Film diaries: why we shoot film and digital differently

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Irrespective of format and camera, there’s definitely a difference in the way we shoot film vs digital: a lot of comments from an earlier article examining the economics of shooting both media to a similar output standard suggested that this is the same for a lot of other photographers, too. We may not feel qualitatively that there’s much of a difference, but the higher keeper rate suggests the complete opposite. I think I have figured out why this is the case – at least for me – and beyond that, what we can take away from the process to improve our images – independent of the medium.

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The most obvious reason why we have a higher keep rate with film is simply because there’s a tangible cost-per-expsoure involved; the larger the format, the higher the cost. You’re not going to try handholding a studio large format monorail camera just to see ‘what the result looks like’, but you’ll do it with a compact. And even a medium format DSLR; and probably delete the results almost immediately. Are those little ‘experiments’ useful? Perhaps, as the germination for something a bit more serious and controlled later on; however, I suspect that with digital we are often willing to compromise a bit just to ‘see how it looks’ or to test the way the camera responds. Even once our abilities develop beyond the initial learning stage, we still (hopefully) continue to experiment with the intention of pushing our creative boundaries. I’d like to think we still do that with film, but the reality is probably not quite there.

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Here’s another interesting thought: it’s not just digital that we treat as throwaway, but especially digital with compacts or camera phones. In fact, the less dedicated a piece of equipment is towards controlled, creative photography, the less care we seem to take with the photographic process, and less we expect of the results. (‘Seriousness’ of equipment and its effects on your photography is probably a topic I’m going to leave for another day, however.) This has several consequences: firstly, we tend not to do good work with ‘cheap’ gear. Secondly, we tend to experiment more with less ‘serious’ media, perhaps because we expect the results to be unacceptable anyway, so when they are, it’s a bit of a nice surprise. Finally, it’s arguable that film is generally perceived to be the most serious photographic medium today, given the very high investment in time, effort and cost (perhaps the ultimate differentiator of ‘seriousness’) that must go into producing an image – think large format – we take it very seriously indeed when we do use that medium.

I believe the upshot of all this translates into the photographer just playing it safe from a technical/ execution standpoint, but also an artistic one: we’re also not going to take risks executing something that might not work, or has a high chance of producing a dud. Even if we’re very confident in our abilities – street photography and timing with moving people might be a start, for instance – there are some things that are beyond our control, like water, or the formation of crowds; fast moving and non-repeatable situations like sports, documentary photojournalism or weddings; challenging lighting conditions; very dark situations; special purpose such as underwater; the list goes on. I actually think that the images I produce with film have a very different pictorial feel compared to digital – partially because of the tonality, but mainly because the ‘play it safe’ factor tends to have a confining impact on the subject matter itself: as a consequence, the images are static.

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I don’t think this staticness is necessarily a bad thing; somehow you land up with photographs that feel a lot more tranquil and peaceful. In fact, the same can be said of the whole process of shooting film: it’s meditative. The larger the format, the more you think because the implicit cost/ gravitas is higher, and because it’s also more difficult technically – my Arca Swiss 4×5 has no less than fourteen controls on the body alone for controlling movements; that excludes the lens, external meter, film holders etc. And of course – the bigger you go, the fewer bullets you get. (I’ve yet to see a 36 shot roll film canister for 8×10.) Bottom line: larger equals thoughtful, but perhaps at the expense of dynamism and serendipity. Each format has its own strength.

The same popular culture perception that has imposed the threshold of ‘seriousness’ on us has also done a number on what we think is art: anything film is ‘artistic’, but digital is a mere commodity that lands up on Facebook or hipstagram. Hmmm…surely this is contrary to the whole notion of what art is, especially in a photographic context: it is a translation of the unique vision of the photographer, no more, no less. And the medium used should of course be secondary, and possibly also irrelevant. Thus we land up with a lot of very mediocre images from an absolute standpoint that are accepted and perhaps subtly lauded/ praised because they were shot on film; not because they have artistic merit and consequently just happened to be shot on film.

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The upshot is that the threshold for digital-source work to be perceived as art is a lot higher; it has to have some quality that is unattainable by the masses and their point and shoots or camera phones. The threshold is higher, the bar is raised. Our collective tolerance for imperfection in digital is much, much lower. Guess what: this has an impact on our subconscious, and as a result, we delete a whole lot more – at least us serious photographers do; I don’t think this statement applies to the blogger who photographs everything that enters their digestive tracts. (Reverse visual diarrhoea, in a sense.)

