Street Photography – Film vs. Digital

After having rested for a long time in storage, my trusty old Nikon F3 with dented pentaprism housing, exposed brass and 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor has returned for a contest. I decided to pit film against digital to see which one would allow me to generate the best street photo in the course of a week or two. I gave both a reasonable effort, and then picked my best two.

First up, here is one from the first roll film I’ve shot in over a decade. It was captured on Tri-X Pan (actually the new TX-400 version) pushed to ISO 800. It’s nothing fancy, developed by Andrea, Ginger, and the other nice folks at my local photo laboratory with a low-res scan provided in addition to the contact sheet.

Seeing Garry Winogrand’s work and then trying to pick my favorite shots from film and digital for this mini-project forced me to think about what makes a photograph good. It is clearly not a simple matter of choosing a clean and orderly image. Graininess, lack of resolution or color saturation, anything that could be a shortcoming from one perspective, could be effective image making from another.

The wait to get the film developed caused an interesting anticipation that I had not felt for a long time. Definitely fun in a delayed gratification kind of way. The photos from the Olympus OM-D were much more numerous (100’s of raw files vs. a total of 24 frames on film), and there were many more keepers to chose from, but both generated a similar rate of hits. Neither one has a lock on the perfect photo, but digital sure is convenient and makes it easy to shoot a lot.

Each frame of film requires more thought. Manual focus, choosing the exposure and even cranking the film advance lever forces you to think about the composition and timing a bit more. Considering that Winogrand left thousands of rolls of undeveloped film in his last years, that potentially represent the rate at which he burned through frames, it seems any serious photographer needs to plan the logistics of sorting through thousands of photos before having a chance to discover some really great ones.

Next up, I fittingly got the following shot at just the right moment outside SFMOMA after seeing the Winogrand retrospective. It is well exposed, it has nice color tones and it is sharp where it needs to be. That is all easy to get with digital.

What is not as easy to get is the almost physical texture of a classic grainy black and white silver halide image. I love the look of push processed B&W film, but the colors I can get from my E-M5 with the Leica Summilux 25mm f/1.4 are in a category of their own.

In the end, I don’t want to choose one or the other. Both film and digital are great in their own way. If it were about perfect IQ and convenience, I’d go with digital, but if it is mostly about perception and artistic intent, then film is a legitimate long-term contender.

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