The Film vs Digital Talk

A couple of days ago I posted on Facebook this collage of 2 images I took at the Jose Villa Workshop. I asked people to guess which is film and which is digital and why.

I received some really interesting responses -- but the best part is that almost everyone guessed image (a). And for many different reasons.

Some of those reasons were: Photo A looks "more vibrant," "more crisp," or "richer in color." Then a few chose it just because they preferred the composition! Needless to say that A, regardless if it was film or digital, was the favored image.

I'm going to reveal which is film, but first things first.

Whether you were at the workshop, or have read Jose Villa's book, you will learn this about his shooting technique:

  • Outdoors, he shoots into the sun: This means he backlights his subjects which creates the "warm glow" that "wraps" around his subjects.
  • He exposes for the shadow: This means he reads for exposure on the darker part of the subject.
  • He shoots with wide apertures and longer shutter speeds.
  • He rates his ISO lower: This means if his film is rated for 800 ISO, he tells his camera that it's 400 (this will tell the camera that it's "less sensitive to light, meaning it requires more light to expose properly.")
When someone once asked me "Do you expose for the shadow?" my first thought was "definitely not!" Then, when Jose Villa began explaining his shooting style, I thought "how on earth is the skin tone on his images so perfectly colored when he's exposing for the shadow at midday??"

And this my friends is where you must understand the biggest 2 differences, in my opinion, that I found in film images:


Let's look at the two images side by side again, but this time, look at the sky and the tone differences in both images:

Would you agree that image a) has a rosier tint to the sky? And that image b) looks a little more over exposed?

Photographer and friend Rebecca made this comment on Facebook about my question: "a" looks more like your style- not at all over exposed with a light rose-tint. Since you usually shoot digital (I think!), I'd put that one as digital and "b" as film."

The answer: Photo a is the film one. However, I highlighted Becca's comment because instinctively I wouldn't have chosen that lighting for my bouquet shooting digitally. I typically like to avoid a blown out sky. So in a way, Becca really made my day because she recognized that image (a) is more consistent with my style. Since the sun was up pretty high, I may not have even considered shooting against the sun if I hadn't decided to test the differences. And take this with a grain of salt, it doesn't mean I don't ever shoot into the sun at its peak, but I have to be very intentional with those so I don't have a blown out mess -- especially when photographing people.

Film? No, that's a different story. It BLEW my mind people, blew it, to see what a difference "over exposing" on film is in comparison to digital. Jose Villa says in his book, "People ask me all the time why I shoot film. Is there really a difference in the images? In my view, yes, and the reason is color. I can't get the same color, with the same consistency, using digital capture."

I completely agree. Color and exposure. Let me share another example. Excuse the slightly blurry film photo (image on the right)-- I exposed for the shadow and the meter said 1/4 of a second(!). Clearly my little hands were not stable enough for that slow shutter speed, but that's not the point. Check out the COLOR difference. The one on the left is a digital SOOC (straight out of the camera) with no editing. Same room and same lighting -- slightly different angles:

(all film images taken with Contax 645, Fujicolor Pro 400H film)

Do you see the difference in skin tones? Almost like the film adds more of a green tint. Look at the hair color. Look at the light separation on her skin in the film one.

I'm not here to say film is better than digital. This post is simply to share the differences that I found. While I don't want to jump on the "convert to film" boat -- I have to agree that there are some pretty significant differences that attract me to it. Mainly the differences in exposure. BUT, remember that we are using very specific FILM (chosen by Jose) and these were developed by a very skilled photo lab (Richard Photo Lab).

And if you are a digital shooter, be aware that Jose Villa's technique of "exposing for the shadow" works a particular way because he shoots film. Personally, I found there was much more forgiveness for over-exposing in film midday, whereas digitally, you're more likely to have the "blown out" look. Again, this is during midday sun. I love shooting into the sun during sunrise or a little before sunset and exposing for the shadow.

Plus, it's not about replicating someone's style. It's about defining our own. Jose isn't a one trick pony -- he definitely has a formula (in terms of technicality) -- but his art is in his consistency and quality. He created HIS "formula" in order to achieve a specific look -- you know, the "Jose Villa" look :)

So I leave you with this excerpt from his book:
"This consistency is critical to the fine art approach, and it carries through everything -- the images, the overall style, the products, and the service. Remember, the fine art approach is about creating a cohesive collection of art that works together. It's also about creating an exceptional experience from beginning to end. [...] Distinguish yourself. That's what the fine art approach is all about."

My summary: Film? Digital? Those are just mediums -- vehicles to expressing your vision, your art. Define your style, then learn to craft it consistently.