A Film vs. Digital Debate


I strongly believe that one is not ‘better’ than the other. They are different. And I think most photographers should use both, and it should depend on what kind of project they are working on and what they are trying to say. I switch between the two all of the time .. my Kosovo work is shot digitally and my long-running projects on Homelessness and New York City are shot on good old Tri-X film, all in 35mm format.

6x7 color negative from Lt. Nic Madrazo's service, part of Lutton's Graceland project

6x7 color negative from Lt. Nic Madrazo's service, part of Lutton's Graceland project



So, the question is, Which am I going to use for this project?

35mm from same scene.

35mm from same scene.

As I mentioned in this interview with Rachel Hulin for Nerve.com, I try hard to think about which medium I want to work in when starting a new project. To quote from the interview,

“When I shoot black and white things are dark and gritty, very much intentionally, and they compliment and draw things out of the subject matter. As I move forward I am approaching new stories that don’t have this feel to begin with, and it wouldn’t be natural to cloud it under an arbitrary choice of color vs. black and white. I want everything to compliment each other – tones, composition, and everything else. For me, longer and slower stories are ripe for the way I work with film but the faster pieces almost demand we shoot digital. And, for me, digital means color these days, as I’m still trying to get something that looks ‘right’ for me in grayscale (back to that feel that compliments), something that matches or surpasses what I get shooting black and white.”

35mm picture from Nic's service.

35mm picture from Nic's service.

6x7 of same scene, a moment before or later

6x7 of same scene, a moment before or later

I was referring there more to the choice between color and black and white, but this more or less amounts to the choice between film and digital for me. I think I’ll always have the mantra hammered into me as an intern at Black Star back in 2005… to paraphrase, ‘If you want it black and white, shoot it black and white!’. Meaning, of course, shooting it ‘right’ the first time, on black and white film. This applies to so much in photography (I also was smacked then in to learning to not crop pictures .. get it right when you click the shutter .. and this has stuck with me remarkably well except for extremely rare circumstances when I break from my rule .. like below on this post!): get it right the first time and don’t rely and get dependent on photoshop ‘fixes’.

As I mentioned rather furtively earlier on DVA, I’m starting work on a new project called ‘Graceland’, about America today and the stories we’re missing or ignoring due to the election cycle and wars. My original thought was that this project had to be shot on film, in color, and in a new format for me, 6×7.

A lot of things went in to this decision … I wanted something that looked new, and stood out from, the work I have done before. I’ve been shooting the color digital (Kosovo) and gritty black and white film (Homeless, I See A Darkness) for awhile, and wanted something that stood out from that work both in ‘feel’ and ‘impact’. I felt a larger negative, in a new perspective and format, would accomplish that. I also was interested in exploring how medium format (which I haven’t shot since ’05) would change my approach to photographing, and how that would impact how the pictures looked, and were interpreted. I’ve been looking a lot at art-editorial shooters lately (hard to define or give examples off.. think Ziyah Gafic, Mikhael Subotzky, Simon Norfolk, Alec Soth and Alessandra Sanguinetti, amongst so many more) and I wanted to explore. So, I started shooting test rolls on a rented Mamiya 7 and eventually took one to my first real shoots of the project, the Boeing Strike and Lt. Madrazo’s funeral.

Nic's service, digital 35mm file.

Nic's service, digital 35mm file.

Partly as a backup, partly for ‘deadline’ sake (I was thinking of immediate turnaround for news publications), I also shot digital at these events, and it has turned out to be a lucky blessing. After getting my 220 film back and spending time and money getting it scanned, I was rather underwhelmed. Maybe I wasn’t giving it enough time to push myself with a new piece of equipment requiring a different method, but my first few rolls did not have that feel that I was looking for.. that new thing that would really distinguish this project from my other work. There wasn’t hardly anything different between the film and digital except for the format (35mm vs. 6×7). The color, perspective, depth and much more importantly how I was working with the scene were not changed from everything I had done before. Why is that? I can’t really say.

The rare better picture, from a cropped 6x7 negative.

The rare better picture, from a cropped 6x7 negative.

