THE ZEN OF FILM vs. DIGITAL GRATIFICATION

- - Blog News

“Mulling it over, I couldn’t articulate it fully but definitely, I knew I had become lazy, really lazy. A spectacular sloth by the standards of shooting film. Film is hard. Film is a stone cold unforgiving killing bastard. Film is once in a lifetime, no excuses. F8 and really, really be there: ready, steady, in focus, correct exposure, and pressing the shutter in synch with life.”

via doug menuez 2.0: go fast, don’t crash

There Are 41 Comments On This Article.

  1. Mark Ellis

    So… my teachers always said, “Great pictures are made in the dark room.” Not sure film is a cold stone unless — you turn it all over to a mini lab.

    Great pictures are still made in the (digital) darkroom. I do however, miss the structure and physicality of film sometimes. Then, I get sane again and realize — life is better in PS.

  2. “But while you have your head down checking the LCD guess what? You just missed your pulitzer. That LCD is crack.”

    I’ve found this to be the most painful seduction of digital. I hate to recall of the great images I’ve missed by taking my eye off of the scene on onto the LCD. Like Doug, I’m training myself to only look at the LCD to make sure of correct exposure, and keep my eye on the ball.

    • @Tim,
      Try this exercise: grab a bit of gaffer tape and tape over that LCD for an afternoon of shooting. I did that recently and at first I nearly lost my mind. Then the old film mentality kicked back in and I started thinking about my exposure and a little more and trusting what I thought I knew about what I’d just shot.
      That said, I don’t miss the afternoons of nail biting while waiting for the E-6 run to come back.

  3. I miss the complete construction that was determined when shooting with positive film. However, after dealing with the chemistry contact and disposal (for which I had no ecological friendly solution) I am glad to have a mostly chemical-free way to practice this craft.
    I remember at my University we had a barrel full of fixer that was never removed from our premises. All the fixer, developer, stop bath, and all of the color processing chemicals in the Jobo machine went down the drain and eventually into our streams and lakes. At the time, it bothered me less than it does now.
    Film is certainly more final than digital, and its inflexibility put the pressure on photographers to perform as accurately as possible. Its use had negative consequences too, however.

  4. Dig the subject, and the replies. I started in film. It was like Christmas back in the day (and still is whenever I shoot film) getting the proof sheets back from the lab. Most times I would spread them around in the car (seats, dashboard) and study them while driving home. Couldn’t wait to pour over the images, to see if I’d gotten the shot.

    Now…I know, and can keep firing until I get it if I missed that decisive moment. Got that little screen on the back of the camera. But I’ve learned a hard lesson – that having the temptation of a little screen to look at (or shooting tethered) completely destroys my communication with the model and my non-verbal sense of being in the moment that made me want to shoot in the first place. That tft screen is a huge temptation, equal parts tool and distraction. BTW, in response to one of the comments above, computers are pretty freakin’ toxic as well.

    • @Dave,

      Regarding the statement about the toxicity of computers vs those in film processing: I’m not sure that that is a fair statement. Consider 10-20 rolls of medium format black and white film per job x however many jobs a photographer pulls in a year x 16 oz of developer, fixer, stop bath per roll (plus more for color) delivered straight into the sewage system vs. a photographers rig of, say 2 Computers + Laptop + Camera which will eventually be disposed of, but not yearly and with a negligible fraction of the toxicity of the gallons of chemical waste from film processing. In comparing the two evils, I was compelled to refute this argument and defend my initial case that digital has allowed photographers to pursue an artistic craft without taking such a toll on the water system.

      As a point of concession, photographers should meet the burden of recycling their computers+monitors+batteries+ink cartridges. That’s a good point. I am guilty of not practicing what I’m preaching, so I guess I better get on the boat and zip my lip.

  5. I often wonder if digital has invited me to be too precise. Part of making good pictures – for me anyway – is a bit of the embrace of chaos of reacting and making a shot without the chance for too much analysis. Being unable to analyze it on the LCD meant that there had to be a level of “trust your gut” when shooting.
    Too much thought leaves open the possibility of mucking up the natural response. Funny trying to find the balance.

