Opinion: Sensible perspectives on film and digital in current times

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Today’s post has been a long time brewing. The recent resurgence in the popularity of film is undeniable, to the point that there are both new brands and revivals of old ones happening on a fairly regular basis. It seems to be not so interesting for the big guys – look at the continual Fuji price increases as prime exhibit – but this has meant that there business is more open to the enthusiasts and those creating film specifically for the demands of those markets (such as JCH Street Pan). Anybody who gets off their comfortable chair to put money and action where their mouths are deserves a round of applause, in my book. Given all of this – it’s only natural that there have also been a lot of people rising to the defence of the medium, in the comments here, and sometimes much more aggressively over email. In the interests of saving much angst, it’s probably about time I make my personal position on film clear, and more importantly, the rationale behind it.

Firstly, despite how much I extol the virtues of digital and have my own hardware biased heavily in this directly, I don’t hate or dislike film – far from it. The simple problem is one of practicality: in my neck of the woods, the available emulsions are very limited, very expensive, and because the absolute demand isn’t great volumes, the stock also tends to be old. This applies to both film and chemicals – meaning you’re paying a premium for unfresh goods. Yes, I could import stuff from overseas, but our local customs has taken to being rather overzealous in classification, examination, and x-ray – which means that there’s a good chance the film you’ve taken so much care to import fresh is going to be compromised anyway. I could probably get it overseas when I travel, but this is not really a reliable method either, as stock varies and again – it’s got to pass through x ray scanners at airports. A single pass isn’t an issue; it’s the fact that on a multi-leg trip you’re going to rack up the cumulative total very quickly. It also doesn’t help that some airports have no fewer than three security scans!

It is unfortunately not a very practical medium for travelling. Especially given the increased militancy of carry on baggage weight police, it seems rather silly to make the effort to travel to one location and then constantly feel under pressure ‘to make it worthwhile’ and avoid experimentation because you’re not sure if you’ve got enough film. The last time I travelled with film, I shot about 40 rolls of 120 in a week – and I really felt like I was deliberately holding back. Even so, the volume taken up isn’t trivial. Even then, I was fortunate to be able to find more locally – but not the kind I wanted, which again presents problems on developing because you then have to sacrifice a roll to see if your chemistry is right if the film is unfamiliar. And we haven’t even talked about practical work on assignment – yes, I’m aware that photographers managed just fine in the past with thousands of rolls and multiple bodies to always have the right emulsion to hand if lighting conditions changed – but I’m sure if you ask any of them whether they missed hauling crates around and playing the lottery as to whether the image came out as expected or not, I think you’ll find few working pros who say they’d switch back.

The unrepeatability is probably the worst part for paid assignments: back in the day when there were no alternatives, clients had no choice but to accept that there was an element of risk involved: there is no way you know for sure if you’d gotten the image until it was developed and delivered. Any number of things could go wrong that might not even be the photographer’s fault (i.e. unrelated to capture or technique or professionalism – I’m not talking about exposure or related mistakes made due to inexperience etc.) – from damage in transit to somebody at the lab messing up to accidental physical damage. You could shoot multiple frames on multiple bodies/rolls if the subject permitted, but this is obviously not practical for anything documentary. At least with digital you can be sure you have the file instantly, and make identical backup copies immediately. The uncertainty factor is greatly reduced. And in an environment where nobody else offers that level of uncertainty, you can’t afford to, either. It doesn’t help that shoot timetables and budgets have suffered so much in recent times that you barely have time for one try, let alone a do-over. The irony of course is that a lot of film’s resurgence in popularity can be attributed to social media, filters, instagram and the like – which are purely digital media seeking to emulate film, but in the process making a whole new generation of photographers curious about the original.

There are exceptions for pros, of course: the main one being applications that are local and non time-critical – portraiture, wedding and fine art come to mind. Here, the artistic and rendering qualities of film may still trump the risks – and if clients are willing to accept that, then all the better. But personally, I wouldn’t take the risk anymore for all of the reasons mentioned above – and the underlying one of professionalism. If one is engaged to deliver a job, then you have to make sure you do so. Lastly – there are still formats and applications that have no digital equivalent; the obvious place being larger formats. Whilst we do have 54x40mm sensors, they’re not 8×10″ or 6×17 – and can never be. The overall image quality may be close, but the rendering style can’t be the same especially when normal is 150mm+!

The ideal compromise is of course a client who understands the process and whose applications aren’t so critical that the world comes to a halt if images are not delivered or not quite to expectations – i.e. yourself. By no means am I being flippant about this – it’s simply easier to accept that your images might not quite be as expected if you know just how outside your control each step is. Similarly, it’s also easier to only deploy the medium on subjects and situations where it makes most sense – I’d be quite happy to shoot film portraits of friends and family, but not for a client unless they absolutely insisted that there was some specific quality of film I could not replicate through normal workflow, and were willing to accept the risks, and I could ensure that I had the right raw materials to work with (i.e. fresh film and chemical). Even then, the few times it’s happened, the output has still been digital – the images still had to be scanned for final use. I don’t honestly know if the results justified the process, but perhaps that’s not the point.

I can’t say I’d still recommend beginning photographers to shoot film – the feedback process is too slow to learn effectively with and there are too many other variables to control and master before being able to decouple the effects of one from the rest – but there’s probably some value in experienced photographers taking a film break; it acts as a good check to see if your fundamental skills are actually as good as you think they are. In a pursuit where practitioners inextricably confuse practice with equipment, perhaps it is the process itself that people find appealing – the darkroom can be quite meditative, providing you’re not watching stand developing. Or it could be the uncertainty itself that’s a good mirror for some kinds of photography (social documentary for instance) – after all, a controlled outcome isn’t always what’s desired. I admit it’s been a long while since I last shot anything on film – perhaps it’s time to go source some fresh chemicals on the next trip…MT

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Comments

  1. great read. obviously, many who read your site are civil and thoughtful artists. thank you.

