Film vs. Digital: An Email Exchange

Nikon FM2n (by StarbuckGuy)

A photography friend, Jamie Pillers, and I recently had this email exchange on film vs. digital photography. Not a hostile exchange, but one that I think captures the difficulty of choosing one over the other for some of us who were raised on film cameras and know them intimately. I’m reproducing it here with Jamie’s permission in case it’s of interest to other photographers.

18 Jan 2009

Hi Gene,

We’ve chatted a couple of times in the past year or so, primarily about careers and a bit of photography thrown in. Today I’ve got a photography question for you. Recently I’ve read your thoughts, possibly on your website or on Flickr, about shifting to digital. I see that you’re still keeping a foot in film however. So I think you may have some valuable insight that could help me.

I’m struggling with the film-to-digital move. I’ve found that since returning to photography a little over a year ago, I’ve been spending more $$ than I can rationally justify on film and film processing. So I’ve made up my mind to try to at least significantly reduce the film expenditure by moving a good chunk of my photography to digital. (My photography pursuits are personal, not professional, and I enjoy both color and B&W.) To put it simply, I’d like to know what keeps your one foot in film photography?

A couple of thoughts that are nagging me at this early stage of the move:

– Will I lose significant image ‘character’ by not having my Voigtlander and Zeiss lenses to use? By the way, I’ve decided to stick with Nikon, since I have some old Nikkors… so I’ve purchased a D90. (No metering, but that’ll make it seem more ‘old school’… a good thing!)

– Does film provide a seriously greater dynamic range than modern digital sensors? The D90’s sensor is spoken of highly in this regard, but I still wonder.

– By keeping a film camera around, will I simply be keeping an unnecessary “siren” on my shoulder, whispering ‘sweet nothings’ in my ear… just creating unnecessary distraction?

Regarding writing… I love your idea about a non-fiction writing forum. I’m about to re-enter the teaching profession and I think having such a resource may be an excellent way for me to work out my thoughts about this amazingly difficult, challenging, and rewarding work. Hope to see you there.

Jamie Pillers
Oakland, California

P.S.: Thanks for your enthusiastic write-up about Silver Efex Pro. Now that I have a DSLR, I’m give this software a look.

My reply (20 Jan 2009):

Hi Jamie,

That’s certainly a fair question. Why do I keep one foot in film? Is it because it provides something you give up with digital, or is it mainly a kind of loyalty to the type of photography that predominated during the 20th Century? Is it a distraction to do both?

Any way I answer this is deeply personal, of course. Film vs. Digital is a topic some of my photography friends and I debate frequently. Some say ‘film’, some say ‘digital’, and a few say ‘both’. I’m sure you’ve seen the endless debate in places like the Rangefinder Forum.

First, let me congratulate you on your purchase of a Nikon D90. By all accounts it’s even nicer than the D80 and I was very impressed with that. I have two Nikon DSLRs — a D40 and a D300. I went for Nikon (in a very roundabout way I won’t bore you with) for the same reason as you — I have a bunch of manual Nikkor lenses that work fine on both my Nikon DSLRs as well as my Nikon SLRs.

Let’s look at some of the issues in this debate.

– Cost. There’s no doubt in my mind that going digital frees you up to shoot more than you ever would with film. Not having to pay for processing is a great liberator. However, to be fair to film, you’d have to shoot an awful lot of it to match the cost of a DSLR and the subsequent purchases of batteries, storage cards, maybe a new computer to hold all the images, and, inevitably, a new lens or two. Also, if you shoot traditional B&W film and develop it yourself, the cost per roll is very reasonable. To me, the greatest cost of film is in TIME — that is, the time spent in getting it processed, then scanned for digital use.

– Dynamic Range. It depends on which film we discuss. Most B&W film has a far greater dynamic range than digital sensors. C41 colour films have somewhat more dynamic range. E6 slide films probably have a little less range than digital simply because digital is better at recording shadow information. On the whole, sensors are improving, and from what I understand the larger the sensor the greater the dynamic range. There’s nothing digital though that can match a good Tri-X, HP5, or Neopan 400 shot. The question is, does it matter?

– Character. This is a hard call. Some of my older Nikkors, especially, maintain their characteristic signature when used on a digital body. But does anything in digital compare to an image I’d get from my Hexanon 50/2? I’d say some come very close. Especially some of the modern AF primes.

– Distraction Factor. Is film a distraction? Subjectively, for me it often is. I’m still undecided on this one. I think I do better work when I simply focus on my digital gear and concentrate on the images I want to capture. Then I’ll shoot a roll of film and fall for the superb handling and feel of a good film camera. I sit on the fence.

