Tristan Parker Photography


Film vs Digital

The image above is one of my recent film images

So the age old question? Well maybe not… Maybe the new age question… In this digital age, is the medium of choice for photographer’s film or digital?

I think that the unarguable answer to this question from a pure population, and pure statistical perspective is that we are in the digital age, and digital photography is the medium of choice. Its convenient, its fast, its cheap, its just better, right?

Well, we are street photographers… We like to be different. We like to do things ‘the way they should be done’… We like to do things the way they used to be done. We like equipment that even when digital looks like the rangefinders or SLR from a bygone era.

However, I am still interested to discover what the real split of film vs digital is in the street world today. We have a growing and active community of artists posting work here on the net, and some is unmistakably digital, as well as some clearly being shot on film. But with the technology of digital scanning that’s available for film these days, I think that there is a number of shots where I would struggle to pick the original medium… Hold that thought on the scanning topic by the way.

The look and feel of film photography is something that digital format is still trying to mimic, especially from a black and white perspective. We see Leica developing the M Monochrome to give you a hardware option from a black and white perspective. We see this in the shape of many expensive software packages such as Silver FX Pro2. Don’t get me wrong this is a program that I use and love, but the fact that it has a whole list of old film types that it will mimic the style of at the click of a button leaves me asking one question… Why don’t I just shoot the film?

Sure, some of the classic films emulsions are no longer available, but there are also some innovative companies such as Rollei and Lomo that are starting to make new films. But, where are we at in the film production economy at the moment? We have just had Fuji film announce another price hike in their film range, this after they did the same thing last year… Really, as they increase pricing and people buy less this is not something that is going to save their fledgling film production profits, its something that is going to mark the end of some great and classic films. I am probably a little bias on this front as Acros is probably my favourite film. The other side of this is that as we lose more and more options for purchasing film, the companies that remain are provided with free reign on a pricing front. As film gets more expensive, then the whole question that I am posing here gets clearer and clearer from a pure pricing perspective. It really is a difficult situation.

In order to save film we need to support it by buying it. But where do we turn? To the companies that have been there for a long time and have always been there? Well you only really have Ilford now... But they do make some great films and also everything that you need to process them as well. Or, the other option is to turn to the innovators. Rollei and Lomo, Forma... These guys have started making film in a time when it is a risky business to get into.

From a ‘sensor’ size perspective’, digital has only recently caught up to in terms of mainstream affordable equipment. The influx of full frame sensor cameras is something that is changing the face of digital photography, and finally allowing gear nuts to use some classic lenses on great digital sensors. However there are arguments for and against the full frame sensor as well, and especially from a street photography perspective.

I shoot micro four thirds for my digital work. This allows me a much larger depth of field in the street where I am able to zone focus and be confident that images that I shoot will be acceptably sharp. This is not something that I can mimic with film.


One of my recent digital images

I have only recently returned to photography after a long break away from shooting. On my return I immediately bought a digital camera. They are new, they are technologically advanced, they must be better… Right? Since getting heavily involved in street photography I have begun to question this.

I have 4 cameras that are used regularly. The Olympus OMD digital, and 3 film cameras, a medium format TLR Mamiya C220, a Contax T2 point and shoot, and a Nikon FA 35mm SLR. More and more I am starting to use the film gear more than the digital. More and more I am starting to think of selling the digital gear all together and spending that money on one good film camera that will last me a lifetime. What that will be? I don’t know… There are so many options.

But what about the scanning issue I referred to above? If I am going to continue to submit to the internet, and also continue maintaining my own personal site then I will have to continue scanning in either film as I am doing at the moment, or printing to photographic paper and scanning this. The second option is as close as you could get to the good old days, but what about the film scanning option? How different is that to shooting with a digital camera? I don’t know.

I have probably digressed a little, but I will try and get back on track… You have probably heard a lot of these arguments as to why film is better for your photography, but I am going to rehash a few of them that I feel are of most importance…

1.      Patience. Film means you are not able to look at your shots when you walk in the door, or worse still whilst you are out in the street. I read another statement that alluded to the fact that if you are out shooting street and you check your shots regularly, you lose focus on what you are doing. And if you see something that you think is great on that little 3 inch screen then you switch off, you have your quota for the day. I agree with this thinking.

2.      ISO. Shooting in a single ISO for a session teaches you a lot about metering and technique that you just don’t get when you are walking around with a digital camera set on aperture priority and just click away.

3.      On the clicking away, film costs you money. You find that you become much more attentive when shooting film. Each frame is going to cost you money, and time to process. You will shoot less but shoot better quality.

4.      Processing. Is there anything better than processing your own film? Black and white processing at home is actually quite easy, and back to the patience front, its relaxing (well for me anyway).

5.      Learning the history of your art form. Film is where everything started, and it might not be right for you in the end. But, having some exposure to it will force you to have a little more respect for those past and what they had to work with, coupled with a much better understanding of what those settings on your digital camera mean.

6.      Having an understanding of what is infact possible with film but impossible with digital will improve your photography and give you and understanding of what some of the billions of settings in your digital camera are trying to mimic. Pushing and pulling film, different processing chemistry and how it will impact your final image, things that you can do in the darkroom from a print perspective. And then looking back at some of the masters like Man Ray for example, to apply this new knowledge to gain a better respect of the craft that some of the masters were able to practice minus the aid of digital technology and computer software.

So I might be a little on the bias side… I might have a love of film that I intend to continue to explore. I may have 3 rolls of film hanging in my shower right now drying… But I can still see the merits of the digital age.

I don’t think that I am in a position where I can justify getting rid of the digital camera all together at the moment. And I absolutely love the image quality and the apparent ease of the process. The system that I have working on that camera at the moment just works for me, and it’s a system that I am wary of letting go.

So, for now I stick with my current setup. This is a great thing. Its something that I am getting used to. I will continue to shoot film on the very trusty Nikon FA. The ONLY problem that I have with that camera (and any SLR for street photography for that matter) is the loud shutter noise from the mirror flap (maybe something that I can solve with a cheaper fixed lens rangefinder, rather than flipping for a interchangeable lens model). I like to be discreet and this is a dead give away that someone has just taken your photo. This is the key advantage of a rangefinder for my mind. For now though, I will concentrate on the shooting of images.