The Film/Digital Divide
Part One

It’s the middle of December, 2008. As I mentioned in last week’s picture-of-the-week selection here it’s been over two years since I shot a frame of film. And so my dabbling in it again this week has prompted some thoughts.

First, there’s been no sudden retrospective epiphany that prompted me to pick up a film camera again. I always enjoyed film. And at the same time I quickly came to appreciate the benefits that digital brought, as that technology matured and became affordable.

I love ‘em both. And I hope to continue using both far into the future. The internet photography forums are full of passionate defenders of each side. People who insist on validating their own choice by denigrating the other. It’s a pointless debate, if you ask me.

They bring different strengths. And they bring different weaknesses.

Suum cuique.


When I first picked up my Leica M6 last week the first thing that struck me was… exposure. Getting exposure right has been at the heart of photography since its inception, of course. But with the sophisticated, automated metering systems built into most cameras these days, it’s something that photographers can choose to largely ignore, if they wish. But the M6, as an all-manual camera, requires you to set the exposure yourself. And to do that, you have to think about light. You have to think about it a lot.

Now the fact is you’ll never come across a photographer who admits he or she doesn’t. Light is at the very center of our photographic universe, after all.

But ask the average photographer what exposure value they’re using – what combination of shutter speed and f-stop they’re using at a particular iso level – and you’ll probably get a blank stare. Most photographers shoot aperture-priority and so know what they’ve set that to. And by glancing at the viewfinder they can see what shutter speed the camera has selected. But the whole notion of glancing at a scene and instantly knowing that at iso 400 you’ll want to use 1/250 of a second at f1.4 – or 1/30 of a second at f4 because you know you’ll need the couple of feet of depth-of-field you’ll get at f4 for that subject six feet away rather than the eight inches that you’ll get at f1.4 – is becoming a lost art.

A manual camera forces you. And that’s not an altogether bad thing. I quickly got a little jolt of pleasure at once again looking at scenes in that way. Of walking into a Starbucks and looking at the light and then turning the aperture ring and shutter speed dial on my Leica before ever raising the camera to my eye. Of judging not just the quantity of light, but also its evenness and consistency. Of being able to say it’s all the same over here – just shoot away. But noting that the corner over there has a couple more stops worth of light spilling out from that lamp and so if you want to shoot that – you’ll have to adjust for it.

Of course, you can do that sort of manual metering with any modern camera (well, at least those designed for pros and serious amateurs). Even the most sophisticated SLR/DSLR with their computer databases of images to compare against can be metered manually. It’s just that almost no one does. Including me.

I use both my Nikon D3 and my Leica M8 almost exclusively in aperture-priority mode. And even my M7 – a film camera – gets mostly used that way.

So manual metering is not exclusively a film-versus-digital quality. It’s just that there are precious few all-manual cameras any more. And of the few there are, none are digital. So the few photographers who actually meter that way, who look at light in that way, are almost exclusively film photographers.


The next thing, the next remembrance that struck me, was… the film itself.

I’ve always loved film. I love the different palettes that film brings. The different characteristics that you can bring to an image simply by whatever kind of film you choose. There’s an almost tactile pleasure that comes from loading a roll of film. There’s a tiny bit of gladness that comes from simply looking at a box of film and the potential it evokes.

When I pulled that leader of Tri-X across the camera back and into the empty film spool on the other side, it made me smile.

And when I put the camera bottom back on and righted the body to pull those first turns on the film advance lever, the silky feeling felt incomparably right.

The best thing, though, the zenith of the whole experience, was in those first trips of the shutter.

The gentle “snick” of the cloth focal plane shutter on a Leica film rangefinder is magical. It has always reminded me of what photography has always been at its very essence – the razor-like slicing of a single instant in time. A moment held, captured, forever.

All cameras do that, of course. But none do it with the intangible feeling of having done just exactly that, as a Leica M. If you ask me, that alone justifies their cost.


If film has all these wondrous qualities, there nevertheless remain aspects which are a challenge.

First is film speed. Once having loaded a cassette of film and selected the iso at which you’re going to shoot it, you’re pretty much stuck with it for however long it takes you to burn through those 36 shots.

Put a roll of Kodak’s new Ektar 100-speed film in your camera – as I did in my M7 just yesterday - and you’ll be perfectly set for daytime, outdoor shooting. But let the evening shadows lengthen into nighttime and if that roll is still in your camera you’re going to have a problem with too-low shutter speeds, even with fast lenses.

That’s not an issue for most consumers – who simply use the pop-up flash built into their cameras – but for serious photographers who want the much more natural look of available light shooting, it gets real tough real quick.

The converse holds, too. Put in a roll of Delta 3200 because you want to shoot some scenes inside that dark, smoky bar and you’ll be good to go as long as things remain dark and murky. But if you only popped off 20 frames and it’s now the next day and you’re back outside in the bright sunshine – those remaining 16 frames of Delta are going to suck.

A medium-high speed film like Tri-X at 400 splits the difference and is generally the most flexible, with the fewest can’t-shoot-now scenarios. But that presumes that that iso range is what you really want.


Similar to film speed, color temperature can be a problem. I’ll never forget the crappy orange color print pictures I got indoors years ago with the Canon AE-1 my girlfriend (later wife) gave me, before I had saved up the cash to buy a flash unit.

It’s not a problem consumers have – they’ll just use the ubiquitous pop-up flash I mentioned a moment ago. It’s not a problem black and white shooters have. And, it’s not a problem for digital shooters, either – what with auto white balance and the ability to adjust white balance in post processing. But it remains a problem for anyone wanting to shoot color slides or prints.

Back in the day, pros and serious amateurs often solved the problems of film speed and color temperature by having multiple camera bodies, loaded with different film stock. That can still work, of course. But it remains a clumsy solution for those of us who aren’t enamored with the prospect of hauling a bunch of photo gear everywhere we go.


All said, though, these are little more than nits. Film has always had its own unique look, the one most of us alive today grew up experiencing. Perhaps that’s why it resonates so strongly, with so many of us.

Digital has its own unique beauty, with sufficient strengths that it will continue its own march towards ubiquity.

When I bought my M8 a couple years ago, I honestly questioned whether I’d ever again return to film. Yes, it was that good. The at-last marriage of high-quality digital with my long-preferred Leica rangefinder way of shooting was a truly momentous milestone. And the later introduction of the Nikon D3, with its extraordinary high-iso performance, was a truly transformative breakthrough. Digital is here. It’s wonderful. And it continues to get better and better.

More on that anon.

In the meantime, I’m happy to once again be shooting film, as well. I’m a couple frames shy of having finished that first back-again roll of Tri-X. It’s been a delight carrying the all-manual M6 again. Last night I pulled out my old “darkroom box” and mixed up a fresh batch of Kodak Hypo Clear, a fresh batch of fixer, and a new solution of Photo Flo film wash. I’ve got a new bottle of HC110. And sometime in the next week or so I’ll get that roll of Tri-X developed. And, finally, even though I’ve never been a big fan of color prints, I have that fresh roll of Ektar to exercise in the M7. I’m looking forward to seeing what that looks like.

More on all this too, as it develops.