Thanks very much for your kind words about the Creative Nonfiction Writing Forums. I hope you’ll join and participate!


I think Jamie caught the essence of the dilemma in his followup reply: (29 Jan 2009):

The more I think about this film/digital debate, especially after you helped lift a bit of the fog from my brain, I’ve come to some clarity on it.. for me anyway. None of the ‘sirens’ that pull me back and forth between digital and film have anything to do with the final image. I’m perfectly happy with the images I get from digital or film. The images probably have some different characteristics that I’ll be able to name someday, but in any case both mediums produce images that make me happy.

My purgatory I believe is wholly formed by gear. For example, using the digital stuff sometimes leaves me with the feeling I’m somehow cheating… like having every ISOΒ  known to man available at the push of a little button! And the crop factor drives me nuts!! Where am I going to get what was once called a 28mm f/2.8 lens without resorting to buying some huge expensive zoooooom lens. And who decided on the shape of these DSLRs anyway?? What’s the matter with that classic Nikon F-shape. I mean when I pick up my black FM2 and feel that subtle concise machine… ummmm!Β  But even with all these annoying qualities, this new technology is truly amazing. This D90 REALLY shines in low light. Metering is superb. And I can shoot indoors under unnatural lights… and the images don’t come out green!! Amazing.

Then… I think about my beautiful rangefinder gear. Simplicity! This stuff relaxes the brain! Aperture, shutter speed, compose. Essence of photography. But… damn, I have ISO 100 loaded and the sun’s going down!! And, as you state, I have to use up a serious amount of my time dealing with processing the film. And I don’t get to find out I set the ISO incorrectly until the film comes back from the lab.

This purgatory is made from the ability of each technology to instantly and oh so effectively scream out both the heaven and hell of the other. I’m afraid I won’t reach photo nirvana until a camera arrives on the scene that looks and feels exactly like my FM2, but with a killer full-frame sensor inside! Hallelujah! Praise Cosina! πŸ™‚

Be well, Gene.

Jamie Pillers

For those who started photography with digital, or those who switched to digital with no regrets, this is a meaningless issue. But for those who feel the difference in the camera bodies, and see the difference in the resulting images, it’s a painful dilemma.

Friends who follow me on Flickr know that I’ve been shooting digital almost exclusively since my heart surgery. It’s wholly because digital has been easier for me during my recovery, but I’m been eying my film gear with anticipation. I have a freezer full of B&W film and I’m looking forward to getting back into it. Alongside digital of course. I enjoy both media and, like Jamie, I live in a kind of photographer’s purgatory trying to decide which to use on any given day.

Jamie, thank you for your reply — a beautiful piece of writing, might I add — and, BTW, Jamie just started a new ‘dream’ job — a special teaching job he got on the same day as President Obama’s inauguration. The auguries are favourable!

11 thoughts on “Film vs. Digital: An Email Exchange

  1. An interesting exchange, Gene.
    I find it interesting how most things in photography seem to come down to an X vs. Y debate. I’ve watched it go though MF vs. 35mm, RF vs. SLR, AE vs. Manual Exposure, Aperture Priority vs. Shutter Priority vs. Program, AF vs. Manual Focus, digital vs. film and even P&S digital vs. dSLR (and that’s the short list).
    All of these are, to me, very different things and don’t fall into X vs. Y. They are all photography with a picture one is pleased with being the desired end result, but the processes and mechanics are very different.
    I think much of the reason for the debate is that because it takes time and effort to learn to use a certain process/equipment combination and make it do what you want many people feel they have to justify the time and effort by advocating their belief that the process/equipment choices they made are “the best” available.
    But the only best that matters is what works for you and the result you are trying to achieve.

  2. Peter, I couldn’t agree more. In the end you get a photo you like, but the process for getting there is different. I think for Jamie and me, it has a lot to do with the physical aesthetics of the gear itself. Makes it hard to know which of the two excellent choices to make on any given day.

  3. Yes. The all-metal, mechanical, precision-made cameras are still a joy to use. A Nikon F has a tactile satisfaction that isn’t present in most modern cameras.

  4. Peter and Gene,
    I’m headed out the door with my whizbang Nikon D90 and two old Nikkor lenses for a walk. The lenses prevent the D90’s meter from working. That way I at least get to fall back on my old “sunny 16” instincts, with the occasional peek at the LCD to see if I guessed right. πŸ™‚

    Peter, thanks for the thoughtful response. My problem, and I do see it as a problem, is that even before I get any results I’m already thinking about the attributes the equipment in hand doesn’t have! But what would life be like without problems & challenges? Onward!

