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)
  • Great write-up, Daniel. You’ve brought all the different points together. For me, I gave up this debate a few years ago. I’ll use whatever tool makes me happy and whatever medium helps me achieve the result I want.

    • Thanks, man. That’s pretty much exactly how I feel. Was compelled to write this up because I am kind of tired of so many other articles just perpetuating the fight, which distracts us all from the most important thing: Making pictures that matter to us.

  • Sean Reese

    Nice write up once again! It never was a debate for me. I shoot both on a regular basis. In fact, I am waiting on my Graflex Crown Graphic view camera to get here sometime this week. Should be exciting to see what I can produce with 4×5 sheet film!

    • Oooh, exciting! I don’t use my Crown nearly enough, but I really should. Sheets are amazing. Thanks for the comment. It’s not a big debate for me, either — I use what I enjoy and what works for me, and I hope everyone else will, too. Now, then — back to making great pictures!

      • Sean Reese

        Just scanned my first sheets last night and let me tell you. The first 6 I did stuck together, that was interesting. The next 6 stayed on the MOD long enough to develop properly but they came off and ended up all sticking together on the side of the tank again. I was able to get some pretty cool results regardless. I ordered two more lenses and took the one that came with it to get repaired. I am having a blast with this thing!

        • Man, with adventures like that it may be time to get your own blog set up and tell us more! I’ve heard mixed reviews so far about the MOD and haven’t bought one myself. I’m tempted to actually buy hanging frames and find a bucket or something they fit in, and just do it all in the dark… Keep the updates coming!

          • Sean Reese

            Hanging frames might be the better way to go. The MOD had been nothing but problems. The other issues was that it was too small for the 4×5 sheet film that I had so I had to pull it apart a little bit to get them to fit. I was really disappointed when I opened the tank and saw all of my sheets stuck together on the inside of the tank. I hope that I get my lens board for a 38mm lens that I bought. I want to try out the 210mm lens I picked up. Ill be thawing out my film tonight. :)

          • That’s annoying. Though I wonder … If you had to spread it apart, could that have contributed to the film coming out? Was it maybe really tight by design? I have no idea, never having touched one. Andrew MacGregor (@shootfilmride) has one, I think, but I don’t know what his results have been like.

            I’ve tried the Yankee tank with mixed results, and a friend recently gave me a similar tank, though much older, to try out. I suppose I ought to get testing. But yeah, frames or trays seem the best options…

            36mm?! I don’t think I can even use a lens that wide on the Crown Graphic, as the camera body would be in the frame! That got to be near-fisheye territory on 4×5! I’d love to see what it does for you, though. I’ve wondered if a 210 or 250 would make a nice portrait lens on 4×5, but I only have a 90 and a 135.

          • Sean Reese

            135-150 are the standard lenses that used to come with them. 90mm is generally used for landscape or group shots and yes, the 210mm and up are used for portraits or close up stills. When I said 38mm I didn’t mean lens size, I meant the size of the hole in the lens board. It is a lot bigger for the larger lenses.

            I will have to experiment with the MOD. I picked a couple of safelights so that I don’t have to load it in the dark. My darkbag is WAY too small for that huge Patterson tank. I have blackout blinds in my studio which is in the base so essentially, my entire basement is a darkroom but only at night. Less of a chance for light leaks. :D I can develop down there during the day but only in certain parts. I am thinking about covering one of my window wells with foil in the one corner. I will have a LOT more room that way.

            I thawed out another pack of Kodak Tri pan last night, going to give that a shot this weekend and see what happens.

