Photograph above by master photographer Martine Franck
Film vs. Digital (A Pointless Debate)
I was reading an article on a photography website this morning about why street photographers shoot film instead of digital. After reading through the list of reasons, I thought to myself, "Does anyone really care about the film vs. digital debate anymore?" This topic has been beaten to death in most photography forums and has been talked about since digital cameras first came on the scene in the mid-1990s. After all, when I see a great photo, I never ask the question, "Did the photographer shoot film or digital?" Debating film vs. digital is like asking an artist if they want to paint with a brush or a bigger brush. With this argument in mind, I thought I would review some of the points made in the blog post to see how important they are in creating a great street photo.
1. "Film in street photography can be used with a mechanical camera without batteries forever."
Indeed, film can be used in a mechanical camera without batteries. I own a Leica M6 that doesn't require batteries. But the truth is, who cares? Most photographers that use a digital camera have enough common sense to carry a spare battery. Completely mechanical cameras, for the most part, aren't relevant anymore because the average battery life for a digital camera has increased tremendously in the past few years. In my experience, I can't think of any occasion (during a photo shoot) that I ever panicked because I only had 25% life left on my camera battery. If it gets low, I simply pop it out and put in my spare. No big deal.
2. "You can start shooting street photography with film for a very low cost."
Sure, you can buy a film camera dirt cheap these days because most photographers don't want them, and market demand drives the price down. But shooting film isn't cheap anymore. I used to shoot Ilford XP-2, which runs on average about $7.00 per roll. Not bad right? Well, now throw in developing, and you're up to $15-17 a roll. Still think it's cheap to shoot with film? Not only that, good luck trying to find a local lab that will process your film. I had to take my negatives to CVS because all of the real photography labs went out of business - that was seven years ago. Today, they are practically non-existent. In most cases, you will have to ship it out of state which is risky at best.
Let's take a closer look at the real cost difference between shooting film and digital. Last year I shot over 10,000 images with my Leica M digital camera. If I used film, in one year, I would have spent $4,432.00 on film and processing (which doesn't include prints). In contrast to that, a new Leica M242 costs roughly $5000.00. So after a year of shooting film, I could have invested the money I spent on film and processing and purchased a new digital camera. I could buy a new Leica every year for the same cost as it would be for me to shoot with my old film camera. Does it still make good economic sense to shoot with film? Not really.
3. "You can shoot Street Photography with film at night. Not being able to do so is a myth."
Yes, you can shoot film at night, and I'm not aware that anyone ever said it was a myth. Photographers have been shooting night photos since cameras were invented. However, if your shooting at night using a film camera, you will have to use a high-speed film (which means more annoying film grain), select a wider aperture on your lens, or mount your camera on a tripod. With digital, you can hand hold your camera and shoot at ISO 1600-3200 and achieve a clean, noise free image.
4. "You can’t beat film grain. It just looks awesome."
Film grain doesn't look awesome. Film grain sucks. Too many street photographers get caught up in the "salt and pepper" appearance of an image instead of spending time to learn what makes a photograph a real work of art. Film grain doesn't make a photo art any more than it makes it appear "artsy."
Long before digital cameras, most photographers tried obsessively to eliminate grain in their pictures by using slow speed films and fine grain developers. Why? Because what sucked 30 years ago still sucks today. The look of film grain is like throwing a bucket of sand on a freshly polished hardwood floor. It's an unnecessary visual distraction that adds nothing to the artistic qualities or value of a photograph. If you want to create a photo that can be considered art, you have to know what art is and apply that knowledge to the images you take.
5. "Film cameras work forever and will not let you down."
Film cameras do not work forever, and they are subject to malfunctions like any other camera. I have had many occasions where my film cameras have broken or jammed in the middle of a shoot. That's why most professional photographers will carry a back-up regardless if their shooting film or digital.
6. "Some of the best ever street photos have been shot on film."
Because digital camera technology is relatively new, and film has been around much longer, of course, there are going to be more street photography images shot with film. However, if Henri Cartier-Bresson used a digital Leica M instead of film, his images would still be considered a masterpiece. Many of the old school Magnum photographers, including Alex Webb, have made the transition from film to digital, and they still shoot amazing photos.
7. "Film will not let you chimp, so you focus more on Street Photography and less on your already shot photos."
Since when is chimping a bad thing? A lot of street photographers get fixated on the negative aspects of chimping because they feel it interferes with the creative flow of photographing a "scene." The truth is, a well-trained photographer knows how to use chimping effectively while taking pictures. Chimping has saved my ass on more than one occasion, and I see no reason why photographers shouldn't take advantage of the many benefits a digital camera can offer.
8. "When shooting film in Street Photography, you spend more time on the streets shooting and less time in LR and Photoshop post processing."
I used to shoot film and spent endless amounts of time scanning negatives for prints. Since I started shooting digital, my post process time has dropped drastically. I can zip through hundreds of files in a few hours using Adobe Lightroom, whereas scanning negatives took me weeks or even months. Unless your planning on having someone else scan and print your film, you will be spending the same amount of time (if not more) in post processing. Also, if you do choose to rely on an outside vendor to process and scan your film, chances are it won't be up to the quality that you would expect if you did it yourself.
9. "People tend not to mind to be shot with a film camera. Digital cameras feel more like a gateway towards Social Media (Facebook, Flickr, etc.)."
Really? First of all, it never occurs to people what format your shooting when you're on the street poking a camera into a stranger's face. A violation of personal space is still a violation regardless of the format a photographer chooses.
Secondly, most people will assume you're shooting digital because very few photographers shoot film these days. People do care when you're taking pictures of them, and the film vs. digital debate doesn't make any difference. Need proof? Several months ago Eric Kim posted a video blog on how he was harassed by a woman on the street after he took a picture of her - with film! In fact, she called the police and it turned into a huge ordeal. Trust me - people do mind!
Also, if your shooting film and somebody does get upset at you for taking their picture, you can't diffuse the situation by deleting the picture for them. Chances are they will get more upset and request that you hand over the entire roll of film. Then where are you? Screwed.