  6. When I’m in the studio I like to shoot with a film camera and a digital camera for numerous reasons. I prefer the look of film and the process, it’s honest, I need to work precisely and not have the “I’ll fix it in post” attitude. On the other hand digital gives me instant feedback so I know I got the shot, the exposure is correct and it serves as a backup in case something goes terribly wrong with the film.

    I never chimp once I’ve got the exposure set, there’s no need to and it pulls you away from the subject, it would be like the subject sending a text message after every shot I take—I’d get turned off.

    For me nothing beats the excitement of getting the film back from the lab or (in the case of black and white film) pulling the film out of the reels and hanging them to dry—it’s like Christmas morning!

    • @Matthew McMullen Smi, Yes, it WAS always a thrill to unroll the film from the real and see that you nailed the shot. Sometimes I took a peek after the fix.

      (at the risk of sounding like someone’s grandfather), I’m reminded of something that happened when I was a student photographer in the PR department at my college. Two other photographers had been playing practical jokes on each other, one was a bit more sensitive than the other. I’d shot a few assignments that day and knew I had some really good, portfolio quality images.

      I’d pushed HP-5 to 1600 and processed my film, I forget now which processor I used. As I unrolled the film from the reel, I felt a big lump in my gut as each frame was BLANK! Turns out, the more sensitive photographer had replaced the processor with water and the fix stage just washed away all the emulsion. Needles to say, I was PISSED!!!!!

      I don’t miss film.

  7. Poetic, but “not sure I agree yer police work 100% there” (Fargo reference).

    Here’s one solution. It gets a bit Dogme 95 but it works:

    Supplies:
    1 (one) piece of 2″ wide gaffer tape, 2.5″ long.
    512MB CF Cards (one of each roll of film you plan on shooting)
    1 (one) copy of the image processing software of your choice.
    1 (one) photo quality inkjet printer with ink and media of your choice.

    Instructions:
    Tape screen.
    Shoot card.
    Change.
    Download cards (no peeking).
    Batch process folder.
    Print contact sheet.

    Presto. Just like film.

  8. Feedback is a confidence builder. Anyone with a slight bit of doubt enjoys digital capture. Even then, I find it ironic that with all the advances in exposure control and automation, people still find a need to take a look at the LCD and confirm whether it all worked as was indicated. Intuition has been removed for some, and I don’t see that as progress.

    We live in a time and culture of instant gratification, to the point that some expect our tools and work practices to constantly deliver that instant gratification. Twitter allows us to find out in near real time the various sublime details of those we know, or want to claim we know well. I can imagine a future when all we shoot passes the memory card and becomes a near real time upload, and then the virtual art directors viewing our websites and data feeds will click and choose the path of our progress … or the lack of it.

    I still have to wonder if any of this is really “better”, or if that convenience and instant gratification has overcome all other comparisons. Going somewhere else to eat would be more convenient, yet why do I still enjoy cooking? Walking somewhere makes me feel better than driving, despite the added time and in-convenience of walking, but should I feel guilty for choosing the slower approach? Film is definitely slower than digital capture, by any measure, but should I feel guilty for using it?

  9. I wonder home many “photographers” would be out there if the digital age came crashing around our ears and we had to just use film again. I have my background in film and still shoot it for my persoal work. When I mentioned to this to a model she cringed at the thought of not being about to see (the back) of the camera to see if she likes it. Huh? What about having faith in the photographer? Having control is also part of that instant gratification; the wanting to see the LCD right after the “capture” drives me nuts and makes the flow of the session stutter at times. So I told the model I sometimes backup the session(s) of my personal film work with digital. She seemed a bit relieved when she heard this but now I’m questioning whether or not I’d want to shoot with such a subject.

