Is Film making a resurgance?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about film making a resurgence. Ever since Polaroid announced a about a year ago that they were ending production of their film, forums, blogs, and photography communities have been ramping up a widespread discussion over the benefits of film.   More recently, when Polaroid filed for Chapter 11 less than a month ago, the discussion of film vs. digital was taken up yet another notch.  While I am firmly in the digital world of photography, since my roots are founded in the Vivitar 110 I used as a youth, (and subsequently with my brothers Pentax K1000) the subject does hold a certain appeal for me.

So, I’d like to take a moment here on the blog to frame the “debate” from my own perspective. As a digital enthusiast, and at times, an admitted pixel peeper, the benefits of digital technology are not lost on me. At the same time, while technology can benefit us all, in many ways, and across many disciplines, it does have limits. Why? Because of the physics of it. Technologies can only be broken down so far before they reach limits. Data, for instance, can only be broken down into 1’s and 0’s. Likewise with the pixel in photography. Yes, we can advance technologies, and make pixels smaller, but in the end, there is always a limit to what a digital sensor can capture.

This is not to say that we cannot approach film-like quality with digital means. Feathering techniques, plugins, and action scripts can approach film-like characteristics, and many are quite good at it. For some examples of some of the best resources out there, I’d recommend a site called Action Central ( that has an impressive array of actions and such. Several plugin sites are also out there that include The Plugin Site, Adobe’s own Plugin pages, among several others.

On a side-by-side comparison though, I tend to be of the belief that film has a degree of smoothness in tonal and color gradations that simply cannot be duplicated by a digital sensor. They are getting very very good, and coming close, but from where I set (like I said, as an admitted pixel peeper at times), a pixel will always have a line that it cannot cross on its own. From that perspective, film will always win. I understand the converse, that when pixel peeping, I am looking at prints much closer than ever were intended for viewing purposes – but that’s just me.

What struck me most about this debate though, was a statement that really hit home, made by my friend, Dave Zarzecki (sorry folks, he does not have a web presence). It was analogy to graphic design and I think perfectly summarizes the difference between film and digital:

Film is to digital as vectoring is to rasterizing

Think about it.  Film is smooth and transitions from one tonal area to another blend very seamlessly,so even when you look at a print very close, it’s hard to tell where one color, tone or shade ends and where the next one begins.  The same holds true with vectoring…you can increase or decrease your viewing distance to HUGE degrees without seeing any pixelization.  By start contrast though, with digital, there will always be lines that the photoreceptors cannot cross for traditional sensors.  Wheter they are CCD, CMOS or other bayer arrays, there are fundamental limits to digital incarnations that cannot be surpassed without help.  The same holds true for rasterized objects.  Lines of demarcation are made, and to cross them, you need help, whether it be in the form of feathering, actions or plugins.

This is not intended to denigrate digital by any means – I love my 40D, and suspect within the next year I will also own a 1st generation 5D.  However, a fondness for the early days of my Vivitar 110 (and my brother’s Pentax K1000) will always be there.

So, what about the listening audience?  Will digital ever surpass film in tonal and color quality?  Has it done so already?  Or is it about to cross that line soon?  Sound off in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts!  In the meantime, happy shooting, and we’ll see you back here tomorrow!

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12 comments for “Is Film making a resurgance?

  1. January 6, 2009 at 8:39 am

    What is film? ; )

    Good thoughts – but I have not shot film in 7 years.

  2. January 6, 2009 at 9:34 am

    I shoot 120 film Just for personal work. usually Ilford or Fuji Neopan and only B&W so I can do the developing myself.

    Work is purely digital unless a customer “specifically” asks for it.

  3. Graeme
    January 6, 2009 at 10:27 am

    I wanted to try my hand at photography as a youth, but the cost of film was prohibitively expensive.

    That all changed with digital. As soon as I got my first digital camera, I was hooked. I now have a dSLR, and I’m loving it. Just ordered two new lenses!

    I got a Holga thinking it would be fun to play with film now that I make more money than I used to. The same problems still exist, as far as I’m concerned. Fewer shots, and processing is still more expensive, comparatively. Experiments that don’t work out are more expensive than with digital.

    When I process my digital stuff in PS I delete what didn’t work without a second thought: there’s enough there to concentrate on.

    When I develop a few rolls of film and half of the shots look like hell, I just feel cheated by comparison. Now that I’m shooting RAW with my digital camera, the possibilities seem endless by comparison to film. I admit my recent experience is with a plastic camera, but I have *zero* desire to buy a cheap film dSLR off Craig’s List and experiment further.

    Maybe after another 8 years experience I will feel differently, but… Digital is just more fun and accessible than film. If you’re blowing up your work to such a large size that the pixels are visible, then by all means go with film. I understand, however, that even some of the large format stuff is finally going digital. I would think shooting that kind of work would be cheaper with film. Fine.

    I’m sure some old hands will disagree with me, but make mine digital!

  4. January 6, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    I had the same experience with a Holga as Graeme here. Film is very expensive and will probably (eventually) stay only with fine art photographers who have darkrooms at home and cam make their own chemicals.

    As for the general discussions, film has more of a nostalgic feel to it, and the reality shows it. Many people TALK about using film but most don’t bother, this is why Polaroid is closing down, and why most paper and chemical manufacturers are struggling.

  5. January 7, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Great piece Jason. Hope you’re well.


  6. January 9, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Film is definitely making a resurgence with photographers. Just ask Ken Rockwell 😉

    But seriously folks, comparing cheap plastic Holgas to good digital cameras and then saying that film doesn’t look as good as digital, strikes me as a little weird. Granted, it’s not the camera that makes a good photographer but a master sculptor with dull chisels is not going to make the best sculpture he could, either.

    As far as the cost, I bought a ’80’s Eos630 film camera from Ebay for $20 and got a cheap 19-35 Tamron lens for $100. I could buy and shoot film for a year and not even come close to the cost of a nice full-frame digital SLR that’s gonna be obsolete in two years or less (and then you have to buy another one). I get my film developed and scanned at Walgreens and it looks as good as any dslr.

    I’m not a digital hater, I use digital. Digital has many advantages over film, image quality is NOT one of them. No digital camera, at any price, has the resolution and dynamic range as a slide film like Velvia, for example, right out of the box. Film is the original “raw.”

    All in all, film is just another tool the photographer uses to catch the image. Good for somethings, not as good for others. Sorry for the windy rant. Just adding my two cents. exactly what my opinion is worth… if that much.

  7. January 11, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    I remember shooting northern lights years ago with film. Having to bracket huge amounts to get what I needed. Now, I just look at the back of my 40D and adjust accordingly. Having shot film for years, I can tell you film is dead!!

  8. February 5, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Any thoughts on the new Nikon Coolpix P90? The 24x optical zoom looks fun.

  9. April 27, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    I think film will be around for a long time. It’s a great educational tool and for those artist who want this medium. To me digital expands my artistic capabilities.

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