Digital or Film?

Alright, so maybe this post is about 5 years too late and that question’s already been answered. But I’ve just got a couple of things to get off my chest having attended a slide presentation recently.

It was, in the main, a very good presentation. But on a couple of occasions the photographer, who is a staunch slide film worker, mentioned that certain things would have been easier to sort out if he had been “working in digital”. Things like, solving the problem of a distracting background, or having no light on the foreground interest.

Now, I am a self-confessed digital fan, having been an adopter of the format since 2000 with the Nikon D1 (which wasn’t better than film!). There are many positives to the digital format, and some negatives, but this impression that it is a form of cheating because it allows photographers a shortcut or an easy way out is just plain wrong. It can encourage some photographers to do that, but that’s not the fault of the medium; ultimately it is the photographer’s decision to take editing or compositional shortcuts.

As you might have gathered from my last post, I’m quite a conventional photographer. So dropping out a background or introducing new elements into a composition is not something I’m comfortable with, and it’s certainly not something I do myself. But equating the digital medium with manipulation is a falacy – digital is digital, and manipulation is manipulation.

It certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a crutch to resolve mistakes made at the point of clicking the shutter – ultimately it’s down to the photographer to make sure that the background isn’t distracting. Nor should it be a photographic shortcut for the lazy photographer to not have to find foreground interest that actually has some light on it.

I shoot digital for two main reasons, specifically detail and ease of storage and cataloguing. And a number of other reasons. In 2005 I spent a few days in Austria on a photography trip. I shot a Mamiya 7 medium format rangefinder side by side with a friend’s D2x and compared the results when I returned. The results were easy to interpret; the medium format film held marginally more detail… as well as a lot more grain which largely obscured the extra detail. The digital files had more dynamic range and cleaner edges. If I had to pick between the digital and film versions, the digital versions looked better every time.

How easy it is to manipulate my images, is absolutely not one of the reasons I shoot digital.

But I do agree that positive film can sometimes be better, primarily in its rendition of highlights. Banding and hotspotting can result easily from digital sensors, leading to sharp and distinct drop offs into burnt out areas. There is also a tendency for light to bleed from highlight areas across into the shadow areas of the image in areas of high contrast.

Another area where many people conventionally believe film to be better is in the production of black and white images. Due to immature technology in the early days, as well as a general lack of understanding in how to process digital files into black and white, resulted in digital technology not getting a fair trial. Early examples were frequently flat and lacking tonal range and local contrast.

Yet with the technology available to us today, I would suggest that there is a strong argument for saying that you can actually get just as strong images from digital sensors as you can from silver halide emulsions.

Even with film you couldn’t get a good black and white image just from a straight print. The best black and white workers were masters of their craft, utilising techniques such as different processing chemicals and grades of paper to obtain the end product they were after, not to mention the odd instance of dodging and burning. As with any new technology it has taken time for users to get to grips with how to deal with the new medium, and to grasp the different factors involved in achieving similar results.

A straight “Desaturate” conversion to black and white in Photoshop, for example, was the de facto method of conversion to black and white for many early photographers. I would wager that some are still doing it today. Yet in the same way that quality black and white workers in the film days understood how to influence contrast and tone, black and white workers in the digital era are understanding how to use different conversion methods such as the channel mixer to achieve similar results. Techniques in high dynamic range (HDR) imaging allow high quality dodging and burning.

It is, in many ways, similar to the relationship between manipulation and the digital medium. Shoddy black and white work in the digital era is down to shoddy black and white work, and not necessarily due to any failings in the digital medium.

Photographers that got good black and white images in film days spent a great deal of time and effort at perfecting their craft. It is unreasonable to expect a casual photographer to measure up to the same standards regardless of whether he was shooting in film or digital. On the other hand there are numerous photographers who have applied themselves to the digital medium and are now producing quality black and white work.

The key to producing good images is to understand your chosen medium, be it digital or film. Ultimately it’s down to you as the photographer, more than any heated debate on the Internet.

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