is only in your mind. The delayed gratification of film makes seeing the captured image exciting and new. With digital you have instant feedback, but when you see the image later on your computer screen, it’s just …bigger. Like viewing the same movie twice. Not as exciting.

    • Not quite – the computer version is after completion of processing; it’s ‘cooked’. The film image – well, if it doesn’t look as I expect, I’m just as disappointed.

  39. John Lockwood says:

    Agree with all your thoughts. As a mental exercise, I wonder if your digital keeper rate would increase by covering your LCD to prevent chimping. Perhaps a small piece of gaffer’s tape over the screen? How differently might you behave without the instant feedback to encourage that trigger finger of yours? You also mentioned the use of burst mode as well. Two words: Quit it!

    • I’m going to try it. Or at very least turn instant review off.

      Burst mode is for stability reasons – the D800E is very demanding of camera shake/ technique; at marginal shutter speeds, 3-shot bursts yield a stable middle image where a single frame would usually be blurred. That can buy you a stop or more.

  40. Interestingly my keeper rate increased dramatically after using the OM-D E-M5 for a while. And this was due to setting as much as possible in camera to produce a photo that many times could be used as a JPEG straight out of the camera.

    I love the original Olympus colors and setting WB and exposure to yield a photo that looks good right away instead of aiming for post production carries a tremendous amount of satisfaction for me. In many cases this might come at some expense in image quality (for instance underexposing to get good color saturation) but I happily pay the price.

    My history as a slide film shooter may play a role in this.

    • That would make sense – you get it right – or as close to possible – straight away, but you may sacrifice the last final small percent or two of detail and tonality by not shooting raw. Less work, that’s for sure!

  41. Slightly off topic, slightly not. I am finding that my own reactions to anything I post online somewhat interesting in that I appreciate the look of film and not so with digital. I often delete a lot of my digital shots off flickr after a few weeks and I’m finding it hard to give a straight answer as to why I feel compelled to do so.

    I have, however, felt very frustrated with the lack of sharpness and cleaning issues with the film I develop. For the last year or so I have been using an Epson V700 and it’s been tough going. I’ve jumped through loops to get the scanner to scan in focus and be dust free. Flat glass scanners just don’t want to be devoid of dust despite my greatest efforts and the V700 rarely gives me a sharp image. *sigh*

    Enter this week the might Nikon Coolscan 4000 ED!

    I was hankering after a 5000 but the £1500 price tag seemed to be too steep. Instead I figured that the 4000 was 90% the machine and at 30% of the asking price of a 5000 I bit the bullet.

    THE DIFFERENCES ARE ASTOUNDING!

    Where purples would ruin my colours, the colours are now more true. I have the ability to focus on the grain for each frame and which part of the frame. I couldn’t be happier and I wholeheartedly recommend a Coolscan against the Epson. It’s more compact too.

    As for software, I was using Silverfast. Since it was pricey I thought it would be better than the checker alternatives. There was no upgrade path from the V700 to the 4000 so I would of had to of spent €440 on a new software license… ouch. Instead I spent $79 on the latest Vuescan and I’m very happy with that too. All the features I want are there.

    Sorry, rather off the topic of keeper rates but I wanted to share my experiences with you all.

    • Dust is a big issue with scanners. I digitise my film immediately after it dries, and before hanging it, I soak it in Ilfotol wash solution for five minutes – dries without rings and with very little dust.

      Most flatbeds don’t focus, so I suspect this is the cause of your unsharpness – that and negatives that are not perfectly planar.

  42. Hello again. ‘From the composition of Ff Canon’ can be cut from the first para above. The sentence should read: ‘sometimes a B&W conversion, after processing ….’

  43. I’m more interested in your remark on tonality. I use a Canon 5DII and a Rolleiflex f 2.8 planar TLR (using Tri-X 400 developed traditionally) among other cameras, and I often compare the results. I too see an easy route to a more enticing tonality with the 6×6 camera. However, there are exceptions. Sometimes a B&W conversion from the the composition of FF Canon, after post processing in LR just sings, and seems to give me everything that 6×6 negs, scanned carefully with a Nikon Coolscan 8000 can give.

