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The Great Analogue Conundrum

Why Digital is Essential & Why I Went Back to Film

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Doug Chinnery

Doug Chinnery is a fine art photographer, workshop leader and lecturer with a particular interest in the transformative opportunities of landscape photography.


First there was film. Now there is digital. Well, first there was Camera Obscura, Daguerrotypes, Wet Plate Collodion and all that, but you know what I mean.



After an initial, brief period of scepticism the photographic world has largely embraced digital technology with open arms. Just ask Kodak!

The technology has leapt forward at a rate unanticipated by most. My first digital camera, a small Nikon, had a 4 megapixel sensor and was almost cutting edge, oh about - and I am guessing here - eight years ago. Now we live in a world where we have the heady heights of the Phase One IQ180 digital back and for well heeled enthusiasts a 21+ megapixel sensor based camera is very attainable. And now the Nikon D800 has taken the photography world by storm producing almost medium format digital quality image files for less than £2,000. It seems things will only get better, both in terms of image resolution, high ISO performance and lens quality. It's a wonderful time to be a photographer.

So why would any digital photographer in their right mind return to analogue image making?



So why would any digital photographer in their right mind return to analogue image making? The downsides are overwhelming surely?

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  • David Higgs

    A great article Doug, one that is extremely close to my heart. I love film, and have insight into the fact that until recently I was probably a bit blinkered – not anti-digital, but I certainly viewed it as photography’s upstart sister.
    The debate can really polarise opinion, and much has already been discussed about film costs and availability. The arguments can easily be skewed either way as both have significant advantages and disadvantages. To my mind the end result is the print, and the two mediums have a different aesthetic and sensibility. I prefer film, but that doesn’t mean it’s better. I prefer watercolour to the detail in the portraits of the dutch masters, neither is ‘better’.
    The tool box analogy is the best I can think of. If a job needs a spanner, it would be crazy to insist on using a screwdriver, simply because you think screwdrivers are superior.
    A couple of years ago I had an (early) mid life crisis and spent a few weeks in a desert wasteland on motorbikes with some equally afflicted 30 somethings. I took with me a digi P+S and a fuji MF film camera. With hindsight I should have just slipped the dig in my pocket and gone. I managed very few shots on the film camera, tripods/time got in the way. Though to my mind the film shots have a nicer feel to them. I packed the wrong toolbox.
    The most exciting thing in recent years is the amalgamation of the technologies. In PS I can dodge and burn film images that would have been impossible in the darkroom days, getting all that latitude onto paper, cleanly and clearly. I can then output the image onto a variety of different papers and substrates, or mail it in microseconds to friends and relatives on the other side of the world.
    I’ve recently started making wet prints again, without the use of a darkroom, making contact prints from digitally created negatives using alternate 150 year old processes. This must be the ultimate amalgamation of technology, although I mainly use LF negs, I recently made a siderotype from an image made on my phone. The image has beautiful tones, on heavy watercolour paper which has a fantastic feel. A truly hand made filmic print from a tiny sensor.
    Although some of us will miss some papers and emulsions, this mix we have now is the golden age of photography.

    PS hope you are on your feet again soon

    • Doug Chinnery

      HI David
      It seems like we have a very similar philosophy on this area. I am intrigued by the process of wet printing without a darkroom you describe. I would love to know more. I even think it cold make a very interesting article for On Landscape – why not suggest it to Tim. How does it work? How do you do it?

      I have shied away from the wet dark room partly due to cost but mainly due to the time involved in learning the whole process from scratch however a way of making wet prints without a darkroom sounds intriguing


  • Nice article Doug and I wholeheartedly agree that the analogue process (both shooting and darkroom hand-processing) is probably the ultimate teacher!

    I have a slight issue with the scanning of negatives into digital files, however. Above, David makes good points about the amalgamation of technologies and this rings true when negatives are scanned and made into digital apparitions of themselves! I have read that the best way to get good results is to use Drum Scanners rather than flatbed, and the DPI is also important in getting the correct equivalent resolution of the negative. But something tells me, whats the point in doing this? I accede that the need for online digital portfolio presentation is clearly there, but if we are to remain pure to the analogue process, shouldn’t we only print in analogue as well? Of course, the cost and availability of these processes is a considerable factor, however!

    It just seems to me to be a bit of a U-turn to take the time investing in and carefully producing correctly exposed negatives on film, to scan them and use the digital files as their primary manifestation. Is this not a hypocrisy?

    I would, however, like to throw something else into the mix! With the high resolutions and broad dynamic ranges of todays digital cameras, it appears something strange is happening; some high-profile photographers from a purely analogue background are using digital cameras to produce files that are then projected on to analogue paper, creating analogue prints from digital images. I didn’t see that one coming!

    So the amalgamation of technologies is now working both ways it seems. Which brings us back to your point of having the right tool for the job. If any mixture of any format gives you the results that work best, then go with it I suppose. I am a bit concerned that the processes may get lost in translation, but ultimately, does it really matter? Photography is about producing images, whether it be on smartphone or 5×4 collodion. I think we can sometimes get a bit obsessive with the formats and processes of making images that the intentions behind them are in danger of getting a little lost.

