Thursday, 25 March 2010

the digital vs film tennis match: advantage digital

I used to play tennis a lot back when I was in school and growing up. In tennis the scoring system at a tie point goes "advantage server" or "advantage reciever". If the opponents are well matched it could go on for ages.

As a person who loves film, but uses a digital camera perhaps more, I personally feel torn between digital and film cameras depending on the situation. Just as in tennis, if you're at a deuce you can't win a game by scoring a point from the serve, you have to score another point more.

This first point is called the advantage point, but you still have not won the game. This is just how I feel about Digital vs Film. Every time I find a point towards one, the other gives me a point back, bringing me back to deuce.

Overall digital seems to have the advantage (although it is not game set and match).

My friends sometimes ask me if I prefer film or digital. Perhaps they find that I'm using a film camera and knowing that I'm a camera gear head wonder why I'm not using digital ...

I tell them that depending on the situation that I may choose one or the other as they each have advantages, not everything looks like a nail so does not need a hammer (or a nail-gun).

For some reason people seem to want to be a "supporter" of one team, but to me that's just not how it works. Photography is not like football.

The advantage that digital has (in my view) is that the photographer has more control over the processes. While this can be a disadvantage, it means you can rule out things like:
  • finger prints on your negs
  • scratches on your negs
  • dreadful printing choices at the minilab (no, I wanted that to be black)
  • misunderstanding exposures (because people never look at their negs)
  • needing to own a film scanner
  • needing to learn how to scan
  • learning about colour profiles and management
  • calibrating your equipment

With a digital camera you can look on your PC and pick what you want, get them printed and never even think about fiddling with the images.

I think that its definitely at the point now where DSLR cameras like the Panasonic G1 or the Canon 550D (to name only two) can produce images which rival the best you can get with 35mm film (as a long time digital and film user I can say this is only a recent development. My Canon 20D was not superior to my 35mm EOS in terms of image quality). Out on a bright sunny day the difference between tripod mounted well focused and carefully executed images seems to show only a slight advantage to 35mm (see below).


This does make you wonder why you paid thousands for a digital camera when humble 35mm negative (which I bought from the supermarket) exposed via 30 year old technology would actually slightly out-class it.

... but of course you'd need the right gear and technique to get this advantage from the 35mm film, even if that gear wasn't actually expensive you need knowledge and technique.

With a image which is slightly fuzzy with motion blur from poor hand holding technique or poor focus you would not be able to tell which was which, so any advantage possible with the film will likely be lost due to poor capture or poor post processing of the film without experience and knowledge.

Some people make the argument that one is likely to learn better exposure and technique with a digital because of the immediate feedback to what you're doing (should you be interested in looking) ... again an advantage to digital, perhaps it makes a better student tool.

Plus (another advantage digital), without any effort at all the digital camera gives you a result with no more post processing than moving the file from the camera memory card to your computer.

Digital cameras also have features which help the photographer doing more challenging things to get the best results, such as live view and mirror-less through the lens focusing operation. This macro image below shows the failings created by mirror slap which just doesn't happen on a mirror-less camera like a Panasonic G1


the bottom half is the G1

So while on a good day I can get an image like this from my 35mm camera:

which I could not get with a digital at all ... I of course need to have a scanner to do it, because the middle men (minilabs and printers) will likely muff up their steps leaving me with an ugly print which (without experience) will make me think I've failed when I have not.

Experience and knowledge are needed to make the best from film, whereas digital can give any person a powerful tool with the ability to take and review their shots on the spot. With film if you don't know what you're doing you quite likely won't know you've fluffed it till well after the shot.

Especially in this day of used equipment film can actually be far more cost effective than digital, but if you don't know how to use it ... well ... you've lost that advantage.

Having experience and knowledge of my tools, I know that I can take my film equipment (and not 35mm, but 120 roll or 4x5) and go out and make images like this:

which there is no way I could get with digital even if I spend 10 times more. This is an advantage to me, but perhaps not to everyone.

Once you get your DSLR and start learning, the more you learn and the harder you press into post processing (HDRI, Stitching, ETTR) the more you start to learn things which will help you with film photography. Eventually even those raised on digital come to discover that film has some advantage and after they try it are almost hooked. Some even discuss giving up digital all together.

For me the digital offers so many advantages, that even though I love using a roll of neg in my 35mm camera (or sheets in my big camera) I would not choose to give up my G1 ... it is such a versatile image making tool. I can take some images (even only one) and then send that online to some place right away ... an advantage not possible with film.

But ultimately with so many knowing nearly nothing about photography (and dare I say even unwilling or uninterested to learn), simply wanting to "take pictures" this gives digital the advantage straight up.

so the score is advantage digital ...


Noons said...

"ultimately with so many knowing nearly nothing about photography (and dare I say even unwilling or uninterested to learn), simply wanting to "take pictures" this gives digital the advantage straight up."

Absolutely. And don't forget the mobile phone camera brigade: those simply don't care at all about quality of image, all they want is to look at the "cute small photo" while poking their heads at the same time at the screen... Which you can get with a 2MP sensor anyway...

Then again, those are the so-called "mass consumer market". Fortunately, there is also the market for folks like you, who are able to recognize where each method has its strengths and use them accordingly or as needed.

Or for folks like me who simply are too familiar with film use and its nuances to even bother investing deeply in digital-only. Although I must admit I draw the line at the darkroom: never enjoyed it. I prefer scanning, even with all its time disadvantages.

The important thing I guess is that there is a place for all of us.

Anonymous said...

interesting points

obakesan said...

"I prefer scanning, even with all its time disadvantages."

me too ... though I don't think that scanning has time disadvantages to conventional darkroom ... now there's a time sink!

Soundimageplus said...

"Photography is not like football." I can think of at least........ 10,000+ posts where that phrase would be appropriate.

Perhaps we could use your nail gun to put it somewhere people would take notice of it!