    It is a look I want, but I have not yet found a reliable method of getting it digitally. I haven’t applied myself rigorously to the problem yet, but it seems that it is, in principle, possible, at least sometimes. I am not technically minded enough to understand why a larger negative should always give a richer tonality over a FF sensor, when one is using lenses for equivalent depth of field. Especially since the composition of FF sensors can be changed in many of their characteristics (increased MP, dynamic range etc.) in fact in all ways except absolute size. Indeed, from my experience it isn’t always so, just most often. Do you have any clearer thoughts?

    • Digital can match or better film only if the dynamic range of the scene is less than the native capture range of the sensor – this rarely happens, especially for the kinds of scenes where film excels. And I think that’s the difference: it’s all in the highlights.

      Tonality has nothing to do with sensor/ capture size, once you pass grain/ pixel noise limits for a given enlargement size.

      • Maybe I’ve misunderstood your answer – you claim capture size is not the issue. If that is what you are saying, then why are good prints from 6×6 negs consistently richer in tonality than those from 35mm?

        • I said capture size isn’t the issue providing you are below magnifications where grain (noise) is significant. The problem is, for smaller formats, the limit of that size isn’t very large at all.

          • This is very interesting, because you are saying something I’ve not heard anyone say before. You say ‘below magnification where grain (noise) is significant’. ‘Significant’ seems to be the tricky, undefined word here. Does this mean: not visible from the viewing distance? If I stand back from a good 35mm print so that I don’t see significant grain, then it will appear to have the same tonality as a neighbouring 6×9 print of exactly the same scene under the same lighting? Is that what you mean?

            This is odd, and not my experience. Even when I load B&W images on to my iPad, from both Leica and Rolleiflex, saved at 1024 pixels wide, where no grain can be seen, I see an immediate difference in tonality. It is this difference I would like to overcome, and at least get the FF digital images to reveal the level of tonality as the Rolleiflex. I don’t say resolution – that’s probably a touch better in the digital.

            I also have prints on the wall from 35mm film, which were printed by a master printer who used to print for Ragu Rai. They are superb, and photo printer friends at first take think they are 645 prints. That is until they see the Rolleiflex prints and then the conversation turns to ‘tonality’, and to some extent acuity. So for me, there is an inherent tonal difference in the two different film sizes (this is also regularly pointed out by many others and one of the main reasons why people turn to MF). As I said though, the grey zone for me, and where I would like to maximise potential, if I can, is with FF digital.

            • Significant isn’t very large here: we’re talking about 6″ wide or something like that. Beyond that, you can see grain in the smaller (35mm) formats; sometimes even below that size. The tonal difference is visible because we’re always printing larger than that. But if you compared say 4×5 to 8×10 at maybe 16×20″, you wouldn’t see much of a difference.

              Digital vs film: it depends on a) the DR of the scene vs the DR of the sensor, and b) how you process it.

  44. Ming, so you don’t think you could come close to the tonality of B&W with todays sensors with some post processing?
    It would be an interesting exercise to provide two shots of the same scene like above, one using Acros film and scanned and one from a digital slr and post processed. See if readers could come close.

    • I’m getting there, but it’s still not 100%. I shoot more film to understand why it looks the way it does, so that I can replicate it digitally. Medium format is about on par with a D800E resolution-wise; once I nail the tonality, it’s probably time to hang up the Hasselblad. But large format and the advantages of its DOF control and resolution are something which I still cannot get from a DSLR…

  45. Is it possible that you to some degree find more keepers in your film rolls not because the images are objectively* better, but because you personally associate those images with the (I assume enjoyable) experience of capturing them on film?

    In other words, do you think the keeper rate would be the same if you “anonymized” your entire output and let someone else pick the good shots?

    *The meaning of which is a whole different kettle of worms…

    • No, I don’t think so – I’ve tried that; I showed a mix of images to a neutral audience but with a reasonably strong set of preferences, there isn’t a perceived difference in standards between film and digital images. They actually thought a lot of the film ones were digital and vice versa :P

  46. Kristian Wannebo says:

    I think Fred Mueller is on to something.
    When I am immmersed in shooting I find I use the screen feedback only to check the technical side, or when the shooting angle prevents me from properly composing.

