Film vs Digital


From my first ever roll of film, and still a favourite

I’ve been taking photographs as a hobby for about five years now, and up until recently all on film. This was never a conscious artistic decision; the cameras that lay around my house were all analogue fossils used by my father, a man who never embraced the digital revolution and who simply stopped taking pictures roundabout when Kodak stopped making film. Age 16 I bought new batteries for his Canon EOS 500 and ignored his disparaging grumbles of “expensive” and “outdated”, pointing my new weapon in the faces of all my friends and skipping to Boots for the pricey development process. Over the years I acquired my own cameras, experimenting with films and lenses until I found my favourites, and semi-learning the technique to take a good picture. Although I still think it’s mainly luck. But it’s pointless to deny that my father was indeed right in his typically pessimistic proclamations; film is costly, time-consuming and old-fashioned, and noone is going to pay for your processing when “any other photographer can sling a preset over a digital shot on Adobe Lightroom and produce the same effect” (quote from a prospective client). In July I caved to modernity and bought a Canon 5D Mark II, some of my first attempts with which you can judge over here.

I have been finding the digital transition very difficult. I have always subscribed to that Cartier-Bresson cliche of “the moment” – a photograph as a method of solidifying a moment in time, a way of capturing a memory in tangible form. It requires spontaneity and not much forethought. When I’m heading out of the house I can’t bring myself to sling my DSLR in a bag as I would one of my film cameras – partly because it’s the most expensive thing I own aside from my violin, and it would not survive the appallingly haphazard treatment my Olympus OM-10 is used to – mainly because I know that I won’t enjoy using it. It’s large and unwieldy and rather daunting to have shoved in your face; its shutter sound is enough to make you jump; I’m not comfortable enough with its settings to just point and shoot without the result being rubbish. By the time I’ve whipped it out and set it up, the image of laughter/sunlight/cat that I wanted to capture is gone. I become a joyless perfectionist, examining my work as soon as it has entered the camera, adjusting the aperture a notch and becoming frustrated when it doesn’t produce the expected result. And sure, shooting digital gives me a more concrete assurance of at least a couple of quality snaps than shooting on film does, but where’s the pleasure in three fantastic photos when you’ve had to sift through seventy mediocre ones to find them? It’s so hard having an expensive toy you don’t yet understand.


I have written a lot about why I like film photography on various platforms, and in particular film photography. In this post for one of my favourite analogue blogs two years ago, I talked about some of my favourite quirks of 35mm film. Light leaks, double exposures, looking cool in selfies – the usual deeply intellectual commentary you have come to expect from me. But despite my confident assertions on the superiority of film – both in results and in influence on the artistic process – I had always questioned whether the justifications were nothing more than excuses for my failure to give in to modernity. I didn’t have the funds to invest in digital, or the confidence that I would stick out from the crowd once the quirk of analogue wasn’t on my side. Since entering the digital arena, I do realise my claims were justified. The process itself is what has defined my photography; when you have 36 exposures to last an entire week of holiday then the consideration and effort put into every shot is tantamount. Photos are fewer, but better. I revised my technique and learned much faster on a film camera because everything is in manual, and fucking up was expensive and disappointing. Getting physical copies of every roll changed the sort of things I wanted to photograph – it made me really think about what I was taking pictures of, and – particularly when it came to holidays – what I wanted to remember and how I wanted to remember it. I do think film is the best recorder of an instant in time, and it is often the flaws – the dust granules trapped in the lens, the light leaks and lens flares, the slight overlap of frames – that can make a film photograph so much more real and emotive than something digital. Anything can happen. Film has even penetrated my usual tendency to WANT EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW, and the anticipation of picking up a packet of photographs from the lab remains one of my favourite feelings in the world.

I will admit that I am being unfair to digital, and that a lot of my resentment of my new camera is down to teething problems. I’m still learning how to use it. When it comes to portraiture and head shots it has indeed proven a blessing – I have been able to track my progress and improve markedly over a matter of weeks as opposed to the years it took me to establish a style on film (see if you agree). But I’m still very thankful that the majority of my development as a photographer was done through the medium of 35mm. 

