“Mulling it over, I couldn’t articulate it fully but definitely, I knew I had become lazy, really lazy. A spectacular sloth by the standards of shooting film. Film is hard. Film is a stone cold unforgiving killing bastard. Film is once in a lifetime, no excuses. F8 and really, really be there: ready, steady, in focus, correct exposure, and pressing the shutter in synch with life.”


Throughout the 1980’s I covered a lot of football, some of it without a motor drive or auto exposure and all of it manually follow-focusing with big glass. Various manufacturers would show up on the sidelines with different versions of digital cameras to try, always promising (or threatening) the same refrain: “In five years you guys will all be shooting digital!” Everyone would laugh and roll their eyes at this ridiculous idea.

It took more than five years, but by 1999 with the introduction of the Nikon D1 I was shooting both film and digital. Five years later, fully two thirds of my work was digital. Now with the D3X and D700 it’s 99 percent digital. The main reason for this shift is simply that the quality of the files is just so fantastic now that I can’t justify the expense of film for most projects. I’m not too precious about my tools; for me it’s all about the image and whatever gets the job done. We are at a point now with the quality of digital where I can make a digital print from a digital capture and show veteran photographers prints they cannot tell are digital. And that brings the discussion back to the eye of the shooter and the content of the images; the camera is irrelevant.

Yet despite this technical advance, lately I’ve been looking hard at what this means for me as a photographer and how I see. Of course I miss film and the traditions I grew up with. Until recently I had been shooting Tri-x almost every day since I was 10 years old so it’s not a small thing to change. I’ve been questioning if what I’m missing about film and film cameras is more than sentimental. I wondered if the differences between the working methods of using film and using digital were more than physical and what the implications might be if so. And bear in mind, I’m looking at this as someone who lives for capturing moments. This led me to do a serious shoot on a personal project with only film. And that experience led me to a revelation that is changing how I shoot digital, for the better. More on that in a moment.

It was at the Super Bowl in 1982 that I first laid hands on a digital camera. It was an experimental prototype Nikon was working on. They let me shoot a frame or two. At the time, I thought the whole idea insane. I remember it being very slow and heavy. I vaguely remember you could fire a frame every few minutes and it had a maximum shutter speed of 1/90th of a second or similar. It was unworkable for sports unless you planned to just shoot peak action, waiting for the athlete to reach the apex of a leap in the air for example. This reminded me of the old guys I knew at my first newspaper who started their careers shooting sports with a 4×5 Speed Graphic. One gentleman in particular–Zeke–looked over my shoulder one day and saw the film I was getting ready to soup from an assignment. I knew Zeke had covered the invasion of Normandy, incredibly, with a Speed Graphic. He took a drag on his cigar and leaned over and shouted “Six rolls! We could have covered World War II in 2 f*****g frames; one for the battle scene, one for the generals shaking hands!”

As the digital revolution unfolded through the 80’s and 90’s and all things analog were being converted to bits I was covering the engineers in Silicon Valley making the breakthroughs. It was clear they were going to change the world and I was very interested in the story more than the technology itself. My background was traditional and seriously analog. I was all about silver and the rituals of the darkroom. Staying up all night printing with MIles Davis on and a bottle of tequila was a necessity. I never imagined that digital capture and output would replace film and silver gelatin paper in my own work. But my curiosity about what the engineers were developing and my proximity led me to experiment early with digital scanners and printers. In 1983 I was transmitting photos to USA Today from forest fires in Yosemite with a steamer trunk size “portable” Scitex scanner. I bought a Mac in December of 1984 and was cruising the early internet immediately through primitive modems. In 1989 I co-produced the first published photography book with digital separations using a beta version of Photoshop. I made one of the first– if not the first– portfolios using a dye-sublimation printer from SuperMac. After three months of hard printing that beast, tweaking the color and density, I put the prints in an “archival” portfolio and by morning all the prints were blank. The ink molecules had migrated to the plastic pages. This is why we call it the “bleeding” edge of new technology. There are dozens of other experiments and beta tests I did with all the latest hardware and software, yet through it all I still never believed it would replace film or wet printing. Never. And that is exactly what happened.


