Film vs. Digital

A good friend of mine was one of the original team at Foveon- a CMOS imager company. He made the comment to me a number of years ago that digital would win out over film in the near future. I scoffed. At the time, I was a film guy. Today, he is more right than wrong. It is important to remember that film and digital have different responses to light and can produce qualitatively different images. No doubt, it is a hotly debated subject. Well meaning, highly experienced technical and artistic professionals come down on each side of the argument. Some say film and some say digital.

Does a magazine editor that says digital is not good enough for his magazine outweigh an optical systems engineer who can provide detailed test results of digital's superiority? But is the editor defending her recent investment in drum scanners, or is she just from the "old school" and proud of it? Then again, maybe she is technically and artistically correct. Is the engineer just defending her turf - claiming that technology conquers all? What about all the pros who have been doing this for a long time, aren't they a better judge? They know their medium as true practitioners of the art. I wish it were that simple -- it is not.

You have to realize that there is psychology and engineering at work in this Shakespearian drama. First, there are many, many factors that lead an "expert" to decide film or digital is better, most of which is very subjective in nature. That's OK. But how do I use that opinion to make my decision? Most of the testing provided as evidence is far from objective, and in my opinion, poorly done. Secondly, photographic equipment quality is pretty amazing these days. Some reviewers use superlatives that are undeserving, and can lead the uninitiated to conclude that big differences actually exist. For example, I often see things like..."Lens A is incredibly sharp while lens B is junk". Resolution charts are offered as proof and close examination shows very little difference between the charts. Perhaps the test was prompted by the photographer's spouse who was incredulous that she spent $2,000 on another lens. Look honey, it IS better.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of over-justifying and defending of entrenched positions. Some folks have years (and $$$) of investment in learning the sometimes temperamental art of film. They view digital guys as somehow "cheating" and they are not "real" artists. Digital people sometimes think of film shooters as Neanderthals -- destined for extinction. For every artistic or technical expert that claims digital is king, I can find one with equal credentials who will say film is king. Aaahhh!!!

The best reviews are the ones that say: With this gear and these goals for the final image, I get better results with __________ (film or digital). Great, but that does not mean that I will get better results using that same gear. There are a ton of subtle things that can lead to superior final performance for one or the other - sharpening routines, tonal preferences, color preferences, etc. I will have different approaches to these and may get different results. Favoring one element in the processing chain (purposefully or inadvertently) can easily sway the results one way or the other. Be careful. Just because your favorite photographer gets better results using digital (or film), does not mean that you will!

Here's the bottom line:

The two media have approached each other closely enough to allow these battles to rage. To me this implies that they media are in sight of each other so that I can choose digital or film based based on other criteria like my end goals for the image. Does it really matter to the performance of your car that one model has 210 HP while the other has 203 HP?

The most important thing in making a good photograph is the photographer's eye - not the gear. Applying the best techniques with a great camera to a poorly selected scene still yields a poor photograph. All the talk of megapixels (MP) and grain size or film format (the size of the negative) is secondary to getting a good picture. Spend your time and effort studying and taking photographs -- not in acquiring or debating gear.

Comparing the two media (digital and film) is actually quite difficult to do fairly. And I believe that a lot of the comparisons fall short. After all, one is optical/chemical in nature and the other is electronic. To make the comparison, most people put both photos into the same format (usually electronic). In this case, the film has suffered a degradation by scanning that the digital has not. True comparison between the two, each in their own native domains, is expensive, technical and beyond most of reviewers' capabilities.

When I sum up all the data I can find, I come down on the side of digital. I own mid-range equipment and I am quite happy with it. One of the main reasons is that most amateur's end product is digital - files that can be displayed on their computer or printed on an inkjet or dye sublimation printer. This is one of the biggest cases for going digital, it is the native format of my end product. Thus, I do not have to invest in extra equipment, or suffer the degradation caused by the conversion process.

Evaluating the debate has led me to believe that the high-end digital cameras are comparable to 35 mm film for my end use (web and medium format prints). Does that mean that I think 35 mm film is inferior? Not inferior, just usually not the best choice -- for me. Given they are in the same ballpark and all the other trade-offs, digital is my best choice for the following reasons:

  1. I take a fair amount of pictures. Digital it is cheaper, even though the camera is more expensive, by saving me film and processing costs.
  2. I am not looking for 20 x 30 gallery prints - 11 x 14 are large enough. I can occasionally get a 16 x 20 depending on the image.
  3. Feedback is immediate.
  4. I have a greater degree of control over the entire process with a moderate financial investment.
  5. For small/medium format inkjet prints and the web, my audience can not tell the difference between film and digital. So, why fret?

It is almost a universal fact that your audience will not care whether you shot in film or digital. I personally care what my audience thinks, not some photo buff with a case to make. With the exception of bit heads, people will not judge your photos by bit depth, pixel count, or any other numerical score. The frenzy over all this comparison is irrelevant to making good pictures. Photography is an emotional experience, not a technical one.

Having said that I prefer digital, you can see the great work of the late Galen Rowell who shot 35 mm slide film. So, if you are trying to emulate this kind of work in 35 mm, then slide film may be best. Recognize however that Galen Rowell wasn't using a $1,000 scanner and a $700 printer. Costs are going to be stiff using a service bureau at $25-150 per drum scan and $20-160 per print depending on the size of the output. Or you can invest something approaching a hundred thousand dollars in printers and a drum scanner.

So, if you like film (and it has its winning strong points!), then shoot film. If digital appeals, then shoot digital. Digital is the overall choice for me, though I do still have a Nikon N80 film camera body and occasionally shoot it. But in general, I am not after gallery prints, so digital is the right tool.

Look at my photos again and then glance at Stephen Johnson's (100% digital) or Galen Rowell's (100% film) work. Their work better? Absolutely. Why? It is because they are better photographers - not because they have better gear. After, all if you look on Galen's site, there is a list of his gear. I am shooting many of the same pieces of gear when I shoot film with much less success.

Parting Shot

If you are an amateur and are not attempting to produce large format prints ( ~ 16 x 20), then a digital SLR of 6 MP will do everything you need and more. Avoid stepping onto the equipment competition merry-go-round. Even some of the better point and shoots will probably give you excellent results. If your target is the web, then a point and shoot is all you need.

Don't let the film guys get to you by throwing around all kinds of numbers that they probably don't understand to justify why you, and your photos, are inferior in quality. If you are a film guy, ignore the digital photographer's claims that you are a dying species. You like film because you like film and need not justify it to anyone.

Stop debating and start shooting!