This is likely going to be a two part question. Part one is in the title, is it easier to learn with digital rather than film. Part two is: Are the skills from one medium transferable to the other
The image above has a double meaning for me. I like the image. The man peeping from the window adds something of a question mark to the shot. The double meaning for me comes from the fact that this is the place that roasts the coffee that I drink on a daily basis... So I have a connection to the location as well. It was also shot on film, although with a little bit of a misshap. I will cover this in a little more detail below.
The first thing that I want to raise is the sheer volume of feedback that you get from shooting digital. Its quick and if you take the time to assess the images then its a valuable tool. Did you pick the issue with the statement... 'IF' you take the time... Most dont. Most shoot away and really miss the boat on the whole being critical about your images thing. In the process of pondering this post I read one of Eric Kims posts on 103 things that he has learnt from Street Photography.
#29. With film, your first 10,000 photos are your worst. With digital, it is more like your first 1,000,000 are your worst.
This quote from Eric sort of threw my theory on its head and I thought that it was probably worth some discussion. I think that it goes back the the point above about the need to assess the images with the digital camera, and it also goes back to the way of the world these days. The whole speed of society and the need to have things now, and not to take notice of the things that are happening around you. Photography on the street goes a long way to correcting some of this I think, as you are forced to take a little more care in the things that youre seeing.
To give you a little idea of the timeline for some of these posts, I started this one in Melbourne last weekend (27th or 28th of Sep 2013), and am currently sitting in the airport lounge at Kuala Lumpur LCCT airport a little bored and with a wife connection so figured I would continue a little more of the post while I had some spare time. I am a little tired as I flew from Melbourne overnight and didn't get a lot of sleep, and am in the middle of a 6 hour layover on the way to Krabi in Thailand for a nice 10 day break... Anyway, let's get back on topic just a little shall we.
Back to Eric's quote then. My original theory went something along the lines of if I can shoot a bucket load more images with a digital camera then surely this is a good learning tool for me to see whats going to work and not work in my workflow? Right... Eric seems to suggest that this bucket loads isn't going to start producing great images really any quicker as you're just going to have to shoot more of them before you start getting the results, so the time may be the same I guess.
What are some of the other things that you get with a digital camera that are a little harder and more cumbersome to achieve with film. EXIF data is a massive one, but its sort of a double edge sword as well I think. And it's one that I tend to fall victim to at times with film, and something that I should work harder at.
EXIF data is the little snippets of information that are stored against a digital file when you take it. Some are useful to some, others are just bits of information. Simple things like the day that the image was taken, and in some cases with new cameras even a get tag to say where it was taken if the camera has GPS built in. But what we are wanting to worry about here are the camera settings that the image was captured with. Exposure time, f-stop setting, and ISO settings are likely the ones that you want to take into account here. But do you know what they mean?
These are all things that an avid film shooters needs to know like the back of his hands. If you put a roll of 400iso film into a camera that's you done and dusted for that whole roll. You can push or pull the exposure but you will need to develop the roll to account for the under or over exposure from the pull or the push. With digital cameras they are able to change the ISO on the fly and you can even set it to auto and let the camera choose the setting for you. In order to mimic the data that you get from the EXIF data for digital it would be a requirement to take copious notes on the images that you were shooting so you know the exposure settings that were used for each and every shot that you exposed on a roll. And then more importantly match the notes to the exposures after the fact when you have processed the film. This is a habit that every film shooter should at least get into when they first start as how else will you be able to know what you need to do to correct an error that you made on one of your images? If you shoot a whole rolled using the sunny 16 method for exposure for example and you judge by eye that it's about a f8 brightness with the speed set at the ISO setting for the film you're using (400iso film, then as close to 1/400th of a second exposure at f16 for bring sunlight. Google it, it's well worth it, sunny 16) and when you process the film you were out by a stop and the news are all under, how will you know how to order this without the notes on the roll. With EXIF data you have it on each file, with film you dont.
This is the place to give you a little run down of the misshapen in relation to the first image. When we are talking ISO settings and pushing and pulling film, and generally the requirement to be a little more meticulous with things in the film world... The Image of the coffee shop was shot on 100iso Ilford Delta film. I have mentioned in the past that I use bulk roll film. You should also label your film rollers if you have more than oe. I shot 4 or 5 rolls of Delta thinking that it was 400iso Tri-X. The first roll I was pushing to 1600iso and couldn't work out why I had no images, Tri-X is a great push film. The little Ilford text on the film should have brought this to my attention then I guess... It wasn't till roll 4 that I realised. The Seals shot and the Cafe shot were both on the rolls, but we're shot at 400iso not 1600, so got a little more out of them. Delta is not however very forgiving with under exposure usually, unless you're spot on with the over development, so I'm a little surprised that I got any results at all.
