Film vs Digital Street Photography

Which is better? Film vs Digital for Street Photography

Film vs Digital Street Photography
Contax IIIa on the left, Canon 5D on the right.

As of late, film has been having quite a comeback. Many photographers enjoy the “look” of grainy analog film, and many people even say that they enjoy the experience of shooting with film as well. In an article published by Wired, Charlie Sorrel states:

“Kodak’s US marketing manager of professional film, Scott pro film Scott DiSabato said that sales of color film are steady, and that black and white film is ‘doing extremely well’ He sees it as a mini-revolution, adding that ‘it almost feels that there is a very real resurgence for film.’”

Many places such as Urban Outfitters have caught upon this trend, selling Holga cameras, which are toy-plastic film cameras which give images an interesting cross-processed look. Sales for these types of cameras are strong within the young demographic, and it almost seems to be a rebellion against digital.

Holga 120s and Photo
A Holga 120s on the left, and an example photo on the right.

This leads to the question, what is better for street photography, film or digital?

This is definitely not an easy question to tackle, as both sides of the debate have their own valid points and refuse to give up any ground. However for the purposes of this post, I will try my best to give an un-biased view to both sides of the argument.

@faireunvoeu on Twitter sent me this quote from film photographer Simon Watson on digital photography:

“There is a smoothness that is so ugly & slick, it looks like a gimmick.”

In my own personal experience being born and having grown through the “digital revolution,” digital photography is the only thing I have ever truly known. Sure I remember when I was a kid and having to wait for the film from my mom’s old camera to get developed, or waiting on prints from my old disposable camera from field trips. However other than that, digital has been everything to me. My first camera was a Canon Powershot SD600, and the other two cameras after that (my Canon Rebel XT and Canon 5D) have been digital as well.

It is quite ironic, because I have been attracted to the “film look” as well. I use Nik’s Silver Efex Pro to add grain into my images as well as strong vignettes in my black-and-white workflow. There is something that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I feel that it pays homage to the old “film look” of the street photography masters.

"Wine by the Seine" - Paris, France 2009
"Wine by the Seine" – Paris, France 2009. Note the grain I added to give the image a more "moody" feel

Digital definitely has its pros when it comes to street photography. It is no secret that it is much easier for photographers to learn photography on digital cameras as opposed to film cameras. First of all, digital cameras allow you to instantly see the results of your photos on the back of your LCD screen, to check for exposure, framing, focus, and even sharpness. This takes a lot of guess-work out of photography, as with film it takes much more time to develop and process images. Therefore when shooting street photography, an aspiring street photographer will thus have an easier time learning from his or her mistakes, or even learning how to better compose when shooting from the hip.

However recently, I have inherited an old film rangefinder, the Contax IIIa. Although I have only shot a few rolls with it, there is definitely a much different experience shooting with film. I feel that when I am shooting with film, I feel much more calm, and that there is some sort of inner-peace that I get shooting with it. Due to the fact that I am not able to “chimp” and look at the back of my LCD after shooting every image, I focus more on the experience of shooting on the streets, rather than focusing my efforts on the outcome of my images.

Me shooting in the streets with my Contax IIIa. Shot by John Golden

Furthermore, due to the fact that I can only shoot about 24 exposures or so from each roll of film, I am much more selective with my shots, which makes me focus more on my framing and composition of shots, so I don’t “waste” any of my film.

However I think in the long run, the convenience of digital trumps film by far. Being able to take raw images, edit them on your computer, and directly upload them to Flickr or online is much better than having to purchase film, send it to get developed, wait, download your images to your computer, then upload it online.

The way in which we share photos has fundamentally changed. Remember back in the days when people actually shared physical photographs with friends and family, and even made duplicates for them to have? Such an experience is now foreign to the modern person, as Facebook is much more convenient.

Leica M9
The Leica M9 – The First Full-Frame Digital Rangefinder

Getting back to the subject at hand, I feel that digital is still much more advantageous to the modern-day street photographer than film. I do not discount the merits of shooting film, but with new digital incarnations of even “classic” cameras such as the Leica M8,8.2, and 9, there is a huge shift toward shooting digital. Even Chris Weeks who wrote a book on street photography “Street Photography for the Purist,” he was initially turned off by digital cameras, but upon getting his Leica M9, he is starting to embrace it much more, as said in his more recent film documentary, “Street Photography: Documenting the Human Condition.”

Street photographers–what is your opinion on digital vs film photography? Leave a comment below and leave your 2 cents!