Digital or Film?

Thursday was the annual late night trading in Parkhurst – happening again next week, 29Nov’07 for those interested – and being in the area I decided to pop in to The Cow Artworks to see what was on. It was great to see some wonderful black and white prints on the walls and appreciate the talents of other photographers, more particularly that of local people who are doing so well here and abroad.

I had time to chat for just a few minutes to Athol Rheeder who is currently exhibiting his work from his book ‘Unto London’ there at the gallery. What fascinated me about our chat was his passion for film and the amazing printing of Silvertone International in Parktown. His voice echoed that of professional photographers from around the world in recent surveys conducted by Kodak this year. Perhaps I can share their findings with you briefly here.

The Europe Survey conducted around June/July’07 found that of the nearly 3000 photographers who participated

* 67% intended to continue using film
* 55% preferred the results of film over digital
* 19% admitted to choosing a film camera for more than 60% of their work
* 80% of photographers participating in the survey shoot black & white with 45% of those preferring film.

In the US survey conducted Aug/Sep’07 more than 9000 professional photographers responded, with the following being the results of that survey.

* 75% of participating photographers said they will continue to use film even while “embracing digital”
* 68% prefer the results of film to digital
* 48% felt film was superior in capturing information on medium and large formats
* 48% use film to create a “traditional photographic look”
* 45% prefer film for capturing shadow and highlight detail
* 42% prefer film’s wide exposure latitude
* 38% appreciated film’s archival storage
* 90% of the surveyed photographers shoot black & white with 47% saying the medium has a certain look or feel
* 57% of black & white photographers choose film to achieve the look and feel they find in black & white images

In both surveys some of the reasons given by the photographers for their preference of film over digital were

* Ability to capture detail
* the “traditional” look
* shadow detail
* Less time behind the PC and more behind the lens.

It is not surprising that Kodak has reaffirmed its dedication to the medium of film as it seeks to grow its share of both the traditional and digital markets.

I found this rather fascinating, and felt somewhat satisfied that I was not all alone on this side of the fence. Don’t get me wrong, I own a few digitals and contrary to what some have said about spending less time behind the lens because of editing images, I find that I am shooting more than I ever could afford on film, but that doesn’t mean I am sold 100%. My collection of ‘paper weight’ film bodies has grown far beyond what I had expected it would.

I have a few gripes with digital starting with the purchase of my first digital SLR with a second hand lens that was considered to be extremely sharp for the system I had bought into on film. I was shocked when I sat down to look at my images and found that they lacked the crispness I had attained some years before when I had previously used this lens. I have subsequently found many explanations for this, but it was a major blow to my confident decision to go digital. Suddenly I found that all the knowledge I had gained from previous experiments with some 100 or so lenses I had tested in the past did not hold true on digital. I had to start from scratch.

It took a few weeks to resolve the lens issue. Once this was done my enthusiasm gained momentum and there was hardly a day that I did not pick up my new camera. I quickly found the benefits of experimenting without fear of cost. This throwing of caution to the wind meant I was shooting some 500 images within the first few weeks and getting the odd exceptional image from my “never tried before” attempts to record things in a different way to what I did in the past. Digital photography was GREAT!

Then something began to happen – I am not a big user of photo editing software, mainly for two reasons. First I don’t get hugely excited by it. It’s not that I don’t believe in it, I just don’t get the butterflies in my stomach or the magical childlike feeling that I felt in the darkroom – though I know many who do feel such emotions as they eagerly open their images and adjust the levels, brightness, contrast etc. The second reason I don’t Photoshop much is the feeling I have of limited knowledge in the program, and though I want to learn more, the limited time restraints mean that the more time I’m behind the PC, the less time I’m behind the lens. Yet the more I shot, the more I find myself glaring into the screen of my PC, a cycle that seems to never stop.

Remember the days when a good image in a roll of 36 exposures was a moment where you almost felt a tear come to your eyes? Today one feels a tear because its usually one shot out of 50 or 100. I have very few images up on my walls at home – sad when you consider that with digital I am shooting more than ever before – and those few photographs are my pride and joy, but none of them are printed from digital, and this is my final gripe. I work with digital printing daily, and perhaps I am going blind (all the long night in front of my screen) but I find there is “punch” missing in the prints I do today. I recently read an article quoting a professional photographer as stating that in some small why, the emulsion of film and paper is 3 dimensional due to the nature of its make up, its density. Maybe digital appears flat simply because it is just that, flat capture. Whatever the reason, for me this is my greatest gripe, or at least par with detail and sharpness from scratch because in my world an image is not an image till it is printed and usually the bigger, the better I feel. It is in the print that the work is done and on digital I sit with more unprinted than I ever had on film.

In conclusion, will I ever leave film? I doubt I will completely, in fact right now my wife sighs each time she passes the enlarger I just enquired for our one room apartment that will soon have a part-time lavatory/darkroom.