    i would only add to the conversation that there is nothing i have experienced in the digital realm that compares to developing a 14″x17″ negative by inspection. the thrill of watching the image appear is “magical” to me even if the science is well understood. well maybe the first time seeing a photograph one has carefully captured with medium format digital equipment as it chugs its way, line by line, out of a 44″ wide printer. that is an amazing experience too.

    in terms of cost, one sheet of 14×17 film from ilford runs about $20, but x-ray film is $1.08 for the same format. almost disposable at that cost giving much more freedom to experiment. using ilfotec HC @ $50 a liter works out to $1 a sheet for development as well. $2 for stunning tonal representation and detail equivalent to a gigapixel (using a 3mp for 35mm film scale). scanned and printed at 220 dpi would produce a print around 14 feet high at the resolution of a print made from 35mm film on 8×10″ paper.

    i am so far only making contact prints in silver, palladium and gold. but oh how they look!

    creating fine art landscapes, architectural images and portraits are my nirvana.

    ming, thank you sincerely for continuing to add to this blog. as a fellow educator, i appreciate and make use of the resource very often!

  2. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    “It is unfortunately not a very practical medium for travelling.”

    Wow…I never noticed this at all. I’ve shot film in something like 18 countries now (including yours) and never felt uncomfortable. My camera bag and my carry on bag can hold more film that I typically need. My last trip to Japan saw me shoot over 50 rolls and I still had plenty left over.

    Shooting film, like anything, is a state of mind. If you are in the right mindset, then whatever difficulties present themselves can be overcome.

    I loathe digital shooting because my mind works against it. So for me, difficulties that you or others easily overcome, are quite hard. There are no absolute truths here and the difficulties for shooting film are in most cases have solutions.

  3. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    Please Ming, do NOT keep repeating the fallacy that X-rays damage film. You are better than that. It’s ridiculous and a simple experiment will prove it to you. Today’s X-ray machines operate at such a low level of emission that they are film SAFE. Try it yourself. But yourself some films, say ISO400 and Delta 3200. Then send these high speed films through an X ray machine, not once, not twice, but TWELVE times. Then develop it and see for yourself. I’ve done it, with film that is VERY important to me and not ONCE have I seen even the slightest degree of fogging. Not. Once.

    It is ridiculous to suggest that x rays (airport carry on) affect film. The ONLY exception is checked in baggage. There and only there are high powered x-rays used. This will damage film.

    All you have to do is not put your film in checked baggage and you are 100% safe. I travel the world with my camera bag (YOURS!) stuffed with film. I send it through the X ray machine without a moment’s thought. Again and again and again, and again.

    • I was asking if he saw any effect – not stating or repeating that there was an issue. I *have* experienced x-ray related fogging before, and not that long ago – 2013. Remember that not every airport has the latest equipment!

      • L. Ron Hubbard says:

        While I have only been to around 18 or so countries with my camera, a colleague of mine has been to 75+. He’s a pro photographer shooting nothing but film. He’s based in the middle east, hardly the most modern part of the world. Not a problem for him. He’s the one who taught me to never fear airport x-rays. Before meeting him I was a paranoid person on this subject.

        Look, you can always find an example where anything fails. The statistics long term are where the real story lies. Would you not fly in an airplane because one crashed? All I’m saying is that for the vast majority of people, film and airport x-rays are a complete non issue.

  4. Jim Suojanen says:

    I don’t see it as an either/or. I like to use film for black and white; digital for color. I wrote a little piece for …, I won’t mention his name, at this link:
    http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2016/02/10/a-return-to-film-from-the-leica-monochrom-by-james-suojanen/

    Film has a unique character in how it renders images. The emulsion is 20-30 microns thick so it interacts with the lens completely differently than a microprism less than a micron thick at the top of a sensor well. Analog and digital have unique edges and contrast.

    I digitize my film using my Leica M9 with a Visoflex III and 90mm Macro Elmar on a copy stand. I load my developed film into Plustek holders held on rails over a lightbox. The film and sensor are nearly perfectly parallel. Fast, easy and excellent quality. One or two images I’ll eventually have professionally scanned for printing.

    Getting color right is very difficult with film; at least for me. Getting accurate colors with digital, especially when printing, is a whole lot easier.

    • Agreed on character, and rendition because of the emulsion thickness: this recording of the slightly OOF areas in front and behind of the focal plane are probably what most people think of as ‘glow’.

      • Do you really think this is possible? The glow from recording OOF areas? What about film flatness?

        Jim mentions, “Analog and digital have unique edges and contrast.”
        Reminds me of someone from a couple years ago who was able to identify images from digital cameras 100% of the time.
        Her eyes saw digital images as resembling silkscreens. That her eyes saw those unique edges and it annoyed her.
        With that I notice the “bite” that you describe when scanning using a camera for scanning. After reading that you were scanning with your Nikon I gave it a try and there definitely was a wow factor. It didn’t take me long to go back to a scanner. I believe this is the same as what that woman was describing. I can make the same observations with digital vs analog music playback. Digital playback
        sounds sharper. Years ago I played saxophone recordings of the same music, one recorded in digital and the other from analog. I played the music to a musician. The musician didn’t know whether he was listening to digital or analog. First I played the digital recording, which he enjoyed, but still not knowing the source. Then he listened to the analog recording. By comparison, he described the digital recording as sounding like a horn and the analog as sounding like a saxophone. Analog recorded music has the harmonic structure that digital lacks, why one sounded like a horn and the other a sax. I have several of the same recording, in both digital and analog. Listening to the digital version exclusively for a period of time, then listening to the analog version makes the differences obvious, no contest.

        I remember reading there was not an issue in viewing digitally reproduced images vs analog, provided that they were in different rooms, rather than alongside. Somewhere you made a comment to the effect that we accept poor analog images because of lower expectations. I don’t think we consciously go through that exercise. Most of our iconic images became iconic images long before we had digital as a comparison, so we can’t go there. We can if we are just trying to make an argument for the sake of taking sides.

        • Yes, because digital media are almost perfectly planar – so they only record the imaging plane at that point. Film has thickness, so it records a bit in front and a bit behind – which means a little out of focus in either direction.

