Film vs. Digital for the Analog Junkie/ Traveling Photographer

Debating the Merits of Film vs. Digital for the Analog Junkie/ Traveling Photographer

A guest post by Crystal Street author of Storytelling from an Independent Traveler.

Are you an analog junkie at heart?

If you answer yes to any of the follow questions, then you have analog roots. And for a traveling photographer, this connection to the nostalgic self can produce hours of mind-numbing debate.

  • Do you have stacks of binders filled with negative sleeves that are spilling off your shelves and oozing contact sheets onto the floor?
  • Does your wardrobe contain a drawer full of clothes splattered with dark yellow fixer stains?
  • When you enter a building with an actual wet darkroom and you catch a whiff of fixer, does your nose go straight into the air to inhale the chemical goodness like a hound-dog tracking the sent of a rabbit on the loose?
  • Do you remember the first time you saw an image appear on a white sheet of paper in a tray of developer and thinking, “damn, that might be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen”? And knowing at that moment that you were hooked- addicted to this dark cave, its aromatic chemicals and shadows of red light.
  • Do you sit in the parking lot of your local photo lab and pull out each individual roll of freshly processed film, hold it up to the sun and try to interpret the negatives and determine if what you actually captured on film represents the image burned into your memory?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have also engaged in the debate of film versus digital as your means of capturing an image. And, if you also are blessed with the affliction of insatiable curiosity for foreign lands, you’ve probably pulled your hair out at one point trying to decide what medium to take along for the journey.

I’m going to look at the philosophical reasons for choosing film over digital- or vice versa and then dive into a few practicalities.

The Art of the Negative

If you are still reading this, then the odds are strong that you have shot a roll of film at some point in time. And hopefully, you’ve also worked with that film in the darkroom to create your prints. Capturing a moment from the camera, processing the negative and creating a print in a wet darkroom encompasses the entire process of picture making- in the traditional sense of the craft. Throughout this process, you are directly connected to your work- to your creation. You visualize the image prior to shooting, you capture the moment in a sequential order of 36 frames, you bring that image to life on a transparent strip of film and you then create a print using light, chemicals and vision. At no point does the image physically leave your person (unless you have a lab help a little with the processing).

In shooting film, you have 36 frames in a roll to translate your interpretation of the physical world into an image, or a series of images, that supports your vision. You must be deliberate- you have a finite number of shots to tell your story. You must visualize, plan, wait and act instinctively once the elements present themselves before your lens. You truly become part of the moment you are documenting and at no time can you stop and check your work. The image exists only in your mind for days, or sometimes weeks, until that image is processed.

And when the roll is processed and you are sitting with your contact sheet or light table and loupe, you are editing a sequence of images, a chronological documentation of time. You see the moment unfold and all the supporting elements leading up to the pinnacle moment are included in your edit. You see the whole picture, the entire story. You relive the moment as it unfolded and can better choose the proper images to convey the actual event or story being told.

In Contrast- the Digital File

With digital, the image itself exists as an individual file. We often trash the images which fail to live up to our expectations and pull images out of sequential order in the process of shooting or later in post production. One of my biggest challenges in making the conversion to digital (dragged kicking and screaming by what my clients needed 6 years ago) was the belief that the actual image doesn’t exist, it’s merely digital data on a computer chip. I know, there are valid contradictions to this theory, but this is my perception of digital.

But for someone that is used to capturing the image on a transparent surface within the camera- the capturing of digital images took a long time to trust and embrace. What I’ve found over the years of shooting digital, is that my tendency is to check the image in camera constantly while shooting (also called “chimping” by some photographers).

Yes, this has advantages. I can ensure that my shots are exposed and composed properly, which is particularly valuable when shooting for commercial clients. But, for my own artistic purposes, this removes me from the moment I’m documenting by instantly setting me in the past while I “chimp” and miss the symphony of moments before me.

