Shot on Ilford HP5, EI 800, at the Jim Thorpe St. Patty’s Day parade. I’ll have a few more shots of these guys. The insignia on this guy’s backpack really struck me as powerful in B&W – they even offered to turn around and pose, and I turned ’em down.
But back to my quick comment yesterday: I’ve been contemplating the question “Is film ‘better’ than digital?”
Since I started shooting film, I hear this a lot. “Film is so much
better than digital!” says the die-hard film addict that I ran in to
on the street. I believe there are ways in which that’s true. Medium
and large format negatives yield exceptionally high resolution, for
example. But random film nut guy’s reasoning is the one that I hear
the most often: “more thought goes in to shooting film, and
concentrating on it means you get better pictures.” At that point I
start nodding and making general agreement noises, but I’m not
actively continuing the conversation. I don’t generally buy it, but
I’ve never had any information to back up my gut instinct. Now that
I’m pretty deep in to film, I wondered if it was true and, like any
science-minded individual would do, I compiled some statistics on my
shots to help me understand the arguments.
My “hit rate” for digital is usually around 10% – one of every ten
shots I take is one that I like enough to post-process. My digital
shots in Jim Thorpe this year are right on the money: 10.1% (495 shots
taken, 50 that I’ll finish processing).
On the film side of the camp, I shot 7 rolls of 120 (85 frames). Of
them, my first-round picks are way up: I’m processing 35 of them
(41.7%). You might read that as “I’m four times more likely to take a
good shot with film as digital.” So the “common wisdom” of “with
digital you take more crappy shots because you spend less time
focusing on what you’re doing” sounds plausible.
I spent some time thinking about this after generating my
statistics (those train rides home from work are great thinking
time). It occurred to me that there’s a flip side. In the digital
world, I average four exposures for every shot that I see (leaning on
the shutter release). In Jim Thorpe, I count 130 individual scenes
over 495 shots. It’s not because I’m lazy and don’t want to take the
time to compose the shot. I do it because I can, and
because it improves the likelihood of having successfully
gotten the shot that I visualized. I don’t have to worry (as
much) about models that blinked at the wrong moment or whatever other
trivial nuance I might have missed during the shooting; at my leisure,
I can go back and pick through the three or four and see if there are
any substantial differences between them that might make or break the
shot. Or, I can see some candid shot underway, start shooting it while
I pull the camera up, and find out in post whether or not I “got it”
in the dozen shots I fired off. Sometimes this yields really
fascinating blown exposures that I like for artistic
reasons. Allowing yourself to make mistakes adds to the creative
The only reason I don’t do the same with film is that I
can’t. (And this is probably a good reason for me to
never shoot 35mm with a motor drive advance – I’d spend too much time,
or too much money, developing…)
In the digital case, this means that I’ve got 3-4x as many
“keepers” than what I actually process, because they’re identical (or
nearly identical). Filtering out the dups from the Jim Thorpe set
brings me back to a hit rate of… 38.5% (50 of 130).
So: yes, my shooting style is different with digital than it is
with film. I take more “chances” with digital, and my film shots are
perhaps a little bit “safer”. But the next time some old fart tries to
tell me that “you shoot better pictures with film because you worked
harder to compose the shot,” I can tell him that, at least for me, his
argument doesn’t hold water. I shoot a similar percentage of
good shots with either film or digital.
And now I’ll get off your lawn.
Other perspectives and thoughts on the similarities and differences between shooting Film and Digital are, of course, welcome!