          The ‘softness’ at boundary transitions (tone, volume, luminosity etc.) are probably because clipping isn’t binary/ linear, but rather has continuous steps to the transition.

          • The “glow” could just as well be from better handling of highlights, particularly in black & white film.
            When highlights fall off a cliff, as they can in digital, it affects how our eyes perceive mid tones and shadows.

            • Also possible. Or lateral bleed…

              • I was suggesting that film records much like our eyes do.

                • In tonal linearity – or nonlinearity and the way it clips highlights gently – yes.

                  • Ming, I’m by no means knowledgeable in this area, but I wonder if the fact that the silver halides in b/w film are suspended in an emulsion layer that has a certain thickness, then it follows that the halides themselves will be found at differing depths within the emulsion. We know that the red, green, and blue light waves focus at different points, so would it follow that the halides would respond unequally to these rays depending upon how deep they are buried in the emulsion? This is the sort of principle employed in Sigma’s Foveon sensors, is it not?

        • Jim Suojanen says:

          I have been doing Radiology for the past 33+ years, spending most of my day interpreting images and also making images – 99%+ in black and white. The first 20 years was film based and now 100% digital. My subspecialties – Neuroradiology and Vascular/Interventional Radiology – have me looking at blood vessels very often. An early research project had me attempting to measure the diameter of a small vessel in the brain from cut film magnification angiograms. Trying to define the edge of the vessel lumen where it was filled with x-ray dye was a near impossible task on film. With digital imaging, it is possible to make reliable determinations; so much so that the task can be done simply with edge-detection algorithms. The same principle applies to light-based image recording; edges tend to be better defined with digital sensor/lens combinations. Not better artistically; just different.

          A film-based subtraction angiogram, when we taped the patient well enough that they couldn’t move and I went into the dark room to make the make the mask and print the run, generated images that digitally acquired studies simply cannot equal (with current technology). But digital is faster, cheaper, and produces excellent images that are more than adequate 98%+ of the time.

          Because black and white film let me help thousands of people and save some lives, it’s part of me. And maybe one day I’ll make a light-based image as good as one of my “Ansel Adams angiograms”.

    • Thanks for the link to the Steve Huff article. A good read, including the comments. Do digital B&W for awhile then shoot off a roll of B&W film with most any camera. You don’t even need a Leica, an Olympus Stylus will do.

    • An interesting experience with your Monochrom. I’ve read that to get excellent images with it requires a lot of input from the photographer than they be expecting, and requires more PP than they thought. But I’ve never used one, so can’t say. What I can say, though, is I believe you meant to write in the narrative was “Je ne sais quoi” and not “Je ne sais pas”. In English we’d say something like “It’s missing a certain, I do not know what” and thus the direct French equivalent makes use of “quoi”. :D)

      • The monochrom makes very flat images, but with great latitude and nuance – probably because tonality is also a function of spatial resolution (more steps allows gradations to be better described, of course).

  5. Jaap Veldman says:

    I was able to talk 20 rolls of portra and acros around the scanners at the airports from Holland to India
    and back to Holland a few months ago. Most of the personnel even don’t know what film is.
    My cameras also were checked so they had to be empty.
    It took me roughly 15 minutes extra at every check.
    But you have to be very persistent!

    • Did you see any cumulative fogging/ x-ray effects from multiple passes through x ray? Or did you manage to avoid the x-ray scanners completely?

      • L. Ron Hubbard says:

        My film was scanned on entry into the UK, the same film was scanned on entry to France, and then Italy. It was scanned THREE times on entry into St. Peter’s Basilica. The same film was scanned leaving Italy and then scanned on arrival in my home country.

        That’s 8 scans, 50+ rolls of film (everything from Acros 100 to Ilford Delta 3200). NO fogging. None.

        • L. Ron Hubbard says:

          Whoops, make that 9 scans..the flight to the UK had a film scan too!

          • First world. If you’ve seen the X-ray scanners at Kathmandu airport, for instance…I’m not sure you’d be getting a low dose at all. Not everybody travels to places that have the latest equipment…

            • L. Ron Hubbard says:

              First off, the vast majority of people hardly go to such places so if that is the concern, it’s a non issue.

              Second, I’ve been all over India with my camera & film, with the guy next to the film scanner holding an assault rifle inspecting my bags.

              It’s simple physics. X-ray scanners are not that strong. If they were, they. would need special shielding for the operators. Ever get an X ray at the doctors office or dentist? I bet they left the room when the X ray was conducted. That’s how they do it in the US. The operator steps behind a special shield when they fire a SINGLE X-ray.

              Operators that spend 8 hours right next to these devices are not protected at all. Look at the machines…there is no special shielding.

              • Sorry Ron, but that’s where you’re wrong, and I’ve just confirmed this with my wife who runs a hospital – lots of X ray machines there. Shielding is present in all X-ray machines in all directions other than that facing the film. I used these a lot for crystallography experiments in university (but never tested with film, alas).

  6. Nice article again. I earned a good living doing corporate and advertising photography for over 25 years shooting all film formats as well as working with earlier digital cameras and production methods (also a stint of pro darkroom work). I did a large body of fine art work 2005-2015 using large format film and only recently put the view cameras away. Now I have a Leica film body and a couple of cheap plastic point and shoots that give me nostalgic satisfaction and a change of pace, but my serious work is done with good digital cameras. I would not willingly go back to an analog workflow.

    When we had to shoot film the ideal was a clean grain-free image with no imperfections so now I find it humorous that modern hipsters value the flaws and readily accept streaky, dirty processing, uneven skies, thumb creases and other sloppy poorly crafted excuses as being more artistic. Or autistic? If you view famous Wet Plate images from the 1800s you’ll see exemplary craftsmanship – the emulsions are poured perfectly, everything is spotted and clean as a whistle. Most modern Wet Plate photographers are slobs in comparison, I saw one guy actually adding dirt and plant matter to his images in a stupid attempt to “enhance”.

