Q+A: Digital vs. Film

Connie of Petaluma, California asks, “Nathan, I’m curious about why you use a digital camera for some images or projects and film for others?

In fairly broad terms, most artists begin with an inspiration or idea and then make a decision on the best medium to visually translate that idea artistically.  Grant it, most artists do use the same or similar medium consistently.  This is especially true of photographers.  But it’s still a critical decision.  For me, there are some aesthetic differences to be considered when choosing between film and digital photography, but the most important factor is how it affects my approach to image-making.

When I was a freshman in college, digital was just coming onto the scene and I didn’t know anyone who used it.  That didn’t last long.  One day in the spring of my Junior year I received a letter from the department chair notifying students that we will all be required to purchase a digital SLR with at least 6 megapixels by the following school year.  Since then, I have mostly used a digital camera, but I do still complete some projects on film.  Including my MFA thesis.

The first thing that the proliferation of digital cameras did was make everyone at least a mediocre photographer.  This is due, in part, to the ability to take many many more pictures on a digital memory card compared to a roll of film.  A digital photographer can quickly click away for hundreds or thousands of exposures feeling assured that somewhere in that mass of images is a few good ones.  Shooting in this fashion certainly doesn’t require as much thought, and I would argue that quantity over quality is not the way to go.  However, as long as I keep my mind in the game, the ability to shoot more pictures is definitely a benefit.

For me, one of the best aspects of digital is that it is much more cost effective, efficient, and just plain faster.  Photographers, like myself, are notoriously impatient.  I once heard that toward the end of his life, Ansel Adams would put his prints in the microwave because he didn’t like waiting for them to dry.  Therefore, the speed at which I can work with digital can be a huge benefit for me.  Especially, for commercial photography.  I can do a shoot in the morning and have proofs ready for clients by the afternoon with little effort.  Again, though, this speed can be also be a major negative.  Speed is not always the best way to make compelling and thoughtful imagery.

Working with a 4×5 field camera.

With that said, a huge benefit to film is that it forces you to slow down.  Especially, when you shoot sheet film.  I shot my MFA thesis, “Imprint,” completely on sheet film with a view camera.  Every time I clicked the shutter it cost me around $4 after the cost of the film, development, and shipping to and from a lab.  Since I was shooting hundreds of pictures for the project, the cost alone really made me think long and hard about what I was shooting and why.  Aside from the cost, using a 4×5 view camera is slow simply because its a large cumbersome machine that requires a tripod and takes a bit of effort to carry around and set up.  I believe this slow and thoughtful approach can really improve my photographs assuming I have the time and money.  Which I usually don’t.

Certain film cameras can add another dimension to my portraiture.  Its true that for my more commercial-style portraits I only use a digital camera.  However, for my fine art documentary-style portraits a 4×5 film camera is the way to go.  This is because I don’t have to hold the camera in front of my face and look through a viewfinder.  When I click the shutter I must use a cable release, having previously composed and focused the image under a dark cloth.  This allows the subject to look at my face instead of the camera.  I believe this conveys a feeling to the subject that I am taking the picture, a human-being, instead of a machine.  The slow speed at which I have to shoot helps the image feel more sophisticated and intimate than a quick snapshot.

You may notice I haven’t said anything about resolution.  In my opinion, when comparing PROFESSIONAL digital cameras with high-quality optics to film, digital image quality is as good if not better than film.  Even sheet film.  Not to mention, most photographers still using film choose to go “figital.”  Which is a slang term meaning they shoot on film and scan with a digital scanner and then print with and inkjet printer.  However, when you scan film you are essentially making a digital rendering of the image therefore making the film resolution moot.  It would be hard to convince me of the resolution benefits of even a drum scanner or virtual drum scanner over a 60MP medium format digital back.  “Figital” certainly isn’t any cheaper either.  With that said, I still think that working in this way has its benefits to the approach to image-making, but not in resolution.

In the end, shooting film often completely impractical for me.  And digital is a must on commercial shoots.  However, I find that my approach to image-making is much more thoughtful and sophisticated when working with film.  So I’m not selling my 4×5 anytime soon.  But it is nice to not have to work in the dark anymore.