Rationalizing Film in a Digital World - A Question of Application
If I really prefer film over digital, then why do I mostly work with digital on this blog? Simply put, working in the digital format offers my workflow certain advantages.
It offers more certainty in documentation, given electronic verification in review.
It's more forgiving, given disk storage to accommodate shots beyond 36 exposures.
It has no lag time in gratification, since it does not require developing and digitizing.
It can be shared almost instantaneously, given wifi synchronization.
That said, it doesn't mean that digital is better. All it means is digital has certain advantages over film in certain applications.
In this ongoing debate between film and digital photography, what many fail to understand is the issue of application. In other words, film and digital aren't meant to be used the same way in the present. Still, it's inconceivable for many that there are times when it makes more sense to use film, given how appealing digital capture is in everyday use. I mean, just look at the limitations inherent to an analog workflow. It's uncertain, deliberate, and slow.
And yet many still cling on to the belief that film is better, hoping beyond hope that it will never die. We make subjective arguments supporting the virtue of the medium. But seldom is there ever a convincing argument that truly demonstrates why film is better than digital - or to say it more correctly - why film offers an advantages that cannot be substituted by digital capture. In my opinion, that is the standard that needs to be met.
But if we adopt the contemporary approach of comparing analog capture from the perspective of digital norms, film will always be at a disadvantage. In terms of the modern workflow, how could film ever reach the standard expected of digital capture? It requires skill to overcome uncertainty, decisiveness to make each frame count, determination to accept additional steps in processing, and patience to endure the lag before sharing.
So where exactly is the advantage that film has over digital capture? Surprisingly, the edge can be found in its flexibility. Admittedly, this may seem to fly in the face of logic, given how much better high ISO and dynamic range of digital capture is generally assumed to be. But, what's often overlooked in appreciating digital capture is the limitations presented by fixed sensors. With a digital image capturing device, you're stuck with one digital sensor.
Therein lies the core weakness of digital capture devices. Because they only have one digital sensor to interpret the world it's tasked to document, it must be able to sufficiently handle every foreseeable light conditions thrown its way. In doing so, the sensor is designed to systemically reproduce an adequate color match, which in turn is tasked to mimic real life - in raw capture - to as true as reality as possible. This is a technological limitation.
In order to deal with color balance under varied shooting environment, the image sensor isn't designed to optimize any light condition. In that way, a digital sensor can be looked upon as a jack of many trades, but a master of no particular situation. So when compared to film capture, digital sensors are noticeably more limited in how it deals with color balance, given its uniform approach in mimicking reality.
Film on the other hand was never designed to mimic reality. That wouldn't have made sense, from a business perspective. If film were designed to mimic reality, then all film stock would essentially be the same. But that isn't the case. In an effort to be profitable, film manufacturers designed film to go beyond mimicking reality by enhancing it. Because of that, the color and tonal bias between film stocks are distinct from one another, for the sake of product differentiation.
Some film stock are weighted more reddish in tone, while others more yellow. Some can be more saturated, while others more contrasty. Some might even be flatter to offer a more pleasing look for portraitures. Clearly, film offers more options. And when that is understood, it's puzzling why anyone wouldn't choose film. Film enhances reality which is an advantage it has over digital - being a medium that merely mimics reality in raw capture.
But again, digital capture offers more certainty, is more forgiving, and is much more convenient in providing instant gratification. For most enthusiasts and recreational photographers, forgoing the creature comforts of digital capture is really too much to expect for the sake of enhancements in rendering. As such, having better tonality or color saturation isn't worth seeking, if it means the image cannot be shared right away.
When framed from that perspective, it becomes clear that both film and digital capture offer different advantages. Because of their respective traits, it means that both mediums are better suited for different applications. With digital capture, which offers more certainty, forgiveness, and convenience, it is a better medium of communication. And with film, which offers more flexibility in enhancing reality, it is a better medium of expression.
In my opinion, the difference between the two medium is undeniable. It's clear that limitations in technology prevents film from being a better medium of communication, or digital from being a better medium of expression. And once that is understood, it no longer makes any sense to use digital capture as a medium of expression, or analog capture as a medium of communication. I mean I could, but it wouldn't be the most optimal approach.
That said, many do use digital capture as a medium of expression. There are no rule saying it can't be done. But given how digital sensors tend to approach color balance in various light conditions with more compromise - for the sake of mimicking reality - using digital capture as a medium of expression does seem rather limiting. I mean, you're basically not taking advantage of a variable in documentation that could very well enhance your image capture.
Of course one could always sidestep the use of film by resorting to software or filters to mimic an analog rendering. But in my opinion, that seems rather disingenuous. The uniqueness in rendering of analog capture is an artifact resulting from that process. Because of that, tweaking a digital image file to emulate the look of film is a miscarriage of expression. If one really wants the look of film, one should really shoot film.
Besides, it's impossible to tweak digital images to emulate film capture. The color combination typical of film is too non-linear in weighting to be duplicated, by conventional means, on digital capture that is inherently linear in color balance. The only way to do that is to painstakingly edit color by hand with a brush tool. That said, there's always the filter option. But since it's only an adjustment layer on top of a digital file, it's even less genuine given how it degrades the original image.
In that way, I suppose that's why film has never died. Film is uniquely different in look from digital capture. It offers advantages that enhances personal expression. But unfortunately, it's no longer as widespread and as varied in options as it once was - before the rise of digital photography. Yet despite the headwinds, analog photography is still here, being practiced and promoted by film makers, studio photographers, and those seeking an edge in expression.
Still, that doesn't mean that film is better than digital photography. Speaking for myself, I know I will continue to use digital images on this blog, given the timeliness and convenience of a digital workflow. Also worth mentioning, I will never use film for the sake of communication. That is not to say I can't. We all did at one time before digital capture became the norm. But film is no longer expected to be used for that application anymore.
I mean it makes no sense wasting a single lasting frame to capture anything in passing that will likely be deleted after its first share - given the finite nature of film and the effort involved in using it. By comparison, the consequence of digital capture isn't as lasting. For that reason, this makes digital capture ideally suited as a medium for communication. In that way, I suppose that’s why smart phones exist.
In conclusion, if what you’re photographing doesn’t matter, shoot digital. If what you’re photographing does matter, also shoot digital. But if what you’re photographing is something you want to do, then shoot film. When film is shot correctly, it never disappoints.
Every image has been tweaked in post on Adobe Lightroom. This includes minor cropping, leveling, and some vertical and horizontal straightening. Color balance has not been altered. Film negatives have all been digitized on a Pakon F135 scanner. Gear used for this post is the same as last week.
The roll of Kodak Portra 160 may have been exposed too often to X-rays at TSA checkpoints. I don't know how that roll got into my bag. It's a roll of film that I've accidentally been carrying during my travels. I thought it was a new roll of Kodak Portra 400. I really should do a better job checking what film I'm loading into the camera.