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Your Argument About How Film is Better Than Digital is Old. Like, Really Old.

“These new ways might be found by men who could abandon their allegiance to traditional pictorial standards—or by the artistically ignorant, who had no old allegiances to break. There have been many of the latter sort. Since its earliest days, photography has been practiced by thousands who shared no common tradition or training, who were disciplined and united by no academy or guild, who considered their medium variously as a science, an art, a trade, or an entertainment, and who were often unaware of each other's work…Some of these pictures were the product of knowledge and skill and sensibility and invention; many were the product of accident, improvisation, misunderstanding, and empirical experiment. But whether produced by art or by luck, each picture was part of a massive assault on our traditional habits of seeing.” -John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye, 1966.

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John Szarkowksi passed away in 2007 at the age of 81. From 1962 until 1991, he was the Director of Photography at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Photographer’s Eye was originally written for an exhibition at MOMA in 1964 and published in book form in 1966. Reading it, one can’t help but acknowledge the glaring similarities in the ‘digital versus film’ conversation when compared to the the early days of photography when it was lambasted by that generation's painters.

“In 1893 an English writer complained that the new situation had 'created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? … There is no pause, why should there be?'”

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‘Film is a more authentic process,’ they say, ‘it’s more deliberate. It takes more forethought and technique. With digital, anyone can be a photographer.’

The critics are right…from their own perspective. Painters initially accused photography of ruining a visual art medium, when it fact, all it really did was expand the gamut of ‘visual art’ far beyond what had previously been imagined. Were there issues in its infant stages? Absolutely. But any awkward kid or teenager eventually has the capacity to grow into a unique and compelling adult – and their awkwardness can contribute to the conversation in new and exciting ways.

Photographers shot "…objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes… without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic?" Painting was difficult, expensive, and precious, and it recorded what was known to be important. Photography was easy, cheap and ubiquitous”

Film photography is difficult. It’s expensive. It’s precious – and not just in the really cute way. Digital photography is easy. It’s (sort of cheap), and it’s definitely ubiquitous. It’s also not going anywhere. And the things you hate (if there are things you hate) are only going to become more numerous.

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It can be daunting. And scary. You may not be as good with digital as you were with film. There are some truly great photographers whose work is honestly not as good since moving to digital. Working in a darkroom – though fundamentally similar – is not Photoshop. Each has its own quirks and skillsets. There will always be a place for film in fine art and hobbyists. There will also be the occasional photographer - like Norman Jean Roy - that is able to shoot film for larger jobs. However, that is no longer the industry standard, and it will only get further away. This is also not to say it is not important to understand the history of the camera all they way back to the camera obscura. Context and history will only make someone a better photographer in the same way that many great photographers are pupils of the Dutch master painters.

In a previous article with Joey Lawrence, we talked about how the digital medium has brought more ‘crap’ to sift through because it has simply allowed far more people to 'take a crack at it.’ But at the higher end, it has elevated the expectations, quality of work and sheer technical ability in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago.

Photography, and more specifically digital photography, is a medium that is still relatively new – as are the things that have been learned from it. Artists have been painting horses for at least thousands of years. It wasn’t until 1878 that – because of photography – we found out that for certain that a horse ran with four feet extended and off the ground. They had been painted differently all this time. And so, photography, although a troublesome and somewhat annoying child, eventually paid back to the medium that (sort of) birthed it.

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“The influence of photography on modern painters (and on modern writers) has been great and inestimable. It is, strangely, easier to forget that photography has also influenced photographers. Not only great pictures by great photographers, but photography—the great undifferentiated, homogeneous whole of it—has been teacher, library, and laboratory for those who have consciously used the camera as artists.”

Photography has the ability to complement painting if the painter chooses to embrace the idea. “The trained artist could draw a head or a hand from a dozen perspectives. The photographer discovered that the gestures of a hand were infinitely various, and that the wall of a building in the sun was never twice the same.”

The same can be said for digital photography compared with film. Using techniques that have been developed in the last couple decades, one can apply much of that thought to film to get the best of both worlds. I love shooting with film, but I also will take along my digital camera when I do. Do I need it? No. Does it allow me to create better film images? Unquestionably - but only because it is my decision is converge the two.

