Whether it’s family snaps or street photography, there is still a place for old school film and prints...
Digital has revolutionised street photography, allowing anyone with a smartphone or inexpensive digital camera to capture unexpected moments whenever and wherever they occur.
But for all its benefits, digital photography has an obvious drawback. Digital cameras allow for an almost infinite number of shots, most of which stay hidden away on camera or computer hard drives, or on remote servers in the cloud. Compared to film, painstakingly developed into physical prints, digital can seem both instant and instantly forgettable.
When you can snap anything, you tend to snap everything. The photographer’s art is diminished as a result. Here are more reasons why street photography should keep faith with film and print, at least some of the time.
Print is permanent
Take a picture on film, print it out, and you have it forever.
By contrast, billions of digital photographs will be taken this year, from spur of the moment selfies to perfectly composed natural panoramas, and most of them will be deleted, forgotten, or lost when the digital devices on which they reside are considered obsolete.
Many will be accidentally wiped from existence, while others fall victim to a server malfunction in a far flung corner of the digital cloud. A competent hacker can send a tsunami of destruction through reams of digital data.
That’s certainly an argument for backing up your data more thoroughly, but with digital photography it’s sometimes too easy to capture a moment in time and then decide it’s not the moment in time you hoped it would be. When photos are easy to take, they are easy to discard.
Print, on the other hand, embraces imperfection. Street photography, perhaps more than any other form, recognises that life is not a series of perfectly staged scenes. Photographs that are taken on film and then printed create a fascinating and permanent record of real life, regardless of colour clashes or photobombing wildlife. Print preserves real moments that digital discards in favour of more ‘perfect’ versions.
Film brings out your inner editor
With a roll of film, you don’t have the luxury of shooting everything, nor the ability to analyse and inspect every picture in an instant. As the photographer, you have to make choices as you go, acting as the editor of your own vision. You develop a photographer’s eye – that artist’s instinct that kicks in when a perfect combination of light, subject matter and opportunity presents itself.
With digital, the temptation is to capture everything, and a decent memory card allows you to do so. By doing so, you diminish the role of your own inner editor. Ironically, snapping away at everything can mean missing everything important. Street photographers don’t just take pictures, they observe life. Being selective about the photographs you take gives you the space to immerse yourself in the dramas you are attempting to capture.
In other words, taking pictures on film often means ending up with a few shots that perfectly sum up an event or occasion, while using a digital device can mean capturing an endless stream of images that only highlight banal details.
The quest for perfection
With digital photography, the ability to snap away without limit often makes the selection process instant and brutal. Digital snaps are taken and discarded like confetti at a wedding. What remains – often to be shared on social media – are the flawless depictions of seemingly perfect lives.
There’s nothing instant about film, which has to be developed in a darkroom or at the local pharmacy. It can take hours or days between taking a shot and seeing the resulting picture. You don’t know exactly what you’re going to get until the prints emerge, and the time and care taken in the process means only the very worst will be thrown away. Opening a packet of prints for the first time creates a tingle of anticipation.
The best might be framed and put on display, become part of a portfolio, or be sent to friends and relatives as gifts. The rest are stored in cherished photo albums or maybe just an old shoe box in the attic. Physical prints are rarely lost or forgotten. Instead, they are retrieved and rummaged through on special occasions, sparking stories and conversations.
For all their imperfections, these pictures become the tangible memories of real lives well lived, not an airbrushed imitation. They are passed from hand to hand like cherished keepsakes. Every picture tells a story, the bad as well as the good.
So yes, digital has revolutionised photography, with many positive results. But don’t write off film just yet. It can make better, more thoughtful photographers of us all.