    Tim, I think rightly, considers the viewfinder.
    I’ve made a folding cardboard tube with a magnifying glass and attached it to my camera’s screen as a makeshift viewfinder.
    It not only helps to stabilize and exclude disturbing light;
    it helps me immerse in the photo in mind and gives me a higher keeper rate.
    (Might be because I grew up with viewfinder cameras…)

    But I think the whole camera design and handling, even when it becomes part of your body, also influences the way “reality” and “imagined photo” relate to “viewfinder view” and “moment to trigger”.
    (The right words elude me.)
    How about also comparing with a session with the H’blad with only the digital back?

    I believe there is more, or perhaps different, photographic experience built into the H’blad (at least into that series) design than into most digital cameras.

    And what influence does the higher dynamic range and better tonality of film have?

    The advanced craftsman makes his own tools to suit the way he works. Alas, not very practical in this craft.

    • My keeper rate with the digital back is somewhere between film and digital, mainly because it’s extremely demanding of accurate focus. The LCD is so crappy you can only use it for confirming it took an image and looking at the histogram.

      Dynamic range doesn’t come into it because the elevated keeper rate applies to both slide and negative – and slide is very unforgiving indeed.

      • Ah ha! I was going to ask about your keeper rate with the CFV-39. I wonder if the Sigma DPs would also slow people down (figuratively as we know they do actually physically slow everyone down).

  47. Fred Mueller says:

    Ming,
    (no time to read the replies, so I might be redundant)

    It is the ability to review on the LCD. It takes us out of our “mind’s eye” and “imagination space” and replaces that eye with the literal eye. With film you are “shooting to your imagination space”. You are imagining the image you think is a possibility, while working with what is in front of you. You are forcing your imagination of a good shot on the elements you have, deeply involved in seeking composition and HCB’s “decisive moment” … trying to find the thing you imagine might be there for the taking. This is a profoundly different process than making a shot and looking to see if you got it. That process shatters reverie. I bet you could measure the dissipation of alpha waves.

    I work at Berklee College in the Film Scoring Department where I am a recording engineer. In the last generation sequencing has become the tool of choice for composing film music. But students find that, while they are able to produce lots of music, most of it is low quality. When you sequence you play notes into a computer and the computer will instantly be able to play them back for you. That space inside your head where the best music should be singing to you, unabated, is pushed aside by the replay. It is exactly the same problem. Good music comes from your inner voice. Good photography comes from your minds eye.

    I remember clearly when I had my press pass back in the 70’s at the University of Denver “Clarion” (I’m 63) and I would get an assignment, and I might come back with maybe half a role exposed covering (for example) the then Colorado governor Love giving a news conference, or a speech by some notable on campus, or even a hockey game, where I would shoot, by today’s standards, a miniscule number of frames (two or three rolls). I would usually know, even before the film was in the drying cabinet, that the 7th or 8th shot on that half-used role was the one that would be on the page the next day. I had seen it already. I knew it when I made the shot. I was looking for it. I would be so keyed up and in the moment, that when it went down, I knew it. Ernest Hass called it “look for the “ah hah” “.

    great topic and writing by you as usual …

    • Thanks Fred. You’ve come to the same conclusion as a few of us: it’s the instant feedback and expectation that you can do it again until it’s perfect. It’s a double-edged sword: good for experienced photographers to force discipline, bad for inexperienced ones because it makes the learning process much slower. Time to turn off instant review…

      • Fred Mueller says:

        I think you might be missing my point by a few degrees: I am saying that the best shooting occurs when you try to force your imagination on what is available. You only very rarely actually literally get that result. But it is the “working from that interior space” and trying to realize it somehow that results in the best shooting. Your result will almost never be exactly “it”. But your results will be better because you held a clear internal vision of “it”.

        What is in your imagination might be “way beyond” the actual pictorial elements available, almost psycadellic, you are just trying to approach that vision with what you have. Anything that disrupts that brain state (I am almost sure it could be recognized in a PET scan) and you are knocked down a notch. I am saying the best shooting is like a performance, there is no point in hitting rewind in the middle of it or you are taken right out of the flow.

        High level shooters elicit this state no matter what the gear, for the most part. Film cameras just happen to be less disruptive.

        • Fred, you’re right. There are films of Eggleston and Meyerowitz shooting and the way they move is uncanny. Very kinetic somehow – sort of Tai Chi like.

