This past week I received the following question, “is film a better creative format than digital?”
I admit that the discussion regarding film vs. digital isn’t really that common anymore. Yes, I talk with high school students that are using film in photography classes. Those discussions are mostly about how film works, about processing, and printing, or using different chemicals.
Sometimes an older person who stopped taking pictures in the 1980s will loudly tell me digital is unnatural, doesn’t look good, and is cheating. Cheating? That conversation is always humorous. However, it is one-sided and not really worth getting into because any opinion but theirs is going to be ignored.
However, this question wasn’t about which is better as a way of making photographs, it was about creativity, and that intrigued me. Creativity is about imagination, originality, and art.
My quick answer to that was that I liked both film and digital images. To me, film is a more “tactile” medium than a digital image, and I like the extreme tonality that a good photographer can achieve. I believe digital image files can have more sharpness and a lot more detail. Sometimes that is good, sometimes not. That also depends on the photographer.
In my opinion creating an image is what the photographer does. It involves deciding upon the kind of camera and medium one might use, but the camera and medium is just the vehicle for a photographer’s creativity. It is really all about the final image, and how one decides to produce that image for the best visual effect.
I think some times that too much is made about the process. The process is just that, a series of actions or steps that one takes to achieve a particular end. I guess what a photographer does to create that show-stopping photograph is truly interesting, but in the end it is really only about the photograph.
The idea that there might be something more creative in making an image with film than with digital doesn’t make much sense.
I remember all the possibilities we had with film. Imaginative photographers would select different types of film and change the way they exposed and process it. Photographers probably had shelves of different chemicals for both developing film and making prints, as well as cabinets filled with photographic papers, and all as part of their process to bring out personal creative vision.
Now photographers can shoot with cropped or full frame cameras, and instead of dedicated rooms filled with equipment, they load their computers with software programs to help them with their personal creative project.
When using film one would previsualize (a term coined by Minor White) how one wanted to produce the final image before releasing the shutter. And I think many still do that to reach their vision, except now photographers are thinking of programs like Photoshop or Lightroom instead of the chemical processes required with film.
There are some photographers that only know film, there are some photographers that only know digital, and there are those that are competent in both. And although they might use film, digital, or both, to produce an image, creativity comes from the photographer and not the process.
Maybe I should have just replied to that question about creativity with photographer Ansel Adams’ words, “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
I look forward to any comments readers have. Thank you, John
My website is at www.enmanscamera.com
My belief is that the digital revolution has increased the creativity in photography and in the post processing for the average user. It has made it much easier for people to photograph and get that “instant” result and then hone that result until they get their final product. I personally love the old analog way of the film, but have not done it in many years.
I get that you absolutely disagree with my article Mikael. I do appreciate that you took the time to respond and I is a good discussion.
I said all I could regarding creativity not coming from the tool, but from the individual.
Whether its film or its digital its about the light . You don’t take a picture you make it. Digital has increased creativity among photographers.
Of course you are correct regarding light, but you and Mikael both are of the belief that is the process, not the individual that creativity comes from. Well, you read my article and know I feel that digital and film are just processes to an end. The fact that digital allows some people to do more with an image than film did isn’t the point. Deciding to use chemicals, film, different cameras, or programs in the pursuit of creativity is the individuals choice.
The advantage of film was that you had to preconceive, you had limited exposures and you had to get it right first time so you slowed down and learnt to make every exposure count.
Creativity comes from unhinging the mind from conformity and social constraints and is therefore independent of choice of method. Surely no-one can say that Max Ernst was less creative than any digital photographer.
However, it is much easier to realise your creativity with digital. Some things that were excruciating with film – negative masking, Agfa contour – are dead easy with digital. This in itself changes the boundaries of what is creative.
I was hoping for one of your well thought out comments Murray. I like your words, “Creativity comes from unhinging the mind from conformity and social constraints and is therefore independent of choice of method.” Of course creativity in all about choice. Sure it is easier to manipulate an image to day sitting at a computer than it was for us that once spent hours in darkened rooms. But the process to creativity is just that, a process.
Thank you again for your opinion.
I use both film & digital camera’s ..when I take my film camera out I have to think and know what and where I’m shooting ..I guess I’m most happy when I’m trying to lay out a photo ..Weather doesn’t seem to bother me as much as people ..I intend to shoot more in the rain because of the lack of people ..the finished result is almost nil between both..I guess it’s a person and their passion ..
