in Photography

Rolls and shots

One of the features that gets used by both film and digital advocates to promote their argument for their preferred medium is the limitation of the number of shots on a roll.

Digital advocates:

“I can take hundreds of shots in a day on a cheap SD card. Having just 36 on a roll means I might miss something, and I’ll be reluctant to take shots because I’ll be thinking about the price. Plus, I could miss something while reloading, or when the roll comes to an end too early.”

Film advocates:

“Having limited shots on a roll means you don’t just spray them around, you take more time composing and choosing shots and you end up with better results.”

There’s truth in both of these – quite a lot in the digital one, though I wrote it to illustrate some common misconceptions too. Film really isn’t all that expensive, particularly if you develop it yourself, which I do for B&W, and if you scan it yourself, which I do for both. The process doesn’t take that long either.

It also isn’t hard to carry much more film than you will ever ever get through in a day, changing rolls on most cameras is quick, and any sensible person will have a backup pocket camera anyway if they’re that worried about losing something in the seconds changing a roll takes.

(I’m not saying there are no advantages to the digital workflow by any means but capacity is way less significant than people make out.)

On the other hand the common film defence isn’t really true either. Fine, it is good to think before taking shots, but if you get into the habit of not taking shots because of the value of the film you’re as bad as a digital user who takes hundreds of shots of everything because they can.

A lot of the classic (and thus film) street photographers took absurd amounts of pictures. Garry Winogrand took on average several rolls a day the whole of his photographic career – there are anecdotes about him shooting a whole roll while walking less than one block. He shot so much film it wore down the backplate of his Leica. He wasn’t just taking pictures of clouds and fire hydrants and the backs of people’s heads though; every picture he took had a point to it, but he didn’t ever stop himself. (He also took multiple shots if he could, though with street work this isn’t always possible. This is something I’ve heard lots of good photographers say they do.)

So I suppose the conclusions that I’ve come to are:

  • Shooting more pictures doesn’t mean you get more keepers. It doesn’t work by a ratio. A roll of crap pictures on film will have no more keepers than 500 crap pictures on digital.

  • You shouldn’t ever stop yourself from taking pictures though, at least not in 35mm. (Okay, if you’re shooting medium or large format you should probably pick and choose more.) Also take more than one if you’re not convinced you nailed it the first time which you probably didn’t.

  • If in doubt shoot, but it needs to be a reasonable doubt.

(this post originally appeared on Google+ – I should have written it here first though)