  5. For me, I get more enjoyment out of the process with a film camera, often more pleasure from the result of the digital. Also, I have a couple of small film cameras that are more discreet for street photography than my bulky faux-DSLR. Also, this faux-DSLR, a Fuji Finepix, has a hopeless through the lens viewfinder and an often indecipherable LCD screen (due to sun/shade/reflections and such). I hate the totally inadequate view-finding on that Fuji. But I guess you guys are talking better digicams than I am?

  6. Jamie: Enjoy the digital version of Sunny 16. I got a Nikon D40 mainly so I could use some of my old pre-AI lenses on digital.

    Adam: EVF digicams (I’m assuming that’s what you have on the Fuji) can be annoying at times. However, once you get used to the display or get settings that work for you, they can be quite enjoyable. And I don’t think camera size makes much difference when trying to be discrete … I’ve gone totally unnoticed while using a Nikon F4s (think really big) and been spotted constantly while using a small RF.

  7. @Jamie: It was trying out Peter’s D40 that convinced me to get one too. I cheat, though, and use a VC clipon meter on the top when I use my old lenses.
    @Adam: We’re mostly talking DSLR in terms of optical viewing with older lenses, but I take most of my digital shots with P&S cams. All I have on them is the LCD screen, which I often can’t see, so I just take my best guess at framing. BTW, in terms of EVF cameras, a lot of people are liking the Panasonic G1. Seems to be about the brightest EVF yet made.

  8. Gene, Peter, & Adam,
    After writing back and forth with Gene, then reading your comments, and finally going out for a walk with the D90/old nikkors kit, I’ve come to a (likely half-baked) conclusion about this film/digital thing. I think I may be settling in on the ‘truth’ that its going to be fun to simply switching back and forth amongst my various gear without much care about purpose. It turns out, I believe, that it doesn’t much matter what I’m using… they all produce lovely images and they’re all fun to use. And most importantly, each piece of gear forces me to think a bit differently about what I’m doing and thus pulls me into the process more completely.

    Now I’ve got to go off and edit this bushel basket of digital files from today’s walk. Tomorrow… maybe I’ll take the Oly Epic out for a walk. πŸ™‚

  9. I started with film as a kid. I gave up shooting for many years. When I returned I went digital.

    Though I quickly fell out of love with it. Firstly because I missed the way that BW shots looked – but more importantly for the same reasons that I dislike zoom lenses and use primes.

    With digital I was always checking the back, adjusting and focusing on what I had just shot and not focusing on being out and the opportunities that are going on around me all the time. I never got better.

    With film, I slow down, think more, became more like a predator in the jungle and finally, when I got back home and developed and scanned and was faced with a shot that didn’t live up to how I thought it would – I learn. I learn because I am at home with the light table and focusing on REVIEW and it sinks in. It sinks in because I am in review mode and also the disappointment of making a mistake. I don’t repeat then.

    I went D40 to D80 to D300, 18-70 to 17-35 and more. I picked up a second hand F80 for peanuts and used it more and more. I sold all my lenses except for my 35/2 (I love that), my 85 1.4 and I picked up a 20 2.8. I then relaised that my Nikon dealer here in Beijing that had supplied me with all my digital fixes had an F80 in the cabinet. It was like new – never sold. I bought it and then a 3rd second hand one.

    I love having a small, light, full frame camera that can drive my AF lenses. I love having no distractions and jumping in and out of shoot and review modes. I stick to one.

    I carry a permament marker with me and also a film leader retriever. And since we all know the pattern of the day with respect to sun, I can always plan and pull out a film and swap one and mark down where I am at on the roll. This is also easy with films that push very well. TMAX 100 @ 100 or 200. TMAX 400 @ 400 or 800 on the same roll, or TMAX 400 at 800 or 1600 on the same roll. I can progress through the day.

    I do miss the “Clean” images of digital at 400 ISO. But due to the bayer sensors in digital camera’s – that produce those wonderful smooth tones, it does so at the expense of extreme detail. Which I find a must for BW street shooting.

    Anyway – long reply. I like them both, but film forces me into a mind set and a ritual.


  10. Richard, thanks for dropping by. Wow, three F80’s! That’s dedication. I need to pick up an F80 one of these days. I’ve heard very good things about it. Most of my Nikon SLR’s are older, manual ones — but lovely. I can totally understand your point of view on film vs digital. I love B&W film too.

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