The Shock of the Old: Film or Digital Photography?

Is new really cracked up to be or is old better? Here’s the second of a series of posts on East of the M60.

For our second post in the series, the advantages and disadvantages of email and the Royal Mail are analogous to both digital and film media.

In our second post under The Shock of the Old, we focus on the differences between film and digital photography. In other words, the joys of waiting for your holiday photos or sharing them online.

Film photography

There is a special quality about film photography. It has a sense of permanence that digital media lacks. Whereas digital card formats come and go, a set of negatives from 1982 can still be developed and printed. So long as your local lab can process them. If you’re able to develop your own negatives and have the right equipment, you’re laughing. Most colour film produced after 1972 supports the C-41 process which remains standard today and is supported by most labs.

Developed and printed, a finished roll of 12, 24, or 36 exposures is best enjoyed in mutual company. They can be referred to time and time again, either in photo albums or used biscuit tins, sparking conversation topics.

Contrary to popular belief, film is not dead. 35mm film is still supported by larger branches of Boots The Chemist, some superstore chains and Max Spielman. Disposable cameras are still popular and they too use 35mm film. There is also a wealth of more specialist labs in principal city centres (I sometimes use Advanced Photo on John Dalton Street, Manchester for medium format processing) or mail order services like Peak Imaging in Sheffield.

The more specialist labs are able to develop and process 120 medium format film as well as 35mm film. Some can process slides, non C-41 film (i.e. black and white film such as Ilford HP5). A handful of labs can process 110 film, a compact instamatic format created by Kodak in 1972.

Digital photography

In the last decade and a half, we seem to have warmed to digital photography en masse. So much so that film is in decline. Thanks to improved technology, we are taking more photos than ever. On high end digital SLRs, less so on compact cameras though more so on smartphones. Also on digital tablets.

What’s more, we don’t need to rely on the Royal Mail or the local chemists. Want a hard copy? Stick a memory card into your printer. Cannot get all of your relatives to come in and look at your photos? Share them on Facebook or any other social networking sites. Make a mess of your photo first time around? Delete it, or edit it on your computer.

For many, digital no longer means coming back from Boots, and finding some of your 24 or 36 pictures ruined by thumbprints or blurred images. Again, we can edit or delete our dud images. If we find our digital images too sterile, we could always join Instagram and turn them into postmodern digital pictures with a whiff of 1977 about them.

Where film photography wins

Nothing beats the anticipation of waiting for your photos, or the joys of developing and printing from your own negatives. There is a more tactile verve with analogue photography; from loading your own film; getting to grips with more manual cameras; plus developing your own negatives and enlarging your pictures.

With the continued rise of digital photography some film cameras can be picked up cheaply from charity shops and antique shops. If you choose this route, be mindful of its condition and load a cheap film to see if it works properly before pursuing more serious projects. Compared with digital cameras, you may be surprised with the results you get from film. A bit of research into your desired camera(s) is extremely helpful.

If the results turn out to be good, you may prefer to share them with friends and family. I have turned a few heads with some of the photos I have taken with Kodak Retinettes compared with digital cameras. Some of which have graced this blog.

Digital photography seems to be characterless; each film tends to have a character of its own. For example, Kodak Portra 160’s good for skin tones; Fujifilm’s colour films for its slightly muted colours; Kodak Ektar 100 for sunny days; and Ilford XP2 for documentary features.

Thanks also to digital photography, it is possible to cross the bridge between digital and analogue forms. Labs offer processing services onto CD/DVD as well as hard copies. Film photography is more future proof than we think. Films if kept in tip-top condition can be duplicated by whatever digital means till kingdom come.

Where digital wins

Digital photography offers one major factor: convenience. Convenience in the sense you can just print one or two images at any one time. Convenient in the sense you can share on social networking sites in a matter of moments.

Another is the variety of media: smartphones have had an affect on compact camera sales. We spend more time taking photos of ourselves, of our food and drink, and our trips to the pubs. Oh, and our holidays. Instead of our envelope of 24 or 36 photos and negatives, we could just use our phone to show the holiday snaps.

Plus there’s versatility: with the right photo manipulation program, we can delete extraneous features. We can resize it to our requirements for use in other projects. Without a scanner. Plus we can deliberately age our photos thanks to sites like Instagram and appropriate filter effects.

Analogue or digital: Which is better?

I love digital for its convenience. It is great for more immediate assignments, particularly in the production of this blog. As for special occasions, film any day, given how long a well kept set of negatives could last compared with digital media. Though I use both media, I prefer being able to plan my shots with a degree of thought in film. I love its character, and I love how digital technologies can be a bridge between the oldest of film types and the most modern of file formats.

Verdict: FILM 51%/DIGITAL 49%.

Next in The Shock of the Old: Analogue Radio or Digital Radio.

S.V., 23 September 2014.

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