Thus, the Eternal Debate

Travel, for many independent nomads, is an artistic and spiritual adventure. We travel not because we need a vacation or to escape reality, but because we are drawn to the unknown through curiosity and the idea of new people and experiences. Travel allows us to tap into the creative soul, that inner being that crawls out from its hiding place once all the regular mundane moments of daily life are left behind and we enter a new world.

So, when heading to such creative heights, the obvious choice for certain analog travelers is to take film along for the ride. Right?

Enter the Technical Dilemmas.

As an independent traveler, the weight of the baggage is the most important element of your choice of gear. And no, you CAN NOT check your camera or computer equipment. Period. It will get stolen. End of discussion.

If photography is more than just a hobby for you, the debate between equipment is torturous. You must feed the internal analog artist while still satisfying the professional side which pays the bills with digital images. Add multimedia production into the mix and you’re talking about 40-50 pounds of gear. Sigh.

Not to mention the logistical aspects of working with film on the road; preventing theft and thus losing all your unprocessed images, keeping the film canisters free of debris and away from excessive heat, keeping your film organized and rationing your film when supplies run low. Or worse running out of film and having to buy film from the local photo shop in the developing world- where the film is older than the child in the remote village that you’re trying to capture in an image. Truly, traveling with film in this day and age is an act of love! Love for the film and love of the process. All obstacles aside, I cherish my film images from remote lands, more so than most of my digital images.

So, here are a few questions to ask yourself when you are debating the merits of lugging film AND digital on your next adventure.

  • Are you expected to work with your camera equipment on the road? If yes, digital must be your emphasis.
  • Will you need full Adobe Suites capabilities while traveling or will a net-book with Lightroom suffice?
  • Can you shoot entirely on film for this trip and ensure that your exposed film will make it home safely?
  • Will there be access to major cities that might have film and processing options to help alleviate some of the burden of carry all of that exposed film around as you travel?
  • Can you use a hybrid point and shoot camera- a Canon G11 or Lumix GF1 for all your digital work and simply use a hard drive storage device and focus on 35 mm photography? This will allow you to leave the computer at home and add more film.
  • Or should you take the full digital studio and merely take the Holga or a Diana to satisfy your analog needs while traveling?

No right answer exists for this debate, but knowing the purpose of your travel images and their final destination can help you choose the right format for your artistic endeavors. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, so knowing your artistic preferences and any professional obligations while traveling will also help you decide which format to embrace.

Regardless of your choice, the most important aspect of this entire debate is that you remain true to your methods of capturing an image and that you actually have a camera- any camera- to preserve your adventures and interactions to share with the world.

Crystal publishes a blog about storytelling, living simple, entrepreneurship and travel at Storytelling from an Independent Traveler. She is a documentary photographer, multimedia producer and writer and you can find her on Twitter or learn more about her work here.

Here are some of Crystals images for you to enjoy:

My dinner hosts in Madaba, Jordan play with their mother’s camera trying to imitate the crazy American photographer joining them for dinner. This shot was taken with my Canon 1V with a 28/ 1.8 USM lens- my standard film photo kit. I also worked with a digital set up as I was working on a documentary project in Palestine for a month on this journey.

A villager on the island of Sangihe, Indonesia plays the drum during an ancient ritual. This was taken with my Canon 1V, 28 mm 1.8 USM. I was hired as a multimedia assistant for a project for Junior Achievement and took only film as my means of visual documentation.

Maoist commanders pose for a picture in a remote village in Nepal during a demonstration. I took both film and digital on this journey as I was working on a grant funded project and an internship with Nepal Human Rights News Website. I had to purchase film in Nepal and the colors had shifted due to the age of the film or the processing in country- or both. I was on the road for 2 months, in India and Nepal and used up my film halfway through the trip. This was my first overseas journey with both mediums.

A group of worshipers gathers outside of the Holy Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This shot was taken with a Holga and I love the antique effect this $20 dollar camera gave the shot.

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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