  10. couldn’t agree with you more…

    I love film… I love the discipline it imposes…

    I love the tactile feel of it… looking through it on a light box or shining light through it onto paper…

    Oh and the joy of watching a print come up in the fixer…

    What the digital only generation have missed…

    I think there is something magical in film, and encourage all photographers to get to know it, love it and grow from it…

    May there be a fantastic resurgence in it… and may all those lovely old cameras find life again… in a new life.

    Great post… thanks..

    Len

  11. All this romanticizing about film.

    It always cracks me up how people long for the discipline and structure that film gave you. If you want to be disciplined with digital, then do it. No one is forcing you to chimp after every shot, or to review your shots all the time.

    I shoot digital exclusively, and only shot film for a short time as a hobby, so I don’t have this fascination for the process that some do. I don’t feel the need to check my shots unless I know I’m shooting in marginal conditions, and I’m checking to see if I need to adjust my exposure. I will review them periodically to make sure I got the shots I’m looking for so I can get them before I leave (why leave a shoot without knowing that you got what you came for?).

  12. Oswald Bates

    I miss the practical jokes you could play on film shoots. I remember assisting a photographer I had assisted a couple of times before, so I knew his humor threshold, and I got him with one of my favorites. Right after we were done with his portrait and the subject had left, I was emptying the magazines and numbering the rolls and I had a dead roll in my pocket, so I would cut the tape loose unwind it quite a bit and then proceed to drop the roll of film right in front of him watching in horror as it spooled out on to the ground while I was doing my best fumbling act trying hard to look astonished. Then when he was about to unload his wrath on me I would just pull out the shot film and say, Just Kidding. Yeah those were the days.

  13. I remember in the late 80’s returning from my photo shoots and dropping my chromes at USA Today’s front office in DC.
    The tic tac of time for the film to be process had to be one of the worse feelings for any photographer. Once my fresh dry film was out of the darkroom and safe on the editors light table, then I could be me.

    Until that moment it had been a full roller coaster of emotions, x fingers and prayers. Did I screw up? Was the light perfect? My best frame sharp…will they call me again?

    But once that film rested nicely, warmly and dry on that glossy light table it was HALLELUJAH! Then finally my breathing would get back to normal while my fast racing heart had shifted from 5th gear all the way down to 2nd and 1st gear.
    But those days, when only our eyes were the only window of LCD, did teach me discipline and to get the shoot right and ready for my clients.

    With the arrival of top digital gears those days seem like so far behind, or the way we feel when we watch “Gone With the Wind” or “Citizen Kane.”

    Yet still today all my fine arts, doc work and some gigs are done with black and white film.
    There is something special about personal work and fine arts.
    Maybe is the ghost of Ansel Adams, W.E. Smith, Weston, Lange, Cartier-Bresson and tthose masters. Or maybe.. just maybe.. it has to do with pre focus, F8 and really be there.

    Manuello Paganelli
    Los Angeles CA

  14. Very interesting & thought-provoking article. I too have grappled with this ‘tension’ for a LONG LONG TIME ….

    I’ve taken a slightly different approach to get to the ‘root’ of the problem … Started ‘pinholing’ a decade ago. Make all my own cameras now, do my own darkroom work and never use FILM, just work with light sensitive paper & the Sun. One shot per box. It has been a TREMENDOUS addition to my interaction with Time & Space. Absolutely MUST slow down and LOOK carefully, quietly, attentively. It has completely redefined my relationship to the ‘external’ world. Overall, this process has made me much more ‘accepting’, and less ‘demanding’ of ‘what’s out there’. This has been a Life-enhancing & important ‘adjustment’ to my ‘other’ photography & fine art work.

    For me though, the PROBLEM with photography as a ‘creative process’ is that, AT CORE, it is still all about ‘taking’, not ‘making’, regardless of all the post ‘moment-is-us’ song & dance … Meaning, how many photographers will ADMIT the SUPERIOR eye-hand-mind co-ordination required by a ‘simple’ artist using just a pencil? In my experience, very very few. The gluttonous & insatiable hunger for NEW images endlessly feeds feeble imaginations. The dialectic and the FLOW is consumptive, not creative. And that, at core, is the EXISTENTIAL PROBLEM, from my p.o.v.