    So now, even though I still shoot ~20 rolls per year, I cringe at being associated with being a film photographer. It’s too trendy and pretentious, kids think they deserve a gold medal for successfully shooting a roll of Kodacolor through their thrift store Canon AE-1. It’s downright embarrassing. If film suddenly disappeared tomorrow I’d put the Leica on the shelf and maybe fondle it and wind on wistfully but I wouldn’t really miss the film itself, it’s a huge pain. I have four feet of film in notebooks to sort through and consolidate into a single binder before I die, otherwise it all gets tossed and good riddance.

    • Frank, don’t cringe at being associated with being a film photographer. Take pride in it. Sure it is easy to do it sloppily, but if you have years of experience, you have a skill set than millions of modern photographers do not have. One particular reason to take pride is to counter the thousands of film-haters, the smirky digital crowd with their giant DSLRs who believe they are so superior. That invariably masks a lack of skill in the basics, and lack of knowledge of a traditional technology like using film.

    • I couldn’t agree more with your second paragraph. And these same “hipsters” who probably came to film from digital now write about it in blogs as if they are experts. Often what they write makes me laugh (or squirm).

      No need to cringe at being a film photographer. Had Kodachromeguy not beaten me to it, I would have written something very similar. So I will simply just say, sit back, reminisce, and if you are partial to a nice wine, enjoy that, too!

    • Thanks Frank. The limited amount of time I did shoot with a 4×5″, I really missed the flexibility of its movements and creative options – too bad it got to the point where none of the film or chemical was consistently available, and the labs were hit and miss. Not possible to use for commercial work, but if there ever was either a proper ‘small’ view camera for digital backs or a large back – I’d be back there again. In the meantime, there’s the HTS 🙂

      Any image quality, not just film: start perfect and you can go backwards. But not the other way around when you regret it later…

      • Ming, as for “small” view camera units, two come to mind: the extremely rare Ilford/Kennedy Instruments Monobar, and probably what would be far less expensive, but still not easy to track down, the Kenlock Tilt and Shift Bellows unit. I own one of these and which I purchased on a whim sometime in the 1980’s. It looks just like a monorail, but in miniature.

        • Are the movements geared? I found that it’s just not precise enough otherwise with the tolerances required for modern digital…

          • Michael Demeyer says:

            Actus? Geared, compact, and versatile.

          • I’ll get it out of storage and send you some images. In some respects it looks like a Sinar, with single arms on the right side, but its overall size means its dimensions are all out of kilter relative to a full size monorail.

            Both standards are gear driven along the communal focusing rail. The tripod fixing plate is also independently gear driven.The rear standard L+R shift +/- 20mm is gear driven, but rise is friction controlled, as is swing and tilt. The front standard adds gear driven rise/fall. All movements are calibrated in mm or degrees around a positive central detente and are individually lockable.

            • Thanks Terry. I find that tilt is the one that has to be gear driven – the slightest deviation from perpendicular/ parallel is what throws your expectations of where the focal plane are…

              • You’ve revived an interest in this unit, especially as I’ve never used it with any digital camera. The front standard tilt is quite smooth and not loose, so it will be interesting to see how I get on. It presently has a Leica R camera mount but fortunately I have a Nex to R adapter.

      • Frank Petronio says:

        Ming, I’ve investigated and tried several of the potential smaller view cameras for digital backs as digital evolved over the years. Now my thinking and experience is that stitching or simple shooting “more” and editing, including distortions, is the most practical and best quality.

        I understand the desire to get things right “in camera” using movements but at the extremes that many architectural projects required I found myself using movements and then Photoshop distortions to fix the flaws of the lenses. Sure you could get a crowd pleasing shot in reasonable time but if you really value straight parallel lines it takes some serious work.

        The last generation of studio view cameras – Sinar P2s for instance – were marketed as being “digital back compatible” and many suckers convinced themselves that it was true. Very frustrating to have to tape down knobs and block parts of your expensive camera so it wouldn’t move.

        • Agreed on precision. And one of the reasons I was asking about view cameras really designed for digital is because of exactly what you mention – many are simply not precise enough.

    • L. Ron Hubbard says:

      “When we had to shoot film the ideal was a clean grain-free image with no imperfections ”

      This is abject nonsense. Grain is part of a film image and can be, and IS, used to create the image. A 100% grain free image is sterile and devoid of emotional content.

      Excessive grain is what was avoided. I dont know any photographer from nearly 45 years of shooting that ever went for zero grain.

      • It’s popular to equate digital noise with film grain. Apples and oranges.

      • “This is abject nonsense. Grain is part of a film image”
        No need to get so harsh. Like Frank, I shot tons of film and worked as a commercial photographer during the late 1980’s./early 1990’s and only documentary/news/event shooters shot 35mm film because they had to; when you had the opportunity, you shot the biggest format reasonably available to get the cleanest image possible. For us it was Mamiya RZ and 4×5″ in controlled environments but 35mm Tri-X for press events. Grain negatively affected image quality, hence ASA 25/50/64 films being popular with 35mm photographers. That being said, the nature of photography is one of trends and fads. During the 1920-30’s there was the f64 school on ULF; in the late 20th century we get the Terry Richardson Lo-Fi style; and all things in between. For me, I sometimes had to shoot Tri-X pushed 3 stops to get a usable, publishable image despite snowflake grain, but would have loved a clean image from a D5 instead. Then again, Cappa’s D-Day images might not be so powerful but for a lab mistake.

      • Frank Petronio says:

        I’m just honored to have been critiqued by the great Scientologist! 45 years of shooting too!

  7. You wrote: “Lastly – there are still formats and applications that have no digital equivalent; the obvious place being larger formats. Whilst we do have 54x40mm sensors, they’re not 8×10″ or 6×17 – and can never be.

    Why would you think that large format digital sensors are impossible?

    They already exist, for example, digital image sensors sized 14 inches x 17 inches, that are used daily for medical radiography in thousands of locations worldwide, for chest x-rays, etc. Here’s one from Canon that uses silicon nitride and amorphous silicon with its spec sheet, and a 17″ x 17″ CCD from another company. Remove the extra layer consisting of an x-ray to visible light converting scintillator, and you have a working light sensitive large format digital sensor.

