Film or Digital?

It is a strange thing to live through changes that affect the way everything works.  When I was ten I believe my grandmother guided me to becoming a photographer, after the death of her favorite brother Jack.  He had been a photographer since high school and went on to become the Asian Bureau Chief for Life magazine in World War Two.  I was taken to the Naval Training Center Hobby Shop evenings and weekends, where I learned how to process film and make prints while my grandmother painted cast ceramic frogs that would end up in my grandfather’s garden, peering up from the dichondra that surrounded the goldfish pond.  My grandfather had created a fountain out of black painted cinder blocks that had a cement cast Thai Buddha sitting on top.  I never had the chance to ask my grandfather, a Pearl Harbor survivor and officer aboard the USS Enterprise throughout the war, why he had created a Japanese style garden in his backyard after the war, complete with koi, the Buddha, and a Torii Gate?

Generally we pass through life without asking questions about what we experience as it seems natural and just the way things are.  Photography is different.


Forty years I made photographs with a series of cameras and film, and the only question was color or black and white, or 35mm or large format?  It seemed like I shared this with generations with relatively few variations, until the end of the 1980’s and computers became a tool we used to change the way we did things.  Gradually film has been displaced by digital to the point where I am now wondering how much longer it will be possible to continue making photographs as I have for decades, or will I also have to accede to a new limit with the loss of even the possibility of using film?


Does it matter?  I have recently received a package containing twenty rolls of processed film from Blue Moon Camera and Machine in Portland, Oregon.  A decade ago, if I photographed an event in San Francisco I might have shot twenty rolls in a single day, but now these twenty represent the film I have used in the last six months, everything else having been documented digitally.  The act of making a photograph has changed as people used to have the patience to stand still while I adjusted focus and f-stop; now the meeting of a stranger, the exchange of a few words of introduction and granting permission, then making a photograph, are over in seconds.  Maybe there was the illusion of making a connection with someone in the past, of sharing a story and hearing about someone else’s life, if even for only a few minutes; now the limited exchange allows only for the sharing of superficial details.  It is now easier to make thousands of photographs in the time it took to make a few dozen just a few years ago, are the images we make now as significant as when our collecting was constrained?


If we are making superficial images of what we see and experience, what have we sacrificed in a deeper understanding of our world and the people we meet?  As the technology has improved, is there any difference in the quality of a film and a digital image?Image

2 Responses to “Film or Digital?”

  1. You raise some interesting points Jim, but I think your comment that “the act of making a photograph has changed” sums it up.

    Film, digital, tintype, wet collodian…those are just the media used by the photographer to help create his or her vision. The connection between the artist and the subject still determines whether we are ‘making a photograph’ or simply ‘taking a picture’. The instant gratification of snapping away with a digital cameraphone and ‘publishing’ it instantly for millions to view online has indeed changed peoples’ perception of photography.

    It’s a whole other discussion as to whether this is a good thing or not…for better or worse, we definitely live in interesting times. Still, when it comes to capturing an enduring portrait of a person, or even an evocative landscape or still-life; there must be that connection between photographer and subject. Snapping away with any format of camera will never do justice to the subject, but even a cameraphone is capable of capturing a meaningful image as long as that connection exists.

    As to your example, I prefer the digital image of Louise and Ellen. The lighting, with those highights on their cheeks, is wonderful. And the body language and their connection with each other and with you seems much more relaxed and open in the digital image. That image…to my eyes…is a classic Jim Hair portrait, capturing the moment, but also getting to the essence of the subject(s).

    Anyway that’s my two cents worth. Bo

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