I do also wonder how much of this is a consequence of control: we know we can make the image perfect with digital at the time of capture; there is therefore no excuse not to go back and do it again until it is, especially if you are in full control of the lighting and the process. Even if you are not, capture rates are so high that you can often get a few in as insurance, ‘just in case’. I do that often, especially when on a reportage assignment: the moments are not repeatable, and you’ve got no excuse for your clients. This of course results in a lot of images that are not bad, but they’re just not as good as the one you ultimately select – and they go on the reject pile. With film, I probably won’t use it in a situation of this level of criticality, and even if I did, I suspect I’d bank a lot less insurance – this significantly claws back the difference in the keeper rate. I suspect the absolute top level of compositional and technical quality for a photographer who’s competent at both media is pretty similar, though the average level for digital – including the discards – is probably quite a bit higher.

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There’s a method behind the seemingly random selection of images I’ve used to illustrate this article. Firstly, there are three film and three digital images in this set; they represent a wide range of shooting situations that a photographer might conceivably encounter, all the way from uncontrolled to fully controlled and repeatable. Aside from the obvious that the colour ones are digital – since I don’t shoot color with film to any degree of seriousness or consistency. What all of the digital images have in common is that they are of ‘risky’ subjects: in every case, there is a high chance of failure for various reasons. The soldiers were moving quickly during their parade routine, and light was sufficiently low and background sufficiently distracting that I had to shoot wide open, and the lens I had at the time was one which is particularly brutal at the transition point between in and out of focus – the Zeiss Otus.

Then, we have the fire image which is one that I think of as being stochastic: you have zero control whatsoever of what shape the flames take; but if you have the wrong flames, the image won’t look balanced – all the more so since the flames are both visually very prominent and the whole point of the image. You just have to shoot a lot of frames with the composition you intend, and hope that one of them balances perfectly. Then there’s the watch: it’s a much trickier image to execute than it appears; you have to balance the brightness of luminance material with the ambient – and controlled – light on the case; it’s shot under ideal studio conditions, so there’s really no excuse for it not to be perfect. And you certainly can’t use the unpredictability of film as an excuse for inconsistency if your client asks.

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The final image is an interesting one because it’s a bit of a red herring. It looks like a Hasselblad film image, is a Hasselblad image, but isn’t film. Here’s where everything comes together: the subject is rather stochastic – again, we have no control over the moving people, so all we can do to achieve perfect compositional balance is try many variations and rely on our innate sense of timing – but the tonal palette is consciously and decidedly filmic. The process of execution is filmic – digital back on a tripod, low ISO, precise composition of the edges of the frame and fixed structures, exposure to eliminate any possible overly harsh ‘digital’ overexposure – and the end-state results are surprisingly satisfying. Minimal or delayed feedback at the time of capture is also important: we don’t have a feedback cycle to work with unless you’re shooting polaroids; you won’t know if something went wrong until after you develop the film. Having an LCD/ review mode so poor that you don’t 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 aim has long been to get the tonality of film, with the repeatability, economy and ‘conduciveness to experimentation’ of digital. In short: as with all things photographic, there is no ideal; you really have to think of the whole integrated workflow as a learning process…MT


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  1. I agree…it wasn’t rocket surgery. Just procedure. We always thought,” film is cheap.” It was compared to missing the shot. That was easy for us to say, somebody else paid for it. And we marked it up 50%.

    I don’t think I’m stingy with pushing the button because of costs. It’s just how I shoot coming from that world.

  2. I understand Ming. You and I operated in different times. We had techniques to deal with “catastrophes.’ Clip tests. Processed the shoot in 2 runs. Lot’s of normal operating procedures that must be foreign today.

    That said, I really love the palette I get from Ektar. I don’t shoot lots of frames. As long as I can get emulsions that work for me I’m a happy guy 🙂

    • It’s foreign because clients won’t pay for the extra time or material, not because none of us know how to do it. Most of it is common sense.

  3. Hi Ming: I really enjoy your work and thought provoking essays. You have a knack for putting things in words that have been innate process for me. I really enjoy your essays on how shooting film differs from digital. I only shoot film for myself, except for snaps with my iPhone.

    I got a kick out of your comment, “And you certainly can’t use the unpredictability of film as an excuse for inconsistency if your client asks.”

