Film vs. Digital

A personal essay from the web-site's author - a blissed-out Nikon CP5000 shooter as well as a life long shooter of film - as a guide to choosing appropriately.

Fundamentally, there is no difference photographically. A photographer's identifiable style will remain with any method of realizing the picture. Cameras don't make pictures - PHOTOGRAPHERS make pictures USING cameras.

Digital is simply another hardware choice as in large format, medium format, 35mm or digital; B&W, colour negative or chromes; ground glass viewing, SLR, rangefinder or LCD monitor.

Each has strengths and weaknesses, and when a photograph is conceived, it points to a combination that will provide the best raw material with the least compromise. Each medium has its own problems, demands technique be adjusted to best use it, and each has strengths that the others don't have. Using the best combination of media elements, along with technical skill and photographic conceptualizing, will result in the best quality image.

In use, indistinguishable.

Last spring I addressed a new-media conference, and had a retrospective slide show of my work running before and after my talk. It was a mix of everything I have ever shot. Medium format, 35mm, digital and so on. All were the same size on the screen, and there was no way on earth to tell which was which - other than perhaps clothing styles defining the time the picture was shot. From a photographic viewpoint, they were all just good examples of my way of seeing.

Who needs what?

Since there never will be a single solution that fits all photographic situations, perhaps the best way would be to analyze strengths and weaknesses to find some clues that can be applied to the choice to fit the individual snap-shooter or photographer.

I distinguish the snap-shooters as someone who uses a camera to create memorials to moments in life - where the photographic qualities are of little relevance to what the image symbolizes. These memorials are very personal and would have little impact upon a stranger. The photographer on the other hand, creates photographs where little or no knowledge of the moment is required to appreciate the image. The image stands alone. The photograph is largely independent of the event, while the snapshot represents the event for eternity. Not a value judgement, but rather a difference in purpose and approach. Of course, there well may be crossover. A photographer shoots pictures of the kid's birthday, and a snap-shooter may well produce a photograph that can communicate universally. However, in this context I use the terms to define the approach and goals.

Cost considerations

First from a practical viewpoint, with digital almost all the expense is up front. While film is costly and requires further expense with processing and printing, digital only demands a fraction of a cent storage per image on hard drives and CDs.

Film processing is priced so that reprints are more costly than prints at the time of development, so people generally get everything printed. With digital, one decides on whether an image will be for screen viewing or as a print or both. A minuscule percentage of my digital shots wind up as prints.

With such a small number of prints they tend not to end up in endless shoeboxes full of prints, but are close to the surface and are viewed often. Screen images are constantly flowing to NikonCoolpixPics, Photosx and the Photogallery on Yahoo. I have a web-site with carefully selected images, but now there are hundreds. Because of the far better access, my digital pictures - and analogue pictures converted to digital via scanning - get seen.

Film cameras tend to be much cheaper than digital cameras with equal features, which somewhat offsets the ongoing expense. For snapshot photography they are FAR easier as well. Drop a roll in the point-and-shoot, click away and take it to the nearby one-hour lab. At the lab a trained technician with a $100,000 machine analyzes each shot and saves your sorry butt, shot after shot. If you are a snap-shooter and don't believe this, try shooting a roll of Kodachrome under the same conditions. If you are really lucky you may have four or five keepers out of the 36 exposures.

Do it yourself

In the early days with black and white, photo enthusiasts had home darkrooms and did their own developing and printing. With the arrival of colour film, temperatures had to be exact to the half degree, timing had to be exact to the second, and the chemicals quickly deteriorated once mixed. Colour printing required dealing with more expensive materials and understanding colour deeply. Home labs were packed away and the commercial labs took over.

People forgot how important interpretation of exposures is, and accepted the bland, homogenized plain vanilla prints of the one-hour lab. This was fine for snap-shooters but no incentive for photographers who had to adjust their shooting style to the machine results. My prints never matched my concept and never really felt like my pictures.

Digital returns that vital step to me. When you hold a print of mine or see a shot on my web-site, you are seeing a totally organic image. You are seeing what my concept was before I touched the shutter button, as closely as my skills allow. It is a completely honest and naked statement, for which I can not make any excuses. Judge me by it.

