The Film Is Dead

... and I'm not going to mourn it

Let me make it clear: I'm in favor of the old-fashioned, solid photography, the way it has been for the last one hundred and fifty years. This was my major hobby since the late Fifties, when I discovered the joys of doing my own darkroom work, and is stayed that way since.

This is why I was initially sceptical about switching to digital. My first digital camera, a Sony Mavica, was generating output barely suitable for the Web, after reducing it to 320×240 pixels. I was expecting things to stay that way for quite a time.

Then, in the Summer of 2000, I gave the idea another try, taking a three-megapixel Olympus C-3000Z for a month to the Polish Tatra mountains, along with an SLR and a good supply of film, both negative and transparency. And that was it.

Surprisingly, my 18×24cm prints from that digital camera were at least as good as those from film (usually better), and even those at 24×32cm were presentable. I remember people who, not aware of the origin of the prints, would say "This would not be possible with digital".

That was it. My faithful Dynax 600 is now in the capable hands of my stepson, while I'm enjoying the digital domain, never looking back.

This little article may, on one hand, convince some sceptics that holding on to film does not make much sense nowadays, on the other giving the digital photographers a warm, fuzzy feeling of having done the right thing.

Pros and cons

Let me start from the arguments often quoted by those who stubbornly stick to the film medium, commenting on each as I go.

  1. The film offers more detail, with resolution higher than that of the digital sensor.

    This is a non-argument for me. The actual resolution of your image is roughly defined by four factors: the resolution of the medium (film, sensor), that of the lens, focus accuracy (and depth of field), and camera shake. The lowest one will be the bottleneck in your picture-taking; the others only have to match that one.

    When digital cameras first appeared on the market, there was a common agreement (I'm not sure if it was based on hard facts) that the 35-mm film resolution is roughly equivalent to a six-megapixel image file. While this estimate seems to be creeping up in the latest gossip, my feeling is that a 4MP camera is capable of providing a resolution comparable of that of 35-mm film SLR, with a middle-of-the-road lens.

    This is based on my experience with negatives and slides scanned to a Kodak Photo-CD, providing files of about 6 megapixels.

    The other factors seem to be similar between both types of media, except for the depth of field, which is usually much greater for digital cameras than for film ones. At the aperture of F/2, my digital Olympus C-5050Z has the same dept of field, as a 35-mm camera at F/10 with the same lens angle.

  2. The digital medium suffers more from noise.

    Not true. People who complain about noise in digital cameras have never seen a 40×50 cm print from a 35 mm film.

  3. Color rendition and tonality scale is better on film.

    Partially true. I consider the bit depth of a digital image more of a limitation than the pixel count. Still, for most purposes the digital medium provides enough, especially when compared against paper prints. On the other hand, it is easier to recover the lost highlight or shadow detail from digital than from film.

  4. The digital medium is more vulnerable to data loss.

    Disagreed. Memory cards in digital cameras are very robust now; I haven't lost an image in four years. On the other hand, on two occasions I had my film destroyed by a minilab, and let me save you detail on airport scanners.

    More, your digital images, when recorded on an archival-quality CD, will last longer than those on film. Some of my slides from the Eighties lost much of their color (I'm converting my archive to digital now, doing lots of tedious restoration work in the process), and you cannot have exact 1:1 backups without losing the quality.

  5. Digital photography, with the ease of image manipulation and adjustment in postprocessing, is somehow less "pure" than film-based one.

    Oh yeah? As Ansel Adams used to say, most of the photographer's work is done in the darkroom. Adjusting the tonality of the image, cropping, burning, dodging — all this is not "cheating" but a part of photographic process. If a teenager working my minilab machine moves a dial up by two notches (with or without a reason), it is still "pure", if I do it in an image-processing process, I'm a cheater? Come on! According to that standpoint the only "pure" photography would be then shooting slides.

  6. Digital technology is still evolving fast, your camera will be obsolete the next year.

    So what? If a camera is capable of providing pleasing results when it is new, these results will not became worse the next year. The market consists of two groups of camera users: photographers and gadget enthusiasts. For a photographer, my C-3000Z of the '2000 vintage is as good as when it was the top of the line. It is the camera makers who benefit most from that perception, so that you buy the latest model every year or two.

    Is this about taking pictures, or just a fashion show?

  7. Within the same class, digital cameras are more expensive than film ones.

    This is still true, but the cost of the camera is just a part of your photography expenses. The effective cost depends on your shooting habits. I usually take lots of frames, planning to keep only the best 10% of them. On a film, you pay also for the remaining 90%, with a digital camera they are free. In my case, a $600 investment in a digital camera pays itself off within one, two-week vacation trip.