So who cares anymore? Digital is king now. I for one do care, immensely, about the differences between film and digital. Why? I want to make great photographs, that’s why. I still dream every day of trying to make something meaningful that will stand up to time. And I started to get this slow realization that digital was making me lazy. Lazy, as in the opposite of what’s required to be great. No need to really worry about exposure, or to focus or anything. Just point and shoot–a monkey could do it! No need to think at all. This is so seductive and easy to rationalize. You tell yourself, “My eyes are getting bad” or “The auto everything makes me faster” and so on.

I started to worry that with digital I might be losing my edge. Yes, I was making images that I could be proud of and giddy with the instant gratification of seeing the image on the camera’s LCD. But what if I was in fact losing ground? What if I would get so slow and lazy I would miss the picture of a lifetime, the one I’m waiting for every day?

Mulling it over, I couldn’t articulate it fully but definitely, I knew I had become lazy, really lazy. A spectacular sloth by the standards of shooting film. Film is hard. Film is a stone cold unforgiving killing bastard. Film is once in a lifetime, no excuses. F8 and really, really be there: ready, steady, in focus, correct exposure, and pressing the shutter in synch with life.

To test this seemingly irrational fear, I decided to shoot a new project using film and manual settings. It turned out to be incredibly difficult at first, like giving up hotel mini-bars difficult. Like running up a sand dune blindfolded while trying to thread a needle difficult. But some things you don’t forget and after a day or so my mind razored up and I noticed I was again unconsciously adjusting f stops and pre-focusing while I was raising a camera in anticipation of a moment, just like in the old days. Soon these mechanical procedures happened automatically, unconsciously, naturally and in so doing I was changing. I was much more aware of light and therefore of the unforgiving nature of the film. I was bending my brain back into a film mindset. I could feel the difference and started to grasp the outline of a theory.

With digital, so much can be saved. Not only do you have the LCD to alert you to whether you got the shot, to adjust exposure and composition, but you can back it up via wireless, double memory card slots, downloading right there onto hard drives and so forth. The processing is much safer overall and risk of losing the image goes way down. Sure we get the odd electrical storm inside a memory card, but this is insignificant compared with film dangers.

With film, so much is at risk. You are never, ever sure you got the shot until you process the film, and depending where you are in the world and your assignment this could be days or weeks, or in the case of my old friend Frans Lanting, months! You learn to be psychic and to live in denial. You are denying your burning desire to see what you got. And sometimes when you think you sort of missed the shot but are not quite sure, you can deny it for the time being and move on, hopeful yet ignorant. (Contrarily, with digital you will know you missed the greatest shot of your life right then and there, thus inducing plans for suicide, and casting a pall of depression over your shoot.)

With film, not only might the exposure be off, but the processing is fraught with peril. Even if you process yourself mistakes can happen, it’s chemistry for Christ’s sake– and even the best labs have the rare but deadly disasters. Just protecting the film from the shoot to the lab is sometimes a minefield of stress and worry. Try getting a hand check at Heathrow security sometime. The rolls of film are like uncut diamonds, objects that simply cannot be replaced. You sweat, you bleed, you age until it’s safe.

The state of mind required to shoot film is one of heightened, intense concentration and analogous to the mindset required for Zen meditation. It’s pure zen in fact. You are truly living in the moment, electric with anticipation, open to life unfolding before you.

The state of mind when shooting digital is more relaxed, more easily distracted. It’s more like everyday life, nothing that special is required. Especially if you are in fact trained as a photographer and have some skills. The camera does leverage your abilities, no doubt. But while you have your head down checking the LCD guess what? You just missed your pulitzer. That LCD is crack. You just can’t get enough. We all want instant gratification and here you have it. Bliss. Yet the act of constantly checking the back of the camera is taking your head out of the game. You gain a useful bit of knowledge but at what cost? I know it also can save time we used to spend covering our asses with brackets and snip tests and whatnot but if it’s moments in time you are after, I now believe it’s the disciplined Zen mindset you need.

So my theory is simple: there is something really important, perhaps magical, about the fact that film is so unforgiving that it creates a special mindfulness in the photographer, which in turn increases the chances of making great pictures.