There is more backstory to getting this Graceland project, which I hope to get to at some point, but suffice now to say that it has been a struggle to find funding and outlet for the work. To date, wholly unsuccessful. So when it came time last week to get ready for a shoot in Eastern Washington at an apple orchard I had to decide whether or not it was worth it to continue shooting film (at $35/day rental for the camera, $10/roll (20 pictures) for film plus $11 per roll developing, and 15min per frame to scan) on an unfunded project. Given my apprehension about whether or not this new format was impacting the final product, it was a clearer decision to go strictly with digital. In many ways, I felt I had to: the investment, in time and money, in shooting film was not paying off. An experiment that failed my assumptions, but I must still go forward, as I believe in the story (as M. Scott said after reading a draft of this, he thinks of these debates are concerning ‘packaging, rather than substance’. of course, but the packaging must be considered and utilized to its fullest extent. I quote, paraphrasing again, Paolo at the Oslo Magnum workshop, “We’re photographers. Aesthetics are all we have got”, meaning, I think, that we’re working in visual medium and have to grab our audience in the most efficient and important ways, and that will be done visually)

So, I might have to toss, or crop (something I do only as a final, regrettable resort), some of the medium format frames to fit in to the new edit, but I’ll be able to work more cheaply and certainly quicker. I wish I could have pushed the 6×7 further, and I hope to try it (or square! can’t wait to work with it again) again soon.. probably when I get some funding behind me.

Worker in the processing plant of the Phillippi Fruit Company.

Worker in the processing plant of the Phillippi Fruit Company.

So when I headed out last week to photograph the apple farm and its migrant workers, I only had my digital camera with me, shooting in my ‘normal’ way. “Graceland” will now be some extension of the method of my Kosovo work, for better or worse. We’ll have to wait for a while longer to see how it all looks together. For another post is that crazy process of conception to individual days and shoots to the final production of a story. I’m always amazed at how it works out.

Leaving my neighborhood for the 3hour drive to Wenatchee, Washington to photograph an apple farm.

Leaving my neighborhood for the 3hour drive to Wenatchee, Washington to photograph an apple farm.

(maybe you could guess, this last picture is a loving nod to my favorite Eugene Richards book, “Americans We”. The best link is to go to his webpage, go to ‘Books’ and click to see the spreads. I hope I can one day accomplish something as important as this book, in the same way that Richards dedicates his book to Robert Frank)


  1. ziyah gafic says:

    hi,
    i think the that you were somehow mislead by trying to shoot the same / similar scene in different technique / format. Format, the size of it, the shape of it, it’s dynamic dictates in a way what you can squeeze in the frame. Bottom line is, your image examples don’t really prove anything else but the fact we already knew: if you shoot the SAME / SIMILAR scene in different formats, do not expect miracles. Medium is not only the carier of the message, but message itself and this message has to be treated, nourished, developed. MF / LF requires / dictates totally different approach and mental discipline then 35mm, you can of course shoot the same stories with diff. format but your approach, your movements / dance, will have to adapt. I.E MF/LF work so well when you take “step back”, that’s when the definition, resolution, sharpness, richness of details, tonal range will step out and make the difference, but that requires diff. mindset beside diff. camera. MF/LF push you to look the other way, to shoot in different circumstances, being aware that lenses are slow, that col. neg. doesn’t work that well in low light, lower contrast. bearing this in your mind will open a vast unexplored ares that you usually don’t even look at and push you in other direction, if you let it.
    At the end of the day no one cares how did you get the picture, as long as it’s better then your previous one and worse then your next image.

    [Reply]

  2. Matt Lutton says:

    Ziyah .. many thanks for the thoughtful response .. going right to your first sentence, I can say that I thought of this as an experiment .. to see what would happen if i tried to put the constraints of a new ‘format’ on the way i already see and shoot. I thought that it would impact things more than they did, and perhaps they might have if I had been able to give it more time. ‘Don’t expect miracles’ .. bingo
    second .. the ‘stepping back’ part .. of course, this is really what I admire in so many of the photographers who use mf/lf (yourself included). but seeing as that is the more or less traditional way of shooting these cameras and formats, I wanted to see what would happen if I used that equipment in my normal, closer (?) working method. Don’t quite like the results I don’t think.. but again, maybe something could come of it with more time.
    Wish I could buy some of your square cameras off you and try.. maybe someday

    and a very nice ending quote my friend

    [Reply]

  3. [...] vinyl records outlasting their CD replacements. An interesting post on DVAFOTO can be found at A Film vs. Digital Debate | dvafoto [...]

  4. [...] slower studies of situations, often shot with larger format cameras (Xpans or 6×7 I guess). I tried this myself, to varying result but great reflection (read the comments), and will have to pursue it again soon. [...]

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