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When would you use film in the digital age?

So now all around the world there are film cameras languishing in cupboards, growing mould on their lenses and gathering dust, but is there still a use for them and if you did use yours, just what can you expect from the results.

Now I don’t want to start any debates along the lines of “film versus digital”, if you really want that just pop into some of the forums on the better known photography sites and you can argue away, and argue you will if you take the bait, as most of these film vs digital debates seem to get very emotive and degenerate into name calling and other unpleasantries. Don’t take what I am going to espouse as gospel, its just my take on the area but I have no vested interest at all, I use both, but digital is by far the main weapon of choice for me......well I have to earn a living from this game after all.

Now let me say up front that I feel good digital capture (and pretty much all digital capture these days is at least good) fairly assassinates film in most instances. I won’t beat around the bush, it is cheaper, faster, mostly noise free, generally sharper, more direct, less worrisome at capture and very, very flexible. There is really not much to dislike.

I know there are some out there in “forum land” who are adamant that film resolves more detail and can be enlarged better, frankly I don’t believe it and my own photographs do not support that concept. At most, from a really good scan of colour neg film I reckon you’re getting something that has about as much detail and quality as a compact digicam of about 6 to 8 megapixels, and that’s not a bad thing, but it’s a long way short of some of the outrageous claims made for the media.

Digital images can be enlarged with appropriate editing very large indeed, but the truth is most people do not really know how to do this properly, and no it is not as simple as just upsizing the file in the photo editing program.....but that’s the subject for another time. Film images and especially those created by traditional printing methods fall apart pretty rapidly once sensible limits are passed and for me that is somewhere about 11 by 14 inches for a 100 iso 35mm colour neg.

So you probably think I don’t like film and wouldn’t use it, yet I do use it, so what gives, am I mad, suffering from a split personality or do I just enjoy sitting on a barbed wire fence.

Film for me has a certain look and the fact is I quite like it and that is all the justification I need, I am certainly not going to try and justify my choice on any general superiority basis but there are a couple of really neat things about film worth thinking about.

For me, part of the problem with digital is that it’s just too clean, there is no noise to speak off unless you’re pushing the boundaries of a compact digicam and everything looks nicely smoothed over. But I love noise, well the right type of noise anyway, and film gives me noise, glorious noise. In fact that is exactly what film is, lots of random noise of a nice type of course, noise makes gradations look sweet, noise gives the impression of detail and texture, noise gives tonality to shadows and highlights, noise is beautiful.

The second thing I love about film is that it just is so totally wonderful at recording details in shadows and highlights that digital just renders as near black and pure white, this is a really important issue for me as I just love to render images with full tonal ranges. The current trend to blocked up blacks just doesn’t get me excited the way it seems to excite the rest of world. I must say though that RAW files from digital can do a pretty similar trick, up to point and beyond, if you use HDR techniques but images from a single frame are still a challenge, if you want the last degree of highlight detail in particular.

Is there another reason to love film, well yes, film based monochrome images do have a rather special characteristic that digital only sometimes approaches. The monochrome film that really floats my boat is Ilford’s XP2 super, it has amazing latitude, scans really well, is sharp if exposed at 100 ISO or so and very very clean for film, but in a nice way of course. Best of all is it can be processed by my local lab and since I am unable to do any darkroom work these days due to being strongly allergic to photo chemicals, that has to be a good thing.

There is no way I can even think about making prints in a darkroom (and I sure used to love doing so) which means that scanning the film is my only practical pathway to prints. Frankly though I feel that digital editing and printing is just so vastly superior to darkroom methods that even if I had the choice I would still stay out of the dark. And don’t email me telling me I just have no idea about darkroom printing, I did it for a living for many years, hence my current allergy.

Some sage filmies will maintain that the scanning equipment makes a huge difference in the final quality and that film is capable of much better results if the scanner is good enough, mmmmm. Well its true that scanners make a huge difference and certainly a dedicated high quality film scanner can etch out more detail and shadow information, but even a drum scanner will not make up for the difference between film and digital, the information is simply not in the neg to start with. Let me qualify this by saying however that some ultra fine grained monochrome films such as the now discontinued Tech pan and Adox 25 dance to a different tune and in most instances will exceed digital with appropriate scanning, but that’s a moot point if you want colour. In any case great scanning gear is very pricey and drum scanners are totally beyond the scope of the home or even most pro users.

So in the end where does this leave me, well...

If I want to shoot for a monochrome result then film is a real option and in fact I am doing quite a bit of mono work on film at present.

If I want or need to shoot very contrasty scenes in colour, film may get the nod especially if ultimate detail rendition is not that important.

If I want to go for grainy, gritty effects with a bit of a nostalgic look.... film.

If I want a soft colour rendition, with moderated clarity for one of my photo-impressionist works, then film is a winner.

On the other hand, if I need to turn a dollar on an image for a client, today, or shoot anything other than my own fine art work then digital and appropriate methods is going to win the day.

So there it is, nothing really to debate about at all, just two different tools for two different ways of working and lets be thankful that we actually have a choice at all.

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