Film vs Digital: Why I Shoot with Film
In 2011, I much prefer to use my film camera than take digital photographs.
When friends and colleagues discover that I shoot a large proportion of my photographs on film, they are incredulous. Surely, they ask me, I am not serious? They simply cannot understand why I would choose the older and slower medium instead of the instant and cheap.
I have been convinced for quite some time that film is making a resurgence, and for very good reason. I have no hard data, but the woman who processes my films at the camera shop had told me that film sales are “definitely up, almost booming” and Kodak have also said that there’s a resurgence in film sales. Even anecdotally on Flickr, there seem to be more and more people turning back to film photography.
People are coming to realise that film has definite advantages over digital photography.
Approximately 75% of my photography these days is shot on film. Some of my reasons for returning to film are technical and some of them are emotional but regardless, I generally find that film delivers a superior result for me.
Here are some of my reasons for choosing film:
1. Film has a Broader Dynamic Range
If I use a 100ISO film in an analogue camera, and set my digital to ISO100 and shoot a room with a bright window, or a neon sign lit at dusk, or a garden filled with dappled light, I am almost inevitably happier with the film version. Why? Because if I choose the correct film (there are many types), I will be able to see detail in the dark parts of the room which appear as black in the digital version. This is called latitude, which digital photography tends to lack.
If I am shooting something bright but coloured like a smokey sunset or a vivid neon sign, a digital camera will render the brightest light sources as white, regardless of their proper colour. Film will reproduce those bright points in their true colours, so a red light will be red. Not red grading to pink with a white centre.
Here’s an example: The images below are of a church in Millicent, South Australia. The top image is digital (Canon EOS 350D) and the bottom image was shot on Fujifilm Superia Reala 100 film, using a Canon EOS 500N . I wanted to capture the warmth and the ambience of the building, but this was a tricky location because the church was a dark yet the windows and skylight were very bright.
In the film version, I can see more detail in the dark places without the bright parts being blown out. If I look at the pews and the ceiling of the digital version, then compare to the film version, the difference is immediately apparent.
Here’s another example: A photograph taken from the Rialto Towers Observation Deck of the city of Melbourne at dusk.
Look at how the film version – shot on Fujifilm Velvia 100 – has richer colours, clearer tones and sharper resolution. The bright spots on Flinders Street station (centre right) are blown out in the digital version so that the pixels are either white or tending to orange, whereas in the film version they retain their true (and accurate) yellow colour. The subtle tones of the buildings are clearer and even the haze in the sky is captured on film, whereas the digital photo shows the sky as an almost single shade of blue.
2. Film is more challenging, but more rewarding
Film demands that thought be put into the composition of each image before the shutter button is pressed. Therefore I find film to be more challenging, but consequently more rewarding when one strikes photographic gold. For me at least, there’s more to celebrate in a ‘brilliant’ film photograph than a digital one.
One doesn’t always want a challenge. Sometimes if I really need a shot, such as when composition an action shot, I won’t use film. But if I am in a situation where time permits, film will usually be my first choice.
3. Film is “authentic”
It strikes me as peculiar that the latest iPhone cameras come with applications that make their digital photos appear to be shot on film or as Polaroids. It begs the very obvious question: If you want the look of film, why not use film?
It is hard to quantify, but film has an authenticity that digital photography lacks.
Perhaps it is the natural vignetting that is a product of a lens rather than a Photoshop effect? Or maybe the softer colours or gentle grain that puts soul into the image?
The vignetting in this image is a natural effect from the lens mounted on the camera. (Shot on Fujifilm Superia Reala 100 film)
4. Black-and-white & high-ISO look better on film
Black-and-white photography has a quality that colour lacks. Photographers may use black-and-white to provide an evocative element in an image or to add drama. Yet there’s really something lacking in digital black-and-white photography. Photographer Ken Rockwell puts it down to digital’s inability to capture tone and shade as well as film, in part because of the failings of colour digital sensors.
Whatever the differences may be, I know that nothing compares to a decent film-based black-and-white photo. Likewise, if I want grain, a high-ISO film will always look better than a crude Photoshop effect or high-ISO setting on a digital.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. (Shot on Ilford PANF Plus 50 film)
5. Film has resolution
On his website, photographer Ken Rockwell writes that “A frame of 35mm film, scanned cheaply at a good photo lab to a CD, is about equal to the resolution of a 25-megapixel DSLR”. Ask yourself: How many people have 25-megapixel cameras?
Of course, this resolution is possible because of scanning technology as much as the film itself. As scanners become increasingly better, higher resolution scans from slide or colour-reversal films are possible. But the other half of the equation is the very detail (ie information) captured on the film in the first place.
Film is an old technology which on a technical level, hasn’t been matched in resolution by digital photography ever. For a whole range of technical reasons, film can capture considerably more detail without converting your images to pixels, adding noise reductions and the like which all reduce image clarity.
In thirty years time, most people’s digital JPG images are going to look fairly poor by the standards of the day, and there will be no way to increase the resolution of those digital images to extract more information. However, in thirty years time it will be possible to re-scan an old negative or slide and the digital image will be of a quality that the technology of the time will permit.
6. Film is fun!
In an era when we can so easily get instant gratification, I actually like waiting for my photos to be processed. I genuinely look forward to collecting my prints or slides to see how my images turned out after a big shoot. I relish the joy of discovering that what I imagined would be “photographic gold” actually turned out better than I imagined.
And yes, sometimes I am disappointed. (Tony Abbott has a phrase to describe this phenomenon).
Everyone will have their own reasons for preferring film over digital, or vice versa. It will depend on what one wants from their photos, and their photography. If you still have an old film camera lying around at home, why don’t you buy some film give it another go? You might be pleasantly surprised.
In the peak of the digital craze, I almost sold my film camera. I am ever so grateful now that I was talked out of that silly idea.