    There may be no currently viable market for such expensive large format sensors for photographic use, but they are certainly possible.

    • I didn’t say that: I said a 54x40mm sensor isn’t the same as a 6×17 one, because the real FLs required for equivalent fields of view aren’t the same. Larger sensors aren’t impossible, they’re just prohibitively expensive for consumer applications (plus the required lenses). Medical sensors are much lower pixel density and more tolerant of errors; military imaging is probably closer to what we’d expect.

  8. I see film as fulfilling two purposes. Firstly, if you want to muck about with medium format, but can’t afford the entry cost to medium format digital, then film is your friend. Second, if you want to shoot large format, then film is simply your only option. I believe all the most expensive photos ever sold started with an exposure on a rectangle of (usually large format) film. Lomography, 35mm, lo fi film photos? Meh, you can get that from an iPhone.

  9. I think the correct answer to “Should I use film?” is if you need to ask, then the answer is no. Either you are curious enough (and perhaps a bit masochistic) to experiment and put up with all the initial mistakes you’ll make, or you’re very experienced with film already, and can use it to do what you need to do. For me, film’s now moved into an artistic materials kind of category, just like painting, sculpture, etc. It’s not necessarily commercially viable these days due to lack of support infrastructure with labs and availability, but most commercial projects don’t need it anyway: it’s now a specialist material used by those dedicated to it.

    For me, the interesting stuff is happening at the intersection of digital and analog techniques. I’ve been fascinated by platinum/palladium printing done on images that were shot digitally, but printed as negatives on a piece of plastic and then contact-printed with traditional methods. Some of that work is really beautiful and unique, and you get the flexibility of all of digital’s processing tools, like Photoshop. The size can also be much larger than traditional Pt/Pa printing since we have printers that can easily print much larger than 8×10 these days.

    I keep thinking that there’s a niche for photographers who work in film who can produce work that’s unique to that medium, since most digital imagery look more alike than not in that they all kind of look digital. Dan Winters who does his editorial portraits on a large format camera and C41 film is a great example of this.

    • Now if only we could get Pt/Pd printers too… 🙂

      There will always be a place for any photographer who can make unique images – period – regardless of how they were made or on what medium.

  10. Martin Fritter says:

    Film seems to produce more felicitous accidents than digital. Also, a technically mediocre film image can be excellent, whereas not so with digital. I think this has some parallels with analog as compared to digital sound recording. Something to do with how distortion and stress are handled?

    • Agreed – and expectations, too 🙂

      • Martin Fritter says:

        Have I touted Richard Benson’s “The Printed Picture” to you? You would love it: printing from Albrecht Durer to inkjet in granular technical detail. Benson printed for Gene Smith and Strand and did books for Friedlander. And was Chairman of the art dept at Yale. And more. Oh, the watches look grand.

  11. Jeffrey Stulin says:

    Hello Ming:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and timely article on film and digital photography. I sadly agree with your final conclusion: commercially there can be only a tiny market for film due to its “inconvenience”

    However, there are a number of advantages to film photography for learning, for art, and for personal sanity.

    First, film still has a different “look” than digital. Not necessarily better, or worse, but different. If one wants a film look, then use film, else use digital.

    The digital-internet-universe has us moving faster and faster and faster. Good for business, no so good for human beings. Film photography forces you to slow down and smell the roses. This is (when not on a deadline) a good thing.

    Digital photography is, for most people, limited to “full frame.” “Real” medium format systems still cost in the neighborhood of $30k – 50k. A few months ago I picked up a complete Hasselblad 503cm system, including 2 lenses, in mint condition, for $2k. For $2,000 I can get the “medium format” look. And I like the medium format look.

    And we can go further. For the true masochist one can now purchase a brand new 2lb 4×5 film camera for $250 (Intrepid). Add a great used lens and all the other stuff you need and the total cost is about $1,000. This gives us camera movements and the large format look. I really, really like the large format look. Of course you will be spending about 20 minutes setting up/composing and $12 (film and developing) every time you push the shutter release!

    Film photography, especially medium format and large format may have little value commercially. But it can be more relaxing and satisfying then the rush of digital everything (I really hate all those ever changing menus).

    My opinion is that any photographer, professional or enthusiast, who is sophisticated enough to read articles on Ming Thien’s website, would greatly benefit from time spent with film, especially medium and large format. It is fun, it is instructional, it is inexpensive, and it is good for your soul. And it will teach you patience. We all need more patience.

    Jeff Stulin

  12. Malcolm Myers says:

    Film photography? Pah! If you’re serious about image making you should be using oil on canvas! If it was good enough for Rembrandt it should be good enough for you!

    OK, of course I am being tongue in cheek. But ‘purists’ do get on my nerves when they try to take the moral high ground. The fact is that film photography was more convenient than what was there before, and 35 mm was more convenient than … and so it goes on.

    I am a hobby photographer and I like both film and digital photography but when I get asked to do a wedding or a friend’s birthday party I use digital; the costs and risk would put me off using film. I think your article is spot on, film photography is great when the consequences of failure are low, but for the sort of high-pressure commercial photography that you do digital is the way to go, especially when you factor in any international travel.

    And one day I will get my own small darkroom and print my own silver halide prints again. Until then the scanner will have to do.

  13. Michiel953 says:

    Internet is great for obtaining rare emulsions. As for film I’m a 35mm, 400ISO guy only. 400Tx is freely available in Holland, but I get my Retro 400S, ORWO N74 and Double-X 5222 through internetshops (Nik&Trick is great).
    And fortunately I have a guy nearby that does my developing and printing expertly, and a shop nearby that does the scanning.

    Maybe I’m just lucky.

    • I learned something today – never heard of those emulsions!

      • Michiel953 says:

        Retro 400S is, in essence, an old Agfa aerial photography film so a little harsher than 400Tx. Great for street photography. I just finished a roll, inspired by Tony Ray-Jones’s “A day off”, with my FM2/T and 24/2.8, strictly using f8.0 only, mostly zone focusing, doing the Amsterdam canal area tourist scene. Rated at 800 for that gritty effect…

        The other two are (former) East German and Eastman (no pun intended) b&w 35mm movie stock, cut by these (and one or two others around the globe) people to 27 exp and put in cartridges and then sold.