Is that a big breakthrough? For me it was a bolt of lightening. I’d slid down into the warm tub of digital complacency and lost discipline and needed correction. Yet I really love my digital cameras for all the practical reasons listed above and so I figured out a compromise. It has not been easy, but it’s all about limiting my use of the LCD. I try to never look at the devil LCD and I often will put the camera on manual exposure or manual focus to keep those neural pathways oiled. I’m not fully going back to the complete mechanical world, but by creating a limit on the LCD I put my mind back in the moment, open and thinking, ready for that shot of a lifetime.

April 2009
This entry was posted in Field Notes & Essays and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. kenneth says:

    I am an analogue Neanderthal in everything in life be it Hi-Fi, Swiss mechanical watches and of course photography where I use a Leica M series exclusively to take B&W only images and they spend time in the red light area. I can see a place for digital but not within art photography.

    Regards Kenneth-UK

    • menuez says:

      Thanks as well to APE and to you for the great comment about having fun with digital. I did not want to come across as condemning digital at all. It’s a great new tool. It just became important to redefine how I use the tool to keep growing as a photographer. Any tool, like a hammer, can build a house or tear it down….d

  2. This was great post, I really enjoyed reading it. I especially like the part about 2 shots on the Speed Graphic.

    The Film is hard line is great as well. Maybe thats why I never moved away from it. I like a challenge.

  3. Ian Martin says:

    Great piece Doug! Although I’m a film guy, I have nothing against digital. But one thing I wonder about is doing intense documentary work with people who are drug addicts, prostitutes, etc. Of course it is 100% essential to be honest about your intentions for the photographs you take of them, that’s just basic ethics. But what happens when you’ve finally built enough trust to photograph them smoking crystal meth, or doing something else really ugly? They also know about the LCD. When they ask to see those photos, do you simply say “no?” Does the trust then collapse? And if you do show them the photos on the LCD, then what? Maybe they’ll be fine with what they see, but maybe not because they’re seeing that image out of context, by itself and not juxtaposed against the photo in a published edit that shows them as a complete person, that shows their good side and not just their self-destruction. This is me just ruminating, I would like to know how it works shooting digital in these circumstances.

  4. Ian Martin says:

    Regarding film, I think it is powerful that the images disappear into that little black box, the contents of which are unknowable to anyone until it is unlocked in the darkroom. The photographer doesn’t know, and neither does the subject. (I think the Ron-Haviv-in-Bosnia example is a good one.) It’s Schroedinger’s Cat. And as a film guy, I find myself going back and going back photographing the same situations again, never being satisfied that I’ve “got the shot.” (In the darkroom, I often find that I had what I needed on the first trip, but that the photos from the subsequent visits are stronger.) I think it’s this insecurity (which gets a bit irrational in a seasoned photographer) that is central to the Zen aspect of working in an unforgiving medium.

    • menuez says:

      On one hand it’s absolutely fantastic to have the camera automate a lot of the tasks in terms of being able to grab moments and the creative process. On the other, having to manage the tool, even unconsciously, heightens your awareness and may improve the result. My goal is for it not to matter and use my film skills to leverage what digital has to offer. But if you’ve not learned the mechanics prior to automating you are not able to utilize the tool to it’s utmost to express your vision. LIke driving a Ferrari and never getting out of first gear.

    • Ted Dillard says:

      Thiago, that is a good question. There’s a good reason most photography schools insist (or at least used to…) that a first-year student start out by shooting with a 4×5 view camera. It is the most basic, fundamental tool, where not only do you control the exposure and focus, but even the relationship of the film plane to the lens plane. You, at a fundamental level, learn how a camera works.

      The creative process, in any medium, but in particular photography, is as much about the use and control of your tools as it is any other part of the process. You can’t build a creative process, as a painter, for example, without understanding how one brush differs from another.

      Automating the tasks in a process is not how you learn. You learn by trying and controlling, making mistakes and getting surprises. If your camera is making the decisions, you are not controlling the process, thus, I’d argue, there is no process at all. …film, or digital.

  5. John Sturr says:

    Mr. Menuez — good stuff, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    The camera supporting the Digital workflow is just another tool — akin to stone tablets evolving to pieces of paper — yet the part everyone forgets, is the importance of what is captured, why it is captured, and how it is presented. If you consistently achieved all three with film — you were a master – because there was no “chimping” on site – back in the day.

