The Pointless Debate - Film or Digital?

May 03, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

I heard an age-old debate on the radio recently about the acceptable order of applying cream and jam to a scone in a traditional cream tea.  I had to roll my eyes a little, firstly at the idea that a whole radio segment could be created from something so trivial, but also that there is of course no ‘correct answer.  The order of things depends on a personal preference that is often driven by local traditions passed down through families.  Since I have no connections with Devon or Cornwall, I’m not taking sides here because frankly, I don’t care as long the scone has both. 

It got me thinking about a similarly over-debated idea of which is best, film or digital. For me, this discussion used to rage between a colleague and I several years ago.  He was a traditional medium-format film photographer and I had just acquired my shiny new DSLR.  Naturally, my Nikon D4 was the best camera I had ever seen, technically advanced but relatively simple to use and with a passing resemblance in size to a Howitzer anti-aircraft gun.  I wasn’t going to hear a word against it or digital, besides which I hadn’t shot any film since I was a teenager and that is further back than I am prepared to admit.  When I did use it, I remember the excitement that I felt as I rattled through roll after roll, followed by the crushing disappointment when they were processed and found to be utter rubbish.  Digital was cool, you could see the results instantly and didn’t have to suffer the ignominy of the photo lab putting a sticker on your prints telling you where you went wrong.  My colleague was having none of it.  In his view, the look of a picture shot on film and the subsequent wet print made from the negative could not be matched by what was essentially a computer.  He was fully involved in the creation of his work, processing the film and making prints in his darkroom that he then sold online.  Not surprisingly, his work is excellent because he is very skilled at his craft, but I was adamant that it was an outdated medium that ‘progress’ had killed off.  In my defence, I was young(er) and stupid(er).

About 5 years ago, I was inspired to shoot film by a chance meeting with a famous American photographer.  The inspiration wasn’t just some silly hero-worship, though. What resonated with me during our brief conversation was the idea of slowing everything down and concentrating on being in the moment.  Although this could be achieved with a digital camera, nothing focused the mind quite like every frame costing actual money.  Also, many of the available film cameras were entirely mechanical, which meant that in addition to avoiding bankruptcy an actual knowledge of the craft itself would also be important.  The impact of these factors grew with the type of film being used.  A 35mm film might be cheap enough at around 20 pence per frame, but 8x10 inch film for a large-format camera can cost an eyewatering £20 per frame.  Add processing to that and you have a significant investment in your art. 

I started out by buying my first medium-format SLR camera, a Hasselblad 500c/m, from a faceless stranger on the internet.  Although the risk of parting with my hard-earned money on something I had not seen or tested hadn’t really registered, I was to learn as I collected more film cameras that care was needed here too.  Old cameras like any machines require looking after and being maintained properly, otherwise they can fail.  Fortunately, my Hasselblad is a good condition camera and the very first roll of Ilford FP4 I shot yielded some images that began luring me into this analogue world that I had previously been reluctant to accept as being anything but dead.  From there the next stage was ‘developing at home’, a similarly magical pastime full of excitement and anxiety and therein lies the thing.    I hadn’t appreciated the variability of this medium.  Film is made by a chemical deposition process to a recipe. Each emulsion is created to achieve a certain sensitivity or speed, tone and contrast and the way they look when exposed can vary significantly.  I learned about how film grains vary in size, how film ages and how that affects its performance, how there is exposure latitude in some stocks more than others and how the response to light is non-linear during long exposures.  I then learned that the choice of chemicals to process the film, the temperature, timing, etc also made a huge difference to how the shot would look as well as whether there would even be a usable image to begin with.  Yes, all of this appealed to my engineering curiosity, but the big learning for me was the need for total concentration from the moment you load the camera to hanging up the film to dry.   It’s the pace of film that really appeals, standing in a field looking at a beautiful landscape or piece of architecture and thinking through the shot.  Will I shoot colour or black and white?  If the latter, how will the highlights and shadows translate onto the film?  Will the ghost of Ansel Adams help me with interpreting his Zone System to get the most out of the exposure?  The old adage of ‘measure twice, cut once’ never seems so right as at the moment of releasing the shutter. Once it’s done, all you can do is wait.

After 5 years of playing with film, I can honestly say that I love it.  My enjoyment of shooting it has driven my passion to improve as a photographer and the more I learn, the happier it makes me.  More widely the resurgence in film photography, particularly in the younger generation, is encouraging the development of new film stocks such as Lomography Metropolis and Bergger Pancro and even the re-introduction of classics such as the legendary Kodak Ektachrome.  This medium in photography seems to be alive and kicking.  Young people are getting hold of their parents’ old cameras (they don’t use them anymore so they must be cool, right?), cruising charity shops, car boot sales and eBay for anything to shoot with.  I was in London last year during one of the brief respites from the pandemic and I saw a young man walking around the streets carrying a Mamiya RB67 around his neck. Now that is a camera that makes my D4 look like a compact!  The camera and film market grows healthier every day in the hands of these people and I for one am a fan. 

What does this have to do with cream teas? Well, I learned that film was something very special and continue to be inspired to shoot it, but that doesn’t make me a better photographer.  It isn’t better than digital nor is the opposite true – they are just different.  Everything I have learned about composition, light and meaning can be achieved just as easily with a digital camera as with film.  In the end, it really isn’t anything to do with the gear but the creativity of the artist in control of it.  I’ve seen amazing work shot digitally using state-of-the-art cameras, on film using a van converted into a giant pinhole camera, and on a humble mobile phone.  In equal measure I’ve seen some awful photographs made with all of three types.  For me, creativity is about having an idea and using whatever tools you have available to help you realise that idea.  As long as you get your cream and jam, it doesn’t really matter how you get there.



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