    • Doug Chinnery

      Hi Tom
      I had a funny feeling you might drop by with this point of view and i have to say I agree. As a purist it rankles me to think I am only going half way with this process. I would love to continue the analogue workflow to its obvious conclusion and print in a wet darkroom – I think true darkroom prints made by a master are something special.

      Having just seen Kennas exhibition in London, his prints are superb – his books just don’t do them justice at all.

      I know I am short changing myself by scanning the images in and finishing them digitally but as a working photographer at the moment the economics of setting up a wet dark room and then devoting the time to learning the process just make this impossible for me

      But one day, I am determined to do it. It is a closer goal for me to take some workshops with professionals working this way to learn the process so I understand it better

      • Hi Doug, thank you for the reply! You’re absolutely right about the economics of it all and in an ideal (lottery funded?!) world we would have the best of both worlds! I wouldn’t say you are short-changing yourself any more than purists are restricting themselves. I find the whole mixing of media quite interesting- certainly a modern phenomenon and really there is no right or wrong, just different viewpoints based on needs.

        I had the pleasure of seeing John Blakemore present his ‘working’ prints to my little group last summer. They were astonishingly rich, subtle and beyond doubt beautiful and I wish you all the luck in the world trying to balance modern needs with wanting to preserve these traditional skills. Bravo!

  • David Higgs

    Digitising analogue ‘files’, is I agree a hassle. Depending on the intended output size and original medium, a flatbed scanner is more than adequate. Drum scans are certainly a level above, but only necessary for large detailed prints. I use our illustrious editor for that service http://cheapdrumscanning.com/ I’ve printed images to 100 inches across, that you can nose using this process.
    Digitising enables you to do things that are either extremely difficult or impossible in a darkroom. With family, washing machines, work and life in general making darkrooms a luxury few can afford (although I’m collecting bits for ‘later’).
    Take the aforementioned 100 inch print, there can only be a few people in the world that could make a wet colour darkroom print of that size. To get a similar image with a digital camera I would be stitching with an IQ180 which I cannot afford. I sent a DVD to London where it was printed, after seeing some smaller proofs. The image was then sent directly to be framed, before I transported it to be exhibited. Digital technology simply made the print possible, and film technology made it affordable to me and in the end the customer.
    Best of both worlds. I was in the past a subscriber to the ‘purity’ case for completely analogue working. I respect people that make that choice, but for me it limits what is possible.

  • Nigel Roberson

    Super article that fits so closely to my situation. Although I have the D800 and all the lenses I will ever need I recently purchased a Mamiya 6, 10 rolls of Tri X, all the darkroom stuff that I sold 8 years ago and I am waiting for some Diafine to arrive any day. While I am waiting for that I am doing focus tests on the V750 and will soon be back to my lovely Tri X. I have tried the plug ins for film and they work “up to a point” but shooting film is different.It starts when you open the film and smell it and the care you take to load it and wind it on the the arrow. You meter carefully, you stop and consider whats happening and meter again. Its a different experience and one that wouldnt suit me when using a 500mm for wildlife, but thats when its time for the D800.

    • Doug Chinnery

      Sounds exciting Nigel – let us see the results when they emerge

  • welly

    Great article, Doug. As a photographer who started out shooting digital and now only shoot film, I thought some of the points you made brought most of the reasons I moved to film home. Although I must take you to task on this comment:

    “The digital photographer will always ask, “How do you know if you got the shot, how do you know if it is correctly exposed?” Answer… You don’t!”

    I’m not sure I agree to be honest. If I meter correctly (which I do) and develop my film correctly (again, I think it’s pretty hard to mess up black and white film developing), then there’s absolutely no reason why I can’t go home knowing I captured the shot. In fact, I’d be rather concerned for my wallet (I shoot 4×5 and 8×10 large format) if I went out shooting and didn’t know whether I correctly exposed the shot. On the occasions my shots haven’t come out, I’ve always known why, and more often than not straight after triggering the shutter.

    I do enjoy shooting with film greatly – it feels like I’ve actually crafted a photograph, as I’m responsible for every step of the way until the final print, rather than just “capturing” or “bagging” an image.

    • Doug Chinnery

      I know what you mean “Welly”, once you learn to trust your meter, film and skills you do stop worrying. You realise you don’t need histograms and the instant feedback of screens, you even reduce the need to bracket exposures. Really, I was talking about those first steps, after being used to digital photography, where you know instantly if you have exposed correctly. It is a weird feeling having no feedback at all, but you soon learn to trust yourself and your kit, don’t you?

