Film Me: Man, film – you’ve got to love it. So physical, tactile, chemical, magical. Not to mention archival. I’m just going to shoot film for a while.
Digital Me: You mean: fiddly, messy, temperamental? Digital is clean, sharp, infinitely controllable, infinitely reproducible, instant. I think I’m going to shoot digital and leave the past behind.
FM: Ah yes. Just what the masters of old would have wished for: if only this image I’ve just shot could be uploaded to flickr in a heartbeat. Think of all the great photos ever taken – all on film. Film inspires an aesthetic, a workflow, a thought process. And you want instant? Try instant film, dummy.
DM: But all the great images of the future will be shot digitally! Do you want to live in the past?
FM: Well if living in the past means getting to shoot with classic Leicas, Nikon Fs, Rolleiflexes, I’m happy there.
DM: Oh, so this is a gear thing? Pathetic fetishism. But incidentally, if you are just a gear head, surely digital is the realm to be in? New camera announcements, the latest sensor technology. Once again, all the great cameras of the future will be digital.
FM: You can have them. Digital camera design is in as desperate state as modern car design – homogeneous design, all too big and ugly with too many buttons and features. There are film cameras that are already perfect, cannot be bettered. In fact the whole medium from camera to print, in B&W at least, is already perfect.
DM: Ah, so you print wet, do you?
FM: No, I scan and print digitally…
DM: Ohhhhh do you? So let’s get this straight, you use Photoshop, push pixels, probably upload a photo or two online for a comment-induced ego boost from time to time…
FM: I do, I do, and it doesn’t matter, because there is an essence that makes it from film to print that isn’t present in a digital shot.
DM: Would you care to explain ‘essence’.
FM: It isn’t tangible, it isn’t fully explainable, but it comes from the fact that taking a photograph on film requires greater conviction and care than one taken digitally.
DM: Sounds like photography-homeopathy. If I were able to produce two identical prints, one whose source was film, the other digital, are you suggesting you would be able to identify this essence?
FM: No, because that hypothetical situation involves deliberately setting out to make a film shot look digital, or vice versa. My point is that shooting on film, with a film camera, 36 shots in the hole, creates a situation in which photographs will be made that wouldn’t me made shooting digital.
DM: That’s 36 shots at best. Do you not feel limited that you have to stop and reload every 36 shots, or 12 shots with 6×6, or every single shot on large format? Memory cards are so cheap now, you can buy an SD card that will store 144 shots for less than four roles of film.
FM: Limited? Never. This is part of the pace of film photography. And, those 36 shots give us the contact sheet, a wonderful document, teacher, and historian.
DM: Really? I can produce a contact sheet at the click of a button from my digital shooting, no probs.
FM: And you would do that? Print out every set of 36 shots? Without deleting any?
DM: Of course I’d delete the duds…
FM: Ah, that’s the problem. For a start, that decision is never as simple as it sounds, and secondly, showing the duds, the full sequence is invaluable when it comes to telling the ‘story of the shoot’.
DM: I think that’s a thing of the past too, to be honest. But returning to your point about film photographs being made where digital ones wouldn’t, you have to admit that the converse is true.
FM: I do, absolutely. Digital is great for filling up the internet with billions of worthless, useless thumbnails of drunk friends rolling about…
DM: Ok, just because there is a lot of dross out there, that shouldn’t be allow to dilute what digital cameras are capable of. Think of the the high ISO performance compared to film, think of the framerates possible, HD video.
FM: Granted, they have their place. I wouldn’t ask a sports photographer to shoot with anything other than a DSLR, of course. But I’m talking about my, your, our shooting here. And for photography that aims to express more than describe, constraints create aesthetic opportunities. Think of Robert Frank, that elevator girl, the blurred figures exiting. If he’d cranked his digital camera up to 3200 to stop the motion, do you think the shot would work?
DM: No, but you’ve no idea of all the situations he might have found himself in where any photo would have turned into a blurred mess, and he would have created something amazing with just another three stops…
FM: That might be so, but my idea of what is possible, probable and acceptable in photography has been informed by the photographs made in the 20th century. Photographs created outside of that realm seem false, fake, new-fangled.
DM: You need to fast forward at least 11 years, then. Photography has always been a medium looking to push technical barriers! Did Kodak create ISO 6 Kodachrome and then say “that’ll do”? You are so ungrateful. There are cameras, tiny cameras, affordable cameras that will give you quality that rivals medium format film.
FM: You’ll have to qualify ‘quality’.
DM: Resolution, colour accuracy, dynamic range…
FM: These are qualities that digital measures purely numerically! You need to be more empirical. Are the prints pleasing? Do they have flaws? When the quality breaks down due to over-enlargement, does it happen gracefully or disastrously?
DM: Fine, go for it. Spend the next ten years of your life trying to emulate the photographs from the last century. I’ll plough on, looking to generate the look of tomorrow.
FM: You do that, and I’ll be perfectly content, basking in the romance my medium affords me.
DM: Romance? What about the possibilities?
FM: The chemicals!
DM: The pixels!
FM: The silver halide print, the exhibition!
DM: The inkjet print, the print-on-demand photobook!
FM: The honesty!
DM: The flexibility!
FM: The horror!
DM: The horror.
FM: That’s it. I’m going to put all but one or two of our digital cameras for sale. M8, A900, GF1, R-D1 – out. Be gone, pixel mongers. Be gone, electronic photon counters.
DM: Fine. Do it.
FM: I will. I have. They’ll be gone in the morning.
DM: Hey, have you seen this X100 on ebay? Mint, warranty, hood…looks cheap, no?
FM: I just bought it.