Film or Digital? Is this really still a question?
I could have sworn that I'd written a blog post about this topic, but I did a scan through my archives and came up empty, so here I go. A few weeks ago while I was shooting futurist Ray Kurzweil, he asked me the question that most non-photographers end up asking me. "Is that film or digital". And it surprises me that this is still in active rotation. Maybe they ask it because it's topical and they don't know what else to say, or maybe they figure that even though amateur photography is about 98% digital at this point, maybe pros still shoot film.
The answer is that yes, some of them do. But it's a minority by now and the population is shrinking. Whenever I meet a young photographer who's dead-set on shooting only film, I just shake my head. Maybe if you're independently wealthy or are doing amazingly original art photography you could pull it off. Honestly though, unless you're shooting only b/w tri-x, I wouldn't trust that I'd be able to even buy my favorite film in 5 years. In the short time that I've been shooting, I've said goodbye to a number of films that I loved to shoot. I still weep for Scala. The film counter at B&H is a third the size is was only couple years ago. And chemistry and darkroom gear which used to take up 4 rows of shelves is now relegated to the back wall next to the bathrooms.
Let me take a moment to say that I'm no hater of film. I've got a Leica M4, and a Hasselblad and a big Cambo 4x5 that I occasionally take out for a spin. In fact on my recent trip to Japan, I took only the Hasselblad and twenty-something rolls of film. I love the way that great pictures from film look. It can be special, but that doesn't mean it always is. It also doesn't mean that digital images can't be special too. They're just different. It used to be that digital images lacked depth, resolution, and refinement. Here's the thing though, digital keeps getting better while film stays the same. And better it's gotten by leaps and bounds. My first digital camera, less than 10 years ago, was a 2MP little digicam whose images don't even fill half of my current screen. Now I've got a 21MP body whose images easily rival my medium format setup in overall quality. Does b/w film have a lot more dynamic range that digital? Yes and by a few stops. But honestly, that's the only truly objective measure where film is still killing digital. And also the next place that digital will probably try to improve.
In my humble opinion as a working photographer, the two are at least at parity. They each have strengths and weaknesses, but images of approximately the same quality. Much like analog and digital audio recording. Digital has gotten to the point where it's advantages trump analog with all but the most ardent die-hards. And don't forget the photoshop plug-ins that add grain or otherwise try to mimic the look of different film formulations. I use fake grain occasionally, and it looks pretty good. Another thing that gets me mad is film snobbery. Competitions which take only film-based entries for example, have no place. What does it matter how the image was made. Isn't it the final image that matters?
Some digital haters like to point to the supposed over-use of digital manipulation, as something akin to a 'purity of the game' argument. Well you don't have to look hard to see the weaknesses of that. Manipulation of images has been around since the medium was invented. Different development recipes, basic dodging and burning during printing, and don't forget the heavy retouching of old negatives with what is essentially redrawing with a pencil. Why do you think master print makers exist? At the recent Avedon exhibit at ICP there is a whole room full of working prints with his comments and direction. As well as a number of collages that I had looked at large prints of only 10 minutes earlier and had no idea they weren't a single shot. Hell, even Dorthea Lange's famous migrant mother photo is manipulated.
As someone who shoots mostly digital and does a fair amount of manipulation to my images, I find the new technology to be liberating. I could not make my portraits on film and have them look the way they do. To me it's the final image that matters, not necessarily the steps you went through to get it. Film is a pain in many ways. You're stuck with film speed and type for a whole roll, you've got to get it processed, most of the time you've got to scan it. Plus it's expensive. My Japan pictures cost me about $400 in film and processing, plus 2 days of my time in scanning, color correcting, and retouching.
Maybe for some people that's a good thing. Some sort of perverse puritanical statement about pulling yourself up from your bootstraps. 'It's supposed to be hard! Otherwise everybody would be doing it'. You know what? Everybody is. Everybody has got a camera nowadays and they're posting their images to flickr. The thing is that you can still tell the good images from the bad. Yes digital makes it easier for everybody, but it doesn't make everyone good. Tools are tools, nothing more. Are things that are time-consuming automatically better? Anyone who believes that can go clean their bathroom with a toothbrush. Seriously though, if that were the case, then why are all these film people using plastic roll film instead of pouring their own Collodion plates and developing them over vapor before making albumen prints (which I would love to try at some point btw)? Technology moves on, things change.
While it may sound like I'm mostly knocking film, it's not for political reasons, purely practical ones. I and I think most other photographers, would have a hard time making a living shooting film. People expect their photographs in a few hours, not a few days. But mostly what I'm trying to say here is that there is room for both under the photographic tent. So if you like film or digital or both, it really doesn't matter. They're just tools for making pretty things to look at, not religions in and of themselves regardless of what anybody says. So worry about the images, and certainly don't judge them based on what was used to make them.