But I will go back to the point at hand... Is it easier to learn with digital? I thin it's clear that it's easy to learn to be lazy, and this may not mean that your images are any worse if you have a great eye for composition and framing, and a ability to capture the right moments in your images, but it will mean that you have less of a technical ability to recreate what you did again in the future if you had a need to do so.
Caught in a Cowd
Building a little on the automatic thing as well. I think that all major digital cameras that would be widely used for street photography, bar the Leica M series, would have Auto focus. Happy to be corrected if I am wrong, but keep in mind I said used for street photography, so no rolling out digital back Hasselblads here unless you have some street shots to back up your claims...
Auto focus working in hand with auto exposure and auto ISO settings let's you wander and be confident that you can shoot from the hip in crowds of people's and nail the exposure and focus more often than not. The image above was shot at the Melbourne Show and there were heaps of people in the various areas. I don't think that I would be so careless and nonchalant with film, just wandering and shooting through little gaps as they appeared. There are cameras that will allow you to auto focus and expose in their situations, I have a Nikon f100 that will do this without skipping beat, but I probably too 200 shots in this way with the digital at the show and this was the only one that I came away with that I thought was worth keeping. That's a lot of film if you are going to do that. Don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying that my hit rate on keepers with film is much better, it might even be worse that 1 in 200, but I at least am able to enjoy what I am doing, take some times, relax, and wind down. I do this as a hobby, I don't want me photography to be an extension of my frantic or king life.
So we will look at another one of Eric's quotes here to cover off on this point.
#29 When shooting street photography with a DSLR, micro 4/3rds, or a compact and you don’t want to worry about technical considerations, just use “P” mode at ISO 1600.
Again I think that this is an interesting point that warrants a little discussion. Are we saying here that if you only ever shoot digital then you should always leave the camera set in this way, never worry about what the other settings do, and just go for your life and ensure that you are the best dame framer and composer out there? I think for me this would drive me a little insane. And I will say this as well. I don't disagree with the statement. I think that Eric knows what he is doing with a camera and has worked out that for his style of shooting this is the best method for working quickly on the street. I also don't think that I would be far off using a I Milan method myself, and often shoot in P with the digital camera as well, but I tend to leave the ISO on auto with a maximum limit of 1600. So a very close work flow indeed.
There is a but coming, I know you can tell. BUT... If I had a need to work outside of this work flow I could. And if Eric had a need to work outside of this work flow he could also. He has learnt what the settings on the digital camera do, and he has learnt this through the use of film as a main medium in his work. And you know what, he hasn't really returned to the digital work flow either. I don't think that I will either.
I will share one more image.
This was also shot on the same day as the image of the women caught in the crowd above. This last point is likely more about the versatility of digital over film. I am travelling at the moment as I have said, and I have about 40 rolls of film in my bag. I also have 2 film cameras and will have to lug them both round when I am out as I will have one loaded with colour and another with black and white. With digital you don't have to do this... Granted with film you could always shoot on our and convert to black and white through the same means that you convert a digital film after scanning, but this would be even more expensive. I have been unable to find colour film in bulk rolls so it's about 4 times the price of black and white, and then I have to pay for the processing as well. At least with black and white I am able to bulk roll and process my own film. But a cost saving and also another part of the process that I really enjoy doing as well. So much so that I have already talked about the darkroom that I am setting up. I have finished that and will post part 2 of the set up process when I get home from holiday.
So what does the whole carrying 2 cameras thing do. One with black and white and one with colour? It further increases your need to stop and think about what you are doing, and remain in the moment while shooting.. You need to see what you want to capture and then decide then and there if you think what you have seen will be better displayed in colour or black and white, before you take the shot. No making this decision after the fact in post. I processed the image above in both colour and black and white before deciding what to use. With film you don't get this luxury.
So I think that in my opinion we have answered the question. Yes, it's likely easier to learn with digital, but will you learn as much? No, I don't think so. You will learn great composition skills and framing, you might learn how to seek out great light. But I don't think that you will learn to master the light and expose correctly. I think that for this you really either need to mimic the manual nature of film in your digital work flow for an extended period of time or shoot some film so that you have the chance to learn these skills.
The second part of the question was about the transference of these skills, your framing and composition skills from digital will be transferable to film, but so will your Bad habits with auto settings. With film the skills that you learn will be with you forever and will be transferable across both mediums.