I was one of the early adopters of digital photography, way back in 2005. It was a simpler time then. A new Batman movie starring Christian Bale was about to be released. George Bush was president. The U.S. was involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A new invention called the iPod had only been around a scant five years.
All kidding aside, things really were different in 2005, especially in the realm of digital photography. Prior to 2005, digital cameras were either too expensive, or simply not very good. Prior to 2005 the photography “experts” were claiming that you would need a 20 megapixel camera to match the quality of 35mm film. Well in 2004, Canon released the 8 megapixel 20D, and Nikon released the 6.3 megapixel D70, both for around $1,000, well below the $5,000 mark of professionally available DSLR’s of the time. Lo and behold, the images produced from both of these cameras no only equaled the quality of 35mm film, but in most ways surpassed them. While the supposed “experts” were claiming the technology had years to go to catch up with film, it not only caught up, but leaped ahead. The digital revolution was here, and it was within reach of the average photographer.
Now, a mere seven years later the debate of the technical superiority of digital to film photography has long since ended. Modern 20+ megapixel camera have many times the resolution of 35mm film, and at least as much as medium format film. The tonal range, exposure latitude, color depth, and sharpness are all measurably superior, and best of all digital is in many ways more affordable than film photography, especially for the high volume professional that is producing hundreds of thousands per year.
In spite of all that, film seems to be making a comeback among amateurs and professional photographers alike. You can’t walk into an Urban Outfitters without seeing a Holga or Lomography camera on the shelf. Even digital photographers are using apps like Instagram to give their images the look of film. So why are photographers like me who quickly embraced digital technology going back to using film even for professional work?
Film is unpredictable, there isn’t any instant feedback, it can take weeks to see the results of my efforts, and that is exactly what I enjoy about it. Film has a very unique look and feel that can’t be reproduced (easily) in digital photography. There is also the increased reward when it comes to the lack of instant feedback. When you look at the example above, you can see how the image made with a digital camera is noticeable more evenly exposed, has better tonal range, and better exposure in both the highlights and the shadows. But the film image has an undeniable organic quality. It has high contrast and a lot of grain, but there is something very real and tangible about it that is difficult to put into words.
Does this mean I am going to go back to shooting film 100% of the time? Of course not. I love digital photography. In fact, at a typical wedding, I deliver around 800 images to my clients. Of those 800 only 10 were shot on film. That means only about 1% of the images I shoot will be on film. I do it mostly because I enjoy it, and partly because those handful of images often end up being the most interesting.