Digital vs Film: Which is Better?

The question of what medium is better, film or digital photography, is a debate that rages on and on. For two reasons, it is a nonsensical debate.

First, unlike most artistic media, photography is a continuing technical evolution. It has always been technology based. Viewing and capturing images started with the camera obscura, a simple pinhole or telescopic lens projecting on a white or light colored surface in a dark room where an artist traced the image onto the surface. This, the first form of photography, was entirely optics based. Louis Daguerre subsequently captured images by focusing the lens on a copper plate coated with silver iodide, then washing it with mercury to fix the image creating the daguerreotype. Others learned to apply silver compounds to glass, paper, gelatin, and eventually celluloid, producing a flexible surface that could be placed in a small, inexpensive, easily portable film camera. In parallel, discoveries were made using red, blue and green filters that made color photographs possible, also on film.

With each development, increasing numbers of people started to express themselves through photography. But they either had to become proficient in the dark room or hire expertise for the development of their film or production of their prints. Those who took the former route became the photographic artists. With the invention of the digital computer, it was only a matter of time before it became practical to capture images electronically and process them with a computer rather than a chemical bath. Now it is possible for everyone not only to capture the image, but also to edit and print it. Everyone can be an artist. What has occurred in photography is a dramatic revolution in technology. It is a continuum of developments, each one building on its predecessor. I would submit that there was no “Golden Age” that subsequently passed with lesser technologies following.

Second, better relative to what? Is tempura better than oil paint because it came first? How does it compare to pastels or acrylics or, charcoal? Obviously the artist has more range with oils than with charcoal, but does that make it better? Film photography and digital photography are media. Using those media requires different knowledge, different skills. But does the different skill sets required make one medium better than the other? I think not. What is a legitimate debate is the quality of the work produced by the artist. One could argue that Ansel Adams is better than Alfred Stieglitz. Or Annie Leibovitz is better than Richard Avedon. Or vice versa. But it is not a debate about their medium, but their relative use of their skills and their artistic sensibilities. The artist may prefer one medium to another because it allows them to express their vision more effectively, or at least more satisfactorily, in their eyes. But it is not the medium that makes the artist but their talent.

People arguing on one side or the other, particularly on the side of film are often just providing a smokescreen to the fact that they have not made nor do they intend to make the investment required to learn a new medium. But, isn‘t manipulating a print in a dark room just a chemical version of changing the image in Photoshop? There is nothing wrong with staying with a medium one is familiar with and has mastered. But it should not be an excuse to berate the other. Nor should those who grew up in the digital world be critical of the film photographers‘ work. After all, all artists stand on the shoulders of those who preceded them.

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