The Case Against Film Photography, If You Needed More Proof

By Haje Jan Kamps on at

It may be Film Week here on Gizmodo UK, but here's Haje's argument against it... Most photographers have made the leap to digital, but there are a few pockets of resistance that stubbornly clutch on to their cellulose-backed ways. Archaeology is a great example. On dig sites all over the country, people are still scratching their heads about threading film and swearing like a docker about why it has to take a week before you get to see whether any of your photos came out.

The reason for this? Apparently, the archives say that film is the only way to enlightenment. But they are wrong.

Even today, the archival ideal is still black and white film processed to British Standard 5699. Others adopt a conservative stance by arguing that film, with its long history of stability, is probably the safest bet for the long term. But they are wrong.

Film is a physical, analogue medium and, as such, not a great way to store information for posterity. A lot of film degrades over time, and every time you access the film, whether you are making prints, scanning, or simply searching for a particular negative for  reference, you are causing tiny amounts of damage to it.

Whilst most archives will be vigilant in protecting their invaluable film, a single flood or fire can wipe out an entire archive - an occurrence that's more common than you'd think. Since it is impractical and uneconomical to make a good copy of every photograph in an archive - and impossible to make a perfect copy - there will be no backups of the original data, and it'll be lost forever.

In a recent paper, archeologist Dr David Wheatley states that "film produces a relatively robust physical result for archiving and does not require batteries". The good doctor will forgive me; "relatively robust" is not good enough if you're trying to preserve data future generations. And I'll give a biscuit to anyone who'll tell me about a long-term digital storage medium that uses batteries...


So why go digital?

The greatest argument against swapping from analogue to digital concerns longevity. Specifically, will you still be able to read and use your files ten, twenty, or fifty years from now? It’s a valid concern, but the great news there is that digital data is easy to store, retrieve and transcode from one format to another if required. All you need is a few computers. On top of that, digital storage has never been more affordable.

What some outposts of academia seem to fail to realise, is that in binary-land we live in an entirely different reality than that of perishable goods. A photo captured on a digital camera is an accurate representation of what the camera saw, and doubly so if it is captured in RAW.

The camera reads the light from the sensor and writes it to a memory card, and the in-camera processing is the last time the photo will change. From there on out, it is a digital file. You can copy it once, twice, or a million times without degradation. It is possible to store perfect copies of the original file off-site, which gives a tremendous opportunity from an archive's point of view. If your main archive facility burns down, you could (nay, should) have copies in an alternative facility. Or, if you want to get all SaaS, apply the power of 'the cloud' to store your precious files in different locations all around the world.

Add a sprinkling of meticulous application of metadata, and it's trivial to file and retrieve images. Even better: because all of this can be embedded directly into the image files themselves, there is no risk of losing the data: the 'label' cannot 'fall off' the 'box' of photos.

There are research benefits as well, of course. Because all the information is digital, it's fully searchable, and all this information will be available at your fingertips. If you don't believe me, compare a search on Google Images with a dip into your mum's shoe box with Polaroids from your childhood, and see what's easier.

I have to admit my sympathy with one part of the counter-digital argument: It is true there is a lot of movement in the world of digital photography. There are myriad file formats, and not all of them are inter-compatible... But arguing that as an unbeatable obstacle stopped being fashionable about 10 years ago.

Digital Archival. There's no image degradation during use, it's fully index-able, easily searchable, quickly retrievable, remotely accessible, amply backup-able, admirably future-proof, easy to convert for different target outputs, and much cheaper than processing and indexing film...

I'll be perfectly honest; it's downright criminal that film is even a consideration when it comes to archival. Maybe it is time that archaeologists stopped living in the past.

Image Credit: Pedro Alvarez / Shutterstock


This article was originally posted on October 12th.