        Both movie emulsions give a more fiftyish look. The whites and blacks are strong, but the greytones are extended, compared to 400Tx. Great for moody portraits. Double-X was used for Memento, for the opening scenes of Casino Royale (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNvzNWuzI9Y) and other movies.

        All films mentioned can be developed in HC110 or Ilford’s equivalent with excellent results. Development times can be found on the Massive Development Chart, which is a free download. They can berated from 100/200 to 400 ISO at least. N74 is in my experience still pretty smooth at 800, Double-X a little less so.

        • Hi, Michiel. Hope you are well. A question: why do you want to berate your films? What did they do to you? :D) I’m sure your your typo you meant uprated.

          It’s not going to be one for you, as it is only 80ASA, is Ferrania’s new P30 Alpha, based on the original, and which should be available on general release now or soon, although Kickstarters have been receiving priority treatment for those they ordered.

          • Michiel953 says:

            Haha Terry, got your reading glasses on eh? Good to hear from you and hope you’re doing well too! “They can be rated” is what I meant…

            Yeah, for film I’m sticking to B&W, 400 ISO, makes life easier (800 was catching me out now and then). I choose film type according to the rendering I’m after (or the first anonymous cartridge I grab in the box I keep them). I’ve been doing mostly digital though for the past months. Film and all that’s connected with it can be costly.

            Chase me here if you feel so inclined…

        • Very cool. Thanks for the info!

  14. I gave up on film for travel shots. Mostly because of the impossibility of keeping film quality with all the x-ray paraphernalia that passes for airport security nowadays. Not even unaccompanied luggage is safe nowadays!
    Also gave up on it for underwater (snorkel) work. Just not practical to carry all that necessary huge flash gear.
    But for landscapes and street as well as b&w portraits, it’s still my preferred media.
    This despite the successive price hikes and the demise of the best scanners in the business, the Coolscans.
    Sorry but Epsons are just not there! And Plustek could have filled the gap but their insistence on bundling that horrendously expensive scanning software killed the product for me! A piece of scanning software that doubles the price of a device?
    Sorry, NO!
    The remaining gear providers have only themselves to blame for not taking advantage of this resurgence.
    My Nikon F6, FM3A, F4, F2AS and FE2 remain in frequent use till this day.
    And I am a frequent user of my digital gear as well!

    • I still think using a digital camera to copy film works best – the scanners just lack the bite somehow…

      • Michael Demeyer says:

        Interested to know your setup for that. Perhaps I missed that post, or consider this a request for one.

        • Malcolm Myers says:

          Ditto. That I would like to read!

        • Michael, Malcolm.

          Probably the simplest and easiest and, IMO, the most successful and repeatable way to copy your slides with a digital camera is to get a bellows unit, and one with the slide holder attached, for your particular brand of camera, and then you simply insert slides one at a time. TTL metering takes care of exposure.

          I know many report success using a macro lens with a home-made setup for holding the slides, but care is needed in accurately positioning the slide so that the lens axis is truly perpendicular to it, otherwise unequal field sharpness will result.

          But, if copy slides are for personal pleasure and you are prepared to accept some loss of quality, then you may be surprised with what can be achieved with the simple slide copying units one can find cheaply on the internet, and which you simply attach in place of the camera lens. However, these were made in the days of film, so are only really suitable for FF cameras. They can be used with APS-C but you will only get half the slide copied.

          Whichever method appeals, you will find that you will have a far, far faster throughput than using a scanner. The following may be of interest:

          http://www.scantips.com/es-1.html

          • Michael Demeyer says:

            Fortunately or unfortunately, what I need to digitize is mostly 4×5″ or 2 1/4″ negatives. Thinking I need to rig up something using my negative holders from the Beasler MX45 with the Actus and enlarging lenses…

            • To get full resolution to digital requires a scanner or one of the higher count MF digital backs unfortunately…

            • Michael.
              Ah, I see, MF and LF. Then may I suggest two options. Firstly, a flatbed scanner with dedicated film facility. This is what I use. The scanner is Canon’s last model around 2004/5 to accommodate 35mm right up to 5×4 and will obviously only be found used. The model number is Canoscan 9950F and for which has Canon downloadable software and drivers up to W7. The superseded earlier model was the 9900F, but drivers only up to Vista. Aaaargh! IMO, the scanners work remarkably well with MF & LF. Just don’t go mad with the DPI setting or you will get gargantuan file sizes!

              The second option is based on your using your digital camera and a 5×4 light box and which can be found cheaply on the internet. I’ve got one of these little boxes but haven’t had a need to use it in this way. The box is said to be daylight balanced, around 5600K, so should be a good match. All you then need to do is find a convenient means to hold the film in contact with the light box ( I wonder if some small dabs of blutak could do the trick) and shoot away. My only thought with using a 5×4 light box is the slide will need to be very close to it and depending upon the surface whether any graininess here might be captured. However, using a much larger light box will enable it to be placed further back behind the slide and should alleviate any potential issues.

          • There’s a very underrated Hasselblad CF 135 macro bellows with a hood that has a slide copier/ holder which will do just fine with anything via an adaptor…nice long flange distance, handy rail, everything planar, can be had for little money on eBay… 🙂

      • Ming, I’ve sent you two images: film (scanned) or digital original. Any thoughts?

        • It’s quite easy to tell. Different shadow tonal response, and the IIIf image has dust spots in places that don’t make sense unless it was a negative scan…you can soften a digital image, but not sharpen a film one. It’s quite obvious at the pixel level especially in single line detail.

