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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?

I think perhaps yes, in many cases. More specifically in instances where the developing is performed by a third party. If you were to purchase a standard 35mm SLR camera today, for example, then its entire purpose becomes questionable if you pop the film in to the local processor.

Why ? Well primarily because photographers know that they will be machine developed with no eye for nuance at best, or at worst be scanned to a digitised image prior to print, in which case there was little point in taking a film photograph in the first place. Yet for professionals at the high end of studio, wedding and exhibition photography, film still remains a viable option with the quality of first edition prints still in excess of that afforded by the best 25 mega-pixel, £6000, full frame digital SLRs.

Because film photography requires physical film and digital photography is nearly "free" with the memory cards available these days (you can store thousands of images on a single card you pay 30 bucks for), Digital photography is way cheaper.

Film vs. Digital: Photo Development Time

When you take film to a developer it's his eye and timings or the machine settings which determine the outcome, but digital can be calibrated so that what you see is what you get. As an alternative, developing film at home may give control over the final result but requires a darkroom, space, time, chemicals and so many variables that there is more that can go wrong.

The major advantage of printing from digital is that if you take an sRGB image to be printed and inform the printer that you require no color change and no cropping then essentially, what you see on your screen at home is precisely what will return in print. As I have suggested, printing from film has variables: a second longer in the developer, the temperature of the room, the moment the paper enters the stop bath, the paper and film type etc.... If you are a practiced dark room user then this can become part of the artistic process of photography, and a part that many people enjoy. Generally speaking, however, there is far greater consistency with digital. Each and every color possibility is mathematically determined and fixed in stone.

It goes to say that you can save a lot of time "processing" your digital photos over using the physical darkroom when developing film. For many people who are used to film photography, the darkroom was a sacred art to master. Digital photography allows anyone to develop photos (with post processing software such as PhotoShop) with ease.

Because it's so much easier to "develop" your digital photos (and often, there is no development at all if you use the default camera settings and don't bother to shoot in RAW format and process your photos yourself), digital photography takes the win here.

Film versus Digital Cameras: Storage

I currently have a number of external, passport drives which can be lined up like books on a shelf. Each drive holds, on average, 10,000 RAW images or 20,000 fine quality JPEGs. When a drive is filled I simply buy a new one. This, of course, is not to mention the number of SD cards scattered about in drawers. Electronic storage is fairly expensive but the cost has decreased exponentially over the years. For the last half a century, More's Law has been right: every two years technology halves in size and doubles in speed. This shows no signs of abating.

To extend shelf life for film requires cold storage. There is also the storage of chemicals and then the photographs themselves need also to be stored in albums , frames etc., but is no question of ever running out of space to store digital images. All of my old print stock has been scanned and digitally archived and, undoubtedly, a format will arrive, meaning that my rows of externals will be bounced onto some other faster, smaller storage device. Is it cheaper than albums, portfolios and frames ? Yes, very likely, but the big advantage is the speed of retrieval and the joy of returning to an old image and breathing new life into it.

Nature doesn't make mistakes but in capturing nature, and as a human being, I do make mistakes. The idea that I can manipulate an image to give the viewer a more representative sense of what I saw on that magical morning or in that incredible location, long after the event itself, is one of digital's greatest virtues.

So hands down, digital photography wins out with the sheer ease (and cost efficiency) of storing the photographs.

Film versus Digital ISO

In terms of ISO, digital has a major advantage over film. ISO: the international standard determining film's sensitivity to light was, and continues to be, adopted by digital camera manufacturers. Although, in digital cameras, the ISO or EI (Exposure Index) corresponds somewhat to the old film speed system, digital camera sensors are able to operate at previously unimaginable ISO settings. It even remains to be seen whether camera manufacturers will eventually abandon ISO altogether.

One beauty of digital is the ability to change the film speed at will. Higher ISOs will, of course, cause grainier images with more noise (distortion) but in instances (particularly outdoor) where the photographer has no influence over light levels, the ability to control this is important. With film, however, the speed of the film in your camera remains the speed you're stuck with for the duration of the number of exposures on the film roll.

This may not affect studio photography as much as it affects the landscape photographer, because light increases or decreases randomly, and without warning, throughout the day. Control of ISO from shot to shot gives digital a superb edge.

Film Camera versus Digital Camera Quality

You'll find a lot of debates about this one. The general consensus is that modern digital cameras with high mega pixels (12+) are just as good at reproducing the same (or better) quality that traditional film cameras can/could. Some people love the colors reproduced by film, but digital, especially these days, can do just as well in my opinion. And there is also the issue of post processing that can add the look you want if you are not happy with the results your camera produces.

Film versus Digital: Printing

Film photography requires you to print out your images. Digital photography does not. This is a pretty big difference. However, when it comes to translating your photo to print, both Film and Digital work a bit different.

Whereas digital operates at the level of the pixel, the developing and printing of film is virtually molecular. However, with the constant decrease in pixel size along with current printing methods, the difference between film and digital, in their final print, is imperceptible. For example, work produced from a commercial HP Indigo press is barely distinguishable from the work produced by cold press printing.

Professional printing of film or digital on quality matte stock, and to a standard suitable for exhibition, can be a costly business. Many companies still provide E6 and C41 printing from film but results vary from printer to printer and the dyes used in C41 are unstable and liable to fading, much more so than the inks used in digital printing. Further, the wonderful effects these film processes can sometimes produce (stylized colors, over-exposed effects) are now easily obtained by manipulation of the color curves in CS3 or similar.

The growth in domestic digital printing means that that the choice of hardware, paper and ink types is ever growing and even competing with commercial print. Where large film manufacturers once placed their efforts into producing the finest films, there is now a demand from the home printing market for them to produce a good choice of photographic paper and ink types. It was once the case that consumers simply purchased a cartridge for their home printer and whatever generic photographic paper was on offer but times change.

Many photographers are abandoning the labs and opting instead for affordable, dye sublimation and large format printers for less than the price of a decent lens. With ink-jet printers costing less than $1000 producing quality of 9600 x2400 dpi, 'digital' means that printing incredible quality at home hardly requires a fraction the space and time of chemical photographic printing. On balance, print consumable are cheaper but the debate is not really about price or space, it is about the enjoyment of the process itself and discovering one that suits your sensibilities and personality.

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