I end up talking about this a lot with various people, but I’m not sure why. It’s really pretty simple.
First off, can I get this out of the way – I love film. Genuinely. I was educated on film and still talk fondly about the characteristic curves of HP5 and Tri-X, or why I preferred HP5 pushed three stops over T-MAX 3200 (you may disagree). I’m even excited when I find Photoshop filters and plug-ins that replicate the effect of film grain, such as the excellent Silver Efex Pro by Nik software (www.google.com/nikcollection/products/silver-efex-pro). But I haven’t shot on film for years, none of my clients want me to shoot on film and I have enough brain cells to realise the overwhelming advantage of digital. But I still love film.
However, it’s astonishing how often students are told that it’s easier to learn about the basics of photography using film. Why are they told this?
Firstly, and probably most importantly, a like for like comparison is not used. In the discussions I have had, people talk about learning with film using a Pentax K1000, or a similarly simple, manual, basic camera, whereas they assume that learning by digital involves a Nikon D4, Canon 1Dx or similar. The assumption is also made that the digital camera will be on automatic everything: aperture, exposure, focus….
Now let’s look at the next problem. Most digital cameras now use 1/3 stop increments. In the good old days we had the ‘standard’ aperture settings, i.e.
f2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32, 45 and so on. Each one being a ‘whole stop’ increment and there was either no inbetween setting or if there was it was halfway and you called it f8/11 or f22/32.
Now, with 1/3 stops included, we have: f2.8, 3.2, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 5, 5.6, 6.3, 7.1, 8, 9, 10, 11 etc.
Likewise, with shutter speeds it used to be:
1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 second etc. Now it’s:
1/250, 1/200, 1/160, 1/125, 1/100, 1/80, 1/60, etc.
The argument goes that this makes it harder to learn on a digital camera. Which would be true, unless you CHANGE THE SETTINGS!
Most DSLRs now allow you to change the settings to 1/3, 1/2 or whole stop increments. Sadly, a lot of people teaching this stuff don’t realise that and so they hark back to the beloved K1000. And, of course, you can turn off the autofocus and all that gubbins as well.
So, let’s say that we’ve now got an old school film camera and a digital SLR set up to fully manual, which is the better camera to teach the basics of photography on? Let’s say you get a student to photograph something with a setting of 1/125 sec @ f8. You then ask them to take the same photo using 1/60 sec @ f11. They look at the back of the camera, see that they are pretty much the same, and are a step on the road to understanding.
The student who shot on film is currently waiting until they have finished the film. They then have to unload the film and go into the darkroom to develop, stop, fix and wash it. They then hang it up to dry, come back later, chop up the negs and go into the darkroom again. They have to set up their enlarger, get their paper out, expose a couple of test strips, develop these, then print the 1/125 sec shot and the 1/60th sec shot and hang them up to dry. They then look at them and realise that the exposure is the same.
What a waste of time.
Don’t get me wrong, if the digital camera isn’t set up properly and the student doesn’t understand the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO then that’s a problem. EVERY student should know the ‘standard’ shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings. But that doesn’t mean that shooting on film is a better way of learning. It just means that you have to know how to set the camera up first.
Which every good photographer should know how to do anyway.