          Also, I think digital encourages a kind of sterile perfection. I just got Bruce Davidson’s Central Park book and probably none of the pictures are “sharp” by current standards. But they are all alive.

        • That would make sense.

  48. Saturnine Zero says:

    I’ve never really considered keeper rates as something important to me, but I do shoot film a lot slower and more deliberately than I do digital. There is definitely both a cost factor and exposure factor involved for me.

    I’ve just come back from shooting in the rain using Delta 3200, more expensive than rolling my own Delta 400. I took 4 shots in 2 hours, it’s actually pretty hard to change settings and focus holding an umbrella!

    Sometimes I shoot more readily if there is dramatic lighting but sometimes, like today, I just can’t “see.” I don’t scan my negatives, I print in my darkroom and today I felt like skipping anything I wasn’t going to print.

    Digital on the other hand, I get no real satisfaction out of since I started shooting film again. I like digital for travel because I can shoot a lot with out the cost and review as I go, since I’m only going to be there once. I also like to just snap at things for memory’s sake rather than for any creative intent. And of course with digital you can always “fix it later.”=p

    As a side note about keeper rates Trent Parke stated in a Guardian interview he took 100 rolls to get this one shot. http://www.in-public.com/store/image/file/1504/08.jpg?1154345351 I think it was well worth it.

  49. How about simply you have more fun shooting with film or specifically the Hasselblad?

  50. If you were hypothetically able to ‘check’ your film-based photo the instant after you took the photo (as you would with digital), do you think you keep rate for film would still be as high? I suspect it may drop because chances are, in that instant, you might have spotted a flaw or ‘saw’ something that prompts you to change your photos ever so slightly.

  51. I don’t think I can offer any universal answers, especially since I completed a similar journey. The twist being, that I started out on Film, found it expensive and slow, dropping photography all-together; then resumed digitally around 2003.

    I was shooting enormous amounts of images, mostly aimlessly. Especially when travelling. This hoard of images on my hard drive grew unmanageable. Thus, I barely reviewed or edited, a few immediate stand-outs aside.

    All that changed when, on a whim, I picked up a TLR and started shooting medium format. My keeper rate sky-rocketed, the output improved at a dizzying pace. But that was not all; for the first time in years I was having good, genuine fun. Suddenly, I also started finding joy in *not* shooting. I peered at the ground glass, then put the camera down, without shooting. Most often I don’t consider the potential image to be ‘good enough’. It’s very tempting to release the shutter, but it also feels quite good to resist this temptation.

    By going film/medium format I shortened this feedback loop. It moved from going home and editing, to the moment of picture taking. This is not just about cost, but also the work and time involved until I get to see the output. Thus, I really want this to be good, because we all (should) know the magical feeling of getting a roll and having a batch of great images to work with; as opposed to just having one silly frame after the next. An event which can be deeply frustrating and discouraging.

    Thus, it’s safe to say, that at least for me, the emotional investment is an order of magnitude larger with film. Hence, the output follows.

    • I think your digital interlude completed the knowledge you needed to shoot film effectively. And there’s a huge difference – at least I felt it too – when doing your own development; there’s a lot more control and you don’t have that feeling of anxiety/ uncertainty; I’m fairly certain of how the output is going to look.

  52. Is it easier to compose a keeper with a good optical viewfinder compared to small EVF or LCD? I notice there is a higrher percentage of keepers with the Ricoh (LCD) than the Olympus (EVF).

  53. Having been shooting with film for the past year, I definitely just enjoy the process of shooting analog over digital. I slow down, absorb my surroundings, and deliberate much more carefully with each precious slide of film. Moving on to the hassy, the process is slowed down, but even more so. When I finally get that roll back from the lab to scan and process it, I feel a much stronger sense of satisfaction than I ever did when I deal with my digital cameras. Though the problem comes when I’m trying to think how this’ll work out commercially….

    • Is your keeper rate higher?

      Commercially: find a niche. Be good at it. Then branch out from there. As for using film, I shoot with a digital backup usually – or swap backs on the Hasselblad so there’s a duplicate.

      • I’d like to think so, my keeper rate for digital was pretty bad, out of a set of like 300-400 photos (some of which were duplicates), I kept about 20-30 that I liked, and they’re not at the standard I wish they were… with a roll of film, I can get atleast 3-4 frames that I would enjoy scanning and processing. So yes, I think my keeper rate does go up when I shoot film!

