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Film vs. Digital

A Guest Post by Rebecca Lily

With the comeback of film over the last few years, many digital photographers are questioning whether or not to make the switch.  This is a decision I had to ponder myself as well.  Is it worth adding a Contax 645 to the arsenal and shooting weddings on film?

I would like to present my honest view of film vs. digital within my own field of expertise as a pro digital and hobbyist film photographer.  I own a Nikon D700 plus 2 film cameras, a vintage Nikon FM2 and a Nikon F100 – on these, I have shot both Kodak Portra 400NC and Fujifilm Pro 400H.  I have not had a fabulously great lab develop any of my film work, only a local lab (with mixed results).  I have never shot film for any of my professional work, only my personal projects.  But I am an ardent admirer of a few great pro film photographers and a continuous student of photography – both in the film and digital arenas. 

Image: Film | Nikon FM2 | Nikkor 50mm 1.2 @ f/1.2 | Fujifilm Pro 400H

Film | Nikon FM2 | Nikkor 50mm 1.2 @ f/1.2 | Fujifilm Pro 400H

I realize that there are different camps within the film vs. digital debate.  There is Camp A who only shoot film and claim that you simply can’t reproduce the look, feel and colors of film on any digital camera.  Then there is Camp B who only shoot digital and claim that film simply isn’t worth all the hassle and expense.  Then Camp C who use (or at least tolerate) both, and admit that both formats have strengths and weaknesses.  Speaking in terms of my professional work, I would define myself somewhere between Camp B and C.  After playing around with film a bit myself and studying the work of other photographers, I can definitely acknowledge that film has several advantages over digital – mainly, the dynamic range (or, ability to retain details in highlights and shadows over a wide range of stops), and also the forgiving nature of film when you overexpose it.  It’s very difficult to blow out film even with overexposing by 2-3 stops – and the highlights with film roll off beautifully.  In that regard, you can relax a bit when you’re shooting film (especially if you have a great photo lab to develop and scan it, but that’s another topic altogether.)

Image: Film | Nikon FM2 | Nikkor 50mm 1.2 @ f/1.2 | Kodak Portra 400NC

Film | Nikon FM2 | Nikkor 50mm 1.2 @ f/1.2 | Kodak Portra 400NC

However, there are weaknesses with film, too.  One is the ongoing expense of the film itself and the time and expense of developing/scanning.  Another is the availability of your favorite film (look what happened to Portra 400NC…)  And you simply can’t take as many images if you have to continuously change rolls of film as you can when you have a 32GB CF card in your camera.  Another disadvantage?  You can’t back up film; if something happens to your rolls between shooting and developing, that makes for a very unhappy photographer – and an even unhappier client.

Then there’s the issue of the lab.  These beautiful colors that many people see in professional photographers’ film work are often simply the result of a very good lab developing their film and applying specific color profiles in the scanning process.  If you cannot afford a good lab or don’t live near one (and are too nervous to mail 50 rolls of film of a client’s wedding), you may find yourself frustrated that you cannot reproduce these results even with the exact same camera, lens and film combination that your favorite pro uses.  

In my opinion, I think digital has only one major weakness when compared to film, and that is dynamic range.  Your digital camera simply will not handle light as well as film does, and the light will not look as soft and even as it does with film.  But I think this problem will improve over time with digital cameras, as newer models with better sensors are developed.  You can already compensate this weakness by shooting in RAW format to maximize the recovery of details in highlights and shadows, and by working on improving yourself technically so that you achieve more consistently precise exposure.  I always shoot in manual/RAW and spot meter, which is a huge help.  I know before I press the shutter if I still have enough details in my highlights and shadows where it’s important to have detail.  This is the result of lots of practice – and I’m still always working on improving my exposure.

Image: Digital | Nikon D700 | Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 @ f/2.8

Digital | Nikon D700 | Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 @ f/2.8

Exposing properly, and shooting in RAW, already has you well on your way to better results (and let’s hope that digital camera manufacturers will pay attention and give us better dynamic range in the near future!).  But what about those beautiful filmy colors?

This is where post-processing comes in, and where I personally found my tipping point that made me stick with digital.  

Image: Digital | Nikon D700 | Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 @ f/2.8

Digital | Nikon D700 | Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 @ f/2.8

First, it’s important to understand that digital images need to be developed just like film images do.  Many people confuse a film “sooc” for being truly unprocessed, but that is not the case.  Every film image is processed by the lab that develops it, and is color corrected during the scanning process – and sometimes also in the initial developing process (for example, push or pull processing, or cross processing).  Digital images need developing work too, in order to get optimal results.

Image: Digital | Nikon D700 | Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 @f/2.8

Digital | Nikon D700 | Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 @f/2.8

I love the colors and soft, “matte” feel of film.  But for me, it isn’t about the look of any one film – I’m not stuck on replicating one particular set of tones, like the tones in pushed Fujifilm Pro 400H for example (which are indeed beautiful!).  I simply love this overall “filmy” look – the bright, clean colors, the pastels, the soft muted tones, the subdued highlights, the grain – all of it.  And with a bit of post processing, I find that I can replicate or interpret this vision with some of my digital work, where it suits.  It might not look identical to one particular film (although, I can get it pretty close if that’s the goal).  But with a bit of Lightroom or Photoshop I can capture the essence of what I love about the looks of film in general, with my own artistic stamp.  And for me, that’s a very important part of how I express my work – through my post process.  I enjoy having creative control over how I want my colors to look for each individual session that I shoot, rather than handing that control to a lab.

One of the most important steps in post-processing a digital image to replicate film is to carefully control the light and the highlights.  In my normal workflow, I first develop my RAW file in Lightroom, either with a preset or with individual tweaks (such as highlight recovery and exposure correction).  I usually finish my images in Photoshop with actions.  Overall, filmy looks should have lower contrast, reduced saturation, softened and controlled light, subtle creamy highlights, and a matte finish.  If you know your way around Photoshop and can produce these effects, you can put together interesting combinations to give your images a filmy finish.  If you need a hand with achieving those effects, there are a good many professional products that can help.  Many of my own presets and actions are specifically designed to create this look.

If you are interested in how I achieve some of my film-inspired looks for my digital images, I share some of my post-processing recipes on my website, www.rebeccalily.com, under the “Tutorials” section.  

Image: Digital | Nikon D700 | Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 @ f/2.8

Digital | Nikon D700 | Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 @ f/2.8

So, what’s the conclusion?  I think that’s up to you.  Film will always have its place in the world of photography, and so will digital.  What you decide for yourself depends upon what’s important to you. 

Or maybe, like me, you’ll find that there is a place for both.

Image: Digital | Nikon D700 | Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 @ f/2.8

Digital | Nikon D700 | Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 @ f/2.8

Film vs. DigitalRebecca Lily is a professional wedding and commercial photographer under Bondshots, which she founded with her husband, Johnny Patience. She is also a designer of Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions, which can be found on her website. Johnny and Rebecca make their home in beautiful West Cork, Ireland.

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