A Fair Fight? Shooting Film in the Digital Age (A Rebuttal)


I wish I hadn’t, but the other day I stumbled across an essay on PetaPixel entitled 12 Reasons  Photographers Still Choose to Shoot Film over Digital. Bravely, the writer had polled his associates who shoot film and culled their responses down to a dandy dozen. I shook my head sadly, because I’d heard them all many times before.

But the worst part came next. I scrolled down to the comments section. I tried mightily to avert my eyes, but I couldn’t, and the lurid spectacle of grown men and women (but mostly men) verbally beating the living daylights out of each other while thousands cheered them on from the cheap seats proved too much for me.

Now, the author seems like a perfectly fine and talented gentleman, and he took a good swing at a combustible topic. He cites an “incredibly dull” BBC article and its assertion that photographers are moving back to film in droves. He is far too kind — that BBC article was B-B-BAD!! Film may not be dead, but you’re going to have to come up with something better than that to convince me that it hasn’t entered late stage dementia.

Speaking of which, I must be off my rocker to want to step into the ring with all you guys and gals (but we all know you’re mostly guys) sporting Topcon Super D’s on your shoulder, Weston Master V’s around your neck, and a brick or two of 40 year old Panatomic-X in the freezer. And to do it right here on PetaPixel, the photosphere’s equivalent of Madison Square Garden — surely, I must be punch drunk!

But here goes, anyway — yet another bout in the endless film vs. digital slugfest. This one’s scheduled to go twelve rounds, so cue the dame in the skimpy outfit, put up your dukes and come out fighting. No hitting below the belt (although accidents do happen) and may the best sensitized surface win!


Round 1. Film Photography Was Already Perfect

Hardly. By definition, “perfect” is an irrefutable state that cannot be challenged or exceeded, and there is yet to be an imaging technology that was not or will not be improved upon. The very existence of digital photography and its adherents’ belief in its superior nature is but one example, as was every incremental “revolutionary” step forward in film technology. Pick a point in time, and photography, film or digital, has always simply been adequate for its intended purpose and has always been improved upon.

Round 2. Higher Dynamic Range

This sounds good, and it may even be true for the time being, but few have ever proven it in any aesthetically meaningful way. It’s simply ridiculous how much information a modern digital sensor can capture, and coupled with today’s RAW processing engines, it is ridiculously simple to work with that information with a level of precision, accuracy and repeatability that we could only ever dream about in the darkroom days.

Round 3: It Slows You Down

C’mon, is this the best you guys can do? This is, without a doubt, the laziest defense of film photography out there, and the one that’s most often fluffed up and pushed out in front when the digital guys start talking megapixels and metadata. I’m not even going to dignify this one with a response.

Round 4. The Pictures Are Permanent

The author’s fear of a “forgotten century” resulting from lost digital data is quite valid, but what about the many hazy decades that have already happened? The reason you haven’t seen any good Kodacolor prints from the 40’s recently is because they’ve all faded off the paper they were printed on. But a good digital scan of the negatives (if you can find them) and some color correction in Photoshop is often enough to bring them back to life. Crank out a pigment print from your Epson 3880 and your children’s children’s children will be able to see what your cranky old grampa looked like back when Truman dropped the big one.

By the early 80’s, the big secret among photographers was that no matter how carefully they were stored or displayed, C prints would start to fade and turn yellow-green after only about 25 years. Kodak published a white paper describing the phenomena known as “light fade” and “dark fade”, and acknowledged the instability of the dyes used in even its best professional materials.

Fortunately, the even bigger secret among wedding photographers back then was that they didn’t expect the majority of their couples to stay married long enough for it to matter all that much. Wedding photographers used to be such a cynical bunch (I know, I was one of them), but I’m sure that’s not the case today.

You are just as screwed if you keep your old negatives and prints in a cardboard box in a damp basement as you are if you neglect to back up your RAW files to multiple devices and migrate up as newer technologies come online. Sloppy asset management is sloppy asset management, and you will lose your pictures. And that’s the truth.

Round 5. The Chemicals Smell Oh So Good

You got me on this one. I have to admit that I have fond memories of Sprint Buffered Stop Bath and its delightful vanilla scent! Whenever I had one of those all night marathon printing sessions to meet a 9AM deadline, I would put on a Yanni cassette and fill a few little porcelain demitasse cups with the stuff straight out of the cubetainer. Placed around my darkroom, they countered the sweat stained stench of desperation.

Seriously, in this age of environmental enlightenment, it amazes me the lengths to which film photographers will go to justify how they make their pictures. In the opinion of somebody who was around for Earth Day #1 and who proudly displayed an Ecology Flag decal on his ’73 Super Beetle, the elimination of chemistry from the photographic workflow trumps all other arguments against embracing digital as a better alternative for image making.


Round 6. You Don’t Need Electricity

And I suppose film and photo paper are manufactured with water wheels and windmills, and color labs run on used cooking oil? This is pure baloney — everything needs electricity!

