Film Vs Digital- not a Foregone Conclusion

I basically stopped using film when I got my first digital SLR, the Nikn D70, 7 odd years ago. But I have to admit in many ways, it is superior in all but convenience. The debate will go on for a long time, but I hope it digital catches up to the massive progress film made in terms of color reproduction (not just accuracy, richness), gradation and. In exchange, digital has given us unprecedented sharpness, accurate colours (if not always as pleasing to the eye) and much more resolution in a small size than film could ever have dreamed of, all comparatively free from noise and colour degradation, the area where digital continues to obviously improve each generation.

Specific films give a particular ‘look’, which means they could be chosen and give predictable results. This enables the photographer to intentionally create something rather than have the camera take over, as is often the case with digital. Film cameras are generally ‘full frame’, letting you use some of the best lenses ever made in their native format. Full frame in the digital world is very expensive, especially if you want a small and discreet camera, which makes the Leica M9 the only current option. Sad, but true, digital has a lot of catching up to do.

This is the terrible thing about digital and the reason so many people are off upgrading their cameras so often, their old ones losing value so quickly. Its not just that they are like computers, going out of date when faster models come along, it’s that their core sensors cant be replaced and definitively improve each generation, so much so that it would be painful to knowingly miss out on the advances, even if you were quite happy with what you already have. My photos haven’t got better with better cameras, but it has become easier to catch moments than before. Which means I have spent an awful lot on replaceable bodies, whereas with film that could have gone where it is arguably needed the most- into lenses that keep

For me though, it is worth mainly using digital despite it’s under-publicised drawbacks, simply because-

Even in a relatively small sensor, you can get enough detail for large prints or cropping, which 35mm and smaller films have trouble with.

The dynamic range of digital is often greater than positive (slide) film.

You can be prolific, bracket for HDR or to get the perfect exposure, as taking photos is ‘free’, once you make the investments in memory cards and hard drive space. Of course, this is not really free at all, but the cost per photo in this respect goes down tremendously.

You control the ‘developing’ (post-processing) and aren’t at the mercy of the camera shop, or forced to pay more for better quality there. You do pay, for the software, but even with updates, thats a lot less than continual developing, leaving aside the fact that some films are a lot cheaper here, as you can do it all at home.

You can see them easily without needing to print, another saving and another avoidance of needing to pay more for better quality versions. Of course, to see the true detail of the photo, you’ll need to either zoom around a lot or print large, preferably at high quality. But on todays advanced monitors you can get a pretty good indication, even more so when ‘retina’ displays are scaled up to laptops and desktops.

As well as controlling the developing, you can create near-infinite versions with filters, touch-ups and blends, all very hard to do well on film, but a lot easier with advanced software. Black and white creation is especially useful as you can keep a colour original and tune it to your heart’s content. Some will say it will never be quite the same as a favourite film here, or have quite the feel of home developing. This could well be true and digital doesn’t manage to replace film and more than computer graphics can hope to replace painting.

You can adjust white balance, not needing special films for different lighting, or needing special filters to deal with it (especially florescent lighting, which gives a cold, greenish tint on a lot of film.)

Ease of distribution- a digital file can be downsized and put into emails, on online galleries or more recently, shared with all you know on social networks. Of course you can scan film and do the same, some would say giving a better result, though of curse losing some of film’s advances in the digitising process, which compresses the delicate, analogue data. The process of scanning is an extra step, which takes longer with a dedicated film scanner (I have one and it’s a slow one). Even digital cameras need to catch up with the ease of smart phones, such social networking being an area of great and sudden advances.

Convenience of storage- I can back all my photos to a huge hard drive and back that up a couple of times for safety, whereas film negatives need physical storage space and prints even more so. In fact, I found prints almost impossible to store, even small ones, after a while. With digital, you can have a large (if low resolution) image straight on your HDTV and the original on a disk.

Film just takes up a lot of space and is hard to catagorise, too. With my digital files, there are folders, titles and even better, keywords on them, they can be found in a matter of seconds. How are you going to locate an old film file so quickly? Also the exif keeps the date, in some cases the gps location and all the shooting data, which is useful to learn from.

With digital you can experiment at no cost, with film you pay per photo, which makes digital a good learning tool. Arguably, digital cameras take over all too easily, so film with manual focus lenses is a better learning tool, making all settings yourself, with care and precision. I cant argue with that, though its also true that a smart camera can do it better than a human in many cases, especially the autofocus.

Autofocus. Laziness or necessity? A lot of photos, especially involving movement, would be impossible without it and it is getting better all the time, faster and more accurate. Film cameras generally only have a few AF points at most and can’t make such sophisticated judgment as 3D tracking, or enable face detection with their simple processing, which of course has its development stopped as film started to become increasingly peripheral.

Low light capability. Only some film cameras can handle vibration stablised lenses and high ISO film is generally very grainy (and of course needs to be specially loaded). A lot of film photography is at ISO 100 and less, often stuck on a tripod by necessity. Not so digital, which greatly frees up composition, generally offering clean ISO 1600 and allowing boosts far beyond that that are very usable.

Generally, digital is simply a medium with far greater possibilities than film could have hoped for, but not one that necessarily gives better, or even equal results in many cases. Film hasn’t and for a long time wont die and it is important for digital users to be aware of its special qualities, partly out of respect for what is undeniably a more difficult medium to use, though also to pressure manufacturers to keep developing digital capture in areas beyond mere megapixels. Dynamic range, colour reproduction and smooth gradients are all areas digital needs to keep improving. Resolution is another one, despite the advances so far, if the dream of a smaller equivalent of medium format is to come.

Digital cameras are big business and heavily hyped, both by the companies and the review sites which get advertising from them. They are advancing, but image quality isn’t getting better as much as is claimed, at least as far as lower ISOs and pixel-counts go, which may well be enough in many situations. A good camera is a necessity, preferably with as large a sensor as possible, with speed and good ergonomics to go with it. Aside from that, the lenses are still the most important thing and what’s more, can be used from one generation to the next (as can film cameras). I still use lenses from the 1980’s regularly and they are some of my best lenses.

Im not saying a good digital camera isn’t a good investment, or that it isn’t worth upgrading when theres a better one. Just that the real investments are lenses, assuming of course you stay with the DSLR route, not a complete guarantee with the advances of mirrorless and the desirability of a smaller format in many cases. Essentially, while nothing lasts forever, a good lens lasts longer than a good digital camera, in both its usability and resale value, so that should be your main investment.

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