The final word on the film vs. digital debate

Castlewood Canyon fallen tree
A photo I took with film. (Daniel J. Schneider)

It’s the singer, not the song.
The Rolling Stones

Since time immemorial, photographers have been debating whether film or digital photographic equipment is supreme. But which is truly best? I will tell you.

The debate has actually probably only raged since about 2003, when digital cameras outsold film cameras for the first time. It actually wasn’t even until a few years later that most major daily newspapers had gone digital. It’s been going on so long, though, even Wikipedia has an article on the film-digital debate.

Comparisons of resolution and dynamic range pop up every few months, and despite all the math applied to the topic, the articles don’t much agree — some calling film a clear winner, some championing digital, and others leaving it a relative draw.

You can get really into the weeds with this debate in terms of technology. Check out the electron micrographs of film grains in this article and the comparison of anisotropic (film grains) vs. isotropic (pixels) representations of a straight line.

And then there’s this guy, who inspired the timing of this long-time-coming article. Benjamin Kanarek writes, “I will stay with digital until they install a holographic projector into my frontal lobe.”

Okay, he makes some fair points in the article. My gripe is entirely to do with his presentation, which is obviously meant to inflame the ongoing debate. Actually, I disagree with some of his conclusions, too, such as, “What you can learn on digital in one year is probably five to ten times what you can learn on film in the same time. Film is a very slow feedback loop.”

He’s right about the slower feedback loop. But that’s precisely what I like about it — and I’m far from alone. With a slow feedback loop, you may need to pay far more attention to the details of individual rolls or shots to be able to learn the same lessons quickly.

It seems to me that any given lesson is learned more thoroughly when you have to see each one in the context of film, where failing to account for everything (and I still do this all the time) results in a lost shots that you can never, ever get back. And don’t be fooled — just because you can look at your histogram on a digital camera and take another frame if you messed something up doesn’t mean you can’t lose “the shot.” Consider that more than half the shots in a lot of “must have” wedding photo lists (like this one) are things that happen in less time than you can check your LCD, and if you miss them you may be ponying up a partial refund (or worse).

Kanarek addresses the argument that film means far fewer frames to edit into a final selection than digital (and suggests using small memory cards to simulate this limitation), but then touts the beauty of post-production and the increasing ability of hardware to make everything malleable after the shutter is released: “I can replicate the look of film in post-production. … Those Lytro Illum cameras? You can change your focus in post-production.”

South Forty Saloon
Also made with film, using a red filter in an attempt to learn some of Ansel Adams’ secrets. (Daniel J. Schneider)

It is true that Ansel Adams believed a full 50 percent of the creative process took place in the darkroom, after the camera was returned to the closet and the negatives developed, stopped and fixed. But Adams also co-founded Group f/64 with a group of like-minded photographers who believed in producing detail-saturated technically perfect renditions of reality (or as close as was possible).

Group f/64’s modernist movement was in direct opposition to the pictorialism of the East Coast-based Photo-Secession group, for whom anything was accepted in service of the final image — a response to the notion that photography could never be art. I doubt Adams would’ve liked the Lytro, although he notoriously experimented with different ways of printing the same negatives over the years. But it feels to me like it would’ve flown in the face of his concept of previsualization.

In “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs,” while describing the creation of the photograph entitled “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome,” Adams shared thoughts from early in his career that would become previsualization decades later:

Over the years I became increasingly aware of the importance of visualization. The ability to anticipate — to see in the mind’s eye, so to speak — the final print while viewing the subject makes it possible to apple the numerous controls of the craft in precise ways that contribute to achieving the desired result.

I can still recall the excitement of seeing the visualization “come true” when I removed the plate from the fixing bath for examination. The desired values were all there in their beautiful negative interpretation. This was one of the most exciting moments in my photographic career.

Perhaps, then, digital and its post-production versatility is the modern version of pictorialism, and its adherents the modern pictorialists. The film faithful, then, might be the descendants of the West Coast modernists (and Walker Evans). Lomographers must fall somewhere in the middle — they often make technically imperfect renditions of stark realities, or else technically perfect renditions of something unreal, like a light leak, their thumb, or the inside of a jacket pocket. Maybe they are the inheritors of surrealism.