This does, of course, completely depend on the type of photographer you are. Do you like a raw, untouched image? By all means, enjoy the hell out of your film camera. Do you like certain elements of polish that digital gives you, but you love the chemical process of film? Swing both ways. You never know what can happen.

From Country Elevator, Red River Valley, MN,  1957

“The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth. Its movement has not been linear and consecutive but centrifugal. Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a center; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.”

Do what you want. It is your art, after all. Me? I’ll grow with it.

Add The Photographer’s Eye to your library at Amazon.com

Images by John Szarkowski. Cover image of John Szarkowski by Lee Friedlander

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60 Comments

ennuipoet's picture

You know what is REALLY old and tired? The argument about film vs digital. Digital won, film is now a niche product. (And I still shoot some film, so I am not a complete Digital Shipper) If you want to shoot film, shoot film, if you don't want to shoot film, don't shoot film. For the immediate future film is not going to disappear, though it will be more expensive. The argument, however, is over.

Darsan54's picture

If you're going to make a profit these days, you have to go digital.

These are also the same kind of arguments you hear every time Kodak changed something in Kodachrome. Photographers seem to be a whiny lot.

Jim Hofman's picture

Who cares. It's all about the resulting image - not the path to get there. Some people still enjoy the long and expensive path.

So the exact opposite of "It's not about the destination, it's about the journey."

King Street Studios's picture

Not to the client!

I dont think this article is necessarily about commercial photography

OhBoy's picture

It it's all about the resulting image, do you think a flawless composite of a giant moon shopped in to a photo is on the same playing field as a well thought out shot with a 1200mm? If it's the resulting image, where does photoshop and cloning out things come into play? If it's the resulting image, how come people are poo-pooing great images on instagram because they have a filter?

Tara Lundrigan's picture

Because people love to hate! =P

Fstopperswhyunolikegoopitures's picture

How much did your D whatever and all your lenses/pc/photoshop cost?

What is your weekly electric bills relating to your PC and camera gear?

Now how much does someone who shoots as much as they did on film days spend?

Much less than you do.

Steve Bichsel's picture

What about the long-term cost of continually buying rolls of film, developing, and printing? My first DSLR paid for itself just in the cost of buying an equivalent amount of film for the number of exposures that I made with the digital.

Joe McCarthy's picture

the dslr equipment outprices the cost of film and processing. number of exposures is that really an issue, just hold back and think rather than being snap happy

maciej zelek's picture

Not in the long term it doesn't. The initial investment into digital equipment is higher than film (unless your one of those that shoots Leica in which case digital is still cheeper) but the cost of taking pictures is virtually 0 once you have all the gear you need. Whereas shooting with film every time you take your camera out its money that you need to spend on film and developing (assuming you want to make use of your spare bath for something other than a dark room). Film is still fun in a novel sort of way and I recommend anyone that wants to take photography a bit more seriously should give it a try but anyone that really tries to make a serious argument for film being superior to digital is only doing so because they enjoyed the exclusivity of what it used to mean to be a photographer. Learn to share your hobby with everyone, it'll make your life happier one.

Chris Laine's picture

There's no cost comparison between shooting film and digital. I spent thousands on film, processing and darkroom materials over the 20+ years shooting analog.

I was working at Penn Camera in Maryland back in the mid 90's while shooting semi-pro and I remember very clearly the day the Kodak rep brought in a DCS 40 (0.38 megapixel) digital camera and everyone laughed at the image quality. One of the guys in Penn's fledgling digital dept said" "Laugh all you want but some day digital will overtake film"

He was right and not only has digital met 35MM quality it's surpassed it in resolution as well. The new Nikon's have upward of 36 megapixels and are on tap to come out with 50 megapixels next year.

I have the Nikon D800 and after shooting with Nikon's best over the 30+ years in photography I can tell you right now it blows away ALL of the film based camera by a mile.

The only reason to shoot with film is for nostalgia or the utter refusal to make the transition into digital (and computers). Professionally no one can shoot with film and remain relevant with the exceptions of the most established photographers.

M K's picture

Why won't the debate of Digital vs. Film, Which's Better just die already? Shoot what you want to shoot with whichever medium you prefer. When an image speaks for itself, people couldn't care less about whether it came out of sink of smelly chemicals or a handful of chips and circuits. The more we discuss about which one is better and the debate itself, the less time we have for shooting. As they say, don't feed the trolls.