    One can even say that the Digital format may promote a hap-hazard approach because now one can shoot 500 frames etc. — or maybe it’s just all “6’s”


  6. Timo Jarvinen says:

    Thanks a lot for a great read. I’ve shot professionally with film some 10+ years, and some four years ago made complete transform from film to digi, honestly i dropped perfectly working F5 right there and i haven’t shot one roll of film since then. I hated to see this revolution happen, but at the same time i felt that i have to jump in not to be left out; i didn’t want to be the very last person to learn this new medium. Your words echoed in my mind, telling me how i exactly got lost in the land of post processing, auto focus, instant preview… I used to have my Minolta lightmeter around my neck every time when i had to shoot under variable light conditions… Now that thing’s been collecting dust year in year out, when it used to be one of the first things i packed when leaving my house. I shoot with D3 and i love it, but i felt that i had to go back to where came from, to sharpen my blade. After spending few days juggling around in eBay, i received a gem 503cx with 80mm and that baby will be from now on always with me, to slow me down, to put me to think what i’m about to do and how. It will be a pleasure, it won’t take over my digi set up, but it’ll coach me back into what i used to be; a guy who picked his photos carefully, trying to make every frame count.

    I’ll definitely turn the LCD off.

    Thanks again,

    Timo Jarvinen

  7. I’ve been spending a lot of time with gaffers tape over my LCD in an attempt to ‘re-oil’, as you so eloquently put it. All my personal projects are done in this manner – when I get to a paying gig, the LCD becomes a helpful tool, rather than a crutch.

  8. david says:

    This is so very good. Thanks for writing it.

  9. david says:

    So well said. Thanks for writing it.

  10. Mike Shipman says:

    At the end of March, I wrote in my blog a similar concern I’ve had for some time now (see link). I’m self taught and from the beginning wanted to shoot medium format but couldn’t afford it. So, I taught myself to shoot 35mm as if it was medium or large format, slowly, deliberately, with awareness, rather than multi-frame motor drive, wham bam thank you ma’am.

    I put off going digital as long as possible and, initially, kept to my shooting regimen. It was easy to “fall from grace” and the quality of my work suffered. Getting caught up in the technology made me lose a but of myself in the images I made.

    It’s funny, Edward Weston back in the 1930s complained about photographers getting too wrapped up in gadgets and technology and that sentiment is as applicable today as it was then. Even more so, I think. Photography, with the associated technology, has become a series of button presses leading to a manufactured creation rather than a conscious mental and spiritual involvement by the photographer and hands-on production. The art is driven by the availability of technology and someone else to create the coding that allows us to manipulate and intangible, invisible set of binary codes eventually becoming a physical image (in print only) of something that may or may not be of our own imagination. Sure, we point, compose and expose, but the rest?

    When I find myself being sucked too deep into Photoshop, I grab my Polaroid SX-70 camera and some of the last remaining stock of instant film I have and go out to make “real” photographs.

  11. Hugh Alison says:

    I’ve found the change to digital straightforward, seldom chimp, although I do check a histogram sometimes.

    What I found more disturbing was having to use a zoom for the first time when I bought a EOS20D – APS-C format camera. I hated it, having just used a 35mm and a 135mm for several years.

    As soon as I moved to a full frame (5D) I got rid of the zoom – still took quite a long time to get the familiarity back.

  12. Great reflection.
    I just think it drifted once the point was made. Technology allows us to work faster and crank out more images. Digital cameras do to photography what cars do to transportation with a difference. Cars deprive us of the slow pace of walking, of that physical and visual (as well as intellectual as we process information as we walk) experience, which in some ways can be a philosophical one–see how many philosophers used to teach or think (aloud) while walking; some probably still do (that or they drink rum or tequilla on a beach!).
    As mentioned in the piece “digital cameras make us lazy.” Probably what the first photographers shifting from painting or drawing to photography said in the 19th century–when you think of it.
    Then it is not the camera’s responsibility, but ours. Let’s not blame it on the messenger. I can still work on a tripod, or/and slow my pace down, or/and spend more time planning my image before taking it. Then I also have a wonderful tool that allows me far more control over the final result, over the “previsualized” image that I want.
    Let’s take full responsibility for our potential or real weaknesses and fight back; let’s not start a process that sounds like denial and complacency. It is still our choice to become better or worse photographers. Let’s use technology but not be distracted by it.