    As an ex commercial shooter who worked in the film era, I never thought of film as unpredictable. We had to know how film reacted to different situations, i.e. wouldn’t typically shoot portraits with Velvia. We’d shoot polaroids to check things. We’d leave important still life sets up until film came back and we got client approval. But we had to be constant and predicable. We always had to “get it right.” Pre digital, retouching was almost never done, unless budgeted and planned for in pre production.

    Bubba said, “Folks talk about cost of film. Film is much less expensive than digital. Here is why, take the price of a full frame DSLR compare it to a 35 mm camera, you will be quick to notice for the cost difference much film and processing can be had. Also, the DSLR may not last anywhere near as long as film cameras. Folks as a group, of course you may be different, purchase a new DSLR and the like, every couple of years; some in less time. Thus DSLRs are commodities, disposable devices. The upgrading cost becomes very expensive, while the depreciated value of digital cameras is shocking. Folks that shoot film keep their cameras a very long time, decades, and those cameras continue to function.

    Even some of my most fervent film fans shoot maybe one roll a month, so that means the cost of film and developing is not that expensive. When folks purchase their new DSLR they shoot hundreds of shots a month if not on a weekend of which a high percentage of shots are deleted. After the initial euphoria wares off they shoot about the same number of images, over the same time period, a film shooter would; not too many. Thus the cost of digital is still quite high, then the next new DSLR arrives and their cycle begins.”

    This is me to a T. First, I’m shooting with a 1965 TLR that (my final goal) gives me really nice 20×20 prints when I drum scan Ektar 100. The camera cost me $250 and will still be working 40 years from now. (I hope I will be!) I am pretty busy at work, and only push the button when I think magic is going to happen, so film/processing/scan costs are pretty minimal. Couple hundred bucks last year?

    • I use the term unpredictability differently to the way I think you’ve interpreted it. For a client that had no idea of what to expect from film – very common these days – then it’s unexpected. Furthermore, there are a lot more things that can go wrong in processing before you get an image; and there’s no way of backing up other than shooting twice and physically separating the rolls.

  4. For anyone wanting to try an extreme case without cranking up the cost factor, I would recommend basic drawing lessons. It’s an experience I would not trade away even though I have not really drawn at all since the one-week course. You will consider the scene and composition very carefully if you’re going to spend at least a few hours sitting in front of it. Also there’s very little of the hassle with mixing paints, smearing, etc (and obviously a lot of factors analoguous to b&w photography).

    • Forgot to mention, my keeper rate is close to 100% even though some of the pictures are pure technical exercises and some were never finished. The small amount and time invested surely contributes more than quality, though…

    • Absolutely agreed. Or you can try with the Wacom and PS, it’s actually not far off…and you can undo!

  5. Daniel H says:

    This isn’t really related to this topic, but I must say, your fourth image of the guards really struck my eyes. It has a distinctive 3D look that results in the guards popping out of my screen. I can’t seem to put my fingers on what is giving that effect, but I guess it’s you and your Otus doing the magic. 🙂

  6. A digital camera without screen might be a practical solution as it would bring the positives of both, digital and analog, closer.

    Positives of digital: flexibility, better colors, independence from photo lab
    Positives of analog: full control, flow, discipline, skills and experience

    I shoot with disabled replay and RAW only. I bring my shots home and develop them in my raw converter. I do not have the discipline not to cheat, means to chimp now and then to control immediately after the shot. No screen would help me not to interrupt the flow; if I made a mistake, the frustration would be big enough to make me think and do better next time (no pain no gain; the screen compensates for my not existing skills but does not necessarily improve them).

    No screen on a pure RAW camera is not good for everybody but maybe would be for some of us. Quality would improve. Maybe there is no mass market for such a camera and Leica only would be closest to that purist approach.

    Thanks Ming for this excellent article and for the equally inspiring post by your readers.

    • At least you can turn off auto review; I usually work this way when shooting documentary, though for critical shots I think review is important since if you don’t, there’s no excuse to your clients for a miss – especially if you had the opportunity for a do over!

  7. Racecar says:

    Digital = dynamic. One can change ISO and White Balance settings when lighting conditions. Not so with film. One can push film a bit (during development) to increase the ISO, and a colour balance filter can be placed on the front of the lens, and that’s the extent of film’s dynamics. I do enjoy the dynamic range of film when it is done well within it’s restrictions. Quite a bit more care is required to bring out the best that film has to offer.

