In every group of media users, you’ll find a bunch that bemoan former technology as being so much better. Vinyl enthusiasts decry digitally streamed music as being soulless while ignoring the snap, crackle, pop, and hiss of their preferred media. Don’t mention cue burn to them or you’ll trigger severe cognitive dissonance (anyone who has gotten used vinyl from a radio station knows what cue burn is). Those who prefer books on dead trees sneer at Kindle owners. And, in the photography world, there are those who relentlessly pine for a return to shooting with film.
Okay, I’ll admit that there are still some areas where film is superior. No one has invented a digital sensor with the resolution of an 8×10 inch negative yet, at least not one affordable to the average professional. Digital sensors behave like slide film in how highlights blow out, so those who have never shot print film don’t know its gentle exposure curve at the top end. But the rest of it? Meh. To those who won’t shut up about why film is better, I have just two words:
SCREW and YOU.
Really. Film was inconvenient. It was wasteful. It was limited (google ‘reciprocity failure’). It was inefficient. It caused clutter. It was prone to damage or loss. Most of all, it was expensive to use. This expense was prohibitive for most who truly wanted to explore the world through their cameras, except for those fortunate few blessed with the financial means to follow through on their urges.
My grandmother gave me her used Kodak Brownie No. 2 camera when I was five years old. It came with a bag of film. I shot that entire bag in the first afternoon. Dandelions, violets, car bumpers, dead bugs, the neighbourhood cat, you name it. Then I got yelled at and the camera put on a shelf. Future rolls of film were doled out maybe once or twice a month. Cameras were expensive to use, you see? You have to pay for the film. You have to pay to process the film. You have to pay for albums to put the pictures in. Pay pay pay pay. If my first lesson about photography was that it was fun, the second lesson was that photography was not meant to be fun. It was for serious and important things like family photos. Stray cats? Fuhgeddaboudit!
I tried bending this rule once more when a Kodak Instamatic appeared in my grandmother’s home. Nope. Grandma made it clear that photography was still to be limited to serious things like family photos, especially given how expensive flash cubes were getting at the time. Remember those? She took her Instamatic back and put it away into a cupboard that was off-limits to yours truly.
At age nine I was gifted a used Polaroid Colorpack 80 by a friend of my mother who had upgraded to a newer Polaroid and who knew of my interest in photography. It came with several packs of instant film. What a marvel! You had to time the prints with your watch and peel them apart at the right moment, but no other processing needed. Yeah, it cost way more than film and conventional developing, but the instant gratification was staggering. It turned out to be no gratification at all as, within the next two days, I once again received The Lecture for improper use of a camera. It was absolutely not for chasing light and dust and bugs and my own intrigue. Those expensive film packs should be saved for important occasions, for family photos, or perhaps the vacation we could never afford.
Industrial Arts in junior high exposed me (see what I did there?) to 35m single lens reflex cameras and the black and white dark room. I obtained the kit I needed to process the film and print the images I shot, but the expense! And the space needed! I was also in the process of becoming a raging alcoholic, so it’s extravagant to maintain a proper darkroom while still being able to drink until you pass out. Booze was winning the competition for the pieces of paper in my wallet and something had to give. Without prompting from adults, I reverted back to what I had been taught… Saving my better 35mm cameras and darkroom supplies for the important photography. Y’know, family pics, and only when I was sober enough to take them because camera shake.
Usable digital cameras arrived in my early thirties after I had been sober for some years and no longer had to choose between photography and mixology. The notion of unlimited photos without processing costs beyond the initial hardware and software expenditure was too good to ignore. I invested in a good prosumer camera model, the Minolta DiMAGE 7 and cut loose. Being able to take two hundred pictures in a day, sort out the ten good ones, and only print those on an Epson inkjet was quite affordable. Photo blogging online was free and made it possible to share those good pictures with family and friends without any sort of printing or processing expense at all! The more pictures I took, the more I could see what worked and what did not, the faster I grew as an artist. Eventually, I started to develop my own style.
The advent of digital photography democratized the medium, making it available to more and more people at less and less expense. We’ve now reached the point where you don’t even need a dedicated digital camera to be an accomplished photographer. Mobile phone cameras are getting so good that they actually exceed dedicated units in some areas such as astrophotography. You no longer require an expensive film camera to achieve tricks such as narrow depth-of-field that puts only the subject in focus. The higher end smartphones are doing this now via their onboard processing, and it will be available in all the cheap phones within a couple of years.
Photography has never been this affordable or accessible, and it will only continue to become more so. We can capture and store memories at rates never possible before due to no longer being constrained by the high costs and low storage limits of the former medium. All those family photos I had to take? I lost a good chunk of them in a house fire. Lost the rest when booze made me homeless – have NO idea where all the prints and negatives got to. Now my memories are backed up to several places on the cloud where they are safe from any future house fire. Not perfectly safe, but much safer and at practically no expense. Unlike film.
These days as an adult who is edging towards, but not quite at my senior years, I finally get to be the wanton nine-year-old photographer I wanted to be. My cell phone gives me the instant gratifcation of my old Polaroid Colorpack 80, but unshackled from the financial burden of film. Once again I can find lines, chase intriguing textures, and snap an image just because I love the colour of what I’m looking at. Instagram lets me take my unlimited snaps and share them easily with a community of millions of other shutterbugs who are also letting their inner child run free. I love it.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world now get to explore and freely share unlimited imagery in ways not possible thirty years ago because we were locked into the prohibitively expensive medium that was photographic film. It was great in its day, but those days have ended. Let us all say Amen.
To all of those who tell me I shouldn’t be enjoying this new paradigm, that I should feel wrong about the impermance and ease of digital compared to traditional film, I repeat: