The debate pitting traditional film vs digital photography and which is superior has been going on over a decade – more than two depending on how you count it. It was as pointless then as it is now, simply because — in my opinion — both see the world differently. Photographic film sees the fluidity of the world and captures it as a range of colours or grey tones splattered over a chemical substrate. The digital sensor sees the world in precise digits; brutally accurate, yet beautifully sharp.
During the first volley of the debate, film fanatics (?) went on and on about how digital sensors would never outperform film. It was an incredibly foolhardy argument because investment in film technology was being abandoned by camera and film manufacturers, while digital sensors were being developed at an alarming rate…and continue to be developed today, while film technology has more or less stagnated.
Eventually, the day came.
Digital sensors thrashed 35mm film in all possible technical ways: low light performance, fine grain, sharpness and colour accuracy. They outperformed anything 35mm photographic film could capture. Sony G Master lenses, I have been informed, can resolve up to 100 megapixels so they are well prepared to handle sensors for the next few years or so.
Still, film fanatics took their case to the next level (and lost there too).
Once digital sensors out resolved 35mm film, they jumped to medium format cameras, claiming they could still resolve more detail than full-frame DSLRs. Digital camera manufacturers then started making medium format sensors. The fanatics climbed higher up the tree of arguments, claiming medium format DSLRs were no match for a 4×5 view camera.
I think you can see where this is going.
At some point, the film fanatics will only have 8×10 or the 20×24 Polaroid cameras to cling on to and will inevitably continue to scream that film is better than digital. But film, well, just stayed as film. And importantly continues to be beautiful.
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Here is a collection of Northern Lights and Milky Way photos as captured on film and digital. The digital shots are tack sharp, with the stars appearing as distinct points while the film rendered them in fluid movement.
Film recorded our transience, digital froze us and forced us into seeing discrete moments. It could not capture the Milky Way with pinpoint sharpness but it allowed the Milky Way to become transient. Of course, you could mount your film camera on a star tracker that would compensate for the Earth’s rotation thus allowing you to take a photo of the Milky Way with a long exposure. But not only does that kill the joy of photography, but it also produces a photo for an astronomy textbook rather than a photograph for aesthetics. While the digital camera managed to freeze the stars as spots in the sky, film to allowed them to become fluid. They formed trails, something our eyes could never see.
Digital photography can record transient shots as well but a technical shortcoming of film allows it to do it a tad bit easier than the digital sensor. Reciprocity failure in films and the presence of battery-less cameras allows film to be exposed for hours when even the most battle-worthy DSLR would succumb to battery drain. Once again, there is no reason to claim victory, just accept it for what it is.
Bottom line: they excel at different things.
It is then we realise, it doesn’t matter which is “better”. “Better” is a concept for the individual to decide based on their own needs and the outcomes they desire. My opinion? Both have a place in our lives and both deserve to exist. Neither is more superior to the other. They just see the world differently and give us alternatives to express our creativity.
The film photos were shot on Fuji Provia 100F (220) with a Pentax 67ii and either a 45mm f/4.5 or 35mm f/4.5 fisheye lens at f/5.6. Exposures were between 30 minutes and an hour. The digital photos were taken on a Canon 5D MkII with a 16-35mm lens and a Nikon D7100 with a 10-24mm lens. Exposures were around 30 seconds long, shot at ISO 3200 and f/4.
Thanks for reading,
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