There Is No Argument Between Film and Digital Photography

Allerton Gardens, Kauai. A simple snapshot taken with a Contax G2, Zeiss 45mm Planar lens, on Ilford Pan F50, uploaded with a
Allerton Gardens, Kauai. A simple snapshot taken with a Contax G2, Zeiss 45mm Planar lens, on Ilford Pan F50, uploaded with a Canoscan 9000F Mark II at 4800 dpi.

Life is full of false dichotomies. Much of the conflict, personal and public, in the world develops from these misunderstandings. Here is an aesthetic example. Analog and digital are presented as opposites. In photography, the old school 35mm camera into which you loaded a roll of film is regarded as the antithesis of the new digital version with a sensor and software.

Yet the resurgence of film photography, among hipsters who inherited an SLR from their grandparents and professionals who have continued to use a medium format TLR for portraits, depends on technology. The blending of the vintage and the contemporary has always been and likely always will be a defining characteristic of our culture.

I am participating in the revival. I shoot film. I have done so since 1972, with long hiatuses. I was introduced to photography in a school “talented and gifted” program that was well-intentioned but overestimated my abilities and underestimated the stigma of being officially labeled as smart. In the darkroom, it was apparent that a five year old, however clever, was not patient enough to be immersing emulsions into chemicals without scratching the medium beyond repair. I took an undergraduate level course at an art school, when I was a generation older. It was that last moment, I can dimly recall, before the internet overwhelmed our lives. It seemed worthwhile then to learn even if daunting to master techniques such as dodging and burning, printing with an enlarger to represent reality as each of us envisioned it.

During a recent sabbatical, I took up photography again. I suppose it was inevitable that, in an obsessive manner, I would return to film too.

Here is why the choice between film and digital is not clear. No doubt there are purists who shoot film and develop it, before turning out hardcopy, without any post-processing to enhance colors and edit out distractions in the background. We will not know their work though, not if they insist on such discipline to the end, since it will be displayed only privately. Most of us have compromised. We scan negatives, upload them to Lightroom (the successor to Photoshop, a product successful enough to become a verb), and then manipulate a bit (literally). The intervention might not be as excessive as with a RAW file imported from a memory card. Nonetheless the workflow transitions from analog to digital, as if there were no distinction.

The integration of old and new extends beyond the creation of an image. Film photography is enabled by digital infrastructure. The equipment comes from the internet. The marketplace is magnitudes greater, cheaper, and more convenient, thanks to websites for buying, selling, and trading.

An education, product reviews, even a sense of community is based on videos produced by enthusiasts turned influencers, who command a million followers. Exploiting the “freemium” model, leading to books and private tutorials, they guide viewers through unboxing of gear, the rules of composition, and the physics of light. The very recording itself proves the significance of the contemporary mirrorless camera: ironically, they are raving about film photography by means of digital videography, transmitted via servers over the network. The experts take a test shot with a digital camera. The National Geographic magazine staffer who had the honor to use the last roll of Kodachrome spent days scoping out the possibilities for 36 pictures, and he tried out the options digitally in advance.

On social media, the #ishootfilm and #filmisnotdead hashtags, not to mention those for specific brands (even the particular speed, the ISO rating), are testament to film being promoted by a digital mode. There are even warnings not to attempt fraud. A photo purportedly taken with "redscale" film (rolled onto the spool inside out) is not supposed to be simulated with digital.

The point is that film and digital are not incompatible. The argument about which is “better” is based on an erroneous assumption that they must be measured according to the same scale. Film requires more skill for minimum competence; digital compels creativity to distinguish the iconic from the endless series of similar snapshots. Henri Cartier-Bresson captured the decisive moment through elegance, insight, and preparation. Any of us might mimic him by brute force, a lucky chance in the burst of dozens of shutter clicks.

In our pastimes such as photography we learn the life lessons that we miss in formal education. The analog and the digital can be brought together.

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