Photographers’ Debate: Film Vs. Film, Digital Vs. Digital…And Digital Vs. Film (And JPEG Vs. Raw, While We’re At It)

The title of this editorial sounds confusing, and confused, I know, but I am voicing here a mere mirror for our photographic times. There are so many options available these days, with each having its camp and cheerleaders, that it's little wonder that photographers might seem confused. To begin with film vs. film, there's been a continuing debate over whether it is better to be footloose with a 35mm or more anchored with medium and large format cameras. While there's no doubt that when enlargements are made, or photos are reproduced in print any size larger than 11x14, that medium and large format wins hands down. But that enlargeability comes at the cost of 35mm's portability, though some kits I've seen are hardly something I'd like to carry throughout a long day's shoot. I won't get into that debate too much here, as it's handled nicely in this issue by Frances Schultz, and has been mulled over for as long as I've been loading film on reels.

The digital vs. digital format debate has been stirring for a while, and now that we have three (well, four, really) sensor chip formats (1/4 size for digicams, APS-C on most digital SLRs, and so-called "full frame" on some higher-end digital SLRs) and a fairly good representation of cameras in each camp, the main contention seems to be in the full frame vs. APS-C debate. As far as Shutterbug readers are concerned, the choice would be for full frame, given pricing many could afford. (See a recent Vote question on our website at: displayvote.cgi for reader response on this issue.) We've gotten great results from both sensor sizes, but the general perception is that the larger the sensor the better, especially when usefulness of former 35mm lenses is concerned. By the way, the fourth is the 1.3x Canon sensor on the EOS-1D Mark II N and like cameras; that gives us even more to consider.

As to digital vs. film, that's been going on for quite a while now, as you know, and there seems to be no end in sight to that discussion. Many have gone the digital route and not looked back. On our recent Shutterbug Cruise we had photographers from all walks of life and all levels of experience. But only 5 percent of them were still shooting film! On the other hand, many photographers/ printmakers are now practicing "hybrid" crafts, shooting and scanning film and printing via inkjet. While chemical darkroom practice is still very much alive, the fact that many schools are closing their darkrooms, and that darkroom classes at workshops are usually sparsely attended, my bet is that projection printing might be something we will consider as an "alternative process" a few years down the road.

And then there's the JPEG vs. raw debate. I know quite a few pro portrait photographers who say JPEG/Large/Fine is just dandy for their work, and feel that the raw workflow is too much of a pain to use in their work. Others feel that for ultimate image quality raw is the only way to go. While theoretically raw does produce more information and more options, there is no question that the myriad of raw formats, and the fact that they seem to change with new camera models even within the same brand tells me that raw will have to become more standardized before it gets the warm embrace it probably deserves.

Photographers have always had lively discussions about materials and methods. I can remember sitting around many evenings and arguing about developer dilution and agitation schedules with like-minded associates, or getting into heated debate about whose 105mm lens was best. That's part of our world. And because digital is in a continual state of development, this type of debate can actually stir moves toward improved materials and working methods.

We are driven in this because we know that our quest for the ultimate image quality should not be compromised by our gear or working methods. So I say, let the debates continue. But I also think we should keep in mind that the ultimate goal are images that express our artistic sensibilities and accomplish their tasks, be they as witness, as communicator, or as convincer. In that light, each of us will find our own path.