Which is better: There is no answer to that question.
I learned photography on film when I was a kid, then almost completely forgot about film after I bought my first proper DSLR. For reasons I cant explain, I started using film again this spring. It may have been a desire for nostalgia, or searching for a different look to my photos, but all of that doesn’t really matter. All I know is that I will now use film for certain things, and digital for others. For example, film will be used for portraits, street photography and just for fun. Digital, on the other hand, is a medium which offers added security for doing professional work. It is extremely convenient and has made the processing end of photography much easier. Unfortunately, it is also the technology which made photography an almost unsustainable profession, by giving everyone the ability to make images, thus de-valuing the ability to make a photograph. On the other hand, perhaps the most important thing digital photography has done, was to revolutionize storytelling. Documentary photography is now more accessible to would be story-tellers than it was with film. All you need to make a photo story is a smart phone these days.
Confidence vs. Anticipation
I am very confident shooting on digital because of its versatility and its excellent out of camera image quality. Film takes extra work: You have to develop, scan and deal with bad negatives, scratches and dust. The latter parts suck, but the developing and scanning I quite enjoy. It almost reminds me of opening a pack of Pokemon cards when I was a kid. When I finally pull the roll out of the developing tank after all my hard work, I get to be satisfied or greatly disappointed with my results, just like when you opened a pack of Pokemon cards with no holographic cards. All of that anticipation doesn’t exist when I shoot digital. It is like peaking at your Christmas presents right after your parents hid them. There is literally nothing to lose when using digital, so you can fire away all day long, which cant be done with film. This security we get when shooting digital is exactly what I want when I am getting paid to take photos. Film, on the other hand, has returned that feeling of respect I had for the shutter button, and making my frames count, as well as the “Pack of cards” anticipation you have when developing film.
Film is a more visceral experience, in that you have to really trust yourself when making a shot. In digital all you have to do is press the play button to see if it exposed alright. I suppose if you were obsessive compulsive, you would much rather shoot on digital for everything. For me, relying on my instincts is fun, but if I want to be sure, I shoot on both. If shooting film, I always use a digital camera to meter my shots. So as long as you are mimicking the settings on your digital camera on the film, you are adding a layer of safety.
If you asked me which medium had better image quality, I’d tell you digital, even though some larger format films technically have higher resolution than digital sensors. The reason I say digital is better, is because most people don’t have the technology at their fingers to harness the full quality of a film negative. You need very expensive scanners to get that full resolution, which most of us cant justify paying for. The other thing to consider are problems which come with film. Sometimes film is defective, in that there are discolorations on it. Film gets scratched very easily, there are water spots, dust, light leakage may occur, it curls and gets bent, and the list goes on and on. So yeah, if you ask me, digital is better quality wise for us normal folks.
The old argument that film is cheaper than digital is poppycock. Film hasn’t been cheaper than digital for a long time. Rolls of Fuji Pro 400H cost almost $10. The initial investment of a digital camera is expensive, but you will probably get hundreds of thousands of images on your camera body, which most people will never come close to. To me, your base main camera should be digital, unless you are doing large format or some type of art which requires film. Shooting film should be an afterthought after one has learned how to use digital. That said, some people believe teaching photography students how to shoot with film helps them better understand exposure. Well, maybe, but one could also argue that everything you need to know about exposure is right on your digital camera.
So why did I start shooting film again? Friends have asked me if I am trying to be a hipster. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with it, but what I know clearly is that it brings me back to when taking a picture was kind of a bigger deal than it is now. A time when my mom used to position my sister and I in a scene and really hesitate to click the shutter because she wasn’t sure if she would screw up the shot, and wouldn’t know if the shot came out until she got it back from the lab days later. That feeling is what got me addicted to photography; the feeling of making an image that makes you look twice, further accentuated by the anticipation of finding out if the film exposed correctly, or if the focus was on, or if it was blurry, or if it was just that awesome shot you hoped it would be.
To see more of my recent photos check my Instagram feed, where I’m posting a mix of digital and film images.