Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thought Of The Day: Film

In yesterday's Thought Of The Day, I said, "There are some advantages to film and good reasons to choose it instead of digital capture."

Someone asked what those advantages and reasons are. After all, there are some really big advantages and reasons to choose digital instead of film.

I've talked about this before here, but I'll go over it again.

First, we need to discuss dynamic range, which is a way of expressing the capabilities of capturing highlight and shadow details. Black-and-white negative film has the largest dynamic range, followed by color negative film, followed by positive (slide) film and digital sensors.

If you save the digital file in RAW format and mess around with the image in post-processing, you can increase the dynamic range to that of color negative film. But that is extra time and extra work. You could use HDR, but the results are typically horrible. There are some photographers who are using HDR correctly, but they are using (typically) three different softwares and are spending considerable amounts of time on each image. You could also use Graduated Neutral Density Filters, which is probably the best solution, but that requires extra equipment (the filters) and skill to use them.

Or you could simply use negative film, which is the original "HDR".

Second, we need to talk about "grain". Film uses small grains of silver. The digital equivalent to grain is called "noise". There are some very low ISO films that have incredibly fine grain, and no digital camera can compete. For most photographers, the difference between grain and noise is not significant enough to matter, but there are some photographers that demand only the finest grain. For those photographers, film is the best choice.

With regard to grain and noise, what most photographers should be concerned about is the way it looks. Grain and noise--while similar--don't look the same. To me, and I think most photographers would agree, film grain is more attractive than digital noise. This is especially true at high ISOs. For this reason, film is more attractive than digital. The difference my be minor (especially at low ISOs), but there is a difference.

Third, we need to examine resolution. A good quality scan of 35mm film will give you resolution similar to images from "full frame" DSLR cameras. You have to spend over $10,000 to find a digital camera that can match the resolution of medium format film. And you won't find resolution from digital cameras that match large format film.

Most photographers don't need even half the resolution that a quality scan of 35mm film will produce (let alone medium or large format film). But if you need lots and lots of resolution, film is your best bet.
Fourth, we need to think about longevity. Digital technology changes very quickly. Will you even be able to access those digital files in 20 years?  Film will last longer than you will.

Fifth, we need to consider what is fine art. Now that everyone has a digital camera, and now that cameras do an exceptional job in automatic and semi-auto modes, anyone and almost everyone can take good photos. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes. A completely unskilled photographer can capture something great every once in a while.

There has to be something that differentiates a snapshot from fine art. Film can (and has been) that "something". This might be another reason to choose film instead of digital.

I'm not saying that you should use film and not use digital capture. I'm simply stating some good reasons why one might choose film instead of digital.

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