This isn’t going to be one of those posts that makes out one as better than the other, nor will it be any kind of scientific analysis. Instead I just wanted to talk a bit about my rather limited experience with analog photography and see if perhaps I can give you a new perspective and inspire you to try something different.
Shooting film started as an experiment for me but by now I’ve realized that it’s something I want to do a lot more of. Ironically it was my digital camera that first got me a bit curious, probably because of the retro design and completely different feeling from shooting with a DSLR. Using an analog camera is again vastly different from any digital camera out there, as are the results produced by it.
This will all be from the perspective of a serious hobby photographer who doesn’t do any darkroom work himself. Also, all the analog shots were taken with a Hasselblad 500 c/m and Kodak Portra 400. So, let’s look a bit closer at the differences.
I’m sure you can see the differences for yourself without me pointing them out to you…but I’m going to do some pointing anyway. First, let’s try to ignore the fact that the digital shot is lit with flash. The two major things that lets you identify the film shot as something different are the colour and ‘the look’.
Colour is easy enough to understand. All films have their own distinct colour but it’s not quite as simple as that. The colour also varies depending on the lighting conditions, exposure, developing process and how they’re scanned (if you intend to digitize them). Suffice to say is that the same film can produce very different results. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, it’s simply part of the charm with film. Whatever the results you get, I think it’s safe to say that most people who shoot film doesn’t do any major changes to colour in post production, there’s just no need since you already choose the film that gives you the colours you want.
Digital is a completely different beast when it comes to colour. Most photographers who are more serious than your average holiday snap-shooter will do some or a lot of work in post production. I know it’s taken me at least 3 years to get to a point where I’m starting to be consistent and happy with the colours in my photos. Most cameras also produce a very similar base line for the raw files and we have to decide what to do with that. I’m not going to discuss jpegs since that would just confuse things further. The point here is that the images straight from a digital camera are often quite flat and a bit boring, they need some coaxing to get the results we want. On the other hand the raw data they provide is very flexible and easy to manipulate, so the photographer can realize whatever vision she has.
The second major factor I mentioned was the mysterious ‘look’ of film. Colour is certainly a part of the look but I’m talking about something different here. In the case of my own photography we have the difference of a small crop sensor compared to a medium format one. Even if I was to get a full frame camera, that sensor would still be small compared to medium format and it would cost me an arm and a leg. In fact, in the analog world, 35mm film, which is the same size that we call full frame in the digital world, is referred to as small format film. The difference in size of the sensor gives the photos a completely different look, most notably in the way focus falls off and the shallow DOF it can create. A bigger sensor also means more dynamic range, which means it can hold detail in both the highlights and the shadows in a way that’s just glorious.
There’s more to the look though. With digital you get a rather clean and crisp image where everything seems well defined. With film you get a much more organic look. It’s difficult to put into words but look closely at the images and you’ll see subtleties in the way the light interacts with the scene, the transitions between highlights and shadows, the way details are preserved without things being overly sharp. These are things I’ve never really seen to this extent in digital photos. I’m not saying that film is better, it’s just very different and I’m in love with that difference. Oh, and of course grain plays a part in it as well.
Another thing that sets digital and film apart is that film is much more prone to mistakes. You can often get some interesting surprises when shooting film since you don’t know what you’ve captured before you get your negatives back.
When I took the above photo I had first forgotten to attach the cable from the camera to the radio trigger for my flashes. Now, had I done something similar with my digital camera, I would simple have shrugged my shoulders, fixed it and taken another shot. However, with my 500 c/m I only have 12 frames per roll and every frame costs money. So, instead of writing the frame off as lost, I removed the back from the camera (the part that holds the film), cocked the shutter (an action that would normally advance the film), replaced the back and then exposed the same frame of film again. This worked pretty well since it was a shot mostly lit by flash, which meant that the first exposure didn’t do all that much. However, you can still see the results of the double exposure. There’s a ghost image of a window at the top and you can see the bed frame over my wife. Still, for my purposes this is a usable frame, much better than something almost completely dark.
One thing that I often have trouble with when it comes to film is the focus. With digital you can review the image right away and just shoot some extra frames to make sure something is in focus. With film I can’t do that and sometimes it can be frustrating when focus misses just slightly and brings down an otherwise good shot, like the one below here.
It’s worth it though. The frustration from the failed shots goes away when you see the successful ones. There is an allure, there is a magic, there is a soul, there is a certain something about film that sets it apart from digital. I love my digital camera and the results I’m getting from it. There’s certainly no arguing that digital is a lot more convenient and cost effective. But I’m in love with film and I can’t wait for next time I get a new roll back.
If you’re like me and you’re not from the old school who shot film back in the day, do yourself a favour and at least try it. Thanks to the advance of digital cameras you can pick up quality analog gear to bargain prices. You just might enjoy it.