That is the up-side. To the snap-shooter, it presents a crisis. Few pros can shoot a roll of Kodachrome in all kinds of circumstances without extensive bracketing, a full set of colour filters and a colourmeter and severe culling. Exposure and colour balance are even more critical for digital photography, and few neophytes have the understanding of basic photography to cope with it. There is no technician with a $100,000 machine to provide a safety net. They are shooting the same quality as the old point-and-shoot, but now seeing the raw, unprocessed results. They blame the camera rather than their own lack of skill and the fact the one hour lab is not there to save them.

To the photographer, the digital camera is a liberation on many fronts. It has returned the interpretive step, in spades. In the fume-room, one had absolute control of overall colour balance and density. One could also locally dodge and burn, but this was inexact. To make a portfolio quality print, I often spent two days and a whole box of expensive 11" x 14" colour paper to achieve it. Photoshop not only provides overall colour balance, but one can balance shadows, mid-tones and highlights individually, and in so doing also control density, contrast, saturation and gamma - controls totally missing in the silver-dye process.

While dodging and burning in the fume-room meant waving your hands over the paper in the beam of the enlarger, Photoshop gives one a great variety of ways of doing this so one can match technique to the needs of the image. Photo montage in the darkroom, usually meant days of work and uncounted sheets of paper going to the landfill and obnoxious chemicals down the drain. In Photoshop, it is a breeze and there is no waste, no pollution and the desired image is achieved visually and interactively.

The problem with digital - the learning curve

The cost is in the learning curve. While most people become quite expert in the photo lab with a couple of years of experience, the depth of understanding necessary to reach a comparable point in Photoshop is a substantial multiple of that. I bought my first image processing program somewhere around 1990, and I am still learning at a rapid rate. It will never end in my lifetime. However, each day, my tangible images get closer and closer to my concept.

In the field, the prosumer digital camera provides a very large tool-set - a fully adjustable camera and a richly featured digital device in the same package. Even to a veteran photographer, a camera such as we use presents a daunting learning curve.

To a snap-shooter coming from an auto-everything point-and-shoot, I expect that little or nothing is familiar. It could well be a device from another world where an impenetrable language is spoken - f-stop, histogram, ISO, aperture-priority, slow-sync, fill-flash, white balance, shutter-priority, lens speed, shutter speed - and so on. Anguished new owners write to forums asking for magic settings that will get them started.

Photographers on the other hand understand that the settings depend upon the shooting environment and purpose of the image. There is NO magic one-setting fits all. Here is a camera that can be fine tuned to provide superb results from bright sunlight to the near total darkness of the country where the only light source is the stars and aurora.

Miracle of the Monitor

Perhaps the most significant feature of the digital camera is that with the LCD monitor, one can see the picture BEFORE it is taken - as processed through the camera. With a view-camera, the shooter views an inverted image projected upon ground glass, with a rangefinder camera one looks through a window at a scene and floats bright frames around it to compose, with a SLR you have a variation on the view-camera, but the with the magic of a pentaprism, it is correct left to right and right side up.

However, these are all optical interpretations - almost symbolic - absolutely ignoring the characteristics of the sensitized medium within the camera. One has no indication of what the film will interpret from these views. The digital camera views through the lens like the view camera and SLR, but actually PROCESSES the image prior to presenting it on the viewing screen!!! You can SEE your white balance and know you need to change it.

More significantly, the LCD gets the camera out of one's face. With the swing and swivel viewer, one can shoot over the heads of a crowd or do macros at ground level, all from a comfortable position. For informal portraiture, it is incomparable. One's "reptile brain" seems to be hard-wired to flee when one is stared at. With an SLR and a big lens, the effect of staring is amplified for the subject. I was photographed recently by a good friend with a dSLR and zoom lens, and felt my adrenaline rise even though cameras have been a part of my life since early childhood.

