Film or digital? An essay.

The best way to think of it is Film and digital. 

Each has strengths, and each is an important tool for photographers. I propose that it makes little sense to exclude one or the other from your toolkit.

The subject here is film, but this is not a pro-film, anti-digital diatribe. It is an attempt to inform. The advantages of digital are widely circulated and well known, and I acknowledge them, but for the sake of brevity will mention only a few of them here. No slight is intended.

The big, big question: is film going to disappear?


Or, Yes. Some day. But not soon. It will still be in use in 2020. Manufacturing volumes are now a fraction of what they were in 2005. Kodak's seven worldwide factories, each of which ran 24-7, are now reduced to one factory in Rochester, New York, which operates one shift per day. In the developed world, 35mm amateur color film is no longer a high-volume consumer product. As of now, the year 2014, you have to buy it from a small number of specialist retailers (including your local pro-oriented camera store, museum shops, and Frugal Photographer).

But a photo-hungry third world won't be switching to digital soon. The movie industry is nominally all digital now, but Hollywood, Bollywood, and Russia still buy about 95% of the film Kodak makes. Microfilm remains far superior to digitization for simple, cheap, archival document storage. 

You can read a microfilm (or any film image, actually) with a magnifying glass and some sunlight. Try that with a digital file.

And that is one of the reasons why there are certain situations where film remains a better alternative.

Travel photography is a slightly different case in point.

  • You should consider using film when headed to remote destinations where physical conditions require robust equipment, and where the advantages of digital are of little or no benefit. Even the toughest digital camera is a wimp compared to any decent mechanical film camera. 

  • Batteries can also be an issue. Recharging batteries is not possible everywhere. And in many places in the third world, only flashlight batteries are readily available, and even then, only in larger towns.

    Fairo farm family

Fairo, Soro-Gbema chiefdom, Sierra Leone, November 2004. I spent a week in Fairo, which was in the second year of rebuilding itself after the end of the Sierra Leone civil war. This family posed for me framed by the window of a house that was burned by rebels in 1991. Fairo has no electricity and the only batteries in town are D-cells for flashlights. Recharging or replacing batteries would have been out of the question.

Film: Bluefire Police, exposed in a conventional SLR.



 Mr. Luceni Baimba Kamara, Fairo, Sierra Leone

Mr. Luceni Beimba Kamara, of Fairo. Mr. Kamara's health deteriorated during the twelve years he was struggling to survive in refugee camps. He carries with him a terrible sadness.

Film: Polaroid 665 positive-negative

Portrait of Alhaji Garba, Bo, Sierra Leone

Alhaji Garba, of Bo, Sierra Leone. Mr. Garba is a professional photographer, who has made his living in Sierra Leone since immigrating there from Nigeria in the 1980's. He shoots weddings, funerals, portraits, and seminars and meetings. During the civil war he worked as a correspondent for several newspapers. He relies on an older mechanical Nikon SLR and a hand-held selenium-cell exposure meter because, as he says, he can't afford to be at the mercy of a dead battery.

Film: Bluefire Police


Mr. Lamina Kamara was one of my acquaintances during my Peace Corps tour in Fairo, 1967-69. I was very pleased to find him still alive and in good health. A year previously he had stepped on a nail and suffered a bout of tetanus that left him walking with a pronounced limp, unable to flex his feet. I took this photo with a Polaroid camera using their type 665 negative-positive pack film. I gave Mr. Kamara the print and kept the negative. These Polaroid negatives must be cleared in an 18% sulfite solution. It was difficult to dry it in the humidity of Fairo, and I had to leave it propped against the wall of the room where my wife and I were staying. Dust from the cement-plastered wall and the sandy floor contaminated the negative. When we left Fairo it was still not completely dry, and I carried it for two days between blank pages of my notebook, and the paper stuck to it. It's the most beat-up negative I've ever tried to print, but the image is priceless. Click it to enlarge it.

Photographs 2004 David Foy

Photographers on a budget should consider using film. 

This seems counter-intuitive, but it's true. Your initial equipment outlay can be much less. Your cost per image can be only nickels, or even pennies. It might be a nickel or penny well invested, given the image quality advantages (see below).

  • Consider equipment costs. Very good used film cameras and lenses abound, and can be had for little money. Enlargers with good lenses are going for peanuts (so are excellent 35mm film scanners). It's true that the prices of digital cameras continue to drop rapidly, but the price of digital SLRs (the most useful kind of digital camera for a serious photographer) remains high, and may not drop much more. A good, used 35mm SLR with a good zoom lens is a better alternative than any non-SLR (point and shoot) digital, if you're serious about photography.

  • Good fresh film does cost money. There are strategies to keep film costs down: for example, buy short-dated or slightly out-of-date film from a reputable supplier, and freeze it. A hundred rolls of short-dated black and white film at $1 per roll takes up about a cubic foot of freezer space, and requires a $100 initial outlay, but it's a pretty good way of setting yourself up for 3600 images, and it will be useful for at least a decade. That's just under 3 cents per image.

  • Contrary to the common misconception, digital photography is not guaranteed to be cheap, and is not always fast. Printing inkjet images at home is slow, inherently wasteful, and shockingly expensive. You can reduce waste by becoming a workflow fanatic, but speed and cost are beyond your control. 