Colorado's Lakeside Amusement Park in glorious monchrome
I made this picture with a digital camera, and I’m not ashamed of that fact. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I referred to Ken Rockwell’s “Your Camera Doesn’t Matter” when I discussed what I think is the best camera of all a few months ago, and it’s full of relevant anecdotes for this discussion, too.

When it comes down to it, film vs. digital is really a debate about what a photograph is. John Szarkowski, photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art for nearly 30 years, nailed it, I think, in “The Photographer’s Eye” (1965):

Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one’s cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite.

Notice that so far I’ve made almost no mention of technology — megapixels and white balance and autofocus and latitude. That’s because trying to compare the two by the numbers is a game of winners and losers, bests and worsts. And photography — like any art or other creative pursuit — is simply not subject to raw quantitative analysis. By its very nature, art is qualitative; it is subjective. (And there is art to documentation, so don’t think I’m exempting photojournalism here.)

Carl Clark nails it in this tweet. Comparing film to digital is comparing apples to oranges. We don’t have this debate when it comes to watches — another major category where analog and digital compete. You already know you can use what works for you, and virtually no one is going to judge you for it.

Film vs. digital is just a continuation of all the other forms of elitism that go on in photography … and many other spheres: Nikon vs. Canon, Kodak vs. Fuji, Mac vs. PC, boxers vs. briefs. For some reason, in all these debates, we seem to lose sight of the fact that neither tool is inherently superior. Both can get the job done, and do it very well.

If you go by the numbers, which Michael Archambault did rather well in this PetaPixel story, you’re going to see a lot of hedging, and a lot of ifs, ands or buts. Modern digital sensors produce less noise than apparent film grain in some conditions, for example, but film grain and digital noise aren’t really analogous. Digital resolution has (possibly) finally caught up in terms of line pairs per millimeter, but film grains aren’t digital and don’t make straight lines, so maybe the methodology used to arrive at that conclusion isn’t rock solid. Things like that.

You wouldn’t choose a romantic partner by measuring people’s hair and waists, or charting their hygiene habits over the course of months for comparison. You wouldn’t ask a potential suitor their shoe size and rebuff them because it’s too small or too big, or end a date simply because your companion ordered a double scoop of mint pistachio instead of getting a waffle cone with a single scoop of vanilla and rainbow sprinkles (despite that being the single greatest possible order at any ice cream stand). So why are you trying to pick a camera that way?

Pick up the camera, get it in your hands. Much like discovering a lover, this is a game of exploration and experimentation. Things may not fit quite right, or may fall in line perfectly. Over time, minor annoyances or imperfections may become treasured quirks, and things you could once ignore may become intolerable. The final product is simply not any better or worse solely because of the medium. Is a bridge built using bolts any less solid than one held together with rivets?

Then take a look at the negatives the camera is producing (or the RAW files if you’re one of those digital folks). How do they make you feel? Make prints and compare. Show them to your friends, family, fellow photographers. Show them to the lady at the gas station who’s just a little more chatty than you were comfortable with at first, but now just seems friendly. What do you think? What do they think?

If you’re happy with the work you can produce with the camera, and it works for you as a tool, then who cares whether it’s analog or digital?

Ultimately, the choice between film and digital is a personal one. Recently, a troll commented on an article of mine that I was a “digital-hating hipster.” I may be a hipster (apparently having a beard does that to you these days), but I don’t hate digital. I hate digital for me. I might even tease digital-toting friends of mine from time to time, or crack jokes here on my blog, but I respect their decision as artists to use digital equipment. Because that’s their choice to make.

Back to Ansel Adams, who summed up everything that matters in this debate with a single line I can’t get out my head:

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

Another Denver Sunset
Sometimes just a smartphone is enough to make a picture you’re pleased with. (Daniel J. Schneider)