    Photographic manufacturers, in particular, and ‘mass media’, in general, cater to our innate hubris, arrogance & insecurities. Let’s not kid ourselves here. Ain’t nothing very ‘zen’ about any of it … imho.

    Best to you.

    • @canadada, Nicely stated. Reminds me why I continue to draw. I started out in fine art, with painting and drawing. That foundation and approach is still there in my commercial photography. I could go to a location and paint or draw it, or photograph it.

        • scott Rex Ely

          @canadada, “The gluttonous & insatiable hunger for NEW images endlessly feeds feeble imaginations.”
          I love that . I would add, with an entitlement mentality. I think there is some duality there on the part of the viewing audience as well. Another troubling aspect to digital, is the idea that once we get something to stick after throwing useless garbage at the wall, frame, after frame, after frame, we can simply just go back and decipher the data and apply it like it’s a plug-in for our new found aesthetic. Not a very organic learning process in my mind. More of a prosthetic aesthetic. Thanks for sharing.

          • @scott Rex Ely, I’m not so sure I would subscribe to the ‘elitist’ argument, ie. entitlement mentality. There is no question that the medium has redefined much of how we ALL think. Subject or object.

            Just yesterday I was chatting with a seasoned photog who said sometimes he feels in a ‘black & white’ mood, sometimes ‘colour’ … well, that got me thinking. What EXACTLY is he saying here? Are our THOUGHTS black & white? No, they aren’t.

            Maybe he is trying to articulate a distinction between the subtle calibrations of thought-filled FEELINGS? Perhaps he is suggesting that ‘b&w’ (or monotone) are more indicative of a ‘reasoning’, distanced, more ‘objective’ MIND and that, on the other hand, ‘colour’ represents the solicitations and shaded manifestation of EMOTIONS? Not sure.

            What I find MORE fascinating is that he was so quick to use the visible spectrum to describe his overall State of Being, ie. ‘mood’. I, personally, would have expected a greater overall ‘objectivity’. But again, I think this is indicative of how deeply photography has become an extension of our Selves.

            In that sense, it IS increasingly organic … (though I did like your turn of phrase – “of a prosthetic aesthetic”….)

            It’s, in part, why I find ‘older’ people so fascinating. They literally THINK differently. They have not had the same plug-in, add-on “prosthetic aesthetics”.

            The only comparable un-plugged ‘mind set’ can be found in those who can’t afford the technology, or just aren’t interested …

            Best to you.

            • @canadada, The camera points both ways. If one were an elitist, then that would come through in the images, regardless of camera in use. I don’t buy into that suggestion either; there is no entitlement mentality apparent amongst the photographers I know.

              B&W is a separate issue. When I was only photographing reference images for my paintings, I always chose B&W film so that the colours would not influence my paint choices. To me that was always technical, and not emotionally based.

              On the rare gig that I can photograph in B&W, the choice might be mood, but it has more to do with conveying a mood of the subject. The camera still points both ways, but like Avedon mentioned, there is always an interaction of photographer and subject, and neither is completely in control.

  15. I work with a lot of young photographers and I was taken aback the first time I heard one of them tell me that they had never shot film before. Weird.

  16. I don’t feel film and digital in competition, at least for me.
    They are simply different mediums, just like watercolors or oil in painting.
    When I want to get a shot with THAT look, I have to use film, there’s no digital manipulation that could provide the balance of colors of a Velvia or the grain of a Trix.
    Of course this has to be calibrated to an assignment one get, most of the times you have very close deadlines, as the customers want the images the soonest possible, and limited budgets.
    But these are just practical choices, just like everything else equipment related.
    When I have plenty of time, or I shoot just for fun, film is still my first choice.

