We always hear how the photos captured on film are nicer to look at than digital photos. Digital photos can be pretty too, but usually only after extensive and expert post-processing. Therefore this debate has raged on for a while with neither camp backing down. Eventually, both are declared winners and honestly, both sides have pros and cons. Digital photography is convenient and has its place: low light, action, sports &etc. But why do film shooters love film? It can’t be just the act of shooting (you know the “slowing down”, “purposefulness” &etc.) because you can bring the same discipline to digital shooting too. So people chalk it off to preference. Yes, but why the preference? Well, as it happens there is an actual, real difference between film and digital. It may seem trivial once I mention it because we are used to accepting it without any analysis. But it is not.
Film is an analog medium and like all analog things many of its parameters are coupled together in ways digital cannot emulate. Just. Can. Not. Digital processes are decoupled. They have to be because they are modeled by humans. We look at the analog equivalent, take the external, measurable parameters and discretize them. It is how engineering is done. As a result, we end up with separate parameters like hue, temperature, contrast, brightness, noise and so on. These are all independent variables for a digital photo. And an unprocessed digital photo is not much to look at. In order to make it presentable, you have to process it. When you process the image file, you have to adjust all the above parameters and more. If you increase brightness, it will not have any effect on the contrast. You will have to adjust contrast separately. But by how much? It is almost like a chicken-egg problem. You need an image of the scene to tell you how much you should increase or decrease contrast to match the brightness. Simply adjusting brightness isn’t enough. Same with color temperature. That has to be adjusted separately. Highlights have to be preserved, shadows lifted, saturation adjusted…. ALL separately and individually. Then, of course, there is the issue of color gradients. All these properties are decoupled. However, the real world that you are photographing is not digital. It is analog. Everything is coupled to everything else. Engineers may make the sensors and the software, but the post processing has to be done by you. And to do it you have to learn to use a digital post processing tool. And not only do you have to learn to use the software, but you also have to learn to use it artistically. And there’s the rub. Post processing requires great skill. It is no trivial task to look at an unprocessed file and decide how all the different parts must be adjusted separately so they work together to produce an honest image. Unless you are very gifted, your digital adjustments will almost always fall short. Some people do it very well, most cannot. Although not central to my point here, I want to mention that image processing has advanced to the point where the photography, the actual acquisition of an image with a camera is no longer the most important part. It’s just the first step of a long ladder. The artistry almost invariably happens on the computer. For a photographer it is an added burden, so much so, that it almost requires a skill shift from photography to image processing.
Now, consider film: all those parameters I mentioned above are coupled together. Just by controlling exposure you can control color, contrast, gradient, grain, saturation, temperature &etc. This is a profound difference. You, the photographer, can control the final look of the image by controlling exposure while shooting. It might seem an innocuous harmless statement but if you think about it for a moment, it is a very empowering and liberating fact. By controlling just one parameter, you can control all the others–because they are coupled. The camera is no longer just an acquisition tool. Instead it is your paintbrush, your most important device. The moment of exposure isn’t just the starting step on a long ladder. You are expressing your artistry at the moment of the shot, through exposure. And instead of learning digital image processing skills, you can focus entirely on photography–the content and the composition.
So you see, film photography isn’t just a random preference. I used to think the same, but after careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that there is good reason behind the preference. If you are less into (and less skilled in) image processing then film is inherently a better medium for you. You’ll get better results with film than you will with digital. There are a few instances where this doesn’t apply:
- if you are proficient in post processing and don’t mind doing it–go ahead, knock yourself out!
- some cameras can automatically apply a profile/preset to your image so that you don’t have to process it. And you are okay with the result.
- certain types of photography where processing isn’t important like documentary, science or journalism.
- certain types of photography which are better served by modern technologies like action, sports, underwater &etc.
Lastly it is important to remember that film isn’t a magic medium that will transform bad photos into good ones. Content, composition and technique are important whether you use film, digital, oil, acrylic or crayons.