          • OH! Well, I have seen 45mm lenses for certain 4x5s, so I didn know for sure! And yeah, I’ve seen a couple ultra-wide, large aperture lenses for 4×5 with elements as large as the board or even larger. I’m not quite that advanced yet. ;-)

            Wouldn’t a safelight ruin your film? Or do you have some orthochromatic stuff laying around? I am already jealous of your basement, and I’ve never even met her. ;-) I found even my big changing bag difficult for larger film. And nearly impossible for my 5-reel Paterson tank. So I bought a Harrison Film Pup Tent on eBay for about $50 a couple years ago and consider it one of my best photography investments ever. :P

            Is Tri Pan the same as Tri-X? ;-)

          • Sean Reese

            Good morning Daniel! Yes, Tri-X! Not sure what Tri Pan is but I want to try it. :D A green light is recommended for the Tri-X but I used a red light over the weekend and since I don’t have my film holders yet, I was only able to do two sheets that I will hopefully get to develop this weekend. I will let you know how it goes.

          • Ah, me too. For a moment I thought I had never heard of some great film! Look forward to hearing about the results; really didn’t know you could use any safelights with film.

          • Sean Reese

            I guess I will find out this weekend when I make the attempt! :D So I purchased some Polaroid Type 55 that had been opened. I picked up 18 of them for $35. Yeah, none of them work. The chems were all dried up. I went through almost all of them hoping to find one that would work. NOPE! The paper wouldn’t even slide off the film to expose it. I am wondering now if all of the offerings on eBay are like that. I think New 55 might be my only option at this point but at $75 a pack, that can get expensive. I will continue to keep on eye on eBay and maybe I will be able to find some for a decent price. By the way, I took your advice and started a blog on my site.:D http://www.smrphotographics.com/blog/

          • Yeah, at this point Polaroid film is a poor gamble, I think. It doesn’t handle freezing well, and even in refrigeration the chemical pods eventually dry out. Even if they haven’t dried out completely, it only takes a little bit to cause it to spread poorly or incompletely. And the film has lost speed, which you can compensate for some with extra exposure, but if the chemicals have lost potency, too, it’s very hard to lock in a combination that exposes and develops well into a useable final image. To me, New55 isn’t quite ready yet, and the cost is definitely prohibitive for me. I still have a few cases of Fuji Astia and Velvia ReadyLoads for my 4×5, and I think I’ll stick with them for now (if/when I pick up the 4×5 again — still rather addicted to the 6×7).

            That’s great! I’ll add it to my feed reader! :D

          • Hey Daniel, I just checked eBay and holy crap 4×5 instant is still a small fortune. I just purchased some of the New55 B&W instant positive/negative. The way I see it is that if they are truly going to try to bring this type of film back, I will do everything that I can to help out and I think the best way to do that is to purchase some of what they have available. They are sold out of color though. The prices are much better than what you can find on eBay for expired film. I will be posting images on my blog once I get the film and I am able to get out to test it. I am actually pretty excited about this company and what they are trying to do.

          • I’ve been following their progress with interest, but the expense just isn’t something I can justify right now for a product that’s still mostly in a beta stage. I am excited to see their vision come to fruition, though, and I’ll be very excited to see what kind of results you get.

  • Jerry Hutchins

    I’ve been saying this for a long time. Being an “old guy” starting in 1977 with my Grandfather’s Argus C-2 (still have it; humm need to run a roll through it) :-). Working in the photography industry in photo labs and as a professional photographer using film. When digital came is was crude, like the first cameras and wet plates and then dry plates (wonder if there was a debate on that; probably via carrier pigeon, the first Twitter). I waited until one the price was enormous and the technology was not there but I did see that like anything it would get to par.
    I use both mediums, what do I pick up first; digital. Unless what I am looking at will be best done on film. That is visualization Ansel Adams ment. I see the image in my head and feel it.
    As I posted on Twitter it does not matter whether I am using digital or film I love photography, the tones of B&W the vibrancy of color. It is all photography to me.
    To quote Dan “Both can get the job done, and do it very well.”
    To quote Ansel Adams
    “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
    Oh and one other thing, 35mm,120(MF), 4×5, 5×7, 8×10. It is still a choice, not that the size of the film you use makes you better.