    • Agreed, though I still think B&W film has much greater dynamic range than digital – though most of that is in the ‘shoulder’…

  8. Martin Fritter says:

    Left out so far has been a discussion of the film aesthetic built around the actual imperfections of the medium. For example, classical 35mm street work. “The Americans” is full of blurred and marginally in focus shots and with all shorts of exposure anomalies. Gary Winogrand’s work has many of the same attributes. I don’t think Lee Friedlander’s could be approximated in digital. Of course there’s the entirety of photojournalism pre-digital. Many classic images shot fast and under duress, which shows in the results.

    The power of Davidson’s subway pictures comes in some large part how much the problems of taking them (slide film, flash, crowded subway, danger) are tangible in the images.

    Then there is the whole Japanese aesthetic which seems to relish the imperfections of film. One could argue that wabi-sabi is almost impossible in digital.

    One would think that we would be a kind of golden age of street photography, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    The picture of the watch is some kind of Platonic ideal. It’s just amazing.

    • I think motion is something you either like or don’t – I try to consciously avoid it in my film work; and by the same token it isn’t too difficult to be a bit sloppy with your shot discipline on a digital camera and put the motion back in. However, I suspect due to the discrete nature of the medium, it looks a lot more jarring with digital, and perhaps that’s why we subconsciously shy away from it…

  9. While I appreciate the thought provoking article, I can honestly say that since taking up digital photography I have not changed my way of working at all. I still make very few exposures. I imagine this comes from my large format roots.

  10. Truly I dislike the term, hipster. When digital started making inroads to film were those that moved to digital called hipsters? No, they were not, however using hipster for folks that use film should as well be used for those that use digital. Fair is fair.

    Folks talk about cost of film. Film is much less expensive than digital. Here is why, take the price of a full frame DSLR compare it to a 35 mm camera, you will be quick to notice for the cost difference much film and processing can be had. Also, the DSLR may not last anywhere near as long as film cameras. Folks as a group, of course you may be different, purchase a new DSLR and the like, every couple of years; some in less time. Thus DSLRs are commodities, disposable devices. The upgrading cost becomes very expensive, while the depreciated value of digital cameras is shocking. Folks that shoot film keep their cameras a very long time, decades, and those cameras continue to function.

    Even some of my most fervent film fans shoot maybe one roll a month, so that means the cost of film and developing is not that expensive. When folks purchase their new DSLR they shoot hundreds of shots a month if not on a weekend of which a high percentage of shots are deleted. After the initial euphoria wares off they shoot about the same number of images, over the same time period, a film shooter would; not too many. Thus the cost of digital is still quite high, then the next new DSLR arrives and their cycle begins.

    Some folks mention how bad film and its chemicals are for the environment; yes they are. Now look at digital, from building the equipment to acquire the raw materials out of the ground, equipment to get the material to the manufactures, the building of the factories that process the raw material into something useable, to manufacturing the parts, and all the processing steps transportation and the like between from gathering raw material to consumers hands, plus the use of fuel and water, you can see that makes digital much more environmentally hazardous and draining. Maybe you should read how devastating it has become in the areas where they are acquiring raw materials for cellphones and what it has done to those areas.

    Yes, I like and use digital for commercial clients, also for clients I shoot film; 100% of my personal work is film. Whether it is film or digital the client pays all costs, both the amortized value of my digital equipment, and when shooting film the cost of film and processing. As a business person those factors are included in the price; thus I am happy to use that which they want. Yes, more are asking for film. Now, before you flip out, when we go to the store purchase food, clothes, cars, restaurants, and the like we the consumer pay the overhead of the store it is all included in the cost of goods and services. Notice how UPS and others are now including fuel cost as an extra charge.

    Okay back on topic, for the home person film is much less expensive. One can purchase quality used SLR film cameras for less than $100, and those used pro SLR film cameras for under $300, plus you have full frame cameras. Try those prices on a full frame DSLR.

    For those that say film is more difficult than digital give this a thought; back in the day your grandmother shot film, how difficult can that be?


    • Von Manstein says:

      Great, great post!