  • LShepherd

    A beautifully illustrated article, Doug and interesting to read your thoughts and the responses regarding film. I hung on to my Pentax 645 for a few years after going digital, thinking I’d feel a need to go back to them. I never did and in the end sold everything to fund new glass. I didn’t expect to find it so but, in the same way, I never thought I’d be happy listening to all my music in digital format. Wouldn’t go back now -amazing what they can do with some of these old master recordings! :)

    I’m afraid I am going to have to pick you up on your economics argument though! ;) I absolutely agree that you have to spend far more on a high end digital camera body than the old film equivalent, but I don’t see that you ‘have’ to spend thousands on new glass. I’ve been trying out some of my brother’s 20-30yr old manual Nikon lenses on my D800e, all of which could be had for a few hundred, and they can produce stunning results. Perhaps they don’t get the very maximum out of the sensor but the results would definitely beat the same lenses on 35mm film SLRs.

    Just my two penny’s worth! Lizzie

    • Doug Chinnery

      I take on board your comments, Lizzie. I would say that most owners of a shiny new DSLR are not happy putting older lenses on them, they like the latest glass to go with the body even though many older lenses are actually very fine performers.

      I would still take some convincing that digital is cheaper than film if all the true costs are taken into account including depreciation of kit. Maybe something to discuss over a beer one day? :)

      • LShepherd

        Sounds like a plan! ;)

  • david mantripp

    I’m not sure that it is really all that necessary to rationlise using film. If you like the result, that’s reason enough, but a lot of arguments I hear (not necessarily in this article) have a whiff of Emperor’s Clothes to me. I think there was an equal proportion of people wildly pointing and shooting pre-digital as post-film: I don’t really hold with the argument that film makes you a better photographer. Indeed, one repeated argument for film is that negative colour stock has much better exposure tolerance than most digital, so therefore much more forgiving. And of course there’s a huge gulf in learning requirements between something like an EOS 1v and a Leica III. Never mind a Kodak disposable and a 5×4 view camera. So we should avoid over-generalization.

    Personally, the best reason I’ve ever heard anyone give for using film was from Stuart Klipper – his answer was “because that’s what the Linhof (Technorama) takes”. I’d say that pretty much nails it.

    • Doug Chinnery

      Great points David. Using film absolutely doesn’t make you a better photographer and neither does kit. A good photographer is just that, no matter what you put in his or her hand to shoot with. The look and feel of the results will differ certainly between a Brownie and a Linhoff, but a good photographer will make compelling images with either, I would argue – or equally with an iPhone or IQ180. The medium, lenses etc are not the most important thing in my mind, its the eye and mind of the user and how they interpret what they see. Then the subject, location, light, and yes, kit, all come in to play and heave a bearing.

      Whatever we choose, or are forced to use, the most important thing is to love what we are doing and to love our images ourself. If others love them, that is good too, but I think it is best to shoot to please ourselves and to be happy in doing that, not to shoot to try and garner praise from others.

      So kit and medium is secondary. I often think of children you see playing in the villages of Africa. Have you seen the toys they make for themselves from rubbish. Cars, bikes etc – even scooters they ride, all made from discarded refuse. They use what they have and make a great job of it – and seem to get huge enjoyment from it. I often think they seem to be happier playing than western children with expensive toys that are just heaped on them.

      I wonder if we can get a bit like that with kit? So obsessed with having the sharpest lenses and latest sensors, or the best 4 x 5 etc that we lose the joy of photography and should just go out and make pictures with basic kit – make it about the pictures, not the kit.

  • colinsbell

    Excellent article Doug and one to make exclusively digital folks (like myself) think. Your conclusion that you are “pro photography” is illustrated by each and every one of your images included here. I agree with the illustration of cost, in fact, to put it bluntly, photography is as expensive as one wants it to be whether film or digital. The problem is that dong both is twice as expensive :)

    • Doug Chinnery

      Ha! Colin, I hadn’t considered that. I am hit both ways. No wonder I am so poor :)

  • davidlangan

    Hi Doug, very unbiased and thoughtful piece – I’m not ‘into’ photography kit at all (apart from needing to own some of it to make pictures of course!) so I will resist commenting in that and go slightly off tangent. What really struck a chord with me is the point you made about images perfectly rendered completely in focus and that it had recently turned you off a bit. I must confess to the same and, even tho I still make such photos like yourself, I’ve been increasingly searching for something a bit different which can feed my creative juices. Although none of it is in the public domain
    (Yet!!) I have been experimenting with limited depth of field shots with great success (to my surprise). Not only do I live the results but it has also forced me to look at subjects completely differently and think about things I would have never considered before. This one move has really changed what I see and do recently which can only be a good thing for my photography!

  • davidlangan

    Oh and I also no that feeling shooting film for the first time after using the om-10 for on landscape many issues back! Can only re-iterate what you said about the benefits using a film camera can bring to your photogrsphy!

  • Carlo Didier

    Great musings and some really interesting (and very true) reflections. And great images too!. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Jon Butler

    I enjoyed your article and some good silver prints displayed.
    Although I use digital for making some large colour prints that sell well in Greece and also as a tool for copying some of my silver prints it’s a 5×4 with B&W film for me.

    There is something really beautiful about a well crafted fibre silver gelatine print that digital media can not deliver, I also like the fact that every silver print you make is unique. I do understand though that running a darkroom is to much of commitment for most.

    It’s a shame that today there is whole new generation photographers that never seen a real fine art photographic print.
    Cheers Jon.

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