Shooting film vs. digital in music photography

Feb 4, 2019

Owen Humphreys

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Shooting film vs. digital in music photography

Feb 4, 2019

Owen Humphreys

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Film is very rarely used in music photography anymore. Primarily the reason for this is because of social media and instant news. There’s no time to go home and start pouring chemicals onto film to develop it, or wait until the morning until a lab opens to do it for you.

For festivals or stadium gigs we would bring our laptop with us and start sending out photos minutes after the artist stepped on stage. This is what people expect with modern technology.

Canon A-1 film camera (Left), Canon 6D digital camera (right)

Secondly, film can be difficult to work with, especially for music photography. Generally venues are very dark, and high sensitivity colour film is difficult to find and is expensive.

When there are lights they tend to strobe making it even more difficult to get the exposure right. On top of that, if you have a good film camera it was probably built in the 1970’s, the auto-exposure technology wasn’t great back then and it may not have aged well.

Film (Left), Digital (Right)

However, film still has a charming quality to it and shouldn’t be put in the obsolete bin with the Walkman and DVD player just yet. A few years ago I compared film vs digital cameras for music photography. Since then I’ve managed to track down two identical rare film lenses from around 1973. On one of the lenses I removed the old Canon FD mount and replaced it with a modern Canon EF mount so that it can fit on my Canon digital camera. I used ISO 400 film and set my digital camera to ISO 400. So this is a direct comparison between a chemical film sensor and a modern digital sensor. Music photography is the toughest environment to compare film vs digital. The dark venues, fast moving artists, massive contrast by artificial stage lights, even the eye-wateringly expensive modern cameras can struggle in such surrounds.

Film (Left), Digital (Right)

Technical details for the photo nerds: I used Fujifilm Superia X-tra ISO 400 36 shots film on a Canon A-1 with a Canon 55mm f1.2 SSC. Everything was shot at f1.2, and the shutter speed was set by the camera’s auto exposure. The film was developed and scanned in Gunn’s Camera shop. For digital I used a Canon 6D with a Canon 55mm f1.2 SSC Aspherical. Everything was shot at f1.2 at ISO 400, I varied the shutter speed from 1/80 to 1/250 based on the light. Both images had normal edits in Lightroom.

Film (Left), Digital (Right)

What I’ve found by using both mediums is that with film you are forced to slow down, make sure the composition is right, watch the artist and predict how they are going to move next, because I know I only have 36 shots on my roll and I don’t want to waste any of them. With digital it’s the complete opposite. Modern cameras don’t have the split prism focussing screen that helps you nail focus like the old film cameras (I bought a split prism for my digital camera but it turned out to be useless). With the tiny depth-of-field of the f1.2 lens focussing becomes a game of trial and error where I ended up with 20 times as many photos.

Click on the images below to see a selection of photos comparing film and digital images:

About the Author

Owen Humphreys is a professional music and event photographer based in Dublin. He is a photographer for GoldenPlec.com, and you can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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2 responses to “Shooting film vs. digital in music photography”

  1. Tom Dahm Avatar
    Tom Dahm

    Ok. People are putting out vinyl records and cassettes. Of course film has a place…

  2. BGForever_50 Avatar
    BGForever_50

    Film has it’s place and it can be wherever. I actually lost a client after shooting one of their shows primarily on film because I wasn’t able to get them the photos within what they considered a reasonable amount of time (about 12 hours). I warned them about using film and they seemed okay with it at the time. Anyway, I shoot digital for concerts now as my primary camera and film for fun.

    But! My real beef with the article is this statement ” if you have a good film camera it was probably built in the 1970’s, the auto-exposure technology wasn’t great back then and it may not have aged well.” Seriously? What about the Nikon F5, F6, and F100 or the Canon Elan 7n, Eos 3, or Eos 1V? Those are all fairly modern and advanced film cameras from the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Digital didn’t really take off till after 2002 so there are plenty of good 35mm SLRs out there with good autofocus and advanced exposure systems. The EF mount was released in 1987 so no DSLRs then…Not everyone who’s using film now is shooting with an AE-1 or K1000.