Over three years ago I was interviewed by Norwegian blogger Hei Astrid in her regular segment on analogue photographers. I said many of the things I have said above, but the final sentence strikes me as the most appropriate summary of why film, for now, remains my favourite way to photograph:

“I shoot film because when it comes to really capturing a moment, I would rather something I cannot retake.”


A Good Portrait


Ever since finishing my finals and committing to the unpaid internship game for the conceivable future, I have been considering my options for making any form of money before the age of 23. It has led to finally biting the digital bullet and deciding to invest in a big old fancy DSLR, and one of the most lucrative uses of a big old fancy DSLR is making people pay you to photograph them. People bloody love pictures of themselves. During my my last few months pre-finals I decided to give some portraits a shot; a Facebook status appeal for subjects elicited so many responses that I managed only about a quarter of respondents. At this time in our lives where we’re all so painfully aware of change and transition (and job applications), the appeal and value of a good picture of self can’t be over-estimated, and it got me thinking: what exactly makes a good portrait? Or perhaps more importantly, who?

For me, posed portrait photography is somewhat new territory. I like to take candid pictures, and most of my favourite personal portraits are in no way posed – something a lot of photographers from Diane Arbus to Brassai would denounce as a terrible way to document others. (I prefer Susan Sontag’s view that “there is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do… their expressions are private ones, not those they would offer to the camera”.) It’s something I often get flack over from my friends – “can you please WARN ME NEXT TIME” – but I take photographs in order to record my life and create physical moments that I want to remember, and most often those are not the ones where you’ve all lined up in your most flattering positions and smiled for long enough that you look dead inside. It’s gotta be natural, man, it’s gotta encapsulate the moment, evoke an emotion, tell a story, blah blah blah – but I will insist that it’s the candid photos that you look back on with fuzzy sentimentality, not the bared grins into the iPhone selfie camera. When I look at my favourite portraits that I have taken over the years, they are almost without fail of people who mean the most to me; my very best friends, romantic interests, my family. It’s easy to argue that that’s mainly because they’re the people I spend the most time with and therefore photograph the most, and perhaps that’s true, but there’s also a question of intimacy and trusting someone to record you at your most relaxed and most natural. What I appreciate most about photographing my closest friends is that they have come (been forced) to accept that the camera is just there as a part of the conversation, and it doesn’t need to be posed for.

Last year my mum and I went to the David Bailey exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, where his iconic celebrity portraits of everyone from Diana to Johnny Depp were displayed in the context of his wider body of work. It was a decent exhibition, but at the end my mum commented that having now seen all Bailey’s other photographic efforts she wasn’t so sure that he was actually such a fantastic photographer after all; his portraits are indeed fantastic, but even more so in their contrast to the distinctly average nature of everything else. A good portrait is not as entirely dependent on equipment and technique as the kind of relationship a photographer can foster with their subject, whether they’ve known them for a day or a decade. The very best pop culture photographers – Bailey, Leibovitz, Testino – often achieve the results they do from being fun, interesting people that their subjects can relate to, that people want to spend time with, and who can make those they photograph as comfortable and enthusiastic about the presence of a camera as if it wasn’t there at all.

My highest mark in my degree was an elective essay on the impact of photography on 19th century painting (pick what you’re interested in, right?), and I particularly focussed on its impact on the style and process of portraiture. Instead of staying in and actually reading for the essay I went to a party a few nights before my deadline – all in the name of research – and interrogated a friend halfway through an oil painting degree at the Florence Academy of Art; what extent are they encouraged to use photographs as an aid when producing oil portraits? He told me that they avoided it as much as possible; that a successful painting process was painfully dependent on your sitter being present in the flesh; that it was the visual interaction between artist and subject that entirely defined the finished product. And I thought that a very succinct summary of a good portrait – in any medium.