The obvious (and not-so-obvious) pros

  1. The "instant reward" factor.

    You can roughly check your picture (exposure, color) on the camera's monitor a moment after it was taken, and you can re-shoot it if necessary. If this is not enough for critical evaluation, you can move the file to a computer and inspect the image more critically (e.g., to verify focus accuracy). And no more waiting to finish the roll until being able to process the pictures.

  2. Avoiding film in your digital workflow.

    Even when shooting on film, you may want to digitize your images, to do all the tweaking in a "digital darkroom". Many pros holding on to film do it that way. With a digital camera you avoid the hassle and expense of this intermediate step.

  3. Control over medium speed

    In the 35-mm world, the only way to switch rapidly between, say, 100 and 400 ISO films is to carry two camera bodies. In digital domain, you do it by pressing a button (or, sometimes, six buttons).

  4. Control over color

    The only way to do it with film was to use a filter and/or change the film. Again, on a digital camera I can switch from tungsten to daylight on the fly. The automatic color balancing in most cameras (notably: Olympus models) also works very nicely, thank you. Plus, many models allow you to add a minor adjustment to the preset or automatic color balance, for example, if you prefer all your images to be consistently warmer.

I am sure I have missed at least a few points here, but you should be able to come up with more by yourself. At this moment it seems clear that there are no reasons to hold on to film: digital provides results which are at least as good, and with less hassle.

The joy of camera handling

There may be, however, some purely subjective, but equally important factors. You have to like the camera to enjoy using it. And film-based cameras, after a long process of refinement, have reached the stage when handling them is often a pleasure. This applies to both collectible and current models, although for me the period between 1978 and 1985 was the high point in this aspect. Get an Olympus OM-1, or an XD-series Minolta, wind the film and trip the shutter, operate the controls — and you will see what I mean. You will not want to go back to the latest, plastic AF models.

In this aspects, most digital cameras leave quite a lot to be desired. Some operate more like a cell phone than a camera. Digital SLRs are a notable exception, as all of them (except of the Olympus E-System) started out as modifications, sometimes quite crude, of film SLR bodies (even some of today's models have two separate power supplies: one for the "regular", i.e., inherited, camera features, and one for the "digital" functionality).

Things have improved lately in this aspect. Again, Olympus led the way, with the "feel" of their C-5050/5060 compact models being quite similar to that of classic rangefinder cameras, and Epson (most unlikely candidate, I would say) has now a camera which actually is closer to the classic Leica than the digital offerings from Leica are; it even takes lenses in the classic Leica screw mount!

But if you are not sure, put your hands on an Olympus E-10, E-20, or the latest E-1; if you had any doubts, they should disappear.

Back to do-it yourself photography

Years ago, in the B&W film era, dedicated amateur photographers were doing everything with their own hands. This included film processing and printing images on paper.

The situation drastically changed when color pictures became a standard. Color processing, especially printing, is quite a complicated and, in amateur conditions, cumbersome (and expensive!) task. Mass-market labs also offered very attractive prices.

This is why the percentage of amateurs (or even professionals) doing their own darkroom work dwindled sharply. For me at least, this took half the pleasure away, in addition to losing controls over many aspects of the final images. In the last twenty five years my enjoyment of photography went way down, and so did my involvement. I think this was rather typical.

With digital, we are regaining control over all stages of the creative process. Our pictures are no longer at mercy of an underpaid and undereducated mass-market lab technician; nor do we have to pay premium prices for custom-lab prints. We are actually running the whole show; photography is becoming fun again.

When, if ever, did you do your last experiments in infrared? Shooting outside of the visible spectrum may bring most pleasing and quite unusual images, but the process is unreliable and complicated. Special film and processing, problems with getting the exposure right, and most annoyingly, being unable to verify the results until the prints come from the lab. With digital, the biggest hurdle is acquiring an IR filter, and the results are often stunning.

This is only one example. Others, less extreme, may include tabletop studio applications, night shooting — just use your creativity to name more. The road from an idea to its realization becomes much shorter and simpler.

The bottom line

The situation seems clear: the film is dead, and there are no reasons you should hold on to it. With the possible exception of disposable cameras, we may expect 90% of pictures taken three years from now to be digital.

This is not really a big deal — just moving from one recording medium to another; a step, I believe, smaller than that from B&W to color. It is still the light which paints the picture, and still the person behind the camera who is the decisive factor in how good the picture will be.

The film may linger around for a decade or two, but more as a specialty item than a mainstream one. Yes, there are people now who are experimenting with the Daguerre technique from the 1850's, and others, who take pictures with pinhole cameras, and the results are often very interesting. But these are fringe areas. Film-based photography will become one as well, sooner than we expected. After all, it ruled long enough.

This article was originally published in Quest, the quarterly newsletter of the Olympus Circle; June, 2004.

All camera pictures are from the respective manufacturers' promotional materials.

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Posted 2004/12/04 Copyright © 2004 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak