Hear from the photo editors of National Geographic about what it takes to create some of the most memorable images appearing in the magazine.
Film is dead, long live film
Posted May 1,2008


The May 2008 issue of the magazine is a special, one-topic issue covering China. An interesting—although not necessarily planned—fact is that most of the photographs were shot on film. This could turn out to be the last issue of NGM in which the majority of the photographs were not shot digitally.

Of the five main contributors: Fritz Hoffman, Lynn Johnson and Greg Girard shoot film; while Randy Olson and George Steinmetz use digital.

I had a chance to sit down with Fritz recently to talk about his thoughts on film vs. digital.

Fritz was quick to point out that it is not so much about the method of capture, but for him, more about the camera. Fritz shoots primarily with a 35mm film Leica rangefinder. “If you have ever held one...it’s a love affair” he explained. “A camera is something you become one with...I see in a way that matches the camera and its lens.”

Fritz was an early adopter of digital technology, working with a Nikon SLR six years ago (which indeed were the most primitive days of digital). But he found the cameras simply too bulky for the kind of intimate and personal photography he has mastered. He still feels today's professional SLRs are still too cumbersome.

One digital camera that Fritz does actually carry with him now is a Canon G7 point & shoot (the newest model is the G9). He tends to use it to check lighting, color balance and also as a way to make visual notes—he may shoot a Chinese sign and then later have it translated.

For a shot of Shanghai’s skyline at night, Fritz was using his G7 point & shoot to check the lighting, and then shot the scene using his Leica and film. Later, when editing the story, the digital snapshot proved to have captured detail that was beyond the range of the same scene shot on film. The photo that ran across two pages of the magazine was the only digital photo that Fritz made, and it was shot with his little G7.

When it comes to digital vs. analog cameras, Fritz cites a sentiment that I have heard from other pros: digital cameras tempt you to look at the preview, or constantly check settings. Fritz explains succinctly: “Film keeps me in the moment.”

But Fritz is thinking about moving to digital, but he wants to do it when he feels that he has found an appropriate aesthetic reason for doing so. Fritz notes that “digital images are like sugar-coated Rice Crispies, they’re too glossy. Not that there is anything wrong with that, it’s just not right for what I’m doing right now. When I go to digital, I want to do something new with it.”

“In Shanghai," he explains "there are all these glass buildings that are reflecting light back and forth. I think digital, which has this inherent brightness to it, would be ideally suited to capturing that wild light.”

And finally, Fritz observes that digital requires time to handle the images after they are shot. “With film, the image is pretty much set when you shoot it. But with digital you have to deal with all this post-processing to get the images to look like you saw them.”

Fritz adds: “I have to be out there making pictures, not sitting behind a computer.”

At National Geographic we do not require photographers to shoot one way or another—we support both approaches. Ultimately, we care more about what is being photographed, and less about how.

See more of Fritz Hoffman’s China images here.

Posted by David Griffin | Comments (34)
Filed Under: Photography


Mike Jones
May 1, 2008 10AM #

It would be good to hear for what reason the others photographers chose film. In the past some digital shoots have just been so obvious, and while the gap is closing, film shots in your magazine usually have better color and overall sharpness (foreground to background). Low and artifial light shots are where digital wins.

Sara Andrea Vera Beltrán
May 1, 2008 10AM #

It's very interesting to learn more about what professional photographers use and why. I can see Mr. Hoffman's point when choosing film over digital although I'm a digital photographer myself.

Digital photography has been a blessing for me for several reasons:

1) It's cheap. You invest in a camera and then you don't need to print all the photos to be able to see them. You print only the ones you like or the ones you can afford... this can be very helpful when you travel and take 700+ photos in a week!!!

2) The screen. Pros can take photos knowing that the result will be exactly what they wanted, but amateurs like me need to check the photo to see if it turned out OK. It gives you the chance to take the photo again fixing whatever you did wrong the first time.

It also great that when you change the settings in the camera you can see the image changing on the screen. It helps you to understand what's best for each situation and to improve as a photographer.

3) This is a totally personal reason but... I can't see a thing through the traditional viewer. And trying to take photographs with the viewer wearing glasses is very uncomfortable. The screen (again) is the only way for me to see what I'm shooting.

Anyway, it's great to know that many NG photographers have gone digital. I mean... if they do it we can do it. Right?

Oh! And I loved the China issue. I'm fascinated by Chinese culture and artistic heritage. And Mr. Hoffman's photos were awesome. So were the other photographer's featured. Film or digital... NG photographers are the best!!

Luka Dakskobler
May 1, 2008 10AM #

Great insight! And of course great photos, as always.

Film or digital from my POV: I use film only when I'm taking pictures for myself. When I can slow down and especially when I can afford to make mistakes, or better yet, when the camera is allowed to make them. The truth is that there aro no guarantees of how the photo would turn out, because there are so many factors involved in metering light and in contrast etc. When on my own mission, I'm allowed to experiment and I won't beat myself about not getting the shot, if the camera overexposes it (or if I do).
On the other hand, photojournalism is different. I need photos immediately, and I need good ones. The first is very important during events and the latter is mostly important for features aswell. I am a strong believer in getting the perfect shot right from the film or sensor, as little post-processing as possible (mostly there's none), so I need to see what I have and that's what displays are for. I did learn the ropes on analogue, but like I said, there's always some tiny element that can mess up metering or anything else. Plus, you're not always as attentive as you should be, and you later see a disturbing object in the photo... However, I could shoot the entire feature on film, no problem, but only now that I know what the light can do and how to use the shortcomings of film to achieve perhaps an aditional aspect of meaning in the photo. What can still let me down sometimes is flash, but that's mostly because I don't like flash photography.

There are some things about digital that I don't like. RGB noise as oposed to film grain. And sometimes the overall texture. I can get used to anything but the RGB noise.

But to tell you the truth, what convinced me to go digital? It's cheap. I used to shoot a lot at events, and spent a fortune on developing films. Now it's easier. And yes, it does give me peace of mind when on assignment for either news press or the Slovenian editions of NG. In fact, when I browse through and see a very strong photo of a certain aspect of a story, it actually boosts my morale :)

Well, that's my take on the subject.

May 1, 2008 10AM #

It reminds me of people who stiick to records instead of CDs.
They say the Quality is Better.
I don't understand what's better ? all the noises from dust and scratches and the need to go to the Gramophone every 20 Minutes to Switch it to the other side
Same for Film, Good just for Nostlagia.

Bryan C
May 1, 2008 10AM #

If you already have an investment in film cameras (especially high-end rangefinders or medium format equipment) and if your workflow doesn't require instant downloading then there's no immediate reason to go digital. Film is not free, but it's really not that expensive. Developing is readily available, and even the one-hour places are fairly bulletproof these days. Add a film scanner, a modest one-time investment, and you've got most of the advantages of digital at much less than it would cost to replace your equipment or buy a digital MF back. Given the hybrid workflows most film photographers use I suspect it's actually much cheaper to shoot film now than it's been in many years.

May 1, 2008 10AM #

Wow, this is great to read.

I'm a free-lance photographer, and I'm going digital soon. I plan to buy a Canon DSLR that will work with the accessories I already have.

For my fine art stuff, I'll stick to film. But when I'm doing commercial or portrait work, it's hard to compete price-wise with digital photographers.

But it's nice to know I'm not alone in holding onto my love for film.

May 1, 2008 10AM #

I work both with a DSLR and a Leica M.

For commercial work, the DSLR gets significantly more use (but still not exclusively). All my personal and fine art work is still done on film, though. The reason for this, as noted above, is the workflow for both mediums is vastly different.

With film, I feel like I am more part of the moment, as I am absorbed more in the process and less of the product. Thus, I feel more intimately connected to film photographs that I take. With digital, I feel some internal pressure to make an objectively perfect image, rather than a subjective (and more personal) message. I will, however, continue to exploit the best of what both bring - digital's speed and precision, and what I feel is film's emotional and life-absorbing quality.

May 1, 2008 10AM #

I burn film exclusively. I'm not anti-digital. It's whatever works for the photographer. I don't often have impending deadlines, and when I do, I can have medium or high res scans within an hour if need be. I've noticed that my digi buddies are always upgrading their cameras and computers. Not me. I still have & use cameras that are decades old, and will go for a few more decades. I'd much rather be out and behind the camera, instead of the PC moniter. As I said before, it's whatever works for the shooter.


May 1, 2008 10AM #

Well, I use digital when I shoot smth like when I want to sell something on eBay or to copy my profs handwriting from a black board and so on. When I take pictures of my family or doing some street photography I go with film! To me film photos are more alive and natural than pixels ones. And BTW film nowadays is not too expensive especially if you buy a bulk roll.

Alan Waterworth
May 1, 2008 10AM #

A very interesting article. I "went digital" in 2006, thought to be honest I still work in the same way I did with film. I had become accustomed to how certain types of film worked (fuji velvia has long been a favourite of mine) and so I still "see" pictures in terms of how it will look on film. I find that shooting film makes me think more about what im doing, slows me down, so I "feel" the picture more..(I guess some of you understand that) I cant simply retake the picture and delete. I do find that digital can be somewhat lacking sometimes in its tonal range and saturation, though tweeking the camera settings and shooting RAW files on digital usually overcomes this, and indeed shooting RAW files is probably the only way to get the best results from digital, as it often records more detail than is possible with film. Most of my best, most satisfying pictures were shot on film too.. as others have said, the temptation to check the preview on a digital camera kind of spoils some of the magic in some way.. theres nothing more satisfying in photography than KNOWING that you just got a wonderful shot and the anticipation of seeing the results back in from the lab. It is disappointing though that much of the photo industry has moved almost entirely to digital.. cost being the main factor that is pushing more people toward digital whether they want to go that way or not. Which is best? Horses for courses I guess, each has its own good and bad points.

Ace Preston
May 1, 2008 10AM #

It's great to see photographers such as Fritz preferring to shoot film as opposed to digital. Unfortunately many of todays' younger post-film photographers have never had that experience.

Being one of the first photographers to shoot digital during it earlier primitive stages, gave me the head start needed to eventually surpass my own limitations.
Digital gave me the ability to shoot over 400,000 images in an eight year period. This is quite extraordinary when one considers the greats such as Robert Capa sadly got to shoot at most 70,000 images.
The possibilities of digital has advanced photography into another sphere.

As far as Fritz converting to digital by finding the "appropriate aesthetic reason for doing so", he should definitely not rush it. His photography is fine in it's own unique way.

D. Richard Eunice
May 1, 2008 10AM #

Photography was a hobby of mine when I was in high school and when I joined the Air Force in 1965 I was lucky enough to go to photo school. We were trained in B&W in everything from aerial to the wet dark room. In the field our light meter was in our head and we burned and dogged photographs to get what we wanted. Sadly digital has all but erased wet dark rooms because of the many choices given to the photographer.

But I can not help to feel a loss for the skill it took to produce a B&W photograph in wet dark rooms. I still like B&W photography and plan to put together a small dark room in my apartment bathroom that I can tear down when not in use. Color digital is great but sometimes when I look at a digital photograph, it is obvious the shot is not what was photographed but is artificial looking with all of the changes in color and content.

I for one still enjoy the wet dark room, the skill we used with expierence and the distinct smell of the dark room chemicals.

david bowne
May 1, 2008 10AM #

it's film for me, since having a hard copy of work i care about is reassuring.

if i had begun shooting digital with the d1 & d1x i would now have a couple of years worth of work which would be unsaleable as stock due to the low quality.

although i also still use an old nokia phone, fondly refered to as 'the brick', so perhaps i am old fashioned.

i'd certainly like a nik d3 or can 1d mrk3.. made me try a little harder.. as though using film, infact.

david bowen
May 1, 2008 10AM #

bowen, that is :o/

Dinflux Ed
May 1, 2008 10AM #

"Unfortunately many of todays' younger post-film photographers have never had that experience."

yeah thats me. i wish i would have had that dark room experience, seems very cool to me.

May 1, 2008 10AM #

hi very good iam a photographer from IRAN i like you see my photos please see tanks

May 1, 2008 10AM #

Quite nicely written actually, i like it. :)

Noclegi Ustka
May 1, 2008 10AM #

Interesting.For commercial work.

May 1, 2008 10AM #

Film was my first love and although I shoot mostly digital for editorial and commercial assignments, I return to film when I am shooting just for my self. It is a more personal medium to me.

Davin Ellicson
May 1, 2008 10AM #

Another issue is that many interesting cameras and formats are without a digital equivalent. There is no Xpan, widelux, Linhof or Fuji digital panoramic camera for instance(!)

Peter Cleghorn
May 1, 2008 10AM #

It comes down to what works for the photographer. I miss my film leica for the way it operated but not the film. With digital I can shoot free and experiment far more then I every could (afford) to with film and I feel that the removal of the worry about wasting money has made me a better photographer.

I wish they would bring out a modern digital Rangefinder and a Digital Xpan

May 1, 2008 10AM #

Another photographer that uses a compact p&s as a substitute for a polaroid back or camera! And another pro who sometimes finds the digital picture better than its film equivalent...

May 1, 2008 10AM #

hello plesse see my photos tanks

Jim Brekke
May 1, 2008 10AM #

Hey great interview on the TWIP podcast! http://twipphoto.com/

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