  13. PS: going back to the top of the page I think Doug’s motto is the real conclusion of this: “Go fast, don’t crash.”
    In other words, embrace technology if it is your choice, just control it.

  14. Dan says:

    Hi Doug, I met you and Rick Smolan in line to fly to the big island for a solar eclipse in 91. I was in my early 20’s and just starting to earn a living in photography through being a stringer.

    A lot has changed since then to say the least. I have been shooting for 34 years now, 15 with digital. What I have found is that while digital is a great tool, overall, it has not made photographers better, has not bettered the images of say, David Alan Harvey, William Albert Allard, James Natchwey, Mary Ellen Mark, etc.

    In terms of impact and emotional content, I rarely see images today made on digital outdoing film images made yesterday. I like to commit to a strong technique, I like the look and the feel of film. I liken shooting with digital like running on sand, no discernible limit while shooting with film is like running on pavement, you can “power” off of those limits and make them work for you.

    So in the past few years, I have reduced the amount of digital I use to deadline or client budget related reasons. I photographed OBama signing the stimulus bill not long ago. I had a D3, D700 for my news agent and a leica M3 with Kodachrome for me.

    The good news in all of this? Digital has matured as a medium and film has matured as a niche. I will continue to use both and I am happy to see some clients are fine with budgeting for film use.

    I am a photographer, I use what I feel like or what I have to and after 15 years of shooting digital, I not only find that it is not the second coming, but it is not better than using film, just different.

    So be different, come join us in celebrating a film’s 75th anniversary:

    Life is too short to follow a crowd, but you know that..:-)

  15. Michael Stolz says:

    For me it is the auto every thing that puts you in to the moment. Setting there for an hour or so, the place and time be come more then a picture. The smell, the touch, the sounds, and the moment. No anticipation the moment and the picture. Yes I will make changes in the camera. Change saturation, speed, white balance. But not till I get to the moment. I start in Program shot and look. Then I shot and look and listen. I shot, look, listen and smell.
    With no anticipation, I look, I listen, I smell and I shot.
    The act of taking a picture became a meditation and the picture is the moment.

  16. RAM says:

    In these digital times, the ability to shoot on film, to create an original non-manipulated image with a fully manual camera system will always be considered as something of a dying art form …

  17. panunch says:

    I started shooting earlier this year when I happened to find my granduncle’s eos 1-N.

    I was thinking of starting to do photography as a hobby with film at that time. I was lucky that I got one for free!

    With the world going digital, I find it a lot more satisfying to use film. The combination of using different types of films shows the creativity that one can find in photography.

    Not to sound like a douche, it saddens me that people think of photography as being a person owning a DSLR.

    The craft for me is starting to feel watered down.

    The beauty of getting the right exposure and the first instance of seeing what you have captured is infinitely more satisfying compared to the devil-ish LCD.

    I was immensely satisfied with your article. More power Doug!

    Check out my pics in my multiply:

    I hope you like my shots.

  18. I have been to your site a few times now, and this time I am adding it to my bookmarks 🙂 Your posts are always relevant, unlike the same-old stuff on other sites (which are coming off my bookmarks!) Two thumbs up!

  19. pat downs says:

    Great column Doug!

    I love this comment you made after: “i also keep my memory cards small, 2 gigs or now i am using 4 gigs with the larger files of the D3 and D3x, but still this limits me. more importantly it keeps me in a similar rhythm to film. you know when you’re getting close to 36 and time things accordingly.”

    I did that the other day, and it’s true. I chose every frame with intention, waited, maybe made a few multiples, but no machine-gunning like I had the endless roll of film.

  20. Dan says:

    “I can’t justify the expense of film for most projects”

    I have to say I disagree with that in many cases. When you add up the cost of everything involved in shooting, sure on it’s own the film may look like a big expense, but when everything is added that is involved with doing the shoot, it becomes a minor part.