The Stealth Factor

When I had to photograph potentially dangerous people, I always used a rangefinder Leica if possible. The only time I came close to being murdered was facing a gunman when I was using my Nikon SLR. With the swing and swivel LCD, I do portraiture from my lap, the arm of a chair, the table - anywhere - but with the camera jammed in my face. Now there is no effort expended in getting the subject to relax, we converse, and I shoot. While the Leica is a quiet, non-aggressive camera, the stealth factor is far higher in the Nikon CP5000 I use now. I work with short focal-length lenses close to my subject for very intimate portraits, and the subjects have no problem ignoring the presence of the camera.

The LCD is the first advance in camera viewing in roughly a century, though the introduction of the pentaprism half a century ago was a significant advance over earlier SLRs. It - like the view-camera and SLR - use the same lens for viewing as for exposing the image.

The LCD also allows you to review the image once is has been exposed. I can zoom in 6x and look closely at details, making sure they are sharply in focus. I can switch to the histogram screen and see exactly where the energy lies from darkest shadow to brightest highlight and make adjustments. The histogram is simply the greatest lightmeter in existence. No waiting until the film is processed - the vital information is there within seconds of punching the shutter. I can contemplate my composition as a two dimensional image and recompose if I want. Above all, the replay reassures me that I will have the image quality I want when I begin to process it. Absolutely no surprises. When testing - habitual among photographers - I have my answers immediately.

Powerful features that distinguish digital

There are features that would be impossible on a film-based camera.

BSS - Best Shot Selector - for example. I photographed an orchid show in a dim gymnasium last spring. It was extremely jammed, and a tripod would have been a real hazard. The light was very low - far too low to hand-hold. I used a monopod, which helped, though the exposures ranged from 1/8th of a second to a full second. Too slow for even a monopod for the most part. I shot everything on BSS. I would compose the shot, and hold down the shutter, moving as little as possible. The camera would capture ten images and then compare edges. The picture with the most edge contrast would be chosen. Out of 80+ exposures, only four or five showed a bit of camera movement.

Auto-bracket, allows one to take a series of five exposures at intervals from 1/3 stop to a full stop. Often one needs to shoot in environments with a dynamic range of light that exceeds the range of any photographic materials. With black and white, one would expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights and then do a bunch of dodging and burning. With colour, development time is rigidly fixed so contrast control through development is generally not practical.

With digital, one brackets, taking the highlight detail from the darkest and shadow detail from the lightest, combining all five shots into a gloriously detailed image, with an extremely rich tonal scale and superb colour. While this could also be done with film, there would be days of work and substantial waste of paper and chemicals.

Also unique to digital cameras, one can change the virtual "film" for every shot. Walk into a building from the outside and switch from ISO100 to ISO800 and switch from daylight to tungsten, just by changing menu items. With film this requires a medium format camera with expensive interchangeable backs or a large format camera with sheet film. The alternative with film is to load high speed film and use an arsenal of filters. The Nikon CP5000 has the equivalent of more than 30 colour balancing filters built in, plus a manual white balance setting where one can sample mixed light with a white or a gray card, and the camera will provide an acceptable compromise. One can instantly confirm it with the view on the LCD.

Should everyone convert to digital?

Film along with the one hour lab, is still by far the best medium for the snap-shooter. If pictures are shot for the sake of memorializing moments in life, and photographic qualities are secondary to the memories the snapshot evokes, stick to film.

Going digital and getting to the point of making consistently fine images is a long and challenging road. Not only must the aspirant learn the basics of photography, they must learn the digital specific features of the camera AND image processing. For the person eager to learn, there is no better way than digital. With the marvelous LCD, there is no wait of days to see the result of a test shot while trying to remember what you did and why you did it. Feedback is immediate. It is like shooting Polaroid, but without the cost and the generation of garbage.

Three to five megapixels is sufficient to lay 35mm to rest for most sizes of print. I regularly print 13" x 19" prints from five megapixels. Quite a number of photographers have compared prints from the 11MP Canon against professionally made drum scans from 6x7 chromes and found the 11MP image equal or superior. While calculations may show that this is impossible, we are dealing with visuals. If the detail is superior to the eye - well that is why we make photographs instead of spending the days making spreadsheets.