Digital vs. Film: Which is Better?
by Sarah Fox

Is digital better than film or vice versa? This seems to be the question of the day. I have entered into many a heated discussion about this subject and have decided this is a "frequently asked" sort of topic that deserves its own article. I feel I am qualified to address it because I have done advanced work in both media. Although I admit my preference is for digital photography, I would also be well entertained with a film camera, a few 100' spools of film, and a darkroom. (My darkroom equipment waits for me in the attic.) I've always loved photography, both film and digital.

First, I think it's fair to say that digital photography is more versatile than film photography. This is something about which film photographers probably agree. One has only to look at the extraordinary variety of photographic styles in the digital realm that would be difficult or impossible to execute with film and paper in a darkroom. In addition to all the "way out" stuff to which film purists traditionally object, there are a number of digital photographers whose style is largely similar between the two media choices. This variety of photography can be achieved either way.

By contrast, there very little that can be achieved with film that cannot be duplicated or mimicked with digital postprocessing. The one area where film excels is in lengthy time exposures. While digital circuits tend to drift and become unstable with long exposures, film remains perfectly stable for exposures as long as desired -- even months. The only shortcoming of film is called reciprocity failure, in which there must be two photon strikes in close spatial and temporal proximity to expose the media. As a result, exposure times must be lengthened for very long exposures, as though there is much less light. However, this is far preferable to the digital alternatives. What alternatives? Well, multiple long exposures can be stacked and summated to synthesize a very long and relatively noise free exposure. So there's still a way with either medium.

Many film photographers point out rightly that there is a certain "look" or "feel" to film images that they particularly like. They feel that digital images appear flat and characterless. However, someone skilled in digital postprocessing can easily create any look to an image, including the look of any number of films. In my own black and white postprocessing work, I tend to impose very film-like tonal curves (which I do like). These curves are often reminiscent of early and mid 20th Century films.

Then films have grain structure that is more prominent than digital noise. Some people really like the grain, and some don't. I usually don't. However, that doesn't mean the look can't be created. If a digital camera has sufficient resolution, the grainy Tri-X look that people cherished in the 1970's is very easy to produce. Although I am not traditionally a fan of Tri-X images, I have shot many extreme-ISO images that become very Tri-X-like when the single-pixel noise is eliminated. Oddly, the grain/noise of these images has grown on me somewhat. I never thought that would happen! There have also been instances in which I would need to composite a film image with digital content. To do this credibly requires the creation of noise that matches the film grain structure. My film/digital composites appear to be 100% film.

Many people like to fuss about which print is superior -- digital or film. That's hard to answer, because film processing these days can be almost anything. The negative can be optically enlarged and printed on photo-sensitive papers (chromogenic, silver halide, etc.), or it can be scanned/digitized and sent to a printer -- usually a professional ink jet printer with pigment inks, but also commonly dye sublimation. It can even be sent to a laser or LCD enlarger and printed as though through an optical enlarger on photo-sensitive papers. Complicating things further, digital printing has these exact same output options, except that printing on photo-sensitive papers must be done with a laser or LCD enlarger. People like to think the differences between these prints and processes are as clear as night and day, but they are generally unable to tell one print type from another or express a preference in agreement with their stated bias. Properly done and protected with a photographic lacquer top coat, all these prints are all quite lovely. The pigment prints do have extraordinary longevity, though, far outlasting chromogenic and dye sub, and somewhat outlasting silver halide.

I suppose I still haven't answered the question of which is better -- digital or film! Sorry you asked? Well, perhaps I should get to the point? OK, my answer is neither. That's right, neither! What is important -- the ONLY thing that is important -- is the photographer.

If that photographer is you, then perhaps the above discussion will clarify the relative capabilities of the media for you, so that you can assess for yourself which medium (or combination) may be better for you. And don't forget, part of the decision of what is good for you should involve figuring out what you enjoy doing. Some people can't stand sitting at a computer, and other people can't stand being in a dark, smelly room for hours on end. Do what you enjoy, and your photography will be better for it.

If you are looking to hire a photographer or buy his or her artwork, rest assured a good photographer can use either medium and produce good work and will have already chosen the tools methods that work best for his or her workflow. Judge the photographer and his or her work by what you see in the final image/print and nothing more. It is absolutely irrelevant whether an image was burned to film and paper or encoded on a digital sensor and pigment printed, as long as you like what is before your eyes. That's the point of good photography, isn't it -- to enjoy the final product, and be happy?

In all fairness, I suppose there is this thing called the "value" of a work of art. What makes art valuable? Some would argue that value lies in the fact it is hand-crafted. However, many works of art are machine reproduced, for instance through serography, and nobody questions their value. Some would say it's that the artist is dead, but that's not true so much for photography. (Besides which, I'm not killing myself for anyone. But if it helps anyone to appreciate my artwork, I'm starting to get up in age, and my right knee bothers me a bit!) I would argue that most photographic art, just like most art of any media, has little collector value, per se, unless it is by an unusually notable artist whose name you might find with a lengthy Wikipedia article attached.

In my opinion, as an artist, what makes art valuable is its value to you, personally. If it speaks to you, it's valuable. If part of that value you place in a print has to do with how it was created, then you already have your answer. However, I think I am safe in saying that there is little difference between media types with regard to collecting value. It is far more important whether the print is signed, how many prints there are in a run, and mostly whether the artist is incredibly famous.

I hope I've made this emotional issue a bit less murky. In the end, I think people get themselves worked up over much of nothing. Art is to be enjoyed, and to me it's as simple as that.

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