    • While the scenarios that you describe may be applicable in some situations, I can think of many where they do not apply. I shot college football for two seasons, and I could not imagine the cost of shooting an event like this on film. And, I suspect that many sports photographers would agree. Even if I adhered to very strict shot discipline, the cost of film and processing for one game alone would add up quite quickly. Glass costs are virtually the same, and IIRC, the Nikon F4 was probably among the last film cameras used to shoot sports, and these bodies were not cheap, so I cannot imagine any savings unless you are comparing new to used equipment, an unreasonable comparison IMHO as there are many used digital cameras reasonably up to the task for affordable prices (e.g. used D300). Regarding the environmental issues, I am really not seeing a huge difference between manufacturing an F4 and a new Nikon body. You are adding a sensor and an LCD screen, but the body composition and electronics are awfully similar. I shot film for years and can understand the desire to shoot with it because you prefer it as a medium, but I am not fully convinced that shooting film is more affordable for many situations.


  11. My experience with film is limited, and for reasons that I went into in an earlier post, I have moments of philosophical misgivings about using it. This article makes a lot of sense, though.

    That being said, I try to shoot the DP3 Merrill like a film camera – i.e. I only shoot when something really catches my eye and I rarely, if ever, try something “just to see what it will look like”.

    This attitude is mostly imposed by the camera itself – abysmal battery life and very slow write speeds, both of which you can turn to your advantage in that they slow you down and make you ask yourself “do I really, really want this picture?” Similarly, the fear of the battery going forces me to analyse the scene on the screen (looking for unnecessary elements, checking the composition, etc) quickly, and this in turn stops me OVER-analysing it. Too much of that and you never shoot at all!

    I was out with the Merrill yesterday, and towards the end of the day my one remaining battery was showing zero bars. This is another way of saying “the next shot you take could very well be the last one on this charge”. For a commercial photographer, of course, this is the nightmare scenario, but for me it was actually very stimulating. With film, you know more or less exactly when you’re on your last shot; the Sigma doesn’t even afford me that luxury. But it really forced me to wait until a combination of instinct and (learned) analysis told me that there was something special in front of me. This rarely happens with a camera which can shoot a thousand frames on a charge.

    The consequence of this is that I get a keeper rate from the Merrill which is significantly better than any digital that I’ve used. I’m starting to give serious consideration to the new Quattro, and while the battery life in that is supposed to be better, it’s still rated as only 200 shots – and I’ve found that most manufacturer’s estimates of battery life are pretty optimistic!

    • This is a great example of what I was thinking about after reading Ming’s post and the comments above. I do not believe that it is digital itself that is the driver of the behavior change. Yes, technology is the ultimate driver, but the changes in behavior seem to come from things like large memory cards, and the ability of the internet to allow us to share images so quickly and easily. Think if digital imaging technology had advanced way ahead of the internet, and to a lesser degree ahead memory storage improvements. I suspect that we would be shooting less images, and in a more thoughtful manner, as Ming has alluded to above. And, our ability to share these images would be much like in the days before the internet.

      It can be easy to lump all of the technological advances in the last 25+ years together and then compare “digital vs. film” in some high level overview, but if you watched and participated in these changes over the years, as many of us have, you can probably see that improvements in sensor technology, the hear of “digital” have not been the only driver in the changes that we tend to analyze. Alternately, I do wonder what would photography look like if digital imaging technology was way behind all of the other technological improvements of recent? Hypothetical/rhetorical questions, yes, but they do help us unbundle all that we sometimes lump under that term “digital imaging”.


    • There’s no reason why this kind of seeing discipline can’t be applied to normal digital too; it’s just much easier not to do so. And the ‘shoot to see what something looks like’ I think is actually an important part of cementing the visualization process AND learning the technical response and limitations of your camera.

  12. Shooting on film forces you to learn how to see. It lacks the immediate feedback of digital, so you have to trust your seeing ability. With digital, the immediate feedback allows for a kind of visual laziness, in which you shoot all over the place and assume that somewhere in the pile is that killer image. Such thinking ends up with the notion of a super high quality motion picture camera, which you would let run for a while, and then offer that killer frame from amongst the thousands (or tens of thousands) recorded by the camera. I don’t see how that is going to work.

    • Or, the immediate feedback loop can be used to learn how to make the necessary corrections in the actual environment where an error/mistake was made. I learned many a lesson when my images came back from the lab, but lessons learned after the fact were far more frustrating, especially since much of the data about the shot was not always available during my debriefing days later. As somebody who is always trying to improve and learn, I often prefer immediate feedback to trusting my seeing ability. Yes, there are many situations where I do trust my seeing ability and experience, but if I am experimenting and trying to push myself in new or challenging situations, a bit of immediate feedback as needed is much appreciated.


