The Great Digital vs. Film Debate


In this great debate, I think it is useful to look at the requirements of the situation you find yourself in when you are taking the picture. My fine art photography is mostly done with vintage cameras, primarily of the 1900s to 1920s vintage, so digital isn’t an option for me, but I also own and use a digital camera.

If one is debating the best picture obtainable when you have as much time as you need to compose and expose, then I think the answer comes down to preference and the subtleties of the image in each medium. Digital and film are both very good these days, but there always going to be differences in the way each medium handles highlights, tonal gradations, shadow detail, etc., etc. They are, after all, different media, and which you choose depends on how you like the feel of the image.

Personally, I like my hybrid approach of taking film and getting it scanned (I don’t have access to a darkroom), then processing it as a digital image. I then have the option of taking my negative to Moon Photo in Seattle for their lovely selenium half-tone printing, or processing it myself in Photoshop and being able to tweak subtle light values in Curves. I can get a quickie 1MB scan or go up to 40MB without having to invest a small fortune in an expensive digital camera. And I do have the advantage of the extended dynamic range of a silver negative.

If you want movements and sharp foregrounds and perspective control, then you need a view camera and, unless you are much richer than I am, you will be using film rather than a 2×3 or 4×5 digital back. I just bought and restored a 2×3 Baby Pacemaker Crown Graphic, and will be using the above hybrid film/scanning option for my negatives.

HOWEVER- when you need to take pictures quickly or review your results in the field, there’s nothing like digital. I do NOT use my Graphic for pictures of my two year old grandson; he moves too fast, and I throw out 50% of my images before they ever get uploaded. Similarly, if you are Art Wolfe next to a herd of rhinos or a reporter for the local paper, you need to know that that great image is really in the can when you head home.

I just had the experience of packing my view camera on a kayak trip to Meares Island, an internationally-acclaimed travel destination, and then never having time to set it up as our Haida guide toured us through ancient virgin rain forest. But I did get some nice shots with my Canon point-and-shoot. I went back two days later with my whole outfit and the light was terrible, but I did have my digital images. Unfortunately, most people aren’t sympathetic when you bitch about a beautiful sunny day and those damned bright shafts of sun in the shadowy forest!

And don’t forget about traditional/alternative photographic processes that are, in one way or another, film based. Check out Kerik Kouklis’ wonderful photos using platinum/palladium and other historic processes on http://www.kerik.com/images.htm.

Once again, it all comes down to what you need and what you love to use. If it works for you, use it. As long as the result is a thing of beauty, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

Happy shooting, whether it’s grains or pixels.

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