Film vs Digital Photography: What’s the Big Debate?

film vs digitalThe rise of digital photography has come at the dismay of many older photographers, as well as younger photographers who appreciate the precision and effort it takes to shoot film. There has been a big debate recently (and not so recently) regarding the “death of photography”. Not surprisingly, a big factor of this debate has been the abundance of smart phones, and, consequently, the rise of the Instagram photographer. Sure, anyone can snap a photograph on their iPhone, edit it through VSCO Cam, post it on Instagram and call themselves a photographer. But can these people look through a vintage film camera, accurately expose a shot and develop the film themselves? Film is a dying breed, but those who grew up shooting film can’t seem to let it go. So what’s the big debate about film vs. digital photography?

Let’s Talk Film for a Second

Have you ever taken a photography class where you had to develop your own film? First, you have to load the film into the camera itself. If we’re talking old 35mm cameras, the process is fairly self-explanatory but can seem tricky at first. If we’re talking medium format or large format cameras, that’s a whole different ball game. Then, in order to take the photographs, you must interpret the light meter in order to avoid having overexposed or underexposed images. Once you click the shutter, you don’t even know what the photograph will look like until it’s developed! This process continues until the roll ends; the entire time you are left wondering if you loaded the film correctly or if your light meter is accurate.

Then you enter the darkroom. You must fumble around in the pitch black, hoping that you grabbed everything you need in order to load the film correctly. You pop open the top of the film and begin to load it onto the reel. Halfway through, the film gets stuck and you have to start all over again. Finally, you have successfully loaded your film onto the reel, placed the reel in its container and screwed on the lid tightly so that no light is allowed in.

Now it’s time to actually develop your film. You pour the developer in – you must check the chart and match it up to the type of film you shot to ensure proper development time. Agitate once every 30 seconds, but don’t agitate too much or too little or your photographs may end up having streaks. Then you must stop the developing process with another chemical, then you must “fix” the film with the last chemical. Remove the film from the reel, hang it up to dry, and now you’re ready to enlarge.

Does that seem like a lot of work just to get 24 images prepped for enlarging? It is. Is it really as horrible as the process makes it out to be? It isn’t. For many, the process of developing film and enlarging images is a sort of meditation. It’s extremely satisfying to watch a blank sheet of photo paper turn into an image you took right before your eyes.

Now Let’s Take a Look at Digital

You turn on your camera, take a look in the viewfinder, and *click*. You press the playback button and your photograph is right there on the screen in front of you. Overexposed? No problem! Take another look through the viewfinder, increase the shutter speed by a couple of stops, and *click*. You take another look at your screen. Ah, there it is. You don’t know how to read the light meter? No problem! Set your camera to Automatic, Portrait, or Landscape and it will do all of the work for you. *Click* *click* *click*. You’ve just taken 50 images in the same location, all perfectly exposed, all ready for printing. You upload them onto your computer and drag them into Adobe Photoshop. If something doesn’t look quite right, no problem, that’s an easy fix! Auto Contrast and Auto Color will fix that right up, and you can send them directly to the printer.

Now, I understand that this is a generalization. Digital photography can be just as complex as film photography, but it doesn’t take as much education and skill to dive right into it. If I hand a child a film camera and tell them to bring me back 5 enlarged images without any further instruction, do you think they could figure out how to develop the film and enlarge the photographs by themselves? But if I handed a child a digital camera and told them to bring me back 5 printed images, I assume that they’d be familiar enough with technology to be able to do just that.

Why All The Fuss?

This is the problem that many people have with the rise of digital photography: it’s too accessible. Anyone and everyone can call themselves a photographer, and if they have the money for the equipment they can take professional looking images as well. Many people say “it’s not the lens, it’s the person behind the lens”. But if, as an artist, all I can afford is a simple point and shoot, my images will not turn out as aesthetically pleasing as the business man with a Canon FTb and a 50mm f/1.2 lens. It’s an unfortunate fact, and a fact that gets many film photographers heated.

So Which is Better?

There really is no answer to this question. Some people prefer to shoot in film, and some people prefer to shoot in digital. There are many photographers who know how to properly shoot and develop their own film, but find the digital workflow much more satisfying. It’s all about personal preference. If you can’t seem to decide between the two, try both! Want in on a little secret? I shoot all color film, have it processed at a lab, and then personally scan the photographs onto my computer and edit them digitally. It really is the best of both worlds! It’s important to understand how to read a light meter, understand white balance and how to properly expose images in a wide variety of difficult situations, but truth be told, that can be learned on either format.