    • Certainly the case for B&W, though for any film we are reliant on our experience of how the film responds to a given lighting condition. And I believe we discussed the motion camera in another comment here – I’m inclined to agree that it doesn’t really work, though more for technical and output objective reasons than anything else.

  13. Barry Reid says:

    An alternative take.

    When I shoot film I’m more stochastic, less deliberate. Liberated, actually. Because I don’t have to look at that bloody awful little TV screen that highlights the imperfections and makes me go again…

    • You could always disable playback – most of the time I do unless you really need to nail the frame (commercial work, for instance).

  14. People still like vinyl too!

  15. Ming, very interesting thoughts. Have you written here about why you do not shoot colour film much?

    • Yes. I can’t easily get it or develop it. The remaining local labs are pretty useless. On top of that, it’s much easier to get accurate and/ or pleasing color with digital. There really isn’t much adjustment you can do to color film.

  16. This and the cinematography discussions are especially important topics to think about for the future, because the next step in “stochastic” digital photography will likely be shooting everything as video and selecting the best frame to keep. We are less than a decade from having fully electronic cameras with no moving mirrors or shutters that capture full resolution, maximum technical quality 36-50 megapixel images, at 30-120 frames per second as a video capture. After all, if the shutter speed is faster than 1/30 second, you can get 30 “still” frames per second capture, just as soon as the electronics become fast enough to buffer and record that data. We are already there but with technical compromises, with the Nikon 1 doing 20 frames per second (not quite fast enough), or by doing a frame grab from a GoPro for a web resolution image. A decade from now, will we still have still cameras, or will selecting the best image be so compelling as to become the way cameras work? What will we want?

    • I have to admit you’re probably right, but I don’t like that idea because I almost feel it takes the challenge out of it. And there’s the fact that video at 1/50s with motion blur looks fine, but stills definitely do not…

      • No reason that the individual frames could not be exposed exactly as you prefer. Such cameras would presumably have the same exposure controls as current cameras. So, for example, light levels permitting, you might choose to shoot a high resolution, 1/1000 second exposure, free of motion blur, every 1/30th of a second. The challenge would be in making almost every frame look as great as your still images do now, i.e., knowing where to point the camera with the appropriate lens, aperture, and shutter speed, not just at one instant but throughout the clip. But isn’t that very similar to the challenge of your new direction of cinematography? … and such cameras would capture both the stills and the motion images at the same time! Few Hollywood motion pictures are so beautifully filmed as to evoke the feeling of a series of gorgeous still photographs. Actually quite a challenge!

        • Not quite. There’s still a lot of difference in how video at different shutter speeds looks when played back. And if you have camera movement at the same time plus fast moving subjects in frame, then you’re going to have visible motion in the shot – which you might not do with the still. I doubt adjusting exposure frame to frame depending on subject or camera motion is practical, and it would definitely yield very strange output. Stills or video, but not both. Color grading, tonality and lighting are another completely different thing, of course.

  17. Hi Ming,

    If cost wasn’t a major factor for photographers in the film era, can we really expect the medium to be relevant in a digital one?

    This article got me thinking about the relevance of film today, especially film vs art.. Digital is surely at a point now where it is the optimum medium to capture the times today and allude to tomorrow. There is a lot more room for experimentation in digital. With film being so expensive in comparison, the room for experimentation could never compete with the freedoms the film era. What is the value of film in the context of contemporary photographic practice? I not asking you personally, I just think its an interesting question,

    Cost is a motivator, but I feel an unhealthy one creatively. If you want to create a nicely exposed composition, take time and consideration with every shot. Work less, spend less time and money on equipment and more time using what you have. Instead of researching your next camera purchase, study images. The technology is different but the language is exactly the same. A camera is simply a recording device, it requires thought and consideration to get a good result from it,regardless of format. It still takes fair amount of consideration and understanding to get optimum results from digital.

    The film resurgence that I am observing more and more is obviously reactionary to digital. However what is really being achieved? Or is this simply a final gasp?. I imagine the purists and collectors will keep the medium going long after the hipsters have dropped off,which is good. Film is an important medium. However photography is a technologically driven medium, and these are exciting times. The format has shifted and with it the context. Sometimes I’m tempted to pick up a film camera. Then I think why?

