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Film vs Digital.

What do I do? Here is a theoretical question from an imaginary bride..

“What do I do if a photographer says to me….I shoot film for 95% of my wedding?  

What do you think I should do?”

First of all, let’s examine the process of snapping a shutter and getting an image that can be used for whatever purpose we want it to be used which can be prints, albums, slideshows, iPads, iPhones, emails or books.  These days we have quite a few choices there, don’t we? In our parents’ time we all had cameras that captured images on this stuff called film, and all we needed to do when we finished a roll was send our film to the chemist where he would then send it off to a secret place and a few days or even weeks later, we would get a little yellow packet or a green packet in which we would have a collection of photographs printed on photographic paper.

Questions to consider

Let’s ask ourselves a few questions before we start because the answers we get  are really very important in choosing the film we use  because all films were not created equal.

First of all we have to ask ourselves what do  we need this film for? Are we going to be shooting in the daytime, or night time, or artificial light or what,  because all of these changing factors are going to influence what film we buy because film is manufactured to be used in a specific colour of light for a particular purpose and it has has a specific  ISO rating or speed.  

For example, if we were to use a daylight colour balanced film under fluorescent lights, we would look quite green because the colour of fluoro is green compared to daylight and the film would be seeing the light as green. Nice green in white wedding dresses? No thank you.  Next, will we need fast film or a slow film because a film can range in speed from 50 ISO to about 3000 ISO? Let’s say we made all the right choices, bought the right film and then exposed correctly and we have a roll of film in our hands, but we cannot see any pictures because they still need to be developed. 

What happens next?

We send them off to a processing laboratory because we simply cannot do it ourselves. The machinery needed runs into the tens of thousands of dollars and even more. There really are not many places left  that will develop this film for you and the problem is that if the number of films isn’t there to be processed then the chemicals are not being correctly re-plenished and the whole chemical developing system starts doing things to your film that is totally un-predictable. Film is a medium that requires utmost precision in processing to deliver correct colours.

A variation of even a quarter of a degree Celsius in the processing will cause “Colour Casts”, these being variations of colour away from the correct ones. An increase in temperature will cause white bridal dresses to look slightly CYAN. Not a pleasant colour. Just like green  in a wedding dress is not a pleasant colour. Time passes and we get our film back. What can we do with it? Not that much really. If there is anything we need to do digitally with that film, we need to have it scanned into a digital medium. 

There is a thing that is inherent in all films because of the nature of film and that thing is GRAIN. When we have a film scanned we are also scanning the structure of that film and we are recording the grain of that film. Grain in colour film is made up of three colours, cyan,  magenta and yellow and in large doses can look terribly ugly. Unpleasantly ugly. That is why film also comes in different sizes. We have 35mm film, medium format film, and large format film and we have these because if we use a large format film and make a large print, the GRAIN looks smaller compared to the same sized print from 35mm film. It’s just a numbers game.

Why do we need to add all these extra steps with all the associated risks attached when we are ending up in the same place. Digital manipulation in a computer.

What about digital images?

In this day and age, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to shoot with film. That’s a pretty strong statement but after we examine a few things it will be seen that that statement is absolutely true.

First of all these days, it is not uncommon for a professional photographer to have a full frame digital camera, meaning the same size sensor as a 35mm negative. This sensor will record an image of over 20 megabytes which means that because there is no grain structure to worry about, prints can be produced in much larger sizes that could ever have been produced with a similar sized film camera. If larger than ordinary sized prints are needed, there are available medium format digital cameras that can produce billboard sized photos with no problem and virtually very little grain. Technique is very important and by technique I mean the photographer needs to be a very careful craftsman. Correct exposure is absolutely necessary because there really is no leeway for error if the finished photograph is to look absolutely the best that it can. An underexposed photograph can look so  ” noisy” that it is much uglier than grain. An overexposed image will totally lose details in bright areas. The “P ” setting does not stand for “Professional” and in fact a good photographer will not allow the camera to make decisions for him that he has absolutely no control over.

The next thing that a photographer needs to do is to make sure that he chooses the right sensitivity, or “film speed” as it was called in the old days to do the job properly. Professional Digital  Cameras from the top manufacturers have a sensitivity range from about 100 ISO to about 3200 ISO. A whole film factory in a box.

Lastly,  if a photographer cares about his clients he will shoot everything in what is called a RAW file format. This way, the colour balance is not locked in, (remember the white wedding dress that looks green?) and he has absolute control over the particular look of the image. It adds to the computer workload but the result is worth every minute spent. 

Black & whites? No problem.

Old looking colour, or sepia or whatever? No problem.

Do you want a pleasantly grainy image? No problem. That can be done as well.

Want it to look like film? No problem without the dangers.

And the best thing of the lot? Your original digital image is totally pristine and can be re-visited time and time again and re-developed for a totally different look. Just remember to back up.