Aaron Tsuru's picture

That argument is dead, now it's "real photographers" vs. smartphone photographers. Next it will be Google Glass / iWatch photographers vs. smartphone photographers.... and then........

Joe McCarthy's picture

boohoo stop crying about the fact that there is a debate to be had. its part of life that people will prefer one thing or another

Aaron Tsuru's picture

And now...... We are having the debate all over again with smartphone cameras vs "real" cameras. THE CIRRRRCLE OF CRAAAAAP!

Mike Macak's picture

To me, the title is sort of misleading. This didn't seem like much of an argument, but more of a heads up that the debate of how visual mediums and their progression are met with criticism when something new emerges (painters vs. photographers, film photographers vs. digital photographers, and so forth). Just my take though.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

The difference between film and digital is denotation, space and time. Neither medium is better than the other but both have their places. They may share similar qualities but are still different mediums. Most confusion about them can be cleared up right away by acknowledging that they are simply not the same medium.

Film is directly connected to it's object and can directly represent while digital is indirectly tied to it's object and can only indirectly represent. In literary terms, film is "non-fiction" and digital is "fiction" or "make-believe." Meanwhile, film exists in time while digital exists in space. Time is chronological, linear and logically ordered. Space is decentralized, non-linear and simultaneous. Photographers should get it straight once and for all that the spatial nature of digital means that there will NEVER be any technical rules of craftsmanship for shooting digital. Anybody can shoot digital. Children can shoot digital. Drones can shoot digital. Dogs and cats can shoot digital. Digital is "social" in every sense of the term and there's nothing remotely impressive about utilizing it as a medium. The only rule of craftsmanship in digital is that there are no rules of craftsmanship in digital.

Everything is about bits. Even chemical photography, as I would call it, is made out of bits. Either microscopic grains respond or do not respond to light. Everything is digital. Now, there's a difference in each type of sensor: while one responds chemically, the other does electronically, but both respond to light.

Time and space are the same and one. Only our perception tears them apart. Is there a "spatial nature" without a "temporal nature"? That is a metaphysical thinking.

Anyone can shot with film or with "digital", but no one can do it without light. There are no merits to film nor to "digital".

john Russell's picture

"Meanwhile, film exists in time while digital exists in space." I am so in awe of this definition and had never thought of it quite like that - but you are so right!

Tara Lundrigan's picture

Just because "anyone" can shoot digital, doesn't mean anyone can shoot it well...and be a professional or make a real piece of art, with actual emotion....

Jerrit Pruyn's picture

Sensors get dirty.

BelieveInFilm Gordon's picture

Nobody cares about film vs digital. Really nobody. I run one of the largest film photography communities and I don't care. I imagine you don't really care either but this was a nice way to drum up pageviews.

Fstopperswhyunolikegoopitures's picture

This. Fstoppers is only about inciting people for ad revenue. Not about interesting content.

Metalurgico Rubberized's picture

Same discussion as Motorcycles vs SUVs. Fun vs job done.

Rob Ruttan's picture

I stick to film because I'm sort of stuck with it...I can't afford a digital camera that will give the image quality of my old Hasselblad. That, and I have a personal nostalgia for "old school" stuff. But yes, the argument is old, tired and DONE. I've seem incredible images, including B&W, done both ways. Just shoot, damnit!!

Daniel Yu Suzuki's picture

What's the most important thing to you? The gear you've used, or creating something you've wanted to create.

No other question matters.

Chris Pickrell's picture

I love how the whole "digital vs. film" mirrors the argument about how photography isn't art because it's cheap and easy, and cheating. And will never replace painting.

Chris Knight's picture

You got the exact point I was making, but it unfortunately seems missed by most.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

You're right. That's often referred to as "historicism" in the arts. The main reason that people will often reject new mediums is because they are unable to place value on contemporary work by referring to past knowledge of the arts. In other words, something new is outside of their ability to determine if it's good or not, so they're afraid of being duped. In order to protect themselves, they will often resort to going back to history to find work that has already been legitimated by time. Ultimately, it's a sign of insecurity.

The flip-side of historicism is made up of folks that think new technology is always better than the old. These types of people are generally ignorant about what came before and don't really know how to compare the past with the new. They are also afraid of being duped, so they reject the old medium altogether. Basically, they do the same thing that the historicists do but in reverse.

