Film or digital…?

Like vinyl vs MP3, valves vs transistors, AM vs FM, the great debate between film and digital still occupies photography threads, blogs and podcasts around the world. So, is one really better than the other? Does it even matter? Do we actually care anymore? Well, it all depends… It depends on your style and subject. It depends on the story you want to tell. It may also depend on your budget or the process that you enjoy most. For me, I’m a film guy so there is nothing that beats the process of analog photography. But it’s 2021, is film still a relevant medium? ABSOLUTELY!

Don’t get me wrong, digital is reliable, versatile, technically brilliant and gives you instant feedback. Whereas film can be difficult, frustrating and expensive. But when you get it right, there is little that compares. Whether it’s the classic grains of Tri-X or the velvety tones of Fuji Velvia (sadly I’m not old enough for Kodachrome), I’ve never been able to get the same look on digital. There’s an artistic quality present in those images that is in my opinion, still unsurpassed. But that’s what a good image should do right? It should make you feel something. It shouldn’t matter how it’s made or what it’s made from, just what it does for you. And film does it for me.

Most photographers will say that using film forces you to slow down. They’re right and that’s not a bad thing. When I started out in film proper (circa 2009), I experimented a little but was ultra conservative often only using 1-2 frames per shoot. A 35mm roll developed and scanned was expensive back then (and still is). Then I got into medium format (645) and things really slowed down! But my photography and what I was learning went up dramatically. I suddenly found myself wedded to my Pentax 645NII, its grid focusing screen and the ultra-wide manual focus 35mm f3.5 lens. A fantastic combination for any landscape or urban tog. It taught me a lot. These days I’ll often have both film and digital with me but for different reasons. I use my Nikon Df (or iPhone…) to capture moments, documents things, experiment and sometimes meter with. Film however, that’s special. If I’m exposing silver halide crystals then I’m usually making an image that I’ve pre-visualised or want to add to my gallery. It’s a distinctly different feeling and process.

I also just love the cameras more. They are highly tactile and often come with quirks because of mechanical limitations or materials of the time. They had character, or as Jeremy Clarkson would say, they got soul! But film can also be the great leveler. Take the single digit Nikon F series. Incredible cameras each and every one of them. But it doesn’t matter which one you’re crouching behind a wall with or crawling through the jungle. What mattered was the film running through it. For me, all this adds up to a more connected and involved process. Not just the act of processing of film but the entire process of making images on film, from loading the camera though to scanning or printing. Film may not make the most sense commercially. In fact, unless you’re doing high-end fine art or have a really niche photography genre that is earning you a living then it definitely doesn’t make a lot of sense at all. But if you’re out there to make some art and enjoy the process along the way then absolutely go and shoot some film (and maybe skip the soy skim lattes to afford for it). And if you’re still not convinced, have a look at the most iconic images in photographic history. Think about how they make you feel, then look at what they were captured with.

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