In the late 1990s, as the digital camera age dawned, I was shooting with a Nikon N70 film camera and whatever lenses I could afford on a graduate student’s (miniscule) salary. For me, the idea of switching to digital was something that I didn’t even fathom at the time, simply because a $5500 camera was so far out of my price range that I was never going to realistically own one.
Of course, when something costs a lot of money and you know you can’t afford it, you start to rationalize with yourself as to why you don’t really need one. And by “don’t really need” I mean we find ways to explain why our current gear is as good or better than some new technology. As the new century dawned, the “film vs. digital” debate bloomed across the Internet in chat rooms and discussion boards. Recently, that debate has returned, as some photographers are switching back to using film for certain clients.
My leap from film to digital
I swore at the time that I’d consider moving to digital when it could meet or exceed the dynamic range and resolution of good slide film. At that time, the common wisdom was that you needed at least 20+ megapixels to get the resolution of a fine-grained slide film like Fujichrome Velvia 50. That resolution seemed like a long ways off in 2003, when I was shooting a Nikon F5. So I continued to shoot slide film, filling binders with 35mm transparencies until 2005, when Nikon introduced the long-awaited D2x. By that time, I’d seen how good digital images could be (even with a 6MP Nikon D70), but I wanted the pro build and features that I was accustomed to with my F5, and the D70 didn’t have them.
The case for digital capture
I quickly discovered that the 12.1 MP Nikon D2x could pretty much do everything I could with my F5, only in most cases, better. My images were sharper than anything I’d shot before, and the dynamic range was good enough at low ISO to deliver results that were as good, if not better than what I’d gotten with film. My “digital moment” came when I was photographing wildlife on a photo safari and I realized that my shutter speed was too low to capture sharp images. That’s when it hit me: “hey, I can change ISO on this thing without changing film!” Of course, I knew that, but old habits are hard to break until you start trying new things.
When I compared my digital images with similar shots I’d made with film, I realized that I had far better sharpness and detail with the digital captures. Apparently whoever thought that you needed 20 or more megapixels to top film hadn’t really done a fair comparison. As it turns out, the theoretical resolution of film can beat digital, but you only see that advantage with projected images. If you scan film, some of that detail is lost during the digitization process, and a lot of the final quality will depend on the type of scanner that you use. The best film scans are from high-end drum scanners, which can cost upwards of $5000 even today. Today’s entry-level digital cameras have more than enough resolution to rival even some medium format film cameras! Because digital images don’t have dye/grain of film, they can capture far more detail than what you could get with most 35mm film.
The argument for digital image capture is quite straightforward
- More detail (than 35mm film)
- More dynamic range (14-15 stops)
- Greater storage capacity (hundreds of shots per memory card)
- Instant feedback via camera LCD
- No waiting for film/slides to be processed
- Flexibility of post-processing options
- Easy image sharing
Is there a case for shooting film?
As others have pointed out over the years, there are cases where film still delivers the goods, even compared to medium-format digital cameras. Large-format film, (4×5 or greater) can indeed produce more detail and in many cases better color than a high-end DSLR. It’s always been true in photography that as you increase the size (format) of the medium, you’ll end up with better results. The caveat here is that these comparisons are usually done as “best case” scenarios. In the real world, you need to factor in other things, like:
- Size and weight of your gear, including tripods and lenses
- Capacity of storage media (number of frames per roll/card)
- Field conditions (wind, low light, etc.)
- Availability of film and processing facilities
- Availability of high-quality scanning services (for film)
For many photographers, the size, weight, and convenience of a good DSLR system will trump potential quality gains from a medium or large-format film system. I know that I personally do not miss waiting two weeks for my slides to be processed, only to find that I’d not gotten the results I wanted.
Others prefer film for nostalgic reasons. Film grain, especially in black and white images, still gives a dimensional quality and subtle texture to images that can create a wonderful mood. Moreover, if you’ve ever developed your own prints in a darkroom, there is no denying the absolute magic that happens as you watch the latent image appear on your paper in the developer tray.
The intangible benefits of film go beyond dynamic range and resolution. The process of shooting film puts pressure on the photographer to get as much right in-camera as possible. Combined with their relatively small capacity (36 or fewer images, depending on format), film cameras force the photographer to slow down and really think about what the photograph is going to be. This is a process easily lost on digital photographers who take a “spray and pray” or “fix it in post” approach to photography.
Speaking of post-processing, I think that’s an area where you can certainly make a case for film, just not in the way you might be thinking. Most of us don’t own a wet darkroom, especially for color film. The post-processing techniques of the masters like Ansel Adams, while powerful, are still fairly limited by today’s digital standards. And that’s not always a bad thing. Many of my clients don’t want to spend hours behind a computer screen managing and processing images. With film, we had smaller quantities of images to start with, and then a couple of “keepers” per roll to really work on for final prints. I’m sure there are some people who would rather just send their roll of film to the local drugstore and get a pack of 4×6″ prints back instead of having to organize them all digitally.
Should you try film?
If you’re looking to try (or go back to) film photography, the good news is that equipment can be had for extremely little cost. The expensive medium format systems of the past now cost just a few hundred dollars. Film is still available from some of the major online retailers, but it can be hard to find a good processing lab anymore without having to send your film
As a professional photographer who has used both film and digital over the years, I don’t ever see myself going back to film for serious work. Sure, it was fun to use, and the process of using the camera with film was definitely as much of the art form as the medium itself. It’s easy to go out and grab hundreds of crummy images with a digital camera if you don’t use proper discipline; something that was forced upon us when using film. However, by applying the same discipline that I used with film cameras to my digital equipment, I get results that I never could have imagined when I used 35mm slide film.
I’ve seen a trend for wedding photographers to offer traditional film (usually black and white) as an option for clients. I say, more power to them. To me, the drawbacks of using film for clients trumps the nostalgia of the medium. I’m not saying I couldn’t do it; I’m simply pointing out that with today’s technology, I would reduce my risk of failure for a critical event session by using digital media. Moreover, if you are willing to put in a little learning time, you can deliver images that have all the qualities of black and white film (tone, grain, etc) but still have color originals in the digital file, with more detail and dynamic range than 35mm film did in the past. For me, the flexibility of having a digital master which I can then adjust to deliver a variety of looks is key to my use of digital image capture.
In the example above, I started with a very low-contrast digital capture, which is something most slide films would not produce. From there, I was able to use film emulation filters in Color Efex Pro 4 and Silver Efex Pro 2 to create a film look, including contrast, color, and grain. But rather than just using canned presets, I can also customize each look to retain color or shadow/highlight details in ways I never could have with a 35mm film scan. The plasticity of the original RAW digital capture delivers astounding flexibility once you’ve mastered your processing software tools.