        I think that’s the plan commercially. There are still wedding photographers shooting MF film, and I used to think they were insane. With some maturity, however, I can really begin to appreciate that niche. Just need to keep shooting!

        • That’s fairly similar to what I manage.

          I’m faster with the film Hasselblad than most people are with AF digital. There’s just so much less to monkey around with :P

          • Takes some used to getting to the focus throw, but it’s definitely more assuring to know you’ve got focus with the larger brighter and accurate viewfienders… though I wish I had the cat’s eye focusing screen on my own 501. :(

            • Actually, if you have the acute matte it’s not too bad…the older screens are dark and not very snappy though. See if you can find a HC4 prism…it’s a revelation.

  54. I started with digital as well and have only recently started exploring film, I got a mamiya 645 and a nagaoka 4×5. For likely a combination of reasons you’ve listed, cost, insecurity, accepting imperfection, I find my hit rate with film quite high as well. But I notice I spend a significantly more amount of time visualizing and analyzing my shots on film as opposed to digital. To your point also I do seem to expect more from my digital captures, I feel with all the advantages, I should have no excuse for anything less than exactly what I aimed to accomplish with the shot.
    It’s kind of like the imperfection of film for me is a large part of it’s character and is appealing, where as with digital it’s inexcusable and unwanted.

    • You and I have a pretty similar view on this, it seems – except I’m starting to be just as picky about my film output. I can deal with grain, but not bad exposures or compositional errors…

  55. This sort of reminds me of the observer effect in quantum theory. You may well believe that your’e applying the same shot discipline and techniques to both digital and film, but you may not be because in actuality you’re shooting more digital frames and being able to get instantaneous feedback, thus unconsciously skewing your approach. I don’t think you’re lowering your standards with the observation of your film results, so much as unconsciously working harder on the frame just prior to capture.

    If that makes any sense…

    The mind can play tricks on us that we’re not even aware of, though we might swear otherwise.

    I could be wrong, but the thought occurred.

    • It makes sense. Maybe what I should do is tape my LCD and see if that results in a similar shooting style/ keeper rate to film…forcing me to work harder pre-shot is the ideal goal.

      • Exactly. I think the immediate feedback of the LCD interrupts the cycle of vision – you end up looking at a picture of a picture rather than at the subject. You are in the camera, so to speak, rather than in the world photographing it. Also, too many choices with digital and too much complexity. One would think that we would be in the golden age of street photography what with high ISO and fast frame rates, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  56. and here we go….you are actually getting people to think, Ming. Hat’s off to you!

  57. Hi Ming,

    I really appreciate being able to view your work and read your articles and thoughts on this blog. Thank you.

    I was wondering if you might feel differently when handling film cameras? To the degree of assuming a different mental/emotional state that comes from a deeper sense, however subtle, of the profound human history (and photographic greats) that film is forever connected to, and with one’s own profound experiences of growing up with film? Is it possible that this kind of almost imperceptible shift would be all that is required to effect a change in one’s shooting?

    Film… the real RAW?

    • Definitely – except the observations remain current when there’s little difference between the film and digital versions, e.g. the Hasselblad V with film back or digital back; the D800E or the F6.

  58. I think that it’s the economics of film vs digital. When you shoot film you take more time to try to get the shot just right. With digital you can experiment to your hearts content without breaking the bank like you would with film.

    • Yes and no; if you buy your film in bulk and develop it yourself, the costs aren’t that high. If you buy a digital camera and take a few thousand shots with it, then buy another, the costs are higher than you think…

      • Never thought in this way until my first DSLR dead last year it was 2.5 years old…. That’s true a digital life actually cost more than an analog life. I like the simplicity of film camera system better but don’t like keeping lots of paper and films…have you seen “Bill Cunningham New York” who lives all negatives he shot all his life? A charming documentary of the photographer.
        Thank you for lots of inspiration you are giving to us all the time. I may send my old film camera for a maintenance…