  15. David Burns says:

    Having spent my life shooting film and making my living from it, I do miss it and have just started shooting the odd 5X4″ black and white again. I also was seduced by, and bought, a Chamonix 5X4″ Field Camera that is probably the most beautiful thing that I own. I have shot a few black and white images on it, one of which (a portrait of my youngest son) I like very much. Could I have shot this on my D810? Absolutely but it would have been different and possibly the slow, deliberate posing that is necessary, itself somehow determines the outcome. In truth, I think that for me the pleasure of large format film is (and always has been) its ‘slowness’, its technical demands and its exclusive distance from the hordes of people firing off dozens of frames in the hope of getting one good one! I deliberately exaggerate but there is nonetheless some truth here and it was true to some to some extent in the ‘olden days’ when compared with 35mm film shooting habits, especially with motor drives.

    If I were still to be shooting professionally would I use film now? Absolutely not but there might be occasional exceptions. If asked to shoot an image that needed control of perspective (eg. architecture) or truly maximising depth of field (eg. landscape or a studio food shot) I might use my 5X4 Monorail. The reason being that yes, there are digital techniques (eg. focus stacking) that can get you close to what the monorail can do but they demand a lot of time. You can do a better job here with the big camera in a few seconds…. if you know how to use it!

    One thing I am sure of though is that I would never shoot 35mm film again. I did not think much of it when it was current and only ever used it for snap shots! I would also never make another chemical colour print. I truly hated doing this and digital image making is vastly superior using FX format cameras and digital printers via computers!

    • The reason being that yes, there are digital techniques (eg. focus stacking) that can get you close to what the monorail can do but they demand a lot of time. You can do a better job here with the big camera in a few seconds…. if you know how to use it!
      Yes and no, tilt shift goes a long way here…or the HTS attachment for Hasselblad MF.

  16. It does not have to be either-or, really. I have been happily shooting digital alongside film for over ten years, with different film formats and digital cameras over the years, currently using 4X5 and a 20MP MFT rig. Between the two, I have the best of all worlds: contemplation, speed, huge enlargements, immediate sharing, camera movements, you name it. This is not politics, so no need to take sides and unnecessarily rid yourself of options, if you ask me.

    • True, and as much as I want to do both – practically, it’s pretty much unrealistic. But judging from the number of ‘is film still better?’ type questions I get, some common sense might be required 🙂 It’s a different equation entirely if you know that going in, of course.

  17. Richard Karash says:

    Good read, Ming. You make a good point; today digital is simply more reliable than film.

    Case in point: At a fellow-photographer’s family event, I brought out a classic camera and shot a roll of Delta 400 as a special gift for him. Development failed. I think I know why, but doesn’t matter. Film is risky, even when you know the steps.

    • In over 50 years of shooting film, I’ve only had one issue with development and only on a single roll of film…
      Good odds.
      Has anyone had an SD card fail or lost their hard drive with no backup.
      Because you had one questionable incident with development doesn’t automatically make film risky.

      • I’ve had far more film failures (dozens, between a whole dud brick of film shot in one event without time to verify, to lab developing or handling mess ups, to one or two loading errors on my part) than SD card failures (one)…plus you can always shoot digital writing to two cards.

        • My lone film failure was because of misleading instructions to lab. Images were still retrievable. Because of comments I contacted a friend who shot weddings with film for over 30 years and he has never had a development problem. Staying with wedding photographers, those that I have talked to that both had shot film and now digital will concede that it was both convenient, time saving and less expensive to shoot film. Especially, when you could continue to shoot weddings with the same equipment forever.
          I may have written about this before. It was a story about the father of the bride who shot his daughters wedding with film and his Leica.
          He was able to drop the film off at a lab just after the wedding. The lab was able to develop and print and by the next day he had an album made up for the newlyweds to take on their honeymoon. Weeks later, the hired photographer, having shot digital, finally had proofs. Sure, he could have just as well dropped off digital files. But, wedding photographers tell me is that they are overwhelmed with processing their digital files, whereas it was dirt simple to drop off film to a lab and have their proofs ready to go within a week.
          For serious work I mostly shoot medium format film, Rolleiflex, Mamiya 7 and Hasselblad. For digital, all of the Merrill’s and the DP1s.
          I ventured to a well regarded full frame and lens. I consider myself real fussy, like coordinating camera histograms with ACR histograms. Post processing was way too much work with full frame. Although the Sigma PP software gets a bad rap, there is so little
          PP needed by comparison and an in an absolute sense. There is no joy spending immense time trying to overcome a digital file. Shooting with medium format B&W, PP is so much easier. If you want to shoot 35mm film something like a Hexar AF, which does most of the work, is a joy. Even shooting B&W film with the Olympus Stylus Epic is a revelation.

          When we are considering the fragility of film vs digital one of the operative words needs to be archival. Only one commenter mentioned that. Those enamored by digital color printing need to go seek out some well printed Cibachromes. Bring a Cibachrome to a photo competition and you will draw a crowd. Then get accused of cheating. Problem is, digital has been around long enough that many, if not most photographers aren’t familiar with analog, no reference.

    • I had that happen to me once, too – some TMax I thought was still good. Test roll was fine, the rest in the brick…completely unusable, with barely any image after a 5 stop push. You simply can’t even know about this at the time of shooting, much less do anything about it. I’m starting to think that even though barriers to entry and prices for pro work in the heyday of film were that much higher, profitability wasn’t because of the number of shoots that had to be redone or inefficiency during the shooting process to verify one indeed ‘got the shot’…

      • You’re blaming the film for not producing an image when it’s 5 stops underexposed? Had you pushed Tmax that far before?

        • No, maybe my initial wording was bad: the film was correctly exposed because other rolls of the same sensitivity (Delta) exposed at the same settings at the same event as the Tmax turned out fine developed without push. All rolls of Tmax had no apparent image, and only traces of an image with a 5 stop developing push. So, something simply wasn’t right with the emulsion in that batch. I’m blaming the dud film for being a dud…

          • Ming, did the film identifier at the edges appear normal, or were they not visible. too?

            • Not visible either. It just looked like there was either very little emulsion or something was not right.