    Eg; A landscape photographer (such as my friend with his 617) has his camera, which cost about the same just last year as about a good dSLR (without lens) one would choose for landscape work. While you may not need to replace the dSLR with superceded, even by a couple generations, many still feel like they have to keep up with the Jones’ so to speak.

    Regardless of that, back to the point, you have the travel cost of scouting and driving (or taking other transport) to your location. The 8-12 hours (which I find typical on an outing) of your time (inc travel time), getting food while you’re out, the % of time you spend using your car for shoots (if you do) out of it’s life of it’s total costs over it’s life divided by the number of shoot trips etc.

    It’s a tiny part of the cost of shooting in many cases. People balk at it since it seems like a lot per picture to pay for the film, and since it’s a cost you’re spending every shutter click vs the mentality of “free”/prepaid everything where you don’t have ongoing costs, even though ever shutter click still has a price tag attached to it over the life of the equipment.

    Regardless, where the norm in some situations such as sports and some journalistic scenarios where high-frame rate keeps you somewhat competitive I guess, there’s not much a of reason for it for those that like to shoot film. But in other journalistic situations where you don’t need a machine gun of a camera (or that’s not how you choose to shoot) the aesthetic can be an excellent pay off, and since it’s a completely visual medium.. well you get the picture 😉

    Film for me is the ultimate in choice, flexibility, and aesthetic that is just unmatched for someone with the patience and perserverance to see it through.

    If you suddenly realised your digital shots from the your shoot were 4 to 5 stops overexposed, they’d be gone. Of course most people would see a white LCD screen and adjust exposure not ruining the entire shoot, but some may meter, then take a test shot with the camera, then change something unwittingly while shooting with the LCD off (as you mention you try to not look at the LCD).

    I mention this, as this specifically happened to a friend that accidentally shot wide open on his 617, his shots being 4 to 5 stops overexposed on Velvia 50, which would give him blank film processed normally, I processed it for him and had not a single blown highlight anywhere. All detail retained. Killer saturation was lost due to the much lower contrast index with much increased dynamic range, but one could take it into Photoshop if they wished.

    Being able to save almost anything post-exposure is great. With a custom first developer for that specific purpose (instead of just pulling massively) one still could get the high contrast and saturation of otherwise normally ruined slide film.

    My Lightroom catalogue has over 40,000 images from my EOS 30D. I have to say with Lightroom, I’d be royally four letter worded trying to find something. That’s with using manual adapted glass, my only AF lens was the Sigma 12-24mm, which I barely used in AF anyway.

    All my work is primarily medium format film, I upgraded to a GH2 for digital, which I got for video, though it’s handy if I want to share a quick image of what I’m doing etc. When I shoot people or models, I do advise I only take a couple images.

    Most landscape shooters into film love slide film, as do I, but I primarily shoot colour negative for landscapes, and b&w negative as well, for me, I love highlights that can go on almost forever, I also love being able to render tough high contrast scenes in a subtle gentler way many times.

    There is much more to it then a psychological difference, and even that you can overcome, by putting the shoe on the other foot.. there’s plenty of film cameras (from auto p&s to SLR), that offer sophisticated autofocus and autoexposure, coupled with the fact that you can put in a good general purpose neg film that will not overexpose in the same as digital (no blown highlights), and will handle exposure variations better.

    So you could also shoot in a “brain dead” fashion with film too, it’s not a digital invention, iirc the original Kodak Brownie ads were “You push the button, we do the rest” – that’s going back a long way. The problem here is that more and more, photographers in the digital age have been letting themselves be brain washed with consumerism propaganda.

    There is a real technical and aesthetic tangible difference, but that difference is variable and up to the person shooting, but they have option to basically switch that difference to something entirely different.

    • Doug Menuez says:

      All good points. I am sure I’ll come back to film someday. I’m now printing a project I shot on tri x in the 80’s on silver gelatin paper but using digital negs from scans. But the formula for Tri X with it’s lovely 9 stops and shadow detail seems to be changed. Not crazy about it. But to each their own, each has limitations and advantages. Lightroom is also very easy but I find Aperture designed better for larger archives and workflow.

  21. Dan says:

    Meant to say -without- lightroom I’d be screwed trying to find an image.

  22. This is the best discussion of this issue I have ever heard/seen. I’m bookmarking it and sending the link to friends!

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