Film and Digital in 2004

I have a book by the late great Galen Rowell called Mountain Light. The book is filled with breathtaking landscape photographs from all over the world and the stories of how the photographs were created. Rowell worked with a series of 35mm color slide films during his career: Kodachrome, Velvia, and so on. At the end of the forward, he talks about how a friend of his had periodically told him that in the next few years, a digital camera would come out that would put his film to shame and be easier to use besides, and that he had been hearing this story for the last decade or two.

Well, if Galen had lived to see the year 2005, I think his friend truly might have finally been right.

To the outside observer of the Internet message groups, the digital/film debate seems to center primarily around technical issues. Back in 2001/2002, reams of bits were wasted in a useless argument over a web page that claimed that the digital camera that Canon had just released, the D30, was “better” than 35mm film as tested by some guy who runs some web site. Almost every discussion of this issue between then and now that I have read can be summarized like this:

1. Digital guy says “my digital body is just as good as film, I hate you.”

2. Film guy says “that’s ludicrous, it would take 50 bazillion megapixels to match a single frame of my super chromaticasm iso 25 ultra slide film, especially if I shoot 4x5. Also, I hate you.”

Both of these arguments are, in fact, wrong. It is a fact that there are things film can do that digital cannot (make a nice fiber print, for one). It is also true that for all intents and purposes, you can buy digital cameras that for the most part will get you prints that are as good or better than any color film made.

Let’s be clear. There are no technical issues one way or another that clearly distinguish between digital capture and film. Digital cameras have evolved to the point where within each price class the technical playing field is level. If anything, from a technical standpoint, the current crop of thousand dollar digital SLR cameras are probably better in most ways than the 35mm cameras they are based on. By this I mean:

1. At equivalent ISO and print sizes up to 12x18, the prints you hold in your hand will be better in almost every way, especially at higher ISO ratings. If you don’t believe me, go shoot some ISO 640 35mm color print film and let me know how 18x12 prints look. I have such prints made from a D100, and they are stunningly good. Even at ISO 400, my old 3mp point and shoot made great 8x10 prints.

2. They handle the same.

3. They are just as convenient to use from the standpoint of extras that you have to haul along. A laptop and card reader are just as easy to carry as 40 or 50 rolls of film, and they won’t be destroyed by x-ray machines.

Nice fiber prints aside, the technical argument is done. Digital as described by Rowell’s friend has arrived.

But, you should keep in mind that digital had started to taken over many areas of photography long before we had reached this level of technical parity. If you delve deeper into the message board arguments, you will see why. At some point, there will be an exchange like

1. The digital guy says “digital rules because I can just download my pictures and in 5 seconds I have a web site to show everyone.”

2. The film guy says “film rules because I don’t have to fuss with the damn machine. I just drop my film off and an hour later I have prints to show everyone.”

In other words, what you are doing to do with the image trumps any sort of technical compromise there might be in the tools you are using to create the picture. Galen Rowell made 35mm color landscape photography viable because the tools fit his style and allowed him to get pictures that transcended the limitations of the medium. The important aspect of his decision to shoot 35mm is not the technical question of what kind of “image quality” he could capture, but the pragmatic question of how to get the tools to where the pictures were, and what he wanted to do with the images once he had captured them. Small cameras let him take pictures on mountains. 35mm slide film let him publish pictures in the magaziines that were his major market.

So the question for you to ponder about film and digital is what you want to do with the pictures. If you hate computers and have the time and the love needed to put into the darkroom, or you just want a shoebox of nice 4x6 prints, digital is not for you. Ignore the hype.

On the other hand, if you are handy with the machines, and all your buddies have e-mail, and you want to be able to share baby pictures quickly and easily, what are you waiting for.