Film Vs Digital

One of the images above was shot on film and the other on a digital camera. Which one is which? The answer is - who cares?

Ever since digital rolled on to the scene neatly at the turn of the 21st century, Nikon, Canon, Fuji, et al, have been mesmerising pixel-peepers with their ceaseless war on film. In 1975, Kodak took the first black and white digital photograph with a contraption the size of a shoebox. It took 25 seconds and was stored on a cassette tape. Since then, with ever-growing levels of sophistication, digital cameras have completely revolutionised the way we take, store and view images. Gone is the agonising thrill of waiting for the lab to process prints, the accumulation of hefty photo albums and even the satisfaction of hanging something on the wall freshly-framed. But hang on, you can still do all that right? Well yes, but everyone's in a bit too much of a hurry now. Photography has gone the way of all things - it has become more commodity than craft. More social media than social commentary. That's not to say digital photography is not a craft, if anything digital photography has actually complicated the picture-taking process for the artist.

When I was shooting rolls of 120 medium format film for product stills or 15 rolls of 35mm at a wedding, error was not an option. With digital, error often seems to be the rule not the exception. If I'm honest, pound for pound, I was shooting higher quality frames more consistently with film. But digital has a knack of freeing up your trigger finger and experimenting on the job is one of digital's thrills. And often the results are spectacular. But there is no comparison between the three pillars of film photography: light, composition and timing, and the countless variables further associated with modern digital photography. Aliasing, moiré, artifacts, noise, white balance - to truly exploit a modern DSLR or mirrorless camera's features, you better be prepared to swot. A scroll through a recent digital camera's menu can be baffling but many of those options are actually regularly used by professional photographers, and their choice of camera often comes down to how quickly they can access changes, or store custom settings.

Sure you can happily get away pointing and shooting on a daily basis, but just because it doesn't cost you anything to take that image doesn't make it any better than if you were actually truly focusing on the process in the way film forces you to. Film is alchemy or at least chemistry. Digital is purely physics.

But again - who cares. Your digital mistakes can (often) be fixed in Photoshop, Lightroom or any of the countless proprietary software packages that come with modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. When you're shooting all the time it comes down to workflow. Messing with pixels takes time and increases costs.

On pixels - for all intents and purposes, once cameras hit 6 to10 megapixels, for the consumer at least, digital photography hit a wall. It's just that most people didn't realise it because we were still being dished up the hard sell by manufacturers and retailers that more is better. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take a large 4K or Ultra HD monitor or computer screen that is 3940 x 2160 pixels. That's a total of around 8510 pixels. That's a big screen that at full-screen display would contain a 8 mega-pixel image at actual size. Imagine that as a print on the wall and double the size of the image. At that point there's two options: peer in and see how the pixels are coping with the enlargement, or stand back like a normal person so you can see the whole thing. Scale that down to the tiny size of 99% of the images you're looking at day-to-day and megapixels become insignificant.

It's all subjective. But I'd rather stand back and regard the big picture. As long as it's worth looking at, but that's something you'll have to teach yourself. No camera will give you that, it has to be earned.

If you're interested in photography, go and buy yourself a good 6 - 10 Mp second-hand camera and spend the money you save on good lenses. Unlike digital cameras (which are effectively disposable) good glass will last a lifetime. And even these days some cheap lenses, not to mention older vintage lenses, will produce fantastic resolution on modern sensors for most creative and day-to-day applications. It's a revelation to see a 50-year-old lens resolve exceptional images on a modern sensor. The best ones were built to far excel film's limitations. That's why they sent Carl Zeiss lenses to the moon.

Quality lenses are less prone to flare, are better at resolving detail and colour, distort less and are generally better weather-protected and more solidly built. Better still pick up a $10 film SLR at a garage sale and spend another $20 on film and processing. Make notes of the camera settings as you shoot. You'll learn a huge amount from just those 24 or 36 images.

There's no denying digital has it over film in terms of convenience. Cropping, filtering and burning and masking - no-one ever does this in a darkroom anymore. It's too easy digitally and no-one has the time. In fact digital is critical in some areas of photography and pointing and shooting has become the norm for many whose real vision is only realised in Photoshop.

The debate has become irrelevant. Digital tops film in every respect, but for feel, skill and audacity. In that they are equal. So if that's all you've got shoot film. It can work out cheaper.

Film, like vinyl record production, maintains a perfect uncertainty, and both enjoy renewed popularity. There's photography schools that won't even let you near a digital camera till you master film. I'd never trade in my days waiting for the lab to open.

(For the record, in a way both those images are digital because you're looking at them on a screen. The sunset was originally taken on Fuji Velvia (slide) film on a vintage Nikon FM2n, and the rock in Central Otago on an iPhone 4s. Which just goes to show, you are more important than any camera.)