      • Hi Ming, it seems in the course of writing this you answered your own question :P, but this is an example of discipline. I write about my own work; but only for myself; its a discipline in rational, I think it actually helps to grounded as an artist.
        All round discipline regardless of what your doing will always bring results. Over the years I have learnt that restrictions aid creativity, its options that often hinder. “Experimenting” with the “unlimited” potential of digital is mostly wasted time. Its a considered and disciplined practice that makes for good Art! If someone asked me how to take better photos I would tell them to draw more, not shoot film. The best tool I have is the considered knowledge of composition, its drawing and painting that gave me this understanding Even if as a photographer you make crap drawings, by breaking it down to the most basic of fundamentals I believe something will be gained through this process.
        Regarding digital shot discipline, how about only take a single 1 gig card?= approx 60 frames @ 3:2 and 80 @ 4:3’s 100 @ 1:1 on 16mp apsc . My current rule is I only take one shot per subject. Choosing between 3-5 shots of the same subject drove me batty and feeling annoyed at my lack of control. Now I just compose, re compose until I think I have it. One shot ,make or break, no exceptions, and most importantly learn through loss. My keeper rate is pretty high as a result. For me the rewards are that I totally considered all options and took the best one. Knowing that you were in control of the entire process that allowed you to make it with a single shot is actually very rewarding. A superficial benefit is I can unashamedly hand my camera over to a friend to flick through my images :D but hey its all about perception :P

        • I can’t draw, but I do spend time looking at and analysing paintings that I find ‘work’ for me – figuring out why certain lighting and compositional choices were made is most instructive.

          A 1GB card would get me perhaps 20 frames on the D800E :P

          • Funny thing is a lot of my friends who are amazing drawers admit they can’t take a photo to save themselves.
            A 1 gig card on a D800E would be like the Opus Dei of photographic discipline, as well a 1GB card, a modified camera strap would be required for self flagellation. Maybe this could be a new component of your Learning to See workshops :D

            • Different skill set – with drawing/ painting, you make the composition. With photography, you have to find it. And there are things that are possible in drawing/ painting that are not in photography, because the whole thing still has to obey the laws of physics…

              The self-flagellation is the ‘5 photos with an iPhone’ exercise. ;)

      • David Meyers says:

        I think you have to view the cost of your digital equipment as a sunk cost. Yes, if you take only one photo with your D800E with 14-24mm, it’s a very expensive photo, but the incremental cost of the second photo is approximately zero. Same with the third and every additional photo. When you’re out exploring, there is no cost difference between taking one photo or 100. With film, every photo has its not insignificant incremental cost, so your attitude is different if those incremental costs matter to you.

        • True, but that’s not quite accurate – the effective cost decreases with incremental usage. For film, there is a cost per shot and the body is negligible – buy it used and sell it on for close to what you paid for it. Definitely not the case with digital…

        • Michael L Pipkin, MD says:

          My thought, perhaps equivalent to yours from a different perspective, was that for me it’s hard to discard a slide, or a whole strip of negatives. But as you say, there is no incremental cost to digital frames, and no reason not to shoot ten frames and discard any or all of them. No physical object to make me feel guilty about waste. So for me it’s not a higher portion of keepers with film, but a willingness to shoot redundant frames with digital – and that does not make for better images. I did better with film and I am still trying to find a way to work with digital that restores the attention I paid to every frame I shot on film.

      • That’s true, but I’m one of those people that I love the immediate feedback I hate to wait. lol. Especially if I’m in the outback someplace shooting. For me the extra costs for the convenience of shooting digital are worth it. Thanks for the reply.

  59. With film I’m more concerned about proper exposure, and grain (especially with 35mm slide film.) To counter these two things, I use strobes, diffusers, and slow ISO film. With digital we have a more forgiving medium to capture images. The “graininess” of film translates to “noise” in digital, but with the current crop of sensors we don’t see any noise until much higher ISOs. So that makes lighting easier. Less heavy strobes can be used, and you don’t have to hire an ox or a mule to haul your gear about. Macro photography is less of a challenge with digital also: just use a couple of standard speedlights instead of the heavy-duty strobes, and you’ll have plenty enough light. Might need a reflector and/or diffuser to modify the lighting – that’s it! The beauty of digital, as you’ve mentioned in your blog, is that you can have a look at the image immediately after shooting it therefore your “hit” rate becomes higher. You can tell straight away if you’ve nailed the lighting, colour balance etc. So you just toss the bad ones in the virtual “bin” as it were. With film I’m worried about the physical well-being of each roll. There’s no such thing as “backing up” with film. Once the roll has been exposed, it’s like a child that must be watched over carefully. One has to keep a watchful eye on the film canisters until the film is developed – be careful not to expose to heat, humidity and caprice of nature i.e sudden downpours etc. The only thing I worry about with digital sensors is managing the dust build up and that calls for frequent inspection of images and cleaning the sensor when needed. I am particular about backing up files created each day.