Chris Knight's picture

Fantastic post. Thank you.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Thanks, Chris

Raul Moreno Jr.'s picture

Super misleading or misinformed headline.
A hundred years ago, your camera couldn't figure out your exposure for you.
There was no auto button for anything and no editing software.
Seldom did you have someone pawning themselves off as a professional or even serious photographer that didn't know about making an exposure.
Today, people buy an entry level dslr, and they start charging people for their "services"... all the while on auto or program. There was no perspective correction to fix your awful architecture
Digital photography is a different sort of medium almost altogether... with advantages and disadvantages in relation to film.
If you want to get technical and ruffle some feathers, the digital medium is not photography. Photography literally means to mark with light. Digital does no such thing. Light is translated into a combination of a million ones and zeros and displayed on a screen. No "mark" has been made.

Tobias Solem's picture

If you lose business to people like the ones you are describing, you probably deserve it.

What sensors do, either film or "digital", is receive and record light intensity. Do you imagine that with film a ray of light describes a path of a line from start to end to give it its beauty? Films are made of microscopic grains, that respond or do not respond to that light intensity. In essence, films work by the nature of 1 or 0, yes or not, turned on, turned off; in essence, films are digital in their true nature. I think that what you mean by "mark" is the characteristic of being "physic", "tangible". Information is physic as well, and you can tell by how hot your computer gets after a hard proccessing.

actually "one grain" has around 6 or 7 subunits that can either be "on" or "off". Any given point on the emulsion has a (somewhat variable) number of pieces of grain stacked on top of each other (let's say 15). Thus, the spatial arrangement of the subunits plus the layering sum up to a quite impressive number of possible combinations per "point"(pixel ??)...may I presume...quite larger than 255.
As for the "information" and "physical" part, I must agree with you that (at least for now) there isn't any proof the information can exist in a form devoid of a physical substrate.

That just makes me think of a clipped pixel. In that sense, a grain with its subunits works the same way a pixel (photosite) does, and that, inevitably, leads us to the concept of bit depth.

But in the end, either film or "digital" assess the same thing: a representation not of the world, of reality, but a representation of conceptual and technical skills through technology. Significance comes to life by the relationship of the elements (from lines and dots to recognisible figures) shown in the image through spatial distribution.

Tara Lundrigan's picture

You are the reason these stupid articles get written. A photograph is a fucking photograph, whether it comes from a film or digital camera. It's a moment in time, CAPTURED.

Raul Moreno Jr.'s picture

Tara, look up the etymology of the term photograph.
I'm talking about language, not what canon and nikon use to sell to the masses.I think we're speaking different languages here. It's too bad. Photo-graph has nothing to do with the term "captured".

Syman St's picture

Film has it's allure, just as digital does. Get off your rear and take some good images with either medium.. Bury this dead dog already!

Felipe Paredes Schulz's picture

so many bitches in FS

marc osborne jr's picture

I've always wondered why people never brought up the environmental impact of the celluloid photo process. Especially in motion pictures! All the chemicals that must be disposed of, not to mention the ingredients in film and the byproducts making those!

Matthew Wagg's picture

You should check out Kodak's whitepaper on chemical disposal for labs. Most labs use a completely sealed system. Its only the amateurs that dispose of chemicals down the drain.

Tony Kwong's picture

yes, true but production of digital cameras themselves as well as any other electronics also produce large amounts of environmental waste.

Christopher Hoffmann's picture

Excellent comparison Chris!

Chris Knight's picture

Thank you Chris!

robsydor's picture

Beta Max FTW !!!!

Tony Carter's picture

Those film pics, if it is to be preserved or displayed to a wide audience, will become a digital pic, complete with metadata, such as was used in this very article...just sayin. lol

Joe McCarthy's picture

For image quality the difference in price between film and digital is huge and no film is not more expensive like most cretins believe. It is a gradual process, you can pick up a camera for £30 + (digital £350 (£1000 for one that can really contend with film). you then can buy film and process it as you go whereas with digital you have to buy the laptop/hard-drives/cables/overpriced accessories in one go. Digital is a con to make all the dumb asses buy the kit which in turn makes them believe that they are decent photographers. Film teaches you to respect photography and not take image making for granted. You can tell from peoples photography who learnt on film and who did not.

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