Why I Shoot Digital During a Film Rennaissance

So, I have received a fair number of questions about whether or not I shoot film for my weddings, or if I'm a hybrid photographer. For my work, I am not. I am a digital photographer. This is one of those subjects that is a bit fraught with intense feelings, but also a bit of a hill to die on for me. Let me be clear about what I am NOT saying in this piece: I am NOT saying that there's anything wrong with choosing to shoot film. I believe we should all utilize whatever medium inspires our art. I still have my Hasselblad 501c, Pentax 645, and Rolleiflex, as well as a Sinar P2 Large Format View camera. I think film can be great and I still love film for some of my personal work and for fun.


That being said, I think there is a misunderstanding about the inherent superiority of film* that drives me nuts. Some of it, I feel, comes from the simple fact that familiarity breeds contempt. Digital has become so ubiquitous that film feels different and cool. Some of the arguments I hear, however, come from a basic misunderstanding of how digital capture occurs, as compared to film. So I'm going to go through my reasons for continuing to shoot digital in an industry where film is not only making a comeback, but has become synonymous with achieving superior artistry and technical skills.


The TL:DR version is because digital is awesome too! And because digital photography is no less technical or artistic than film. As with all photography, it all comes down to the choices you make in camera and after the fact that determine the quality and artistry of the work. 


It's a bit like a manual transmission car versus an 

automatic. If you prefer the style of driving with a 

manual transmission, that's great! Enjoy! But driving an automatic is still a great way to get around. 


That photo there, by the way, is photographic evidence of me platinum printing from large format negatives. Let the record show I'm not a digital shooter because I dislike film- I just choose digital because I love to shoot digital. So let me walk through my reasons, as well as addressing some of the common arguments I hear.


1) "Film handles highlights better."


This argument always makes my eye twitch a bit because it's simultaneously true, while also being misleading. 


First of all, let me get my jargon on for a second, because this information is important to understanding why this statement is frustrating to me. As we all know, most film images are NEGATIVE images. What this means, technically speaking, is that film essentially starts from pure black, and when you expose the film, it builds up highlights within the emulsion. So yes, if you overexpose, more information will be recorded in the highlights, because that is the nature of how film itself actually works. It is very important to note, however, that areas where there is any shadow, or if there is underexposure, there will be limited, or even ZERO information extractable. This is why, when you are learning to shoot on film, you are told to "expose for the shadows", meaning to expose for the darker areas in the frame where you would still like to be able to extract some information.  You will be able to retrieve some information from the overexposed parts and get a more dense, balanced negative. 


Digital, on the other hand, is a POSITIVE image. This means that image creation occurs in the opposite manner when the sensor is exposed. A digital image builds shadow information upon a pure white backdrop. (Notably, there are also film stocks that were positive as well- SLIDE FILM, a notoriously technical and unforgiving medium.) So in digital imagery, yes, highlights are where the information gets lost if it is overexposed. But just like film for the shadows, you can take compensatory actions with digital  by exposing for the highlights, then retrieving the information from the shadows and the underexposed parts. And with programs like Adobe Lightroom, it's simple to batch correct the shadow exposure adjustment in minutes.


This is why I am not a "hybrid photographer", even though I have the gear to be one if I chose. For me personally, switching between the opposite techniques to gain maximum dynamic range and information is too much of a liability for my poor often fried brain, particularly when I'm on a job and there are too many balls in the air already. Again- if you are, good on you! That's awesome. It's just not meant to be for me and my workflow.


2) "Film has a distinctive look."


So, my hypothesis about this claim is that this distinctive look has a lot more to do with the vintage lenses on older cameras than it has to do with film itself.  Come at me! (Just kidding, please don't.)  Again, I know this is a controversial thing to say, but honestly, with the exception of film grain versus digital noise (film grain is definitely more aesthetically pleasing), film itself, varies in its "look" based on the style in which it's shot, and when both film and digital are shot within the same style, they aren't as easily decipherable.


Here's a collage of film and digital images. Feel free to have a look and decide which you identify as film and which you identify as digital. (Answers are at the end of blog entry).