    • Exactly my feelings, Jerry. We are artists and documentarians, and whatever tool gets the job done the way we want, produces the images we want, is the best one. Film vs. digital is like debating the value of a painters work by whether they used oils or acrylics and ignoring the content of the paintings.

      You’re totally right about the film format, too — film vs. digital is too reductive, on its own, to lead to useful discussion anyway. Thanks for your input, man!

  • Dev

    The last line sums it up. There are no rules, just good photos.

    • Yeah, the whole thing was just filling out the in-between after I put in the Stones quote and that last one.

  • I’m just back from a honeymoon in Ireland where I shot about 900 images on my digital Canon S95 (and five rolls of T-Max 400 for good measure). That S95 has been a wonderful tool for me. I will always have a greater love for film, but on this trip the S95 was totally the right camera.

    And so I am tired of the film-vs-digital holy war. Shoot what you want. Make images that make you happy. Done.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Jim. I agree completely (obviously). I still take pictures with my iPhone, though that’s the only digital image capture device I have now, and sometimes it’s the right tool for the job. Someone famous (and I’m embarrassed I don’t remember who righ this second, because I should know) once said something like, “The best camera is the one in your pocket.” Hard to go wrong with whatever you’ve got.

    • Joshua Fast

      BTW Congrats Jim! Looking forward to seeing some of your pics. My family is mostly irish and one of these days i would like to go myself.

  • Joshua Fast

    Great article. Film vs. digital has always been a fruitless debate, it’s merely the medium the artist starts with. There is certainly more work with film as it requires extra steps beyond digital and film has a little more expense to it.

    I love and use both for different reasons and different purposes. I sat on a dock last weekend with a 7mm ultra wide and tried out some astrophotography. I wouldn’t have even attempted it with film as i needed the instant feedback to adjust my shutter speeds.

    For shooting street and landscape film is king. There is something about the process of loading the film, advancing after each shot and then pulling the spent cartridge out that is relaxing to the very center of my core. I also love talking to people and I get a lot of interest carrying around older looking cameras.

    If we are talking about learning the basics of photography, i would say that shooting film is more beneficial. I learned more by shooting an all manual meterless film camera than i ever would have by shooting a digital camera in AE.

    It all boils down to the point that most of us can agree on. Shoot film, it’s better. (JK)

    • I think most of my readers are likely to agree with you there! I know I do, but that’s me. If other people want to use digital, so be it — I just hope they aren’t hurt when I lose interest in their Lightroom actions and wifi-enabled shotgun mic and all that.

      It’s interesting you say more work with film — I’d say that there is more process, but not necessarily more work. It takes me about 30 seconds to pick the keepers from a few rolls of film; I know people who take an entire evening just deciding what to edit from their memory cards. And as for editing, well, as I work into printing I know that will change completely. For my scans, I do next to nothing and 90 percent of the time I spend is fixing scanner dust.

      Cost, too — I have over a hundred cameras, including some very good professional models, and tons of lenses and accessories, and my total investment is still lower than a good DSLR. I spend maybe $1000 a year on film and processing (since I use a lot of $1/roll expired for reviews and process B+W myself). So if I had a Nikon D4, I could shoot with it for a few years before replacing it — but by the time my film expenditure caught up to the cost of the DSLR, the Nikon would be obsolete or worn out and I’d be looking at dropping $8000 on a D6 or D7. I’ve seen the math done several ways and I think the total cost of ownership is pretty comparable depending on the assumptions you make, so ultimately your workflow and how much you shoot with film will determine if it’s more or less expensive — but I think it can be cheaper!

      I spent a lot of time shooting a DSLR in manual or aperture priority and I did find it an easy way to really burnt he exposure triangle into my subconscious without wasting a lot of film. The immediate feedback is good for stuff like that. But it’s little different than shooting Polaroids to check exposure before loading the good stuff. Ansel Adams was an advocate of Type 55 and believed strongly in it as a backstop for all his calculations, and as a further tool to help him achieve his visualizations.

