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Digital versus Film Photography



I recently came across an article discussing the merits and demerits of film and digital photography. In the article, and at a fundamental level, the digital fraternity viewed film purism as outright Luddism whilst those extolling the virtues of film tended to see technophiles as dupes; blinded by advertising and its constant promise of ever finer pixelation and faster speeds.


The article cited a number of film photographers who had now entirely embraced digital. This is hardly surprising as I too am one of those photographers, happily embracing the digital format. What did surprise me was how the article posited that digital had “won the war” with film cameras. This article went on to say that film cameras were now considered by many photographers to be no more than “items of memorabilia.”


Whilst I accept the argument that digital provides an all-round, more usable product, I am amazed by the tone of debate. You would not expect to hear artists discussing how the the fibre tipped pen had 'won the war' against the pencil or how the computer screen had 'won the war' against the sheet of paper. Any artist surely sees technological advancement (be it a fibre tipped pen or a digital camera) as merely a further tool with which to practice their craft.


Nobody could deny that digital cameras have revolutionized the field of photography, especially since the turn of the 21st century, when incredible resolution became easily affordable for virtually everyone. However, if we look back we could argue that Kodak's introduction of 220 roll film or Kodachrome was equally revolutionary in making film processing and photography more affordable and accessible to the mass market. So, hopefully, and without too much bias, what are the real merits and disadvantages of these formats?


Film Photography vs Digital Expenses


Undeniably film is now more of a luxury product. Competition between large, chain-store film developers has died and this decreased level of competition now means that smaller, independent developers are moving towards the provision of film processing as a more of an expensive specialty. You can still pick up a roll of Ilford 400 or a cheap, single-use film camera, but quality developing services for more demanding photographers are no longer seen as the mainstay of the photo-print market.


Nowhere is film's demise, as a dominant format, highlighted so effectively than it is in the tale of 'the last roll of Kodachrome.' This story holds real cultural significance because it marks the moment that manufacturing, and hence the photographic world in general, severed its ties to the film medium and we were set adrift upon an ocean of pixels.


As one of the most popular film stocks of all time, Kodachrome's last roll of film came out of the factory in 2009 - purchased by photographer Steve McCurry, and subsequently used for a series of portraits. McCurry discusses Kodachrome, (in a Vanity Fair article,) in almost poetic terms, referring to its tones and colours in much the same way we hear music aficionados discuss the beauty and clarity of notes emanating from a vinyl record. So is film now merely a nostalgia?


Well, there are some film camera manufacturers and film manufacturers so obviously there is a market, but is this market entirely founded on nostalgia?