... and, let's be honest, none of these even have "the film look" that most people are describing in the first place! At least in the wedding photography community, what most people describe as "the film look" means soft, ethereal, overexposed Fuji Pro 400H or Kodak Portra (which is beautiful and I love to look at when other photographers, like Jose Villa, Sylvie Gil, and Rebecca Yale do it well). This also frequently means it was shot using medium format, specifically a Contax 645 with the Zeiss 80mm 2.0, because that has become the it film camera system. 

But at least for me, whether I shoot film or digital, I like shadows, I like contrast, I don't like to overexpose beyond what is necessary in order to preserve shadow detail. So even if I were a hybrid photographer or an exclusively film photographer, my look and my style would largely look the same because that's just the way that I shoot. See the photo of my mom against a wall, for example. That was shot on a Pentax 645 with Kodak Portra 400N, but it's still hard light, contrasty, etc. And I love it (aside from the giant watermark from my old business name with my maiden name), but it's not altogether different than what I do with my digital camera systems. Taking for example the image below.

Now, I hear all the time that film is soft and romantic while digital is "too perfect". I understand where this is coming from, and I do agree to a degree- there are certain styles of digital photography that look so sharp it's almost jarring (again, amazing for that style, though not my own style), and modern lenses are incredible feats of engineering, getting ever faster and sharper. That's why I frequently opt for vintage lenses on my digital bodies. I'm a big fan of blending old and new technologies. I love old glass. It often creates a bit of that soft, romantic imperfection, but I'm recording it all on a digital sensor. See the image below from a recent editorial, shot on my mirrorless medium format Hasselblad X1D using the vintage Hasselblad 110mm 2.0 from the classic V system film cameras.


3) "Not seeing your photos immediately makes getting them back more exciting!"


So, the funny thing is, I had this EXACT concern when I switched to digital. I was worried that the instant gratification would dull my excitement for the images. But that hasn't been the case for me at all! Maybe it's because I have ADHD, maybe it's because I just love looking at my photos and my excitement makes me impatient, but even back when I shot film, I would utilize a one hour or next day lab and wait on pins and needles for the negatives and prints to come back AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. Nowadays, even though I check the photos on the back of my camera periodically for exposure or expressions to make sure I got the shot, it's not the same as seeing them on a big screen. And to be honest, often by the end of the day there may be one or two shots that stood out in my mind that I remember, but I don't even remember most of what I've shot that day, so the feeling of waiting impatiently while my photos upload is a very similar feeling to waiting for film to get back! Whether that happens an hour later or days later (as is  the case with most professional film labs), at least for me personally, it's a joy no matter what.


So there are my rebuttals to a few of the major arguments I hear against digital/for film. Now let me tell you a bit more about why I choose digital.


4) ISO variability


Omg. Being able to change ISO as I go is THE BEST. Back in the day, so many of my photos were either ruined, or never taken in the first place, because of the fact that I had too slow a film speed for the moment in my camera. I'm sure that as wedding photographers, the dedicated film photographers plan for that more, and that's great. There are ways to make that work if you are organized, for sure. Me, I'm a big fan of removing any obstacles I can when I'm shooting a wedding because I want to be fully focused on capturing the moments unfolding before me. (See aforementioned often fried brain)


And on that note...


5) Memory Cards


Omg. Not having to change rolls of film as I go is THE BEST. I know that a lot of the heavy hitters in the film community bring extra film backs and a dedicated assistant to roll film and hand the back to the photographer each time a roll ends. That would make it easier to shoot film, for sure, but for me, there's no beating the ease of having over a thousand frames at your disposal in a dual slot memory card holding digital camera body.


