—personal choices in photography

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Last updated July 27, 2004


Why This Article?

Let me say at the outset that my intent is not to

  • sell digital photography,
  • bash film photography,
  • save the souls of film photographers, or
  • garner e-mails, polite or otherwise, about why I should prefer film.

This isn’t about should.

It’s about airing my personal reasons for switching to digital photograhy (DP) for those considering DP themselves. For many readers, these reasons simply won’t apply.

Despite some obvious and not so obvious differences, film and digital photography are much more alike than they are different. And since they’re by no means mutually exclusive, you don’t have to pick sides.

If your dander’s still up at this juncture, please repeat out loud 100 times before sending that e-mail: “Cameras are just means to an end.” If your ends are like mine, DP may work for you, at least some of the time. If you prefer film, by all means shoot film and enjoy every minute of it.

For a tabular summary of some of the more pivotal issues in the film-versus-digital decision as they apply to a demanding arena that tends to crystallize photographers’ thinking, see The Issues—Film vs. Digital in the Backcountry digital photography article elsewhere on dpFWIW.

The Freedom To Screw Up

For me, the freedom to screw up is perhaps the most compelling reason to go digital. Now that I’ve sprung for the digital camera, the memory and the batteries and charger, all exposures are essentially free.

Note: One indefinitely re-usable memory card at $50 costs the same as purchase, developing and printing for about ten 36-shot rolls of 35 mm film—not counting gas and windshield time. The cost of batteries and battery charging per cardful of images is negligible. You do the math.

The skinflint and the perfectionist in me both find this very liberating.  The ka-chings (7KB WAV file) I used to hear with every film exposure are gone now, and I’m really enjoying photography again. Fretting over whether a picture will be “worth it” or “good enough” or “the best approach” is a thing of the past, and I say, good riddance. Now I just follow my photographic whims, do my best with each shot, and at worst learn from what comes out.

With all the baggage behind me now, I see why my expert photographer friends say that their best shots are often the impulsive ones. If a scene moves me, chances are, it will move someone else. Now there’s no reason not to take it.

Of course, I heard several deafening ka-chings as I put together my digital photography outfit, but thanks to the miracle of repression, I never hear those when I’m using the camera.

What You See Is What You Got

In the never-ending film-versus-digital debates on RPD, the film zealots usually end up lobbing the “instant gratification” innuendo in their rush to dismiss DP, but they’re missing a very important point:

Instant feedback is one of DP’s most valuable practical features.

Now, why would instant feedback be any less valuable in photography than it is in, say, driving, flying, word processing, or woodworking? Because it’s also fun?

The age-old debate over whether it’s bad to have fun (it’s not) is well beyond the scope of this website. It’s also beside the point. I do enjoy reviewing the catch of the day, but better than that, I also find it extremely useful. (FWIW, I also bite all my Tootsie Roll Pops and dig out the toys before eating my Cracker Jacks.)

Together, instant feedback and my newfound willingness to take chances and make mistakes have taught me more about photography in one year than I learned in 20 fretful and largely clueless years with 35 mm film cameras.

Despite all I’ve learned, the ability to check and if necessary retake must-have shots before leaving the scene has saved the photographic day more than once. And in a pinch, the ability to cull obvious bad shots in the field has allowed me to make the most of the memory I’m carrying.

The Power To Retrieve Is The Power To Enjoy

What’s the point of taking all those pictures if they’re viewed once and then forever after relegated to the family picture drawer (60KB WAV file), or that precarious stack of slide carousels in the hall closet? To my mind, the ability to enjoy photos depends critically on the ability to retrieve them at will.

I turn pale at the thought of digging through rows and rows of rubber-banded film processing envelopes to find a particular event or shot in our (gulp) picture drawer. Not surprisingly, once its contents reached a certain critical mass, the picture drawer became a black hole—once a picture goes in now, it never comes out.

True, the drawer could be better organized, but even if we spent the time and money to effect a rational hardcopy storage system, it still wouldn’t be a convenient image retrieval system, so I doubt that the effort would change much. The small subset of film prints we’ve scrapbooked have fared only slightly better with respect to return engagements.

In contrast, I routinely revisit my digital imageswhich would now fill a similar drawerand have a hassle-free good time doing it with reasonably priced, readily available software. Of course, you could get close to the same result with PhotoCDs or scanned prints or slides, but I vastly prefer the convenience of primary digital output. I have many ways to get hardcopy if and when I need it.

CD-R discs make excellent photo archives and are much more convenient to handle and store than print envelopes, bulky hardcopy scrapbooks or slide carousels. My home-created CDs hold many more images than a PhotoCD, albeit at lower resolution, and incorporate my own storage and retrieval system.

Note: CD-Rs are estimated to have shelf lives on the order of 100 years. Some question whether anyone will have the hardware to read CDs by then, but you can still pay to have your family’s 8 mm movies put on video tape 50 years later, so I’m not worrying about this one.

Image retrieval is discussed more thoroughly in its own dpFWIW article.

Annotate While It’s Fresh

I’ve also become a big fan of HTML-based electronic scrapbooks.  Whether stored locally for personal enjoyment or shared with others over the Internet, e-scrapbooks allow me to annotate my photos as much or as little as I like, any way I like, and any time I like, with the full power of the Internet just a hyperlink away. Hypertext scrapbooks are easy to assemble and annotate with even the simplest of web page editors, and they’re a ball to browse again and again after the fact. Better yet, I can point an image management program like ThumbsPlus at a folder of images, click the mouse a few times and end up with a new web page containing thumbnail table waiting for my text.

An online sample of this process is my Hawaiian geology digital photo travel journal. This homemade e-scrapbook is in no danger of winning critical acclaim, but it’s added immensely to my return enjoyment of two recent Hawaiian digital photography sprees, and it’s done so in a way that would have been very difficult for me to duplicate in hardcopy. Of course, I could have digitized film images for the same purpose, but I can’t say that I’ve missed that step.