  17. Dave Henderson

    I didn’t shoot film for nearly a decade and in fact barely picked up a camera in that time. A couple of years ago I got into digital and that’s re-awakened my interest in film. I slow right down when I’m using film, making sure and re-checking before I press that shutter button. It’s the old “measure twice, cut once” mantra from engineering coming out, and I’m reasonably sure, most of the time, that the pic I shot is pretty much the pic I’m going to see at the end of the process – abeit with slight differences that make it more interesting.
    I love digital for the quick feedback and ease of getting an image out there, but film still has a serious magic about it.
    Now, I’m buying some old folders and cameras of the decades of the 20th Century, just to try out and compare and to see for myself the kind of thing that ordinary photographers had to put up with in term of their equipment.

  18. I do agree with A. Guerrani. They are different tools. I wouldn’t shoot certain things in digital and wouldn’t others in digital. One thing I can say is that I like more to shoot film than digital. For some reason shooting a mechanical camera with film is much better than a digital camera with High performances. I think is just a matter of taste, of psychology. But then again is also a mater of result. If I want grain or not. If I want certain colors or others. I fI want latitude or contrast etc…

  19. Wasn’t this the most over-written topic of every photo message board, circa 2003?

  20. Much ado about nothing, and in 2009 very old news. Let’s get over it. If you want to shoot film, shoot film. If you want to, or must, shoot digital then pretend it’s film if doing so makes you a more disciplined shooter. If a photographer was already disciplined because he/she was used to shooting film and has become less so the problem lies with the photographer, not with the technology. Enough already.

  21. I think it comes down to how one categorizes themselves as a photographer. It seems to me more fine artists prefer film whether it be 35mm or plate, commercial and studio photographers prefer digital. I like the serendipity of film, of concentrating on whats in front of me. I deal with out of students and when faced with the use of film and darkroom they learn what sort of photographers they are. Usually it’s a bit disappointing.
    I don’t see anything wrong with shooting both. I do. There are merits to both and detractions to both. Film is a niche. If history is any sort of guide, we will see a resurgence of film like we are with vinyl records.

    • Debra Weiss

      @phyllis,

      Categorization is dangerous when it comes to photography. The “photography gallery” solidified the distinction between art and photography. It is never the camera that is responsible for creating the art. It is how the artists choose to express themselves that should determine which tool to use as it is a different experience between the two.

      And many, many photographers still shoot with film.

  22. I was talking from my own experience; what and who I deal with on a day to day basis. I have known many photographers who do rely on the camera and subsequent gear to make the photograph. Do I agree with them? No. There is a lot of GAS in this industry though, especially where digital is concerned. Personally it sickens me. I actually had a student who said with disgust, I need a new camera I’ve done everything I could with this one. Where would she have been if she only had a K1000?
    Categorization can be dangerous only if you let yourself be trapped by it. In my opinion one can look at the majority of their work and say most of it falls into commercial, fine art, street, etc. Yes there are fine lines that often get blurred, as they should.
    I might have a more salt of the earth view of this argument because my main job is photo retail in a store that caters to pros, students, the common person and fine artists, and like it or not there are patterns. I can only make observations of trends I see. That’s exactly what I did.

    • Debra Weiss

      @phyllis,

      Sorry – I was speaking more to the distinction between art and photography. There are, of course, different types of photographers, just as there are different types of painters. Digital photography is more prevalent among commercial photographers because it is requested by the client as they get to see immediate results and believe it will cost them less. Unfortunately, because of poor business practices, that too often becomes a reality at the expense of the photographer. Many photographers, even when wanting to shoot film, will not even suggest the option to the client so as not to make waves.

      As to those who need to rely on the camera and gear – I guess that’s one way to spot the difference between those who take the pictures and those who make them.

  23. Captain Obvious

    Digital makes *getting good* much easier, and the quantity of good images available now shows not only that individuals are more prolific in digital, but also that a much higher percentage of the population can make good images nowadays than was the case in the Kodachrome days.

    Getting from good to awesome, however, requires stopping the mindlessness and automatism that substitutes for deeper progress.

    That’s a self-discipline/self-command thing.

