I haven’t shot film professionally for over a decade now. In fact I haven’t shot film at all in pretty much 10 years.
In actual fact this blog started out as a ‘why digital is better than film’ lecture. As I was forming the meat of my argument I decided to start out with a bit of nostalgia. About the tactility of the cameras and the materials. How the processes were still wonderful but if anything were now a little quaint. How digital was now mature enough both in technology and application to be beyond question. And that film is now viewed as a niche – for purists, artisans and students.
But as I wrote about film and all that I could remember about it, the more that the misty-eyed nostalgia was actually crystallizing. So much so that it got me digging up all my old negatives, transparencies, prints and polaroids. Everything from 35mm black and white negs to large format colour trannies and massive, painstakingly handcrafted photographic prints.
But being almost certain that these were just figments of distorted memories I started out thusly –
“Why digital photography is better than film
There, I’ve said it.
Actually I’ve typed it which makes it more real and permanent, and I’m staring at the words with a mixture of incredulity, pragmatism and a tinge of sadness.
Let me make it clear – I.Love.Film.
I was brought up on the stuff. My first proper camera was a Practika. At college and university my tools were Mamiya RB 67s (possibly my favourite camera of all time) , Haselblads, Sinars, Toyos.
I now have a Canon T90 looking forlornly at me every time I open my camera cabinet. I sold my Bronica ETRSi years ago because it made me feel like I’d betrayed photography by ‘going digital’ every time I looked at it. And all my processing kit is packed away in the shed.
In my formative years I have literally spent months in darkrooms playing with various semi-noxious chemicals and tenderly bringing prints into the world like new born babies. I can remember struggling so long with some medium format film in a pitch black darkroom that I started to hallucinate and saw floating lights.
And before you ask, no I wasn’t.
I loved every minute. The tactile nature of the processing, the smells, the organic feel of it, the sight of the image appearing before your very eyes. Nothing can replace that.
Using Sinars and Toyos (large format cameras) was a real lesson in self-discipline too. You had to load up the ‘slides’ with two pieces of 5×4 inch film, make one exposure, turn it over and take another photo. Maximum frame rate? About two per minute if you got a wriggle on. This taught me a valuable lesson – get things right before pressing the shutter and you don’t need to fire off hundreds of shots. The image quality from these negs/transparencies were breathtaking and the ‘feel’ beyond compare. And because of the processes required, I can remember the taking and printing of pretty much every image I’ve produced using these methods.
I know, I’m not actually supporting the title to this piece am I? Well I have to give you some context, some backdrop to the main event. That and the fact that I feel I’m delaying the executioner’s axe.
The truth is that we have to look at the word ‘better’. Like most things applied to artistic matters, empirical data only gives us half the story. Film has always come with a more natural feel thanks to the more organic nature in which silver halide crystals align themselves in the film and in the paper.
The Digital argument can come back with the fact that it is quicker, more accessible and technically has higher quality due to the fact that modern digital cameras can resolve at higher resolutions than can film and the all important ‘feel’ is all but matched…..”
At which point I thought that it might be worth checking just to make doubly sure. So I started going through all my old work – boxes and boxes of negatives, slides and prints, confident that this would confirm to me that the superiority of old school photography was just a figment of my rose-tinted, soft-focussed, graduation filtered imagination.
But hold on a second! These were good, even better than I remembered. Most of my film work was in black and white and these images really come alive and the tones are so much more smooth and natural. And when you look at the grain compared to the pixels, there is such a big difference.The colour images are beautiful too with hues that make some digital imagery look forced and often garish.
An afternoon of looking through all my old work leaves me with a floor full of prints and negatives, and a head full of conundrums. At the beginning of the day I was sure that I was ready to condemn film to the pile marked ‘history’ albeit with a sigh and a few consoling words. However, going through my archives compels me to say this – in many ways digital has superceded film photography. In terms of immediacy, accessibility and general user friendliness, digital wins hands down. Overall image quality has come on in leaps and bounds over the last 5 years or so and digital is dominant in the photographic industry both in terms of commercial and domestic use. Film and processing costs are no longer a consideration along with the time taken to produce an image. Whilst the film cameras that I have listed above (with the exception of the Practika) all cost in excess of £1000 (when new) and some of them 3 or 4 times that amount back in the Nineties! And currently you can purchase a DSLR camera for less than £1000 that you could potentially use professionally (providing that you are good enough). Indeed, it has been fairly well documented that a certain young photographer who comes in and makes tea for me occasionally, managed to get one of his images published by Italian Vogue using nothing more than a £500 Canon 550D, a kit lens and Photoshop. Who am I to argue against it anyway when I don’t even use film anymore?
To be totally honest I have a lot to thank digital photography for – it has enabled me to do business much more easily by reducing my overheads; being able to show clients what’s happening during shoots so there are no surprises; correct for mistakes instantly; turn over jobs more quickly. In fact how many of you would be reading my blog if the Digital Revolution had never happened? Perhaps the best thing about digital is the fact that it has now introduced photography to so many people and opened up so many opportunities.
Digital photography is here to stay, and that’s a good thing.
But is it better than film?
My answer is ‘no’. There is no question that film will ever ressurrect itself into the dominant force again. Digital is the present and the future of photography for all the reasons listed above and more. But place a well crafted, silver halide print next to the best digital print or image and all other things being equal, the silver halide print will come alive.
It is an intangible and unquantifiable quality which seperates the two and some would say that if you can’t measure it, then how can you say ‘it’s better’?
Well maybe it’s because we ourselves are ‘analogue’ rather than digital. We are generally subjective and that allows us to develop senses beyond pixel counts and algorithms. So when I mention the word ‘feel’ – you all know what I mean don’t you?
It’s like the the bit in the film The Shawshank Redemption when the piece of opera music – Marriage of Figaro – is played through the tannoy and Red (Morgan Freeman) describes it thus “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singin’ about. Truth is I dont wanna know. Somethings are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away and for the briefest of moments every last man in Shawshank felt free.”
Please feel free to share your views. I’ll be in the shed.