Yep, we agree Duncan. Creativity comes from, as you wrote, “it’s a person and their passion.” thanks, I appreciate your input.
for me, being crap at painting stumped my creativity, a camera was the only answer! Didn’t matter film/digital, I can make pictures with either, and mostly you can tell what I’ve shot. 🙂
I think you are a bit hard on yourself fragg….I appreciate your photography and thank yo for taking the time to comment on my ramblings.
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Great article John! I feel all images are created from a personal vision. Having ‘dabbled’ in film developing in school I do feel that the digital world seems to open up more possibilities in the creative process. Having said that, some images are taken with that processing in mind….how it can be manipulated to achieve a certain look. I feel the digital world allows more freedom in that direction…..but it all starts with the photographers personal vision…..
Of course I agree with you Wendy. Digital does make it easier to manipulate that image and allows more freedom. Ahh…we agree. You wrote, “it all starts with the photographers personal vision.”
I agree with Mr. Foote – the limited number of frames in a roll of film, the accompanying cost to proocess, and the length of time to see the results of your shoot give one pause in the creative process to more carefully consider what’s in front of their lens prior to tripping the shutter. In that sense, the creative process is indeed influenced by the chosen photographic medium. Contrast the “film method” to (some people’s) technique of “shooting lots ‘tll you get something worthwhile”. In other words, the cosequences of not taking the time to consider what’s in front of the digital lens is less than those in film. For example, if I were shooting 8×10 film (I can only wish!), I’d certainly be more carefull and selective in my creative process than with digital. Having said that, I shoot far fewer pictures in digital now than when I was a novice photographer because I’ve learned to be more selective before I trip the shutter.
Nice to hear from you Roger. It has been years.
Both Murray Foote and I paid our dues with 8X10, 4X5, medium format, 35mm and film. (I am sure Murray still does expose a sheet or two every now and then.)
I like your words, “I’ve learned to be more selective before I trip the shutter.” I am sure you were writing about that being part of “your” creative process. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
I have a jumble of feeling on this subject, but another quote from A/A was “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs” so put the image behind glass and in most cases, I am sure praise will be ascribed to the image and not the method.
For me the darkroom has the tactile creative craft feeling that I do not get from the computer screen. But as Murray said, when it comes to ease of getting a satisfactory result – digital is less fraught with difficulty (unless you have my Luddite feeling about computers) so a very non-committal answer really 😉
Thanks David, And well said, “there are only good photographs”. Also I hope you don’t mind me quoting you, “I am sure praise will be ascribed to the image and not the method.”
Both you and Mr. Adams have it right. However, what surprises me after posting my thoughts on the subject, (I shared with a Canadian Photographers forum and our local facebook also) that there actually are photographers that rely on digital (and maybe film, but they have been quiet) for creativity.
Going back to the original question posed at the start of your blog, “is film a better creative format than digital?”, it’s probably safe to say (and this is mentioned in many of the replies) that creativity springs from the mind of the individual, not the camera format used. Having said that, I believe that different camera formats bring their own set of unique tools to the creative process. In much the same way that one does not drive a rally car in the same fashion as they would a family sedan (they will both get one to the grocery store, albeit in a different level of comfort), I personally do not use a film camera in the same way as I do a digital camera. As I mentioned above, I tend to deliberate more prior to committing my finger to the shutter release on a film camera. Although this is solely due to economic considerations, it does slow down my creative process. That deliberate pause for additional consideration makes my creative process different. However, I do not believe that my film cameras are a better format for creativity…just different.
Roger, I must thank you for your comments.
The original question came from a fellow that had friends that only shoot film. I expect his friends had tried digital, but like many first-timers they probably only tried some little point and shoot. And thinking like many that digital is digital.
About film photography as a distinct creative medium.
We could call image manipulation creativity, but I’d rather not.
With film we manipulated the quality of the image with, as you wrote, using different camera formats. There was also film size and manufacturer’s film quality. Lets include how we exposed the film and how we processed it and with what chemicals.
And we must remember Enlargers: Condensor, Dichroic & Coldlight. Gosh, and just like what camera lens there was what enlarger lens.
Ok, now there was also what print paper and what chemicals we decided to use for that creative effect.
Gosh, there must be more I am forgetting…….
Today there are those that are excellent with their chosen software and with film there were, and still are those that excel in with producing prints.
You mentioned that camera formats also need to be put into the creative mix, I think I agree.
I like your car analogy. That is a perfect way of looking at this.
I guess I could go on and on. However, you put it nicely when you wrote, regarding film, “That deliberate pause for additional consideration makes my creative process different. However, I do not believe that my film cameras are a better format for creativity…just different.”