Better Photos with Film?

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Today’s Question: I have started cleaning out a lot of old slides and am keeping the ones I like the best. I kind of think I did very good work back in those days, meaning before I switched to digital in 2005. Was I more careful? Did I pay more attention to detail because the entire shooting experience was less automated? What are your thoughts on this?

Tim’s Quick Answer: I think most photographers would tend to be more selective in their photography when shooting with film. My feeling is that this resulted in a higher percentage of “good” photos compared to digital. Since many photographers tend to capture more photos with digital, the percentage of “good” shots might be lower, even if their best shots today are better than their best film photos earlier in their photography.

More Detail: I completely agree that photographers in general were more careful in the days of film. Even through film and processing weren’t terribly expensive all things considered, there was still a sense that you were paying extra for each frame. Adding to that was the notion that each roll of film typically had 36 exposures available, and so the faster you were shooting the more often you would need to replace a roll of film. Changing a roll of film didn’t require a tremendous amount of time, but if you needed to change rolls at an inopportune moment, you might miss a great photo opportunity.

With digital photography we have media cards that provide virtually unlimited photography at least in the context of a single scene or subject. We rarely really need to think about running out of storage space. We also don’t feel like we’re “wasting film” with digital photography. So there’s more of an attitude of “I might as well capture the photo” even if the scene isn’t all that inspiring. You can always delete the photo later, and you haven’t really given up very much by capturing an extra image.

For these reasons and others, I think photographers were more careful with film photography. Of course, we’re also taking photos with digital that we might have passed on with film, and some of those could have turned out to be great images. I also feel that digital provides better review and learning opportunities, especially in terms of instant feedback, compared to film.

On balance, I suspect most photographers have improved their skills and creativity over time, so they are probably taking better photos now than they did back in the days of film photography. However, since most photographers are also capturing far more photos now than they probably did with film, the percentage of “great” photos may be lower. That could mean that for many photographers their best photos now are better than their best photos with film, but that they’re also capturing a lot more outtakes now than they ever did with film.