Nuts & Bolts
The Never Ending Diatribe of Digital vs. Film
November 2002

by Bill Pierce

Every time I write a column that compares some aspect of digital photography to conventional silver photography, (1) about 40 percent of the email I get is from photographers saying that they are glad that I agree that digital photography is better than traditional film-based photography. (2) About 40 percent say they are glad that I agree film-based photography is better than digital. (3) About 20 percent say they don't understand which I think is better; would I please tell them.

If a carpenter said an electrically-powered nail gun was better than a band saw, you would say, "Better for what?" What is there in photography that makes someone think a tool is so special, it can be used for everything?

When it comes to journalism, the speed of delivery clearly favors digital photography. Any argument about the superior image quality of film falls a little short when the film is invariably high-speed negative in 35mm format. If you think digital photojournalism is the coming thing, you missed the boat.

It was the coming thing when the wires were shooting digital and the papers and magazines were using film. Even then, when "digital quality" was noticably lower than film, I never heard a reader say, "You know, this digital image is so much lower in quality than the film image across the page from it."

Now, it's not the "coming thing;" it's the thing. Very few news publications have their own film darkrooms any more. And the custom lab across town is not really the answer for breaking news. Photographers who shoot film are quite often expected to have it processed themselves and to provide scans from that film.

As the way a publication produces, edits, lays out and stores images becomes more exclusively digital, the path of least resistance will be to shoot even feature stories with a looser deadline digitally. I am told that National Geographic has begun looking at shooting stories digitally. I would imagine that this bastion of technical quality, but small page size, will not suffer from digitally shot stories.

Perhaps the final proof that digital is here is the number of good photojournalists who grew up on film, love film and shoot much of their current work digitally. Gilles Peress, one of the best photojournalists in the racket, did his last trip to the Israeli-Palestinian border digitally. Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Foley was shooting an editorial-style commercial job and remarked, "I don't even know why I brought my film cameras."

And, remember, these folks are shooting with small, handholdable digital cameras like the Canon D60, not the larger, less portable digital cameras and backs with more impressive technical specifications that are used for studio shooting.

How can they get away with it?

(1) The most obvious limitation of any digital news camera is it's inability to produce a file that is big enough to produce a really large print without falling apart. Newspapers and magazine pages aren't big enough to hold really big prints. The big bugaboo that everybody talks about doesn't really exist in practice.

"But what about exhibitions of my lifetime of work which is so much better than everybody else's?" It's not an anwer, but I have to say that I will be relieved not to see prints as large and as unnecessary as some photographers' egos. And I will be pleased to see photographs that could fit on my walls instead of being sized for galleries and the hallways of corporate buildings.

(2) The highest possible level of technical excellence is not a necessity in news photography or we would all be trying to cover wars with 8x10 view cameras. The earliest photographs of war were made with view cameras. But they appeared in print weeks laters as artists renderings made from the photographs. And, yes, they were often posed.

News photography has changed. Both esthetically and technically. It is a gross oversimplification, but I suppose you could say today's news photographs have more immediacy. Digital photography is where we currently are as we walk down that long path that was started in the middle of the 19th century.

Next month - why you shouldn't throw away your film cameras.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist