Friday Foto Talk: Film or Digital?   11 comments

Predawn crescent moon after a long drive through the middle of nowhere, Nevada. Digital.

I’m having some trouble deciding if I want to go back to film.  It wouldn’t be forever – I don’t think – but just a stop-gap measure until I can afford to replace my DSLR.  I have a Pentax K-1000 with 50 mm. lens that works very well.  It’s great because you never have to worry about the battery.  It lasts for years and years, only running the simple light meter.  There is no energy-hungry processor or LCD.  It is manual only, so even in -60 degrees it would work.  You’d just have to guess on the exposure, which I think I could do.  But I don’t plan on going into the deep freeze anytime soon.

It’s a difficult decision.  A foray back into film might do my photography some good.  I’d have to decide on which types of photography I wanted to do, then get the type of film to match.  With digital, you don’t need to decide until the moment of capture, when you can set ISO (speed) and whether you want to view it B&W or not.  You can also change your mind later with digital, so long as you’re shooting in RAW.

Alaska Range, film.

Alaska Range, film.

Gliding gull on the Oregon Coast, digital.

Gliding gull on the Oregon Coast, digital.

I most likely would not be making a huge commitment to film anyway.  That would involve getting a medium or large-format camera and lenses, buying the larger film, and finding a very good company to do the scanning.  These days, if you want to go film, you need to make sure the scan is high quality.  You still need to scan into digital.  It is the 21st century after all.  Digital is the way everyone delivers images, pro and amateur alike.

I don’t see the point in going whole hog on large format film.  That is, unless you want to do landscapes or other imagery that needs to be printed truly huge – like billboard size.  And provided you are making money from it.  Then you’d want to buy the large-format lenses and get a digital back.

These are sort of half-digital cameras.  They take the image from large (or medium) format film lenses and convert it straight into digital.  No scanning of negatives required, no buying of film.  It’s the best of both worlds really, except for the weight and cost.  You still have that bulky large-format equipment to haul around.  And they’re quite expensive.  A 50 mp Hasselblad digital back goes for $17,500 at B&H Photo.  And you still need to buy the lenses and heavy-duty tripod.  You’re $50,000 into it before you know it!

Ferris Wheel at the Portland Rose Festival, digital.

Ferris Wheel at the Portland Rose Festival, digital.

What I’m thinking of is much less ambitious, but still a bit of a hassle.  I’d have to buy one or maybe two more film lenses.  And then I’d need to find a good processor/scanner.  But I don’t know if I’d like it.  I’m very used to the control I have with digital.  It’s significant.  You can choose ISO for one thing.  With film you have to rewind the film (after making note of the frame) and make sure you don’t wind it all the way into the cartridge (not easy).  Then you need to load a roll with a different speed.  Then you have to go back to the original roll when you encounter different shooting conditions.  With the Pentax camera these transitions are all manual, and my fingers aren’t exactly dexterous!

Bocas del Toro, Panama, digital.

Bocas del Toro, Panama, digital.

Glacier in Alaska, film.

Glacier in Alaska, film.

Digital photography will eventually take over completely.  Yet despite what you may think, it has not yet done so.  There is no real 50 megapixel DSLR camera, for example.  The resolution has just not caught up with large-format film.  But talk to a random film shooter and you’ll find out that resolution is not the main reason many of them shoot film.  And it would most certainly not be the reason I would go back.  There’s a mini-film revival going on right now.  But digital will take over eventually, no doubt about that.

Scarlet Macaw, Honduras, digital.

Scarlet Macaw, Honduras, digital.


I’m just not sure what to do at this moment.  For me it’s not really a question of what I want to shoot – I know it’s ultimately going to be digital.  It’s just that digital is a much more expensive option as it sits right now.  Oh well.  By this time tomorrow I will have decided what to do for the near future.  Until then I have posted a few examples of each format.  Hope your weekend is going swimmingly!

Sunset over the Pacific, digital.

Sunset over the Pacific, digital.



11 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Film or Digital?

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  1. I haven’t shot film since I got a D3 about five years ago though I have both 5×4 and 6×17 equipment. Your comment about scanning got me thinking. I understand that Velvia exposed with perfect technique is about 4,000dpi and my Canon 9950 scanner is about 2,500 dpi or less. That’s OK for 5×4 but merely adequate for 35mm. I also have a Chromega Illumitron lightsource (that I have never used – cheap second hand) and a D800 that I could probably marry up. If my maths is correct, that would give me the equivalent of about 5,000dpi for 35mm (which would be excellent but very slow) but nowhere near the scanner for 5×4 (even doubling the image size with three exposures and a rail).

    A friend of mine has an interesting option for scanning 35mm. He uses a projector as a light source and shoots directly into it with his Canon DSLR, after removing the projector lens. I estimate a 24MP full-frame DSLR would give you the equivalent of 4,000 dpi.

    • Interesting work-arounds you’ve thought of. I think the few people who need that much are either still using film with (usually) medium format, with or without digital backs. But digital is rapidly catching up. I know a couple pros who are on the fence about continuing to use their tilt-shifts to multiply image size vs. just going back to 5×4. The workflow is a very strong argument for digital, as is the fact that the consumers of images are now well used to the look of a digital image. Seems we’re in a transition period at least with regard to resolution. I may pick up a used 5×4 at some point & occasionally play with my manual slr. Good luck & thanks for your comment!

      • The other possibility I probably should try sometime is to make a digital back for a 5×4 camera, as shown in this Keith Cooper article: .

        I’m not sure how good the 5×4 lenses would be on a small sensor and the sensor plane might be too far back for wide angle lenses, but you’d have huge capacity for tilt and shift.

      • You’re ambitious, making a digital back! The commercial outfits must get around the sensor position thing somehow, so I say go for it and post your progress!

      • Well, knowing how to do it and getting round to it might be two different things. The commercial ones are designed for the sensor to be on the focusing plane but in this case, since you’re mounting a camera to a lens board, the sensor has to be a centimetre or two back from that, too far back for many wide angle lenses.

  2. Best wishes with your decision. Your work is great in either medium. I’ve drifted back to using film again along with digital depending on the turn around time. But I didn’t need to buy any lenses. I am pleased with the “budget scanning” option by North Coast Photo in CA. They have a more expensive option also. Good luck and thanks for sharing all the great information and photos.

    • Thanks for the compliment on the film shots especially. I’m going to relegate film to playing around, mostly with B&W. Down the road a bit I may get a medium format and get more serious, but for now most of it will stay digital. I’d love to see a post of yours that focuses on film shots. Thanks for the tip on scanner.

  3. Your photos are amazing! I love the sharpness of them and the subject matter. 🙂

  4. Left to film I think I would be nowhere with photography. Ironically I think I was last person to finally a get a digital camera to try it out many years ago and never bought another roll.

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