Now, that being said, another argument I've heard in favor of film is that having a limited number of frames per roll forces them to be a more intentional photographer, rather than just taking a bunch of photos and seeing what you get out of it. I can see how this might be the case for some people. Different people are motivated by different factors, so this makes sense to me. However, it's not a given that digital photographers have to just shoot indiscriminately. With the exception of moments where action is happening and I'm trying to just capture the moments as they occur, I am a very intentional photographer. Each frame is considered and adjusted in camera. Whether I have 36 exposures or over 1,000 doesn't change that process for me. So if limiting your exposures motivates you, great! Do whatever you need to do to make yourself as present and intentional as possible! But just also know that being a digital photographer does not preclude one from being equally present and intentional.



6) Editing Options


I know a lot of people who choose film have told me part of their choice involves the fact that don't like editing and film is largely finished upon receiving the scans. That's totally valid. For me? If you have read any of my blog previously, you may have gathered that I LOVE editing. Seriously, try to tear me away, even when my eyes are sore and I'm nodding off at the keyboard. I find editing both meditative and also really fun. And then even after I've sent my galleries off to my clients, I frequently keep tweaking and playing with them in Lightroom because I just really enjoy it. So for me, having RAW files to edit after the fact is a bonus rather than a hindrance. Extra bonus for being able to do this in my pajamas while I watch TV.


7) Mirrorless Cameras


The new mirrorless camera systems are a game changer in terms of size and weight to lug around, and as far as most go, they don't compromise any quality for that size. I was admittedly hesitant to try mirrorless (the idea of using an LCD to shoot or being limited to an electronic viewfinder felt weirdly daunting to me) but oh my gosh. Oh my GOSH. I am so glad that I did. I still use my Nikon D850 sometimes, but my Hasselblad X1D-50c has taken on the majority of the workload these days.The fact that Hasselblad has developed mirrorless medium format to their already high standard is just... out of this world. I will write more about that another time though, because my Hassie deserves her own entry. She wows me all the time. And yes she's a she and yes I call her Hassie. And pet her like an animal. Because I love her.


8) Blending Old Technology with New Technology


I touched on this earlier, but I'm a big fan of blending the technology of yesteryear with the technology of today. The possibilities are limitless! Using antique lenses with newer bodies, creating digital negatives and printing them using alternative print processes (like Platinum Palladium printing, Cyanotype, etc). Digital technology, of course, makes these options all the more vast and exciting. 


I think, as humans, we tend to get a bit precious with the past. We tend to romanticize and inflate the olden days, and in many ways, attitudes around photography mediums reflect that. I've heard people claim film is more authentic because it's how photographs were originally meant to be taken, but that is actually not true at all. Handheld film is a relatively recent development in the evolution of photography, and it was a development of convenience, since prior to that, it was all view cameras, either with large format film or collodion plates, and tin types! Before that, daguerreotype, and before that camera obscura. Photography has evolved so much over its relatively short historical lifespan, and most of the evolutions have been met with backlash about a denigration of quality but uptick of convenience.

I will never forget when I went to see Jerry Uelsmann speak at a museum in Peabody, MA. He does all of his photo montages in the dark room, and when someone in the audience asked him a question that was taking a swipe at Photoshop, he immediately started defending photoshop, saying that he was just a bit too old and too far into his career to learn photoshop at the time that it was developed for that to be the best way for him to re-learn how to create his work. However, me emphasized that were he 20 years younger, he 100% would have abandoned the darkroom in favor of Photoshop. That really slapped me upside the head. It was nice to see someone speak so frankly about the fact that these mediums are just that: mediums through which our inspiration becomes art. How we do it ultimately does not matter. What matters is that we do it at all.


Film vs Digital collage: 1. Digital, shot on Nikon D850  2. Digital, shot on Hasselblad X1D 3. Film, shot on Pentax 645 4. Film, shot on Olympus OM-10  5. Digital, shot on Nikon D850 6. Film, shot on Pentax 645


*There is a legitimate argument for the superiority of large format film due to the size of the negatives alone, but that's not what I'm addressing in this blog post, since this discussion is mainly concerned with my paid work assignments like wedding photography, where large format film is not particularly practical.  Though I did consider trying to offer it as an experience within the wedding day or after the fact. No takers yet, however, because large format view camera photography requires an intense amount of time to set up, get right, then you only get two exposures per slide, so don't blink! 


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