Commentary: Film or Digital?

Normally I don’t like getting into the whole “film vs digital” debate. I find it is one of those arguments that has just been hacked to death (with perhaps digital holding the axe) and there isn’t a whole lot I can add to the conversation. For some reason though I have received quite a few questions about this topic over the years so maybe it’s time for me to make an official deposition for the record.

For the most part I am a strong advocate for film usage. Whenever I click the shutter and expose light to a frame of film there is a phrase that repeats in the back of my mind:

EMULSION equals EMOTION

It’s actually rather haunting to tell you the truth. This little ditty repeats itself in my head so often I sometimes fear I am going to start channelling a few scenes from The Shinning and go all Jack Nicholson on my loved ones. Thankfully that has yet to happen but if you ever see a news headline about a photographer in Oregon going nuts you heard about it here first.

*ahem*

Where was I? Oh yes… Film. For me the great draw of film rests in the fact that I feel like I am working with something real. Every step of the process is something I can touch and feel, not to mention smell and even in some cases taste.  I am physically invested in my work. When the final print is made, after investing the time to expose a negative, develop it, and then print it I have touched and labored over every single step. If anyone thinks that effort doesn’t reflect in the image itself, at least in a small way, they are kidding themselves.

Maybe more importantly, I am also at the mercy of the limitations of the medium. Due to the fact that there is little opportunity to correct my errors later I have to put a lot of trust in my tools and relinquish at least a small part of my work to fate. This scares the hell out of photographers sometimes, myself included, but a little bit of fear is healthy for the creative mind.

The rise of the Internet, social media, etc etc ultimately just digs my heels further into the world of film. Finding anything of permanence in this day and age is a very rare thing. However, every frame of film I expose has the potential of out-living me, and In that I find a great deal of comfort. Maybe I am just fooling myself, but I would like to think that when I am dead and gone someone will invest the time in making sure my negatives are kept safe, or at least passed on to someone who will find value in them. I do not share the same confidence in my digital images. I would go so far as to say most of my digital work doesn’t even make it off the memory card, let alone existing past my lifetime. Hard drives and computers hold no long term value. Negatives on the other hand are a precious thing.

Now that being said, there is another phrase that rings just as equally true when I pick up a digital camera:

PIXELS equal POSSIBILITIES

I believe when we get into these debates it is important to be completely honest with ourselves. With that in mind, let’s be real, digital technology opens up the medium of photography to new possibilities film never could. Does anyone out there think we’d be looking at pictures of Mars without digital? Sure, that may be a purely scientific example, but it isn’t a stretch to believe this concept translates to the art world as well.

Speaking for my own work, I once did a series of photographs after dark using hand held lights attached to a dancer and long exposures. The medium of digital made these images possible to do without compromise and within a reasonable budget. In fact, looking back on it, I originally attempted that project on film and had three failed outings.

There is one area where I personally can find some compromise, and even find some happiness in the digital domain. I mentioned tools earlier and I feel like there importance cannot be understated. If I don’t like the camera I am using I am not going to like any part of the photographic process. The camera is the beginning, and it is the primary tool toward expressing my vision. One of my primary complaints about the digital medium is that cameras don’t feel like tools, they feel like toys. When the expanded possibilities of the digital medium tempt me, I often turn my back because I cannot find joy in the camera itself.

I have never been fond of SLRs because I feel the design tempts camera makers to cram it full of bells and whistles that serve as distractions to the creative process. This was true for me even before the digital SLR was invented. I like a clean and uncluttered machine that gets the job done. I don’t want my tools to “think” for themselves. Thankfully in recent years this trend has been changing with camera designers finally realizing that a clean and uncluttered interface is highly desirable.

Ultimately though, it comes down to just making images. If using a digital camera is what truly makes sense for you then I would rather see someone working in a digital medium as opposed to not making images at all. I have never once judged another photographer because they picked pixels over silver gelatin. However, I will also add to that and say if you are not shooting film because you think it is too difficult, too expensive, or just too much of a pain to work with then you might want to re-think your motivations behind photography. Film…digital… Neither one is “easy”. The very act of making art, no matter what the medium is a very difficult thing to do.

This may sound like a cliche to most people reading this but great art only happens through adversity. You know you are doing it right when it is hard. In the end, that is what matters, not your choice of camera or whether you use digital or analogue mediums.