    • For the most part, I agree. However, knowing that one can apply the same discipline to digital and actually doing so are two very different things; on top of that, I feel there are still things to be learned in the way B&W film handles highlight rolloff and shadow/ 3/4 tonal transitions; we can replete it on digital, but it’s not easy. My primary objective for shooting film was mostly to improve my B&W work; but beyond that I admit I just wanted to use a Hasselblad…

      • I see at least three reasons to shoot film still. Difficulty, size/weight, and permanence. Regarding difficulty, if you have more limited post-processing options, the work to get it right in camera is necessary.I know a lot can be done in a traditional darkroom, but I don’t have one, so it’s a moot point. My primary reason for still using 35mm film is weight though. My Leica M6 has image quality which essentially exceeds my needs (I’m not a pro, and I rarely print larger than 8×10) and it fits, with two extra lenses, in a small satchel with room left over for my sunglasses and a few other needful items. The D90 I used to use, with a single wide-angle lens, won’t fit in the same satchel by itself. Now I realize that a small digital camera can probably do the same, but that brings up the permanence issue. I feel, and the National Archives in the US still feels, that film is archival, but digital is not. It’s more of a pain to store, but with care there’s less chance of a collection of negatives suffering the physical equivalent of a hard-drive failure. Is that truly necessary for my humble travels and family photos? Probably not, but that nostalgia is important, and nostalgia itself is a key component of why we take photos in the first place, isn’t it?

        • If nostalgia is the desire to preserve and share a moment in time because it appeals to us on a personal level…absolutely.

          • I would argue that nostalgia has little place in a contemporary practice, especially if the goal is to capture the present. Wouldn’t digital be better suited to holding the nostalgic sentiments of today? With the amount of back up options available physically and in the cloud I think we have the archival thing covered.

            • I’ll grant you the archival bit, to some extent. In the kind of post-apocalyptic world which would be a necessary precondition to seeing life without the cloud again, acetate negatives would be the least of our concerns.

              But nostalgia is, to my mind, the only reason to hold a camera at all. (I’ll exclude product photography from this, since I’m not a pro) We are trying to stay a moment in time, to preserve it against our failing memories, to demonstrate a scene in the past to those in our future. And while I think I understand you to be saying “this is a digital world, why not remember it with digital information?”, I have probably read too much Wendell Berry to completely agree. For the same reason vinyl records are still popular, I think an analog medium for visual information remains relevant, probably because at the core, humans are not digital. We have a lot more in common with the imperfections and grain of film than with the crisp perfection of a 36MP masterpiece. At least for me, and the pictures I keep to remember family, friends, and travel, film will remain a more fitting reflection of my memories. Maybe. Like I said below, the hassle and expense of film, coupled with the results I’m able to achieve with my Ricoh GR, may cause me to reconsider.

              • Nostalgia is the last thing on my mind when i pick up a camera.
                Nostalgia is certainly one by product of photography it shouldn’t be the motivator. Attempts to create nostalgia are artificial at best. The images we might dwell on with warm fuzzy feelings are by photographers or people living in and capturing their times, not making nostalgic images.
                I guarantee all the significant images of our times today, images that capture the major events, that sum up the look, feel and sentiment of these times will be digital. Images by photographers and everyday people that are living now for now. Good work is often made by people that make and don’t think too much as to why, they just do it. They make documents or images that may sway or bring progress. Creating new images and ways of seeing is what motivate, journalists, artists and creators., History yes, but its certainly not nostalgia.
                Its not actually that important today how images are made, its possibly just important that they are. Photography has always been about technology, its just at a saturation point where people start to cling to the past for fear of tomorrow. Or how their practice might become redundent becasue some hack can take a great shot with their mobile phone.Think of how many mobile phone clips, photos that have been made, that are great, and sum up our time. These have been made by regular folk. This is a good thing. Its progress. You can define yourself and your personal practice with any medium you like, its personal, I just feel shooting film today carries dead weight. The image gives work its shelf life not the medium.
                Im sure many will disagree. But I actully feel that digital is more organic than analog. It is far more intergrated into every facet of our being than analog has ever been. I would argue that many people only picked up a film camera becasue of digital photography. I see how natural my kids interact with digital and fluid is a word I would describe it. Its natural in so many ways. Its also new and foreign to many. Progressive photography is digital in my view and its not always being made by photographers. We will still look at these imges with the same fuzzy feelings of yesteryear. The progress and potential of digital in my view is whats exciting about photography today.

            • True, but it doesn’t solve the problem of tonal response – even if most people’s preferences are changed because of the sheer volume of a certain type of media, for instance.