Full disclosure here, however: I do have an old Kodak kerosene safelight sitting on a shelf in my office. And, I once worked with a guy who used to drive us nuts by “dry firing” his empty Canon F1 all day because he liked the sound of the battery powered motor drive…

Round 7. It “Just Looks Better”

As did we all, back in high school when we were 30 pounds lighter and had a full head of hair.

I’ll grant you that vintage lenses and true alternative processes like wet plate collodion or platinum lend a distinctly unique appearance to photographs. But for regular old pictures, whether it’s Moonrise Over Hernandez New Mexico or Sunset Over My Brother-In-Law’s Back Yard, there’s just not a whole lot of difference between expertly crafted film and digital prints any more. Look no further than the fact that so many artists who do shoot film scan their negs and print digitally.

Unlike their dye-based counterparts, digital prints made with pigmented inks, color or black and white, have archival characteristics that rival properly washed and fixed gelatin silver prints — they last virtually forever. We no longer have to use hokey made-up names like “giclee” to slide them under gallery director’s upturned noses, either. What sucks is that nobody prints anymore.

Round 8. A Digital Photograph is Just a Pixel Mosaic

Oh yeah? Well I can call your pictures silly names too. Like, a film photograph is just a silver mosaic or a dye sandwich. So there, poopy head.

And who gives a fried fricassee anyway, unless your idea of photography is looking at your vacation pictures through a microscope or at 3200% magnification on a computer screen?

Round 9. Film Cameras Are Inexpensive

So are VHS players, 8 track tapes, rotary phones and CRT computer monitors — they’d be giving that stuff away in Cracker Jack boxes if they could, and for the same reason. They were all made obsolete by newer, sexier and, yes, better technology. It’s the intended consequence of something called progress.


Round 10. To Be Different… A Talking Point

Exactly. To be different. And to then talk about it. At least they admit it.

Round 11. For the Imperfections

Wait… I thought film was already perfect? What are they talking about here — sloppy working methods, lower standards of print quality, or do they mean goopy Polaroid film edges?

I give as good as I get on this one. Some say it’s just as bogus to simulate unique film and camera characteristics with digital filters as it is to swallow some film and let your digestive tract provide next day developing services. I’m not here to dump on either, but I am somewhat anal when it comes to authenticity. To add a contrived layer of surface interest digitally, after the fact, somehow seems photographically juvenile to me. I know I’m in the minority here, and I’m conflicted, because some of those filters do look pretty cool…

Round 12. The Element of Surprise

Ah yes, the elusive lucky shot or happy accident — the photographer’s Holy Grail. When it comes right down to it, I believe the most basic difference between shooting film and shooting digital is as simple as this: film is about guessing, and digital is about knowing. With film, we make educated guesses at many points in the process, but we have to hold out hope for one of those “lucky shots” until we see the developed negatives or prints. The element of surprise is just as exciting with digital, we just get immediate confirmation when it happens. We “know” right away, because our camera tells us exactly what we just did. I like that.

And here’s my windup for the haymaker: the phrase “the harder you work, the luckier you get” is every bit as valid for digital photographers as it is for film shooters, probably more so with digital since we no longer have to check our bank balance every time we release the shutter.

ka-POW! Lights out! DINGDINGDINGDING! The winnah and heavyweight champeen of the woild is….

Enough already. Undeniably, film’s been on the ropes for years. Maybe someday it will be down for the count, maybe not. I made my living with the stuff for almost 15 years before being dragged kicking and screaming out of the darkroom and strapped down in front of a computer in 1995. It had become very clear to mid career shooters in those days that however reluctant we were to do so, we had to come out of our converted walk-in closets if we wanted to keep working. So for me now, 20 years after I gawked in slack-jawed amazement at my first 100mb tiff file captured with a Sinar P2 and PhaseOne Photophase 4×5 scanning back, film just seems so… thoroughly, utterly unnecessary.

Photography itself was a 19th century invention, film as we know it propagated throughout the 20th, and all of that was important and amazing. But we’re in the 21st century now, and things have changed as things tend to do. It’s OK to change with it, and as long as you understand the truth about reality, it’s even OK not to, too.

Clearly, anybody in school today learning how to pay their bills for the next 40 or 50 years as a commercial photographer is out of their mind if they think our industry will look anything like it did over the last 40 or 50 years. They’re equally touched in the head if they think film will play any significant role in that pursuit . If they do, they’re going to have to step aside, because there are a hundred other eager young shutterbugs in line behind them who know otherwise. Film is not the ascendant imaging technology for this century, digital is, and boy is it taking off.

But all of that is beside the point. Because the best reason for continuing to shoot film in the digital age is the one that was conspicuously absent from the list of twelve. It’s the simplest one, and it doesn’t require long technical explanations or side by side comparisons or lectures about the realities of the commercial marketplace. It’s the one that some of my teaching colleagues use whenever I ask them why the heck they still shoot film. They say they like it, it’s taken them a lifetime to get really, really good at it, and they see no compelling reason not to keep doing it. From a teaching standpoint, film puts so much of what we do digitally in context. They just hope that somebody keeps making the stuff long enough to get them through to Social Security.

And that’s good enough for me.