Digital Schmidgital: The Merits of Shooting Film in the Digital World.
Do you shoot with film or capture with digital? If you say the former, then you are in a minority and probably like it that way. It is estimated that in the United States 96% of professional wedding and portrait photographers currently are shooting with digital. The same could easily be said of journalists, which rely on digital workflow to get their images uploaded to their photo desks almost as fast as the news happens. Certainly, we are living in a digital world, yet some still choose to capture their images with film and the reasons are not simply being a photographic luddite.
There are several advantages to shooting film, some concrete and others philosophical. When you shoot film, you are exposing light onto silver halide crystals (covered in layers of dye in the instance of color film). The size of the average silver halide crystal is about 1 micron. Thus the total amount of “image receptors” for a piece of 35mm film will be about 100 million. That number will only jump up as we utilize medium or large format and you will near the one billion mark. This number of image receptors will manifest itself to the user as definable in detail, and especially so when enlarging negatives. Digital captures on a pixel, and a current pixel’s range in size from 3.4 to 11 microns. This translates to a full size 35mm sensor, say the one that is found in the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III SLR Digital Camera as having about 14 million “image receptors”. To make matters more complicated for digital capture we have to factor in the Nyquist limit, which was discovered by a Swedish-American scientist of the same name. This sampling theorem proves that to avoid massive aliasing (distortion and artifacts) two pixels are needed to capture a single detail. Clearly, film has advantages in capturing details, especially when enlargements are made. This stands true today, but as the mega pixel count goes up, the gap will narrow. Advantages are not only found in the details, they continue onto dynamic range and exposure as well.
The latitude of exposure found on print negative is much greater than digital, and allows you to make adjustments and corrections while still retaining good print quality. If you were shooting a Jpeg you generally have a ½ stop of latitude before you loose detail in shadows and highlights. Raw files generally allow a 2 stop range of latitude before clipping (losing image detail in the shadows or highlights) occurs in your prints. Keep in mind that with digital, making exposure mistakes will hurt the dynamic range of your final prints. Digital simply allows zero fudge factor. Print film on the other hand, is very forgivable even with gross exposure miscalculations. Printing a thin negative can be tricky- but can be done well. Printing a dense negative is not really an issue, and you can achieve excellent results with 4 to 5 stops of over exposure. Transparency film is comparable to shooting Jpegs; you need to be right on the money with exposure. However, compare a projected slide with that of a projected LCD image and the difference in detail, sharpness and brightness is night and day.
It is true that many digital cameras have modes that can digitally emulate many characteristics of particular types of film. Digital achieves this admirably, while film only looks like one type of film (excluding cross processing or using different developers to alter grain quality and size). That one look however has something about it that is hard to put into words. It is the “elusive look of film” and is unique. Now that we have covered the scientific debate surrounding digital vs. film, lets turn our attention to the intangible advantages of shooting with film, which can be characterized as tactile and sensorial.
I asked a long time friend and colleague Gabe Bidderman an avid film shooter, accomplished photographer and certifiable gear fiend- why he shoots film. He explained it this way, “I love the process, control, and the ultimate surprise of film. It’s like opening a present. And of course the depth, detail, and dynamic range still surpass digital anyway.”
Black and White photography lends itself to film usage considerably due to the “craft” aspect of traditional dark room work. Its funny, we don’t hear the word craft associated with digital so much as we hear “workflow”. What would you rather do, craft a fine art black and white print or figure out a complicated workflow? There is a certain romance to a dark room, the smell of the fixer, the soothing sound of water washing over your prints. I have yet to see a black and white inkjet print that can match the glow of finely crafted silver gelatin print toned with selenium.
When it comes to safely storing your images, your negatives will survive for hundreds of years. Your hard drive, along with its data (your images) will be in a land fill. The story of “a lost box of negatives” is common and similar to an urban modern treasure. Can you imagine if E. J. Bellocq had a 70 year old hard drive of his work found? This most likely would have been discarded before investigated, but negatives are easily identified and viewed (even if found in a sofa), and thus preserved.
Vintage cameras play an important role as well. While modern digital cameras are capable of producing a high quality image, they often require a laborious read of an instruction manual just to understand the menus and basic functions. Alternatively, the simplicity of a manual film camera does not require computer fluency, nor complicated button pushing and menu navigation. Currently you can purchase an affordable fine used camera that would have cost a small fortune years ago. The distinctive ker-plump of a Hasselblad’s shutter is yours to enjoy at bargain prices. You could even say certain vintage cameras are an honor to make images with when taking into account the history of said camera. Camera “bling” is something you just don’t see in modern cameras, but the use of chrome body parts is common on many vintage cameras. Did I mention that you are completely battery dependent with electronic cameras?
It would be unwise to shoot exclusively with digital or film. Both clearly have their advantages in look, quality and budget. A good photographer will have to trust their judgment when choosing what to best use and for what subject matter. In the end, it’s the not the camera, be it digital or film, it’s the person behind the camera.