  • And inkjet printing is subject to the constant pressure of obsolescence. What do you do with a decent, useful printer when ink is no longer available? You replace it. A darkroom is a one-time investment. It is not unthinkable for a photographer today to make prints in a home darkroom built by his or her great-grandparent, using a 1930's enlarger, last upgraded forty years ago with nothing more than a better lens.

Obviously, any photographer, whether using digital or film, needs to limit waste and use consumables carefully. 

Digital camera users have the advantage of being able to take many more images than they intend to print, since the cost of taking images is the cost of owning the digital camera and storage cards, and does not change with the number of images you shoot. Sometimes often, perhaps this can be a strength. You can go wild at your child's birthday party, and come away with unexpected delights. Shooting rapidly and copiously at a fast-breaking sporting event, or at an East African game preserve, only makes sense. 

But generally, the best photographs are made in your mind long before they're made in your camera, even at a game preserve. Restraint is not just a cost-saving exercise. It's an artistic tool. Visualize first. Then shoot. Shoot less. Shoot better.

The view that film images are "richer" is no illusion it's a fact. 

  • On a microscopic level, digital images are captured as a regular two-dimensional lattice of relatively far-apart sensor elements, each the same size. The space between them is then filled in by software routines ("interpolation").

  • Interpolation can not, and therefore does not, result in more detail. It merely creates a smooth transition between adjacent pixels. The best lens in the world on a digital camera can only capture what can be resolved by some specific number of sensor elements. Interpolation algorithms can be very good, but the upper limit on how much detail can be stored in a digital image is a hardware limit, and it is absolute.

  • An image on film is a thin, tightly-packed, yet three-dimensional, random array of dye "clouds" or metallic silver filaments, varying in shape and size. Depending on the film, you record as much detail as your lens can resolve. If you are using a good lens, a Bluefire Police 35mm negative, for example, stores far more information than even a 24 megapixel digital image. 

  • On many prints, especially smaller prints, the difference between film and digital is not noticeable. On enlarged images, digital photos often seem "flat," and some are noticeably "pixilated." The well-documented movement back to film from digital among some wedding and portrait photographers is directly related to this fact.

Only film is a truly proven archival medium with the following caveats:

  • It must be true silver-based black and white film (not a dye-based C-41 film, because the dyes used in the C-41 process are unstable and will eventually fade); 

  • it must be processed properly; and 

  • it must be stored properly. 

When these conditions are met, there is no reason film negatives cannot last for more than several hundred years. After all, silver is an extremely stable metal, and a properly processed black and white silver-based film negative consists of grains of pure silver suspended in gelatin on inert acetate or polyester, and nothing more. Film has been in widespread use since approximately 1885, and its storage qualities have been thoroughly studied.

Digital print longevity has not yet been proven over time, but has been estimated based on accelerated-aging simulations. The estimates are probably reliable. 

  • silver black and white prints, if correctly made and properly stored, should last hundreds of years; 

  • the best digital color prints, made on archival paper with pigment-based inks, should last a hundred years or more; 

  • digital color prints made on commodity photo-quality inkjet paper, using dye-based inks, may fade within a few years, or may last as long as ordinary C-41 prints;

  • ordinary C41 color prints (the kind you get from a one-hour lab) have lamentably short life expectation, probably no more than two or three dozen years, or considerably less if exposed continuously to room light.

The most common digital archival medium today is CD-ROM, and studies show these are subject to deterioration, particularly if you mark them with a solvent-based felt-tip pen. 

  • The least expensive CD-ROMS could be unreadable in just a few years. The essence of the problem is that CD-ROMS are attacked by airborne solvents, which de-color their dyes, delaminate their layers, and tarnish their inexpensive aluminum substrate. 

  • Certain premium CD-ROMs are said to be of archival quality. They are made with more durable dyes, silver or gold substrates, and are sealed to prevent the infiltration of pollutants. These have estimated hundred-year lifetimes.  Valuable digital images should always be stored on these kinds of high-longevity discs. 

  • As is the case with film, actual longevity depends on storage conditions.

However, longevity is one thing. Readability is another. And the history of digital obsolescence is sobering.

  • When I first began working with computers, in the early 1980's, data was stored and exchanged on punched paper tape. We graduated to 8" 5-inch diameter single-sided floppy discs, then double-sided, then quad-capacity, then to ever-smaller, ever-higher capacity floppies. None of them could be read, of course, on the previous generation of disc drives. Popping up now and again were various kinds of magnetic tapes, from the usual IBM style 9-track reels to any of several dozens of kinds of cartridges. Each required its own reader and its own software.

  • I have no doubt that to read any of the paper tapes today, and most of the magnetic tape cartridges, and the 8" floppy discs, I'd have to find a computer museum somewhere that would co-operate with me. 

  • That's probably true with the 5-1/4" floppies as well. The last time I saw a computer equipped with a 5-1/4" drive was years ago, in a thrift shop, priced at $5 with no takers. It is worth noting that almost all new computers today are shipped without any kind of floppy drives at all.

  • Today, it's possible to read 9-track reels taken from storage, if you live in a big city with a long-established mainframe infrastructure (although there are many reports that older tapes have sections of total data loss due to the oxide recording layer coming loose).

To ensure film images are readable in the future, process and store them properly. Period. All you will need to read them is a magnifying glass and some light.

To ensure digital images are readable in the future, store them properly on long-life media but you must also migrate all your digital images to new storage media every time storage obsolescence rears its ugly head.

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