Only the debate of medium format versus 35-millimeter equals the passionate discourse of comparing digital to film. Many of the most famous wedding photographers have made the switch to digital, and yet many more will likely never switch, comparable to an audiophile’s refusal to embrace the technology of compact discs.
Digital photography offers a number of advantages over film:
1. The most obvious advantage is that the photographer can see the image immediately, allowing for verification of proper composure, exposure, lighting, and expression. With film, it can take up to a few days to see the results back from the lab.
2. Because of the recent advent of high-capacity digital memory cards, an almost unlimited number of photographs can be captured digitally. The photographer can spend more time taking pictures and less time changing film, and can concentrate on getting the shot instead of worrying about limiting the number of exposed rolls of film. The biggest out-of-pocket expenses wedding photographers incur are for purchases of film and costs of film processing, the main reason that many film photographers limit the number of exposures or rolls of film used in a wedding shoot. Capturing digital images removes that cost barrier and lets the photographer focus on taking pictures.
3. The typical wedding spans multiple environments and settings — indoors, outdoors, daytime, nighttime, posed portraits, and fast-action candids. Every one of those very separate situations often requires different types of film. Not so with digital. For example, since the color of light is actually different with natural sunlight than it is with indoor lighting or with off-camera flash, a film photographer must use the proper type of color-corrected film, whereas a digital photographer can change the lighting setting (also known as “white balance”) with the push of a button or two. Likewise, film speed (or ISO) is often increased with faster moving subjects such as the best man on the dance floor at the reception. A film camera needs a roll of 400- or 800-speed indoor film, a change from the 100-speed daylight film used for the formal portraits taken a few moments earlier. Again, the digital photographer can select a full range of film speeds very easily, even between individual shots.
4. Experimentation is much easier with digital. Each individual digital image has the flexibility to be converted to (or even taken in) sepia or black and white, while film-based photographs (those not already taken on black-and-white film) must first be scanned to digital, or printed on specialized, very costly papers. Also, the digital photographer can point the camera and make an exposure on which a film photographer might have elected not to “waste” the film, sometime capturing a moment or emotion that would have otherwise been missed.
5. Many digital wedding photographers, myself included, provide clients with CDs or DVDs burned with all of their wedding images. In today’s tech-savvy world, brides and grooms can share photographs almost instantly with anyone anywhere in the world through the use of email and websites, while film photographers usually do not have an option (or choose not to have the option) to distribute images electronically. Digital wedding clients can save time and money creating royalty-free reprints — even often able to print them at home on their own color photo printers.
The most convincing argument in favor of using film for wedding photography is the same it has been since the dawn of the debate: quality. In the last few years, though, the difference in quality between film and digital has greatly diminished, almost to the point of nondetection. While there are unique and specialized films that do not have a digital equivalent, such as black and white infrared, there are only a few low-speed professional 35mm films that outclass today’s professional digital cameras, the distinction made only on the largest gallery-sized prints.
When researching wedding photographers, realize that your local award-winning Mercedes service center may not be the best place to take your Lexus or Corvette. Many photographers will swear that they specialize in all areas of wedding photography, but that’s just not reality. Identify what is important to you and accept nothing less. If your highest priority (or the person’s footing the bill!) is to have formal portraits, do not hire a journalistic or candid photographer to do the job. If your wedding is to be held outdoors, do not hire a photographer that specializes in church weddings. The same holds in reverse — do not hire a wedding photographer who specializes in outdoor celebrations for a church wedding. Do you want to concentrate on capturing the special moments surrounding the wedding — rehearsal dinner, reception, related events? Hire a journalistic or candid photographer, not a formal portrait photographer. If you want no limits on quantity, easy distribution, and an ability to handle a mixture of environments — go digital. Only interested in formals? Film may be the answer for you. It’s a lot to consider.
Or, think outside the norm, and hire both a formal wedding portraitist and a photojournalist — you can actually save money! A select few journalistic wedding photographers, myself included, offer reduced rates or special packages to those who need both types of photography and have already chosen a portrait photographer who would be prohibitively expensive to hire for preserving the entire reception. Just as well, since the formal photographer is not equipped professionally or with appropriate equipment for the journalistic aspects of your wedding. Hiring two appropriate professionals is the best of both worlds; you can create the right combination for your day, spending a larger portion of your photography budget in the style that fits your needs most, and selecting a mix of film and digital that suits you.
The decision whether to choose a wedding photographer who prefers digital or one who prefers film is a personal one. A great film photographer may be a mediocre digital photographer, and your one chance at preserving important memories may be forever gone by making the wrong decision. Your own needs and desires should dictate the outcome, not the photographer’s. Evaluate the photographer’s skill, style, personality, and confidence — but match their expertise with your requirements first.