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Film or digital?
(This article was written several years ago; probably around 2005. Fundamentally, nothing much has changed. One notable change is that these days, I develop nearly all of my film myself, and I still shoot film - lots of it, at times. My trusty EOS20D was stolen along with a lot of equipment and was replaced with a 7D. On the analog front, I added 4x5" large format gear to my equipment bag, as well as a handful of 35mm cameras. Would I have written the article below in the same way today? No, certainly not. But I still like film. In fact, tens of thousands analog and digital photos down the road, I like it even more than back when I wrote this.)

Why this article is or isn't useless

Yes, I know, thousands of people have written about this before, and many of them much more extensively than I'll ever dream of doing. But as Michael Reichmann points out on his website: it's allright to photograph something zillions of people must have shot before, just because this time it's you who are photographing it this time. I think the same goes for this article. It's me who's writing this, therefore this article is unique, therefore it's legitimate. Get it?

Anyway, back ontopic: film or digital. Many comparisons have been made between these two manners of capturing photographic images and similar conclusions have been drawn by several authors: a good 35mm slide still contains more image information that the output of most current prosumer dSLR cameras, although how much more precisely remains unclear. Not that it really matters, in my opinion. Both media have their own uses, pros and cons. Moreover, presently digital doesn't entirely replace film and film doesn't always outperform digital by a long shot. Many arguments can be provided to support this (or contradict, for that matter.) So what are my personal considerations?

Please note: this article is written from the perspective of a 35mm-SLR user. Some of this information doesn't apply to compact camera's or medium and large format photography.

First of all, let's take a look at the advantages digital photography has brought us.

Surely, no one will contradict that digital photography has drastically shortened the timespan between the actual taking of the photograph and the availability of the result to the photographer. You only have to take to download the pictures from your camera to your computer to have an intimate look at what you just shot. An indirect advantage of this is that it shortens the learning curve of the photographer. This can save you a lot of time and money you don't have to spend on film.

But there's another advantage to digital photography (and now I'm going to walk on thin ice, don't flame me): digital images have an acuteness and perfection that makes them almost surreal. This is a huge advantage for areas like product photography where there's virtually no margin for and certainly no need of things like softness and grain. It also makes digital photography perfect for pixel-maniacs like myself who insist examining every image on 100% to spot minute imperfections which may go completely unnoticed even on large format prints.

For me, the first reason to continue to shoot film is a sort of melancholy. It is the imperfections of film photography, that have for a large part been resolved by digital, that attract me to film. The hassle with film canisters, the limitation of being able to shoot only 36 (or 24 or 12) frames before you have to change your medium, the fact that you have to wait at least an hour at your local photostore before you can see the results...all this adds to the 'experience' of shooting film.

But film has some real advantages as well. For instance, the rendition of grain on film differs fundamentally from the 'digital equivalent': noise. While noise is usually regarded (by me as well) as a negative aspect of a digital photograph, grain can add a distinct 'look' to a picture. Grain is the inevitable drawback of shooting film, but for me, it is perhaps the main reason to continue to shoot film at all! Many photographers, mostly amateurs, often try to add grain to digital images to give them an 'analog' look. I've seen very few images with digitally added grain that were actually convincing. If you want grain, shoot film. If you want heavy grain, shoot fast film. You won't be disappointed.

One more reason for me to shoot film is the issue of colour rendition. A digital SLR produces RAW-files (I always shoot RAW) that can be tweaked in several ways virtually without deterioration of image quality. Indeed, I find it a necessity to enhance the colours of RAW files as the colours usually appear extremely unsaturated and dull. Of course, using RAW files gives you a high degree of freedom in the post processing of colours and therefore the final 'look' of an image, but I never seem to be able to achieve the depth and vibrance I get when shooting good slide film. Sure, there are numerous Photoshop filters and plugins that let you change the colour rendition to that similar to, for instance, a Velvia slide. At least, that's what they promise... In fact, just as with thedigital grain issue, I've never seen very convincing results. If I want vibrant, saturated colours and images that actually appear to be three-dimensional, I load a roll of slide film in my analog body. I choose the colour rendition of the final image even before the photos are taken by choosing the proper type of film for the job.

So what's better, film or digital? My conclusion is pretty straightforward: there is no conclusion. About 95% of my photography is digital as I love the perfection of digital images, the ease of use of a dSLR and the fact that especially RAW files are particularly forgiving with respect to exposure compensations during post processing. But every now and then, I simply crave for the moment I get my slides back from the lab and hold them against the light to be stunned by the vibrant colours and reality that only slides can convey to me. And there still are situations where I choose to shoot film, simply because I find that a digital system isn't completely up to the job. Rock concerts are a nice example: usually badly lit, little room to walk around and fast action. Nothing beats a couple of rolls of TMAX3200 pushed to 6400 ASA or even 12800 ASA for rock-hard contrasts and extremely coarse grain! In those situations, I know that my EOS20D, however much I've fallen in love with it, would produce noisy images with heavy banding. Film gives me images that may be even inferior in terms of captured detail, but they do convey raw emotion. And that's what counts, isn't it?

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