    Back in the day, most people who tried photography ended up with a camera they never used ( after the initial fun ), and didn’t understand:
    having feedback be not only after the 4-minute short-term-recall, but after this entire WEEK, blew progress ( not just swift progress, but progress itself! ) for most people.

    As far as I’m concerned, claiming that film produces better images than digital is chauvanistic BS because technically it can’t ( not least because it wasn’t ever as flat as a sensor… or repeatable… ), and because one’s *process* is *one’s choice*.

    ( it *isn’t* involuntary:

    one can choose to chimp instead of focusing on the subject,

    one can choose to let the digi-snappy-thingy do the thinking for one instead of deciding on the way to pull together the shot…

    it’s *all* available, and pretending one “can’t” do it is unlimitedly false )

    IF we as a race are inherently spineless, and “can’t” make the time to compose a shot without our means forcing us to, then we entirely deserve the results ( because I don’t buy it ).

    Cheers,

    • @Captain Obvious, most people shooting today don’t understand their digi cameras either…but thats their “joy”.
      They don’t have to..and they can still get an image to come up.That couldn’t work back in the day with a film camera.A “GOOD” or “AWESOME” image is subjective,that said saying it’s much easier is a bit off..The advent of digital has just produced a ton of mediocre imagery at best….and a sea of retouching zombies.Whats with the bronze skin tones and ultra blue eyes….dramatically dark skys???it’s boring and phony….More truth less art!In the end it has nothing really to do with the camera..everything to do with intention/eye….My five year old takes better pics than most people on this blog.

  24. Obvious, I think you might have proved my point. Being film was non repeatable you had to develop your eye with quickly. I’m glad I learned using film and not digital. As for film not being better then digital, I don’t agree. Have you ever used 8×10 or 4×5 ?

  25. Lew the Cynic

    Great discussion and I’m sorry I’m coming in late.
    I have noticed the sometimes ‘undeserved’ elitism of film.
    People assuming that, because they went to all the effort of getting their lousy, underexposed muddy shots using film somehow that elevated the images from crap to gold.

    • @Lew the Cynic,It has nothing to do with the “medium”.It is the eye…period.I just switched to digital(it has it’s pros and cons like anything else) after 20 yrs of weilding a pentax 6×7 and other various film cameras.One can take a great picture with an Olympus Pen half frame and a roll of t-max that has been sitting in the sun for a year.I’ll tell you what digital has helped create….A WORLD OF HACKS !Many folks shooting now would have walked up to the precipice of film and turned away.Now they walk up and say hey it aint so daunting.With the advent of photoshop we now have retouch junkies..simply because it’s at their finger tips…Most of the so called photography out there today really should be classified as PHOTO ILLUSTATION.

  26. Lew the Cynic

    @Dumbass, I imagine that experts in wet-collodian thought that those who used dry process plates were hacks who weren’t suffering enough to be artists.

    The process is completely irrelevant to the final end product. Make better pictures, don’t worry about how other people do it.

    And yes, photography isn’t so daunting, and why should it be? If I wanted to suffer physically to be an artist, I’d buy a block of marble and and a chisel.

  27. Nozar Kishi

    The difference between Film and Digital is not the output (i.e., the process and picture) but the input (i.e., the camera and photography).

    Two differences between the two:
    ONE: That damn LCD screen that makes photography more picking the right picture than taking (let alone making) it. That back-and0-foth switch from viewfinder to screen, as if it is a part of photography action. With the screen you dont think, but pick. No pre-visualization, as the would-be result is right there. The good is that it is effortless; the bad is that, creativity dies.
    TWO: That damn immediate looking at the results that makes you examine the result at the very time that you are in the vicinity of the subject (object!). WEith film, you look at the results way later, with a different mindset and mood, and therefore chance for mutation and looking/searching differently).

    I wouldn’t care if film or digital, but only if my digital camera did not have an LCD (yes, you can turn it off, but the very possibility of turning it on bothers every second; and only if I couldn’t see the result until at least I get back home. If such camera is builts, then it is better than film, since digital is cheap.