    • The lack of backup does make me very nervous. If I am shooting it for repeatable, controlled situations, I’d probably have two duplicate backs on the Hasselblad and take a repeat shot just in case one roll got toasted; that way I’d always have a backup. And it’s not at all difficult to switch backs, so there’s no reason not to.

  60. I think the more interesting equation is the keeper rate per hour. From a day’s shooting do you get more keepers with either format?

    The Magnum Contact Sheet book is one of the most interesting photography books I’ve bought. Fascinating to see the mind of the photographer at work this way.

    • Hard to say, because I’ve not shot under identical conditions with both media in a sufficiently controlled way to tell. I think it’s probably about the same.

    • Exactly, if you apply the same standards to every shot you take, regardless of capture medium, one would expect you take the same number of images per hour with film as with digital. If not, you are treating film differently than digital.

  61. Hi Ming,

    Thanks for your passion and dedication…I look forward to your posts every night when they come in (west coast USA).

    I do shoot differently with film…much more with a sense of unease! Coming back to film over the past year has taken me to a much deeper level in my photography. I’m learning the different sensibilities that are required to work with film. What are the characteristics of the film itself, what can be expected as a result. With digital, I did the continual checks on the LCD and took more shots to try to get the result I thought I wanted. That process by itself felt hurried and panicked. I think much more about the scene and now am willing to settle for the best image based on the settings I think will work. That sense of anticipation coupled with some anxiety make photography much more fun for me.

    Not intended to be self serving but I wrote a blog article for the Leica Meet last month that goes into my thoughts about film in much more detail. Some of the flickr photo links are broken right now but hopefully will be fixed soon. http://theleicameet.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/film-is-dead-long-live-film/

    • Thank you. I can’t imagine anxiety being a good thing, but not having that urge/ ability to double check the results is probably a good thing: you can go on to concentrating on the next shot straight away.

      • Warung Photo says:

        I would venture to say that this is probably the most plausible explanation of the higher keeper rate for film photography. As the photographer, once you are familiar with the technicality (equipment, film, expected outcome), you enter into a more meditative state that allows you to solely focus on making the image and nothing else. Whereas with digital, you would more likely to be distracted by the “computer” and play with setting, chimp, etc.

  62. The keeper rate for film photography is a lot less for new, less experienced photographers than what you have quoted for yourself. Those coming from digital after thousands of digital frames have accumulated a lot of experience that helps them in their film photography.
    With yourself, I think you may intuit the shots that won’t work in your film photography and don’t make those exposures because of constraints on the number of exposures available (and the costs).
    A digital shot doesn’t cost (much) and it easier to take the shot than not.

    • True. It’s more like millions of frames in my case, and I shot film extensively in the past. This is more of a revisit than starting it again.

      Your second point is probably true, and something I hadn’t considered: I won’t try things I don’t think will work. But then again, there are a lot of things I do try which I probably wouldn’t have done with digital, so I can only surmise that each medium has its strengths.

  63. Food for thought again. My counterpoint, is around 1998 I took an adult ed photography course at Rice University. It was all film and I found running around to get things developed or printed by the next week was a pain. I can’t read a 35mm contact sheet with a loupe. I might be blind, but that will sure speed it up. 10 years later I bought a DSLR and things took off for me photographically. There is a place for film, especially black and white film, in fine art photography, but I don’t know if there is a place for it in my life.

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  1. […] use it, or switching off the LCD seems to help, too – as several commenters in the previous article on the psychology of film vs digital pointed out. I believe this is the culmination of experience in both digital and film processes: my […]

  2. […] bandas (o André já traduziu um artigo mui interessante aqui) mas esse (publicado originalmente no site dele) me parece ser mais um daqueles que todos nós devíamos […]

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