      Thanks for your great feedback, I always enjoy when a reader gets me thinking!

      • Joshua Fast

        For me there is a little more work, but I enjoy it. There’s something about the way a vintage lens renders that can’t be compared to modern glass.

        Digital workflow: Shoot >> Import >> Lightroom PP >> Sharpen
        Film workflow: Shoot >> Develop >> Scan >> Import to Lightroom >> Sharpen

        By work i mean there are more steps. My wife knows Sunday night is developing night, the kitchen is full of chemicals and we have made it a thing. Throw on a 80’s movie, have a few beers and see what the weeks shooting has brought forth. I thoroughly enjoy each step so it’s not really “work” but if you are putting the steps down in a debate, there is more to do in a film workflow.

        I agree with you on the cost. I have a lot of top tier cameras from the 60s and 70s as well and have been able to snag them for peanuts compared to their modern equivalents. My cost statement could be clarified as it’s a continuous cost. Film, developing, scanner wear/upgrades, negative sleeves, archival books, etc. etc. It’s not a huge expense but is definitely a never ending one.

        • That you enjoy it is what’s most important, I think. And yeah, that’s what I meant by more process — more steps. I tend to develop every 4-6 weeks in large batches, since a little HC-110 goes a long way. And yeah, then lots of scanning. I never sharpen, though. Seems to wreck the look of the grain to me. If I really want to rescue a picture on photoshop that’s a tad too soft, I’ll use a high pass layer to highlight edges, but that’s about it.

          For me, the ongoing nature of the expense makes it easier o move steadily forward. I’ve never had good luck trying to spend large quantities of money at once!

          • Joshua Fast

            I completely understand that! I made the switch from FF Canon to MFT. I found i had hit a plateau because I didn’t want to keep spending 2K on each lens. Olympus is affordable, more portable and the IS is crazy.

            As far as sharpening, have you tried Nik’s pre/output sharpen tools for photoshop? It’s the most effective sharpening tools i’ve used for film. Actually i use if for film and digital now. The very best part is it’s free, gotta love Google.

          • I don’t actually know what MFT means so I’m a little lost here. Keep in mind, I’ve been out of the digital game for half a decade already!

            I’ve never used a photoshop plugin. Do they work with old versions?

          • Joshua Fast

            Sorry, Micro-Four Thirds. It’s a format used by Olympus and Panasonic. It’s a modern take on the half frame format. It receives a lot of flack from full frame fanatics in the same way that 35mm was viewed when the standard was medium format.

            It is my understanding that the Nik plugin will work on all versions of PS.

          • Oh, right. I’ve heard of it spelled out before. I thought it was more like 110 film in size, though. :P All my cameras are full frame. Actually, if 135 format is ‘full frame,’ what’s medium format? Or sheet film? 6×6 is ‘double-plus frame’ maybe? And then 4×5 would be ‘super-mega-huge frame.’ 8×10 would probably just be ‘omniframe’ since it’s the ne plus ultra of film size at this point (those 20×24 nerds will argue, but we’ll stick them with a name like ‘framezilla’ or ‘big stupid frame.’

            Maybe I’ll give it a try one of these days. TBH, everything I do with scanning and PS are just for posting on here or printing crappy inkjet examples to show friends. And I’m a big fan of the words ‘acceptable sharpness.’ :P

  • Johan Thole

    It’s pretty simple for me (unfortunately); I really hated, hated scanning. That must be one of the boring activities known to mankind (my perspective). I recently sold my latest scanner (an Epson V700), and I have not bought a new one. I still have my films in the fridge, because who knows if I change my mind. I’m a bit melancholic about it, but the whole digitalisation process is just not worth it for me. So I’m all digital for now (to be fair, the last film roll I scanned was already over a year ago, Ilford XP2).