Film vs Digital – More on the Topic

I got a request a few days ago about my thoughts re small/large format and digital vs film.  It seems to be an active topic so I hope the following can shed some more “light” on the subject!


Dear Mr. Ross,

… was wondering if you would be kind enough to answer a couple of questions regarding your use of large format cameras.  In particular, I was wondering two things:

1.       Why do you continue to use large-format cameras for your art?  Do you find some benefit in them that you cannot obtain from a 35mm camera?

2.       It is my belief from what I have read that you prefer film over digital photography.  For example, I noticed your comment in response to the Popular Photography article, Photoshop and Photography – What is Photography?   “I have never seen an inkjet print that could match the depth of image in a traditional silver-print.”   Is my assumption that you primarily use film correct?  Is there ever a time (from a fine art standpoint) where digital would be more beneficial in your mind?

I am sure you are frequently inundated with questions from fans and fellow photographers, so I thank you in advance for taking the time to read these questions, and hopefully responding to them.

Best regards,



Camera size:  First, consider that you can only cram a certain amount of information in a given amount of space.  At 24x36mm (1×1.5 sq. in) a 35mm camera has a negative with 1.5 square inches of area.  A 4×5″ negative has 20 square inches and 8×10 has 80! So, given an equivalent film in both cameras, a 4×5 negative has over 13 times the information (detail) as a 35mm.  Also, most 4×5 cameras have all sorts of adjustments allowing controls of focus and image geometry not available with “solid-body” cameras.  Further, there is only one exposure on each piece of 4×5 film, so each image can be developed according to its own merits.  Lastly, I personally kind of like the slower, contemplative approach often associated with working with a bigger camera.

Film vs digital:  They both have their merits.  I got a Canon 5D MkII several months ago and think it is a wonderful tool.  Digital can certainly do things film cannot do – capture color and BW at the same time, have different ISO speeds with the twist of a dial, record a staggering number of images on a single memory card and offer instant replay immediately after exposure among other things.  Downside- there is nothing permanent about a digital image.  If an image has not been printed and its storage drive fails without backup, the image is gone forever.  Currently, digital recording has nowhere near the tonal scale of a BW negative, and to some degree, a color negative.  With Digital, many common scenes would require multiple exposures and subsequent HDR processing to record the brightness range easily captured in a single exposure on bw film.  That said, there is just something I intrinsically like about working with film.  I have an Epson 3880 printer and think it produces quite lovely prints – but they still don’t have the tonal depth of a silver-gelatin print.  And it’s more fun to see the image emerge in the developer than watch it get spit out of a printer.

I hope this helps – I’ve only scratched the surface of the topic!  Bottom line, any camera is only a tool.  Each style has its own merits and drawbacks – they are just different, not better or worse!  One can drive a screw with a hammer – but it may not produce the most satisfying results!

Would Ansel Adams Shoot Digital?




5 Responses to “Film vs Digital – More on the Topic”

  1. Todd Frederick says:


    This debate goes back many years as I’m sure you know and I’ve resolved the issue by thinking that one or the other (small vs large format, film vs digital) is not a matter of one being better than the other, but involves the issue of function and purpose. That is, one is not better, just different.

    I have been doing photography since 1955 and reluctantly explored digital in the mid 2000’s. I use both, but mainly digital now days. I photographed weddings as a side business for about 20 years and when I switched to digital, it was a joy. I could leave the wedding without worrying if I got what I wanted or not. Yes, I “chimp.” I liked to photograph in Polaroid and enjoy digital for the same reason: immediacy. However, I put in as much work on post processing of my digital images as I did with BW darkroom printing.

    To answer the question, “Would Ansel Adams shoot digital?” I would answer “Yes.” Why? Based on a video made around 1980 or shortly before, titled, I think, Ansel Adams Photographer, and at the end it has a segment showing how other photographers might alter Ansel’s images by using the new electronic imaging techniques. Ansel sent his negatives to the Center for Photographic Arts in Arizona for advanced photography students to work with (so I’m told). It would be interesting to see a follow-up on what has been done with those negatives, especially digitally.

    Regarding print quality, I often go through my box of old wet prints, and even those produced in a quick and somewhat sloppy way have a quality that does not match an ink jet print. Without having to spend a fortune I am seeking a solution for making quality digital prints that come close to matching a BW wet print. I attended a workshop last March at Kim and Gina Weston’s place and Huntington Witherill showed what he is now doing with BW digital printing. I was impressed, so I would guess that it may one day be possible to produce quality archival digital prints. I hope so.

    Regarding cameras I use now, I would like to side with Ansel when he was once asked which camera he used the most and he replied, “The one I can carry.” :>)

    Hope to see you Oct 14 in Fresno.

    Best, Todd Frederick

  2. Mark Matheny says:

    Thank you for posting Alan. I spent many years shooting 35mm and eventually transitioned to a DSLR, which I’m quite happy with, and will continue to use.
    My recent interest in B/W photography and especially Duo-tone images has taken me down a path toward Medium Format. Thanks to a few friends I’ve been able to test drive a few MF cameras to get a feel for them. I haven’t commited to any one system yet but will own one in the near future.

    Thanks again,

  3. Alan Ross says:

    Thanks for the comment. “Different” not “better” was exactly my point! Digital is much more practical than film for a great many purposes, but can’t compete in other areas. Ansel’s archive went to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where much of it has been and is available for viewing. The likes of the wildly manipulated “Mt. Williamson” image in the film and general access to his work was a fantasy in the film and not part of ensuing CCP research practice. It is certain that digital quality will continue to advance and I look forward to seeing what is next!

  4. Interesting stuff… Fortunately I don’t have to earn a living or work with photography – I just play. I also enjoy reading what people much more expert ( and experienced ) than I have to say about it – thank goodness for the Internet and you guys for taking the time and trouble to share the valuable knowledge you have gained. I was a member of a camera club years ago, learned a great deal and experimented with this and that – portrait, landscape, close-up etc. I’m still to this day having a whale of a time with the hobby. I’m using a Canon GX 1, 5D ii and using all my old Nikon lenses on the 5D thanks to an adaptor. I’m still playing with my Hasselblad 500 CM and the 3 lovely lenses I have for it and my DeVere 504 and I’m using a Flas Meter IV and Spot Meter F. I guess what I’m saying is we are so lucky to have the option whichever whim takes us as to what to use.

    Very best regards and a Happy New Year to each and every one of you.

  5. I also used large format camera occasionally, of course mostly I use digital camera. Your article provides very helpful insight on comparing these two cameras. Thank you for sharing.

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