      • Though I should admit that my happiness with my Ricoh GR and my love/hate relationship with the x100s I’ve been able to use recently has caused me to seriously reconsider the hassle of film, at least in formats smaller than 6×6. I love the Hasselblad for a host of reasons beyond the above, not least the absolutely glorious image quality.

  18. Ken Benshish says:

    Excellent article. Thank you!

  19. For me the only reason digital photography to exist is corporations. They figured out that one can be great photographer with old manual camera and not to buy new gear every year. They didn’t like it. And when opportunity presented it self they pushed it. And now everybody is photographer. You buy gear and shoot like crazy and post it on sites everyday but something is missing. No longer. Film is way of making photos, digital is way of taking pictures. Somehow corporations are shifting purpose of photography, photography is meant to be printed, not consumed on a screen with no dynamic range, but people like to feel important and they love attention. And when technology gives you that chance on a mass scale things get weird quickly:) So if you are commercially engaged in photography you have no choice, you must shoot digitally. But please stop to calculate cost, its not logical at all. People are buying overpriced smartphones, cars, clothes everyday, but can’t buy film? Look in that calculative way next time when you buy new BMW, Mercedes or Aston Martin or next cool gadget that is useless. In a way i feel like mad when people ask me : You shoot film? Its expensive.

    • I don’t think you could say we gained nothing at all from digital, though. And the fact that we see a lot more rubbish posted online is probably down to proliferation of social media as much as the evolution of photography itself. People were taking poor images since they could take images; it just used to be a lot more effort to inflict them on others.

    • “Film is way of making photos, digital is way of taking pictures. Somehow corporations are shifting purpose of photography, photography is meant to be printed, not consumed on a screen with no dynamic range, but people like to feel important and they love attention.”

      Why does it have to be an either/or situation? Ming, for example, reaches how many people with his blog? And how many does he reach with print sales? If, as an artist, you wish to get your message across to an audience (and I admit that not all do), and the technology is not objectionable, then why not reach as large of an audience as possible? Yes, looking at a print is different than looking at an image in a book, which is different than looking at one on a screen. But, I know many photographers who in years past could only have dreamed of reaching the number of people that Ming is reaching with his blog. I do have to wonder how many of us would have heard of Ming, or seen his work, if he confined himself to printing.


      • Short answer: much more through the site than prints, simply because of the physical requirements. But I do find myself having to alter the images to be optimized for the output medium; there are images that work beautifully in print but are horrible and lifeless on screen, and vice versa.

        • I understand and concur. A screen is a different medium from paper, just as a digital sensor is a different capture medium from film. And I can understand a preference since we as photographers like to present our work in a manner that we find acceptable. But, if we as artists have any interest in sharing our vision or statements with an audience, then we do need to decide if alternate means of presentation (book vs. print, or screen vs. print) is acceptable if we can reach a larger audience. These are choices each of us has to make for ourselves, but I am not quite ready to write off screen technology since the web does allow us the ability to reach a much broader audience if that is something that we choose.


  20. Good article. I agree with your analysis why we may end up with a higher keep rate of film vs digital. However, this is probably a recent develop since film is becoming expensive. 20+ years ago, I am sure a lot of frames on a roll of film where about “just testing it out”.

    • Agreed – and it was much easier to see the result quickly, too. I honestly don’t know if there are still any 1-hour labs in my city.

  21. I think what you’re saying is true, to an extent. It is certainly true in the present day. But I do remember reading an article about Sam Abell and his quest for the perfect photograph to complement an article on CW Russell for National Geographic. He said that he took something like 100,000 frames over a period of six months in preparation for that article. The magazine used six of those frames. And this is one of the most famous photographers of modern era.

    Now, however, the cost is much greater to shoot film, and in my own work (at least in color) I notice the same effect you discuss: greater deliberation, greater care, greater success with film. Black-and-white film is still relatively cheap, and since I develop it myself the cost is somewhat lower, so perhaps oddly, my black-and-white “keeper” rate is similar to that I have with digital. I need to get better about this, I know. But perhaps the take-home message is that care and deliberation results in greater success regardless of media. That’s probably a life lesson too.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article.

    • That does sound about right. NG is notoriously famous for sending its photogs out with literally thousands of rolls, and expecting them to be all used. That said, it probably made the picture editor’s job a nightmare. Given that shoot budgets these days are probably less than just the film and developing cost – 100k images is in the $35-40k region, even assuming bulk discounts – I think deliberation is the way to go…

      I have a theory about the B&W keeper rate: its more difficult to visualise than colour 🙂

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