              • This does indicate an emulsion coating problem or potentially a developing issue. As you may know these film identifiers are pre-exposed and as they lie outside of the frame they will develop as normal, providing proper developing of the film. This is something that developing labs rely when customers complain when their film comes back with nothing on it, blaming the lab, when in reality the film never went through the camera, for whatever reason. Only if these identifiers are absent would fault point to the lab. When home processing it is usually a case of mistakenly putting in stop bath or fixer for the developer. It has been known, but never by me! I’ve managed to mess things up in other ways.

      • L. Ron Hubbard says:

        You will not get any image on any film underexposing it by 5 stops. That’s simply not going to happen.

        • I’m not sure how much clearer I can make this point:

          1. I did not underexpose by five stops. As I already explained, I exposed the film with the same settings that worked just fine on rolls of Delta shot at the same time under the same lighting conditions. No push required.
          2. The film itself – every roll from that batch – was simply insensitive.
          3. I have pushed other films 5 stops before. It ain’t pretty, but there’s more of an image than I out out of this dud batch.
          4. Bad emulsion is rare, but like any manufacturing process – it can happen.

  18. Mathieu P. says:

    In my opinion, we are discussing different media. In the same way that the image of a painting in a book is inferior to the original, the scan of a negative fails to represent the potential of the negative. A digital workflow gives best result with digital camera files and an analog workflow with film. Which is best depends on taste. I personally prefer to work with what the medium allows rather than try to reproduce another one: Like painting in Photoshop or using film filters on digital files.

  19. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Perhaps it’s a mirror image. My reason for making a decision to scrap my analogue gear and go totally digital centred around the fact I’d already spent a whole lifetime in analogue – I felt it was time I gave the other team a go, before I run out of “years” to do it in.

    So I’m wondering if the switch isn’t people in digital trying the other team – sort of what I did, but in reverse? After all, one of them went the full distance and has taken to making his own collodion wet plates, in the field, like my two great great uncles did in the 19th century – and he’s having a wonderful time with it.

  20. In this moment of transition from analog to digital, theorizing archival practice is not only, need for a pragmatic, historically informed perspective that maps a sensible middle ground . Very Happy

  21. Good read Ming. I think I’ll stick with digital. Where was this image taken?
    Peace
    Greg

  22. Michael Demeyer says:

    “perhaps it is the process itself that people find appealing – the darkroom can be quite meditative”

    This, for me, is the part of film that I miss the most. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of shooting, processing, and printing 4×5″ B&W, which was my primary format for many years. I still have the darkroom gear, although now live in a place where I can’t set it up and I’m not sure I would go back to it for the reasons you mentioned – cost and availability of materials large among them. Although that 9 foot, temperature-controlled stainless sink still beckons me at times when I walk past it standing vertically in the garage.

    I’ve recently acquired a Cambo Actus which allows the image capture part to get closer to the shooting methodology I enjoy. It’s not just about the result, after all. This is (for me) a hobby and hobbies are meant to consume time (and money) in pleasurable pursuit. I have to enjoy the activity and not just the result. Unfortunately, I have never developed a liking for the digital processing task and, while I am more efficient at it after getting some of your courses (highly-recommended), it still seems like drudgery to me. But a necessary part of getting the final result, without which the process is incomplete.

    Anyone in the San Francisco area that would put that darkroom gear to good use should connect with me…

    • I keep meaning to try the C.Actus. The flexibility of a monorail 4×5 is pretty fantastic…

    • I completely agree with your comment on what hobbies are meant to be. That’s one big advantage we have, in that the only person we have to please is ourself. This leaves the choice between film and digital unchallenged by “how fast?” and “how cheap?”

  23. I personally don’t see any commercial or practical sense to shooting in film, for me it is purely an occasional indulgence, a kind of meditation, like taking a short holiday break. I think dabbling in a variety of cameras and camera equipment is a very good thing, at the end of the day it is inspiration that we all seek and if shooting film achieves that then I’m all in favour.

  24. I have shot film for 40 years, and have almost quit. To me the problem is, it’s all or nothing.
    If you don’t have a darkroom, you end up scanning it, a digital process. Good scanners aren’t cheap, and cheap scanners lose a lot of the character of the film, which is what you’re after to begin with.
    So, you have to buy the film, chemistry, and a good scanner to produce a file that can be, in my opinion, equalled with a digital photo run through something like Silver Effex, where you can also fine-tune by adding the effects a red or yellow filter would have. Want the look of a certain film? No problem. More grain, less grain? No problem.
    I have four 8×10 sample prints pinned to the wall right now, which I often do for several weeks to let them ‘soak in’ and see if I really like them, or if any changes should be made. Two are from scanned film and two are from Silver Effex files. Leaving out the subject matter, (no easy thing to do), it would be hard to say which I like better. They’re different, but both are good. If I absolutely had to decide, I think I’d prefer the digital pictures. The modern software is that good. A number of months ago, I did a snow scene with my Fuji X100s and ran it through a film simulating software. I’m more than satisfied, and honestly believe that to equal it with film, I’d have to use medium format equipment, something I’m not willing to get into.
    I have about 20 rolls left, and when they’re used up, I really don’t know if I’ll order any more or not. I doubt it.

    • I agree about the all or nothing part – and it requires some effort to keep chemical etc. current and everything that might possibly oxidise or ‘go off’ in good condition. Great film has something special. But all the ducks need to line up…and it’s much easier to do that with digital, unless you’re making film prints and film prints only.

      • Yes, a major problem for me. If for some reason, I don’t shoot enough film to use up the chemistry, I end up disposing of it when it still would have had half or more of it’s processing capacity. Costly and irritating.

      • L. Ron Hubbard says:

        Kodak HC-110. Requires zero effort to keep. A bottle will develop hundreds of rolls of film for $25 (USA price) and will keep for YEARS. That’s Y E A R S. Fixer does not keep as long but costs all of $15.

        • Not personally a fan of the results; I prefer DDX (which unfortunately has a tendency to crystallise if left for too long after opening it).

          • L. Ron Hubbard says:

            I’ve used DD-X, a LOT and the only film where I found it had more than a minute amount of difference was with Ilford D3